What's New on the Rialto
Jay Armstrong Johnson
Working at 59E59 Theaters
by Wayman Wong
Like everyone else in this vibrant and versatile ensemble of six, Armstrong plays various characters, and his roles include a fireman, a UPS guy, and a trucker. Working is just the latest stop for this 5-foot-10, fast-rising phenom from Fort Worth, Texas. At 25, the onetime NYU student already has made his Broadway debut: understudying Gavin Creel in in the Tony-winning revival of Hair. He also stood by for Aaron Tveit in Catch Me If You Can and starred in the Off-Broadway play Wild Animals You Should Know with Alice Ripley.
Creel says, "Jay was always a light in the Hair cast, but I was most blown away by his raw talent and mammoth potential. It is neat to watch him stepping into his own now. He's gonna be a force in the theatre and beyond."
Schwartz, who also is one of Working's lyricist-composers, says, "Jay is one of the most talented triple-threat performers to hit New York in a long time. He is a very handsome young man who sings and dances extremely well, but what is so remarkable is the depth and range of his acting. He inhabits a character completely and makes it virtually impossible to take your eyes off him. He is also delightful to work with, so I can't imagine anything but a very big future for him."
A proud and out actor, Armstrong appeared in Dustin Lance Black's play, 8, starring Cheyenne Jackson and Matt Bomer, and has pounded the pavement for the National Equality March and the AIDS Walk.
We chatted recently about the joys of Working in theater, growing up gay in Texas, and gearing up for his next Broadway show, Hands on a Hard Body.
Jay Armstrong Johnson: Thanks, it's been a crazy ride. You usually have one person to play in a musical, but the challenge of this piece has been stepping into six different and unique characters. It's fun and exciting. For instance, coming from Texas, I knew the trucker could be my Southern guy. Living here for seven years, I knew I wanted the fireman to be a New Yorker. And (director) Gordon Greenberg suggested that the UPS guy could be from Minnesota.
WW: When you researched your role of the fireman, didn't you visit a New York firehouse?
JAJ: I did. One of our assistant directors has an uncle who works in a firehouse in East Harlem, so I got to hang out with them and see the trucks. The fire chief showed me the ropes. I was hoping to go on a call, but no such luck.
WW: So who's your favorite character to play in Working?
JAJ: I love the fireman. I can get deeper with him. He's multilayered, and his history is very touching and scary. And the UPS guy is so fun because he's a doofus just looking to [scare some sunbathers and] see some titties.
WW: In 1978, the original Working was a two-act Broadway musical with a cast of 17 that included Patti LuPone, Joe Mantegna and Lynne Thigpen. But in 2012, it's now a 90-minute, one-act Off-Broadway show with a sensational sextet: Marie-France Arcilla, Joe Cassidy, Donna Lynne Champlin, Nehal Joshi, Kenita R. Miller and you.
JAJ: I love my cast. It's always fun to be the youngest because you get to learn from everyone around you, and they're brilliant. And some of them have kids and wives and husbands. It's so wonderful to watch them work and also have a serious life outside it; it gives me something to look forward to, something to feed off of.
WW: What's it like working with Stephen Schwartz?
JAJ: Stephen's just the nicest guy in the world. I played Jesus in Godspell when I was 14 at Kids Who Care, a community theater in Fort Worth, so this is a dream. He knows so much about musicals, and he's down to earth and sweet and smart. It's been such a pleasure working with him, and I hope to I get to do that many, many more times.
WW: Stephen has written such terrific songs for Working, and so have Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers & Susan Birkenhead and James Taylor. Your big solos are "Brother Trucker" and "The Mason," but what are a couple of your favorites among the rest?
JAJ: "Cleaning Women." Anything gospel-ish is a weakness of mine. Another favorite is one of Lin-Manuel Miranda's new songs, "Very Good Day." It is ridiculously beautiful.
WW: You've said that you were first inspired to be a performer when you were 4 and saw Aladdin doing back flips in Disney on Ice. But as you got older, you realized how mentally and physically challenging acting is.
JAJ: Being an actor is as hard as being a brain surgeon. If it's done well and done right, you're doing really intricate and scary things to your brain. You're convincing yourself you're another person. And in Working, we do it six times.
WW: In Catch Me If You Can, you understudied Aaron Tveit, and he played Frank Abagnale Jr., who impersonated, among many things, an airline pilot. Tell us about singing "Goodbye" at Terminal 5 at JFK Airport (which is on YouTube).
