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San Antonio native to grace Majestic Theatre stage as Willy Wonka

Cody Garcia achieved a secondhand education in musical theater as a teen usher at the venue. Now they return as the center of attention.

SAN ANTONIO — It won’t be Cody Garcia’s first time at the Majestic Theatre when they don Willy Wonka’s trademark top hat onstage in a Broadway production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” this week. But it will mark Garcia’s debut as the center of attention there after spending a childhood among the venue’s audience.

Garcia, a San Antonio native, said the moment they dance onto the stage will be the realization of a childhood dream, recalling how they saw everything from "La Cage aux Folles" to "Flashdance" and "The Lion King" from the Majestic’s aisle while working as a teenage usher. 

“Whatever came through, I was trying to see it,” Garcia said of those evenings. “I was standing in the back during all three hours of ‘Les Mis.’”

The secondhand education in theatre was possible thanks to their mother, herself a Majestic employee for years.

But by then Garcia was already active in the Alamo City’s theatrical scene, operating the lights and managing the stage at local playhouses before turning 13. They would go on to act at the San Pedro Playhouse at the same time as dabbling in other interests—painting, engineering and even magic among them. But like a refrain in a melody, things always seemed to come back around to musical theater.

While at North East School of the Arts in north San Antonio, Garcia switched their focus from cinematography to theater, committing to a lifelong desire.

“I’ve always known that I wanted to make a living as an actor. I don’t care about being famous or whatever, I just wanted to make a living as an actor,” they said. “So far, I’ve been doing that. And I’m thrilled to be doing that.”

A modernized vision of a classic story

At just 28 years old, Garcia’s Texas-born journey has taken them everywhere.

Since leaving San Antonio, they’ve acted at the Boston Conservatory and on Disney cruises; put on Shrek’s green ears and the Beast’s massive mane; and breathed life into Judas, Geppetto and Flynn Rider.

Finally, they’ve arrived on Broadway, via a beloved role which has found tonal flexibility on the big screen through the warmth of Gene Wilder and the idiosyncrasy of Johnny Depp. Don’t expect Garcia’s take to be strictly adhering to one or the other (though they say it’s closer to Wilder), or the show at large, for that matter.

“It’s very much not the movie,” Garcia says.

Audiences can expect familiar tunes like “Pure Imagination” and “Oompa Loompa,” but this modernized take on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” features other songs from the writers behind “Hairspray” to turn it into a full-fledged musical.

For Garcia’s part, playing the mysterious chocolate-empire overseer has been worth all the work they’ve done to get to this point.

“Putting on the costume and then walking onto the stage, there’s like a transitionary period that can’t really be described. That’s when it all comes together,” they said. “That’s the moment that I live for.”

Credit: Broadway in San Antonio

And it was a moment they experienced for a few months’ worth of shows, all the while looking forward to performing in their hometown as a cast member on a national tour for the first time. That was scheduled to happen at the end of May 2020.

Instead, the curtain fell on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” at Michigan’s DeVos Performance Hall in mid-March, not to rise anywhere else until 19 months later. Like most of the country, a pandemic dimmed Broadway’s brightest lights.

“I’m not gonna lie, there was a lot of time being really depressed and kind of figuring things out. Because I’ve had theater my entire life and then, all of a sudden, there’s no theater,” Garcia said. “I can’t make a living as an actor anymore.”

In a “really random and absolutely insane" decision, they ended up going to Costa Rica four months to study massage therapy.

'It's amazing coming back'

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was always going to resume; it was just a matter of when.

When eventually became October 12, 2021. The place: Landmark Theatre in Syracuse, New York. 

The how, however, started a bit earlier. After a prolonged period without in-person shows, the cast and crew had to warm themselves back up to the logistics once again.

For Garcia, stepping back into Willy Wonka’s wild mind happened faster than once can say "I've got a golden ticket."

“I was surprised at how quickly it all came back to me, but we did just sort of dive right in,” they said. “And now we’re touring again. It’s amazing coming back to performing in theater after such a long hiatus, because my body is like, ‘What are you doing? What’s happening right now?’ And I’m like, ‘I can’t believe we did this for years and years before COVID.”

Garcia will take the Majestic stage in front of an audience for the first time Tuesday night, with seven more shows planned through Sunday evening. They’ve been able to reconnect with the community beforehand, having been tapped to serve as grand marshal of the Ford Holiday River Parade the day after Thanksgiving.

That is to say, Willy Wonka served as grand marshal.  

But if it wasn’t returning home which has Garcia reflecting on how far they’ve come, it’s the recent passing of industry titan Stephen Sondheim, who died in November at the age of 91. Garcia credits watching a recorded version of “Into the Woods,” one of Sondheim’s many enduring works, with being the match that lit their interest in musical theater at a young age.

“Everyone in musical theater has been touched by a Sondheim piece at some point, and honestly all of his things are incredible,” Garcia said, launching into a list of the composer’s works which have resonated at one point or another. “They’re all so unique and incredible. They just really have an effect on people that enjoy musicals.

“It is really inspiring to be scrolling through my social media today and seeing all of these people sharing their Sondheim experiences,” added Garcia, who says they’d like to direct themselves one day. “I’m planning on watching ‘Into the Woods’ tonight to have that moment.”