NEW YORK — Fourteen years ago, with 23 million people watching, Justin Guarini came achingly close to superstardom.
Guarini, with his mop of curls and a taste for flamboyant, '70s-style shirts, had given up his dream of starring on Broadway to try to become the first "American Idol" in 2002.
It was not to be. He ended up the runner-up to Kelly Clarkson. The bright TV lights went dark and the personal assistants scattered. Guarini crashed — and then went back to his first dream.
"I feel like if I had won that year, I just wouldn't have known what to do. I was so naive," he said. "So I had to learn the hard way. I backed away and I started from the beginning."
Guarini eventually made his way back to Broadway, auditioning for virtually every show and introducing himself to as many casting people as possible, slowly building a career. There may be only a few thousand people watching now, but it's home.
"I was not handed anything and I consider myself so lucky for that because I developed good habits. I learned how to audition properly. I did the work. And I failed miserably at times," he said. "It taught me all the lessons that I missed not going through the usual setup. And I'm all the better for it."
After performing everything from Stephen Sondheim to ABBA, Guarini takes his bravest step yet this month in the a cappella Broadway musical "In Transit ," which asks its performers to simultaneously act, sing, dance and be the orchestra.
"There is absolutely no place to hide," he said. "It's not perfect every single night. It's not this heavily produced thing that we're so used to hearing in popular music. There's an honesty and a truth."
Kathleen Marshall, the Tony-winning director and choreographer of "In Transit," said Guarini has been a happy addition to the rehearsal room because his energy and creativity immediately shine.
"He brings such joy and love for what he does to the room," said Marshall, who noted Guarini's range. "I kind of think there's probably nothing he can't do. He's a wonderful actor. He's a wonderful singer and a wonderful musician. And he moves great."
Guarini was familiar with what he calls "lights-camera-action" long before "American Idol." He's the son of Eldrin Bell, a former chief of police in Atlanta, and Kathy Pepino, one of the first anchors at CNN.
Blessed with vocal skills, he was in the Atlanta Boy Choir at age 4. In 1984, he watched Michael Jackson in the Victory Tour and said he knew then that's what he wanted to do. He was 8.
He studied vocal performance and opera in college and was a self-confessed a cappella nerd growing up — he was part of the group Midnight Voices that would serenade friends, mostly of the female variety.
"What I love about a cappella is that it's a great equalizer. You can be from any socio-economic background, any race, any anything and when you get in an a cappella group, because you're singing in harmony, or in unison, you're all together. You're all the same."
In 2002, Guarini found himself at a crossroads. He was close to landing a Broadway debut in "The Lion King" when he was invited to go to Hollywood for "American Idol."
He chose the reality show. "I would have gone right into Broadway. I would have been 22. I would have been this Broadway baby and I would have started like so many people did."
He went all the way to the finals and was gracious in defeat, thanking his fans, the judges and giving Clarkson a kiss on the cheek. "You know what?" he declared. "No one deserves it more than this woman right here."
After "Idol," his first album underperformed and he was dropped by his record label. He starred with Clarkson in the movie flop "From Justin to Kelly" and found his way back to theater (and Diet Dr. Pepper commercials ).
Guarini made his Broadway debut in the Latin-infused musical "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," then did rock in "American Idiot," Shakespeare in "Romeo and Juliet," and even found himself in "Wicked." He auditioned for "In Transit" while starring in "Mamma Mia!" in St. Louis.
Guarini, who has a new EP of dance-ready tunes, is just enjoying the ride this second time. Fourteen years after his dreams were shattered, new ones have been created on Broadway.
"I love this community. I love it and I don't ever want to leave it."