Behind the scenes with Rory John Zak at The Carolina Opry
With a large workforce populating the Grand Strand, I can’t help but wonder about the vastly different jobs at which we spend most of our waking hours. At the grocery store or local Starbucks we might unknowingly be in line with a shrimp boat captain, a police chief, a college professor or an 18-year-old theater performer with stars in his eyes and a song in his pocket.
When Rory John Zak began piano lessons at four years old in his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, his extraordinary musical gift and drive to perform were already evident. By the time he was a teen he and his family saw real potential, and so did the producers at The Carolina Opry in Myrtle Beach, where Zak has been performing for almost two years, beginning when he was just 17.
Fresh-faced, boy band handsome, mannerly and eager to succeed, Zak may just have the right stuff to see his talents take him places most entertainers only dream of, including a spot as a featured soloist at The Carolina Opry. He seems intuitively aware that continued success and show biz advancement comes at a price. Is Zak’s achievement a result of talent, hard work or good genes? As you might expect, it comes from all three.
While no two days in the life of a performer working at the area’s most venerable theater are the same, I recently spent enough time with Zak to get a sense of his routine and his dedication. He’s paying his dues, and so far the young performer is reaping the benefits. Here’s a look at a day in the life of Rory John Zak.
Zak lives the bachelor life with an apartment of his own in an upscale neighborhood of Myrtle Beach. But before you think he’s the envy of 18-year-olds everywhere, consider the pressure to perform and be consistently good night after night. “I don’t really have much time to enjoy living here,” he says, but he’s active, social and even more driven. He lives alone except for occasional visits from his parents. After waking he eats a “power bowl” of egg whites and sausage thrown in the microwave before dressing for the gym.
Meeting his personal trainer, Rudy Uribe, Zak’s workout routine finds him at the gym at least two to three days a week, and, though he’s still growing, he knows his contract stipulates he not gain more than five pounds. “I was a pudgy kid,” he laughs, and pulls up a photo of his 11-year-old self to show me. These days he’s slender and fit, though he admits to loving “bad” food, too. Basketball with Uribe as a warm up leads to the weight room and a nearly two-hour workout before heading home. We chat between sets and I ask him about his tastes in music. He replies, through a slight North Carolina drawl, that he “loves all kinds of music.” I’m not surprised to hear that two of his favorite artists are country superstars Garth Brooks and Keith Urban. He performs Brook’s mega hit “Rodeo” in his Carolina Opry show.
After the gym, Zak meets me at a local Starbucks where an iced caramel latte puts back on many of the calories he’s just worked so hard to burn off. “I try to eat well,” he laughs, “but I don’t really. I’m a typical teenager. I love burgers from the Cookout, too.” Oh, to be 18 with the metabolism of a nuclear reactor.
We leave Starbucks to meet Will Ness at Zak’s apartment for a songwriting session. Ness, 22, admires Zak’s musical and songwriting skills and sees him taking his talents to a national audience. A music major at Coastal Carolina University, Ness is an acoustic guitarist, singer and songwriter who performs regularly around the area. He is one of a handful of Zak’s friends even close to his own age who also shares a passion for music. Zak says he “doesn’t have time for a girlfriend, or much of anything else,” except songwriting and “finding himself” as an entertainer.
The two have co-written a song, “One,” and are still tweaking it, though it’s close to finished and possesses a sophistication and depth that belies the ages of its writers. An excellent guitarist and pianist, at The Carolina Opry Zak is called on to sing and play both instruments and even dance a little, though he’ll be the first to tell you dancing is not his “strongest suit.”
Zak calls a recorded line and double checks his call time at the theatre, 5:30 p.m. An early dinner must come before sound check on show nights, six days per week.
“I eat light before a show,” he says. “I don’t want to look and feel like a bowling ball on stage. I’m all about hitting happy hours at places around the theater.” I raised an eyebrow at hearing this before he explained he doesn’t drink alcohol, but knows the local restaurant/bar scene and who offers good early bird deals on food. “I like Chuck’s. I like Ruth’s Chris a lot,” he says, “and it’s right across from the theatre.”
Over dinner we relax on Ruth’s Chris’ outdoor patio and enjoy Ahi tuna. Gazing out over the Intracoastal Waterway and marina, we have an opportunity to look at million-dollar yachts and talk about Zak’s million-dollar dreams. He performs solo shows at Duplin Winery most every Thursday afternoon, occasionally at RipTydz, and with his band at places such as Bourbon Street, where he recently organized and hosted a Hurricane Florence Flood benefit for a beleaguered fellow cast member. Though he is driven toward success and has stars in his eyes, he seems genuinely humble, grounded and smart enough to know that show business is a fickle mistress without guarantees.
Zak has learned that rolling up to the theatre’s backstage entrance at 5:34 versus 5:30 is not too serious an offense, and we’re among the first to arrive. Most of the cast is on stage by 5:40, where last minute instructions are given and equipment is checked out. The stage crew buzzes around, but no one is frantic—they’ve done this before. Many, many, many times before. Christmas is coming, however, and that ups everyone’s workload significantly.
Tonight’s show is Time Warp, a two-hour romp through the musical highlights of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. The Carolina Opry Show is staged the rest of the week and features a wider variety of tunes. Between November 1 and January 5, 2019, it’s all about Christmas. This season will be Zak’s second Christmas at the Opry and he’ll have several solos and even more ensemble pieces.
I’m given the grand tour through the Opry’s backstage hallways filled with props, past closed dressing room doors and leading to Zak’s cramped closet-of-a-dressing room, where he prepares for the show to begin.
There’s a good crowd for an off-season Tuesday night, and anticipation grows as the house lights dim and the announcer prepares the audience for the preshow.
Veteran cast members, including emcee Brad Long, musical director Kevin Hughes, Gary Brown, Gary Baker and Brian Daggett, open with a spot-on rendition of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Suite Judy Blue Eyes.”
With the preshow over, the music crescendos behind the closed curtain until the cast and band launch into The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s “Time Warp,” a fitting opener for a show of the same name. The 45-year-old tune is more than twice as old as Zak, but he and his castmates play it with fresh zeal and the rollicking fun it deserves.
His first time alone in the spotlight, Zak is featured to perform the Eagles’ classic “Desperado.” He sits at the grand piano and accompanies himself like a seasoned pro. A bit later he solos with guitar, performing The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer,” and later The Band’s “The Weight.” After a brief intermission the entire cast performs a medley of Woodstock’s hits, and by 8:55 the show closes with a patriotic salute, Jimi Hendrix-style.
As the cast meets excited audience members after the show, a woman approaches Zak and he leans in to talk with her. “You sang at my church a few weeks ago and it was just beautiful,” she says. Zak smiles and thanks her. He wears a small, silver crucifix on a chain to the gym, at home and even on stage. He says his faith is important to him and that he wishes he had more time and energy to perform in church, something he’s done on and off through most of his youth.
We part company almost 12 hours after our first meeting. He says he’ll be home by 9:45 and will probably just “veg out on the couch, I’ve got a crazy day tomorrow,” but then reconsiders, changing his tune. “I dunno, maybe Will and I might write some more. I really like that song we’ve been working on. I’ll see if he wants to come over.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY JORDAN GILMORE WATKINS