When Martha’s Vineyard native Ken Romero left home for college and a life in show business, he thought he’d never live on the Island again.

“I did not plan on moving back here. My childhood was not awesome,” Mr. Romero said.

But after touring the world as a singer, dancer and producer for stage musicals and cruise ship shows, Mr. Romero has come full circle. For nine years now, he’s been putting his skills and experience to work at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, where he’s staff choreographer for the Minnesingers choir and the annual school musicals, recently choreographing the high school’s acclaimed production of Chicago, to the delight of Island audiences.

A former Minnesinger himself, Mr. Romero grew up in Vineyard Haven with a love of music from his earliest days.

“I think [it’s] because my grandparents always danced around the kitchen,” he said.

Mr. Romero discovered the joy of singing at St. Augustine Catholic Church and the Tisbury School, and fell hard for musical theatre after his grandfather, a janitor at the regional high school, started taking him to see the shows there.

“I would go up and watch the musicals, which were in the gymnasium, which is now the library,” Mr. Romero said, recalling the days before the high school’s performing arts center was built in the 1990s.

Mr. Romero discovered the joy of singing at St. Augustine Catholic Church and the Tisbury School. — Ray Ewing

“They used to do the musicals on the floor, in the round,” he said.

Mr. Romero also took part in children’s theatre productions with Lee Fierro at Island Theatre Workshop for many summers while growing up, he said. But it was the high school’s 1983 production of Li’l Abner, with songs by Gene De Paul and Johnny Mercer, that fired Mr. Romero’s ambition when he was still at the Tisbury School.

“I said, ‘I want to do that,’” he recalled. “That big musical is what I wanted to do.”

Though he set his sights no higher than the high school show, big musicals — A Chorus Line, La Cage Aux Folles, Grease and many more — would become Mr. Romero’s bread and butter in the years to come, thanks to his Minnesingers experience. Mr. Romero found a mentor in high school music teacher Bob Nute, who allowed him to join the elite singing group as a freshman instead of waiting until sophomore year, as was the practice then.

“I wanted to impress, and I wanted to make somebody proud,” said Mr. Romero, noting a lack of fatherly leadership in his own home. His clear, supple tenor voice and growing skills led Mr. Romero to off-Island school music festivals on Cape Cod and beyond, including an all-state event that proved a turning point for the teenage singer.

“That’s where I met the chair of the music department at Westfield State [University],” Mr. Romero said. “I got a full ride to Westfield State on a music scholarship.”

In college, Mr. Romero was surrounded by musicians and began to lose the sense of isolation he’d felt as a young gay person on the Vineyard at a time when closet doors were kept firmly closed.

“I just wanted to be around people who were like me and who accepted me for who I was,” he said.
Opera was a focus of the university’s music program, Mr. Romero said, but he resisted the pressure to pursue an operatic career.

“That is not where I wanted to be. The competition was tough, [and] I knew I had another part of me. I didn’t need to necessarily compete with them,” he said. “It was fine. All I wanted to do was sing.”

He got what he wanted, beginning with summer stock musicals at the Falmouth Playhouse and Bucks County, Pa. Playhouse while he was still an undergraduate. Mr. Romero can not only sing — in multiple languages — but dance as well, including on roller skates. He’s performed and understudied in long-running productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express in Bochum, Germany and Las Vegas, Nev.

The Minnesingers are currently rehearsing for its big spring show Mother’s Day weekend. — Ray Ewing

The Vegas residency is where Mr. Romero first discovered the joy of teaching young people, at a performing arts high school in the entertainment capital.

“I choreographed Fame for them,” he recalled. “I really enjoyed it, teaching musicals. I don’t really care for going into a dance studio and teaching a class. I want to create... I want to be with the kids. I want to watch them grow,” he said.

But the Las Vegas teaching gig ended with the Starlight Express engagement, and Mr. Romero was off to more auditions, more stages and ultimately a job with the Holland America Line, where he rose from performer to producer of shipboard shows. Then, amid the economic downturn of 2008, the cruise line set Mr. Romero adrift.

“I got cut off the top, after 10 years with them,” he said. “It was okay. California wasn’t my thing. East Coast was my mentality,” he added.

With the economy tanking, Mr. Romero returned to the Island and looked for a new career, working in administration at a bank, an insurance company and the Edgartown School before landing his current job at the Edgartown police department.

“I had to reinvent myself,” he said.

He also let Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse director M.J. Bruder Munafo recruit him for singer Molly Conole’s Wicked Good Musical Revues, which have become an off-season staple at the playhouse. While there initially was no job for him in music, Mr. Romero joined the Island Community Chorus, where he met then-Minnesingers stage manager Jeff Caruthers, a retired teacher who would become his husband. The two now live in Oak Bluffs with their dogs.

Mr. Romero also began volunteering as choreographer for the high school musicals, beginning in 2016, and started choreographing Minnesingers shows as well — a job that’s become a paid, part-time position.

The Minnesingers are currently rehearsing for its big spring show Mother’s Day weekend, said Mr. Romero, who spends two hours a week working with the singers after school.

“It used to be three hours, but I realized that was just overkill,” he said.

While he’s very happy with his day job, Mr. Romero said, teaching teenagers is his chief delight.

“They’re sponges. They just want it — they want to be involved,” he said. “I push because their potential is so high.”

Mr. Romero also puts in hours of research and prep work on his weekends, and after choreographing the high school’s acclaimed production of the dance-heavy musical Chicago, decided to sit out this month’s Wicked Good Musical Revue at the playhouse.

“I decided just to not overwhelm myself. After Covid, I came out of that being able to say no,” he said.

His life today is nothing like what he expected when he came back to the Island in 2008, Mr. Romero said with a smile.

“I [had] signed myself off as an old maid,” he said. “I thought, I’m not going to do theatre, I’m not going to find anybody to share my life with  — and both happened,” he said.