A Day for Jay – A Conversation with Jay Armstrong Johnson
This week, the very talented and versatile performer Jay Armstrong Johnson consented to be subjected to my questions about his career in theatre. Jay is currently starring in the Broadway revival of On the Town, infusing the character of "Chip", a naïve sailor on 24-leave in New York City, with humor, heart, and boundless energy. Jay made his Broadway debut in the 2010 revival of Hair, understudying the role of "Claude." He was a standby for the role of Frank Abagnale, Jr. in the 2011 musical Catch Me If You Can, and he originated the role of “Greg Wilhote” in the short-lived (but much adored) Hands on a Hardbody (2013).
MR: Tell us a little bit about your background: where you are from, your training, some of the productions you have appeared in, why you chose theatre as your profession.
JAJ: I was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas. Got the theater bug through Kids Who Care Musical Theater. Trained in dance at the Dian Clough West Dance Studio and a Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts. Been working professionally since the age of 13. On Broadway I've been a part of the original revival cast of Hair, Catch Me if You Can, Hands On a Hardbody, and now On the Town.
MR: Share with us some of your "likes" and "dislikes" - anything from food, TV shows, books, movies, and pet peeves (you name it).
Likes: bacon, sushi, Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies, chocolate peanut