Sammy's Turn - Veteran Broadway dancer Sammy Williams returns to the stage in the Celebration Theatre's Too Old for the Chorus.

In Sunset Boulevard, as the retired actress Norma Desmond imagines resuming her dormant film career, she proudly announces, "I hate that word comeback. This is my return.

"For Tony-winning Broadway actor/ dancer Sammy Williams, his imminent re-emergence in show business after a self-imposed 15-year retirement seems more like a rebirth. Williams clearly relishes basking in the spotlight, as he once again sings and hoofs his heart out in a new musical. He is one of the five ensemble members in the Celebration Theatre's revue Too Old for the Chorus, which premieres this week in West Hollywood.

On a recent Thursday evening at his stylishly decorated Silverlake apartment, the hospitable and classy Williams generously offered Back Stage West a remarkably candid interview (accompanied by a gorgeously assembled hors d'oeuvre plate), spinning out fascinating remembrances of his professional ups and downs. "This is my first interview in a very long time," he said with enthusiasm. "Break me in well." He needed no breaking in. Returning to performing at the age of 50 is a joyous experience for Williams and he was eager to discuss it.

Williams, who was raised in Trenton, New Jersey, and started dancing at the age of eight, told us "I went directly from high school to Broadway, and worked there for the next 20 years." He initially received encouragement from director/choreographer Tommy Tune. They met during a New Jersey production of Carousel, which Tune was choreographing. "After that, I auditioned for Tommy for a Broadway show, but he didn't cast me," Williams said with a chuckle. "But he told me that he didn't want to discourage me, that I had great potential. He gave me such hope that after just three more auditions, I landed my first Broadway show." That 1968 show was Kander and Ebb's The Happy Time, directed by Gower Champion.

As Williams continued to work for legendary Broadway director/choreographers such as Ron Field, Gwen Verdon, and Peter Gennaro, in musicals such as Applause and Hello, Dolly!, he was cast in Michael Bennett's Seesaw, which began a fortuitous professional relationship. In 1973, he was invited by Bennett to participate in a rap session with invited members of Broadway's cream-of-the-crop gypsies. They were to discuss their life experiences, not knowing that Bennett intended to parlay the recorded discussions into a series of workshops and ultimately into the 1975 Tony- and Pulitzer-winning musical smash A Chorus Line.

Williams' biographical anecdotes from those recording sessions, depicting his experiences as a child dancer in Trenton, actually evolved into Wayne Cilento's showstopping "I Can Do That" number in the show. Although Williams had no acting training, Bennett cast him in a different role‹inspired by one of the musical's co-authors Nicholas Dante, that of the vulnerable gay Puerto Rican Paul. Williams' shattering performance netted him the Obie, Tony, and Theatre World awards. But despite the excitement of his Chorus Line triumph and the enduring professional relationships and friendships that Sammy enjoyed in New York in the years to come, he decided to quit the biz.

He explained, "In 1983, I retired from dance as planned, to pursue other interests. When I left the business, I never expected to return. I had pursued performing jobs in California for a while. But I never really seemed to be the right type. I was too short. In those days, boyish blondes were in." For the past 10 years, he has worked as a renowned floral designer, catering to clients such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, winning many prizes for his efforts, including the Grand Prize at the Tournament of Roses.

With great candor, Williams described a major series of cathartic life transitions during the past couple of years, including the difficult breakup of a longtime love relationship, which prompted his move from Simi Valley to Silverlake, and his midlife reassessment of his life priorities. A year ago, he met acting coach Sam Christensen, who encouraged Williams to get the acting training that he never received. Since then, things have fallen together in a serendipitous fashion. As he was just beginning the preliminary steps to resume his career (finding an agent, creating headshots, etc.), he spotted the casting notice for Too Old for the Chorus in Back Stage West late last year, met with Celebration director Robert Schrock, and quickly accepted an offer to join the cast.

He expressed gratitude for the opportunity: "The show's wonderful composers [Marie Cain, Shelly Markham, and Mark Winkler], who also contributed to the score for Naked Boys Singing, have created some gorgeous songs. They have been great in tailoring the material to the performers. My role fits like a glove. And Bob Schrock [who departs from his post at the Celebration after this production] is great‹he has a gentler approach to getting things out of performers than the much harsher technique of Michael [Bennett], but both are equally valid, and both work effectively."

Williams continued, "Originally, I was not interested in acting. I focused on dance. I was self-conscious, because in school I was mocked as being effeminate. I wasn't comfortable with myself. When I won a Tony for playing a homosexual, I guess that planted the seed for what I am today‹surer of myself, more accepting of my gayness, and ready to do it all‹musicals, dramas, television, film‹the works. I had been trying to make a lot of people happy for many years, and I have finally decided it was time to make myself happy."

Interestingly, Too Old for the Chorus examines issues surrounding getting older in a youth-obsessed society, coming to the conclusion that you're never too old to be a star. Thanks to the epiphany that inspired his renewed passion for performing, there's no actor more determined than Sammy Williams to shine even more incandescently than ever before.