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Interview with Jonathan Rayson

Photo: Ann Marsden
He began performing at the age of six or seven with his father's cover band. From there, Jonathan Rayson went on to perform in school productions. On May 16, 2003, Rayson made his Broadway debut as Frog in A Year with Frog and Toad. Next, he understudied for his dream role, Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. By the time the show closed, Rayson was cast in the leading role for the show's tour.

On April 11th, 2006, Rayson released his debut CD, Shiny and New. The album consists of cover songs from the mid-1970s, when Rayson first began performing; songs include Carole King's "Beautiful," Neil Young's "Birds," and Don McLean's "And I Love You So." Currently, Rayson is playing Cornelius in Hello, Dolly!, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ.

Nick Orlando:  Jonathan, nice to have you here. Shiny and New features songs by James Taylor, Carole King, and Billy Joel, just to name a few. What do these artists mean to you?

Jonathan Rayson:  I think they are great lyrical writers. It's more than just pop music. My CD is sort of a pop music album, but I tried to use songs by writers with a little more lyrical depth; something with some emotion.

The inspiration [for the album] came from a song called "Rainbow Sleeves." It was recorded by Rickie Lee Jones, but it's a Tom Waits tune. I had heard it years and years ago. I knew I wanted to do that song and I started thinking about that timeline. I got started singing with my dad's band when I was six or seven years old. He had a cover band that played weddings and I would go and make a little appearance with him. Most of the songs are from the mid-'70s; like '73 —'75. I did break out of that a little bit. The Tom Waits tune, I think, might be as late as '83, but I wanted to stick with the '70's —when I got my musical start.

NO:   The title of this album, Shiny and New, actually came from the chorus of a song?

JR:   It did. The title actually came from the song I used to perform with my dad's band, which is called "Playground in My Mind." It is a Clint Holmes tune. A lot of people know the chorus, which goes, "my name is Michael, I got a nickel, I got a nickel, shiny and new." So, that's where it came from.

NO:   Which do you prefer more, singing or acting, and why?

JR:   They are so intertwined for me because I think it's really difficult to be a good singer without being a good actor. For me, so much of singing, is about telling a story and awakening emotion in people. It's hard for me to separate the two. I guess if I was forced to, I would say singing. I think that's where my real strength is and I feel like when I go into an audition for something, if I can sing first, then I'm on a much better road then if I had to do a scene first.

NO:   How did the transition from singing to theatre come about?

JR:   I started doing talent festivals when I was in grade school. I went to a really small Lutheran grade school and we had a statewide talent festival and I would do that every year. I started singing there and that sort of grew into doing school shows. I was in The Wizard of Oz when I was in, I think, seventh grade. I started doing all of the school plays and then when I was in high school, I became president of drama club and I got cast in all of the shows there. We did mainly musicals in high school.

NO:   It has been said that playing Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors was your dream role. Why was it?

JR:   First of all, it's such fantastic music. I used to sing along with the original cast album. I just loved singing those songs. I felt like sort of a dork, geek growing up. I could relate to Seymour in that way. I really related to Seymour's desire to be a better person, to do something bigger with his life than what he was given on Skid Row. I just think his character arc is so perfectly written, it will be hard to match that for me in another role.

In Little Shop
Photo: Bruce Glikas
NO:   I have to ask, since you technically reached your dream, where do you go from here? Do you set another goal for yourself?

JR:   I guess I just kill myself now, Nick. Thanks a lot for pointing it out! No, I don't know. People have asked me that - what's next? That was a dream role. I have a couple of other dream roles that I would like to do, but of course I can't think of them now. I would still like to do Younger Brother and Ragtime, but more than that I am really excited about starting to do some concert stuff. I'd really like to get into doing more concert venues and really promoting the album. Also, I started to perform some of this music live because I have only performed a couple of these songs live at this point and I am really excited about taking them out and letting people experience them firsthand.

NO:   Which is your favorite song on the album?