JAJ: It was fun. It was first time and only time I got to perform the show's songs in public. And JetBlue, which sponsored the concert, gave us a free round trip to any place it flew. I loved that musical and working with Jack O'Brien, Jerry Mitchell, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. They're like the kings of Broadway and so classy. I loved being part of it, even though I never got to go on because Aaron Tveit is a machine. He's a sweet guy with a great work ethic. And now he's in the Les Miz movie and nailing it. He's awesome.
WW: Before Catch Me, you made your Broadway debut in Hair. What was that like?
JAJ: After I found out I booked Hair, I cried for five minutes. I was only 21. Later, I found out that Gavin Creel would be Claude. I thought: How was I gonna understudy one of my heroes? When I was 15, I saw Thoroughly Modern Millie and he was incredible. Anyway, we were in previews for Hair and Gavin had gotten pretty sick. I got a call Saturday at 10 a.m. that I'd have to go on that day. I never had had a vocal rehearsal. And I had an hour to learn all the blocking. But the show had to go on. I don't remember anything, but it was nuts. Now, Gavin and I are great friends. He's one of the coolest guys and he was our leader at Hair. We marched on Washington for gay rights. We did everything to make it feel like Hair was a movement and not just a musical entertainment.
WW: You've done tons of readings: Bring It On, Dogfight, Giant and Newsies, but tell us about the most historic one: 8, Dustin Lance Black's play about the battle over Proposition 8.
JAJ: It was such a star-studded event, and we only had 24 hours to put it together. I played Spencer, one of the sons of a lesbian couple, and it was so cool. It was incredible to look across the stage and see Morgan Freeman or John Lithgow. It's fun to work on political pieces like Hair and 8, but it's extra special when you're fighting for a cause.
WW: You tweeted that "equality is the reason to re-elect [President] Obama." Why do you feel so strongly about it?
JAJ: I was bullied in school before I knew I was homosexual. When you're growing up in Texas, you've got these huge high schools where football is the most important thing. And I was the kid who wanted to sing in the choir and be the lead in the play. I wasn't very good at sports. We were the weirdos. I got called "faggot" all the time. And my first name rhymes with "gay," so that was "fun" in third grade. How did they know? I didn't even know. I was totally into chicks before I was 15. When I was 17, I realized I was gay and my family, which is devoutly Christian, was good with it.
WW: As a kid who was bullied, what would you tell kids who are bullied today?
JAJ: It sounds clichéd, but all my life, all I've had is this dream to move to New York and be an actor. I've been stubborn and worked hard. It's what drives me. If anyone's out there, find something you love. Find your passion and live for that. It absolutely gets better. I have a plaque on my dressing-room table that says, "Persistence is key."
WW: Has anyone ever told you, "Don't be so political or outspoken"?
JAJ: Yes, it's been a struggle, to be honest. There's this weird thing out there that if you're gay, you can't play straight roles. That's just bullshit. I would say 99% of the roles I've played in my life are straight men. We gotta change the way people look at it, and it is changing. Just look at the last election. It was the first time people voted for marriage equality. Now I know my entire family in Texas voted for Mitt Romney because they're conservative and, apparently, Fox News is their best friend. But we love each other very much, and we agree to disagree.
WW: Still, one thing many Texans agree on is football, and you're a big Dallas Cowboys fan.
JAJ: I was born a Cowboys fan. Growing up, my entire room was blue and silver.
WW: So, do you ever get homesick?
JAJ: Yeah, I'm going home for New Year's. I miss driving, my family, my friends and the best Tex-Mex food ever.
WW: Texas is also the setting of your next Broadway musical, Hands on a Hard Body, which starts previews on February 23, and opens March 21 at the Brooks Atkinson. (It's got a book by Doug Wright and a pop-rock score by Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio, of Phish, and co-stars Keith Carradine and Hunter Foster.)
JAJ: It's a ridiculously amazing piece of theater. It's kind of like A Chorus Line, but instead of dancers wanting a Broadway show, it's about Texan hicks wanting a pickup truck. [It's an endurance contest among 10 people; the last person who keeps his/her hand on the truck, wins it.] It might sound static, but it's really a special and beautiful show about working-class citizens. You get to hear everyone's stories. I play Greg, and his dream it to move away from Texas and become a stuntman in Hollywood. And Greg is me, dude. I was the Texas kid who wanted to get out.
WW: But soon you'll be back on Broadway, playing a Texan.
JAJ: Exactly. It's coming full circle. I'm gonna be in Texas for three hours every night. I love this show so much!
Working at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E 59th St, New York, NY 10022, through December 30. Visit www.59e59.org/ for more information.
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