JR:   That's a tough one! I am really fond of "River" by Joni Mitchell and "Like a Sad Song" by John Denver because it feels like it's written about me. It feels like it is written from my point of view. The song that I am most proud of is "Birds" by Neil Young. It's especially significant to me as it's the most unlike the original. It was my idea from the beginning to really shake it up and make it something different, and I'm very proud of how all the ideas in my head came together in the finished song.

NO:   On Broadway, you were an understudy for Hunter Foster and then you starred on the tour when you took over for Anthony Rapp. Where did you face more of a challenge, on Broadway or on tour?

JR:   I would say both were very challenging. Broadway was challenging in that I had to be ready to go on at a moment's notice. I didn't get a lot of rehearsal time to do it, but I was always just excited to be going on. The challenge of Broadway is sitting around waiting to do what you love to do. Watching someone else do what you want to be doing is one of the most challenging things about being an understudy. On the road, it was fantastic because I got to do the role. It was all mine and I had a great time doing it. The challenge of the road was we were primarily "one-weekers." We didn't sit down in cities for a long time. We would travel on Monday, our only day off, into a new city, a new environment, a new theatre with a new set of challenges, every single week. It's sort of hard to enjoy a city while you are there and you also have to make sure to take care of yourself health-wise. Seymour is a very vocally demanding role and I had to make sure I was always in good vocal health. But, it was a thrilling experience. I loved it.

NO:   What was your favorite city to travel to?

JR:   Oh, wow. I loved San Antonio and I had a good time in Atlanta. We were in Chicago for two weeks. It is one of my favorite cities - I love Chicago.

NO:   You are currently playing Cornelius in Hello, Dolly!, at the Paper Mill Playhouse. How was it preparing for this role?

JR:   This was interesting because this is the first time in about four or five years that I didn't start as an understudy. This was the first role in a good chunk of time that I got to create on my own. For the last four or five years, with Little Shop of Horrors and A Year With Frog and Toad, and a couple of shows in Minneapolis [I was an understudy], so I didn't know if I remembered how to be an actor and create it on my own. It was fun to rediscover my love for creating a role and it was fun to collaborate in rehearsal with people again. When you are rehearsing something like that, it's a group experience. It was fun to experience that again.

NO:   What are you looking forward to with this production?

JR:   I am having a great time. We have been open for three weeks. The audiences like it. It's fantastic working with Tovah Feldshuh, who is playing Dolly. I am having so much fun with my co-stars - Kate Baldwin, Jessica Snow-Wilson, and Brian Sears. They are a fantastic group to work with. Loving the people you work with, makes it really fun to go to work. I love Cornelius. The role is, again, a little like me. It starts out that he is unsure of himself. He learns how to live. That is sort of his journey in the show is learning how to live and living more fully in the moment. His journey is about learning to take part in the life that is going on around him.

NO:   What's next for you in theatre?

JR:   I don't know; I don't know what's next.

NO:   No readings?

JR:   No, no readings at this point. I am really hoping to do some concert stuff and get some stuff rolling in that arena. I'd love to do another Broadway show. That would be fun. Nothing is pending yet!

NO:   Jonathan, thank you very much. Is there anything else you'd like to say to your fans?

JR:   Thanks for the support. I love what I do and I am glad that there are people that respond to it, so thanks!

Shiny and New, Rayson's debut album is in stores now. You can check him out in Hello, Dolly! at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey through July 23rd. For more information, please visit or

-- Nick Orlando

About the author:  Drawing on his diversified experience in radio and television, which ranges from programming to production to reporting, Nick Orlando has recently formed NICO Productions, Inc., an entertainment production company. Nick has worked for SIRIUS Satellite Radio, WCBS-TV, Cox Radio, Saturday Night Live, and Live with Regis and Kelly.

Currently, Nick resides in New York and is working in television programming. In addition, he serves as Entertainment Reporter and Producer for radio, television, and various publications. Nick would like to thank his Producers/Editors Michael Pagnotta and Snezhana Valdman who work behind the scenes making each interview/package possible. He is a member of the International Radio & Television Society Foundation, Inc. (IRTS), New York Press Club, and was recently accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).

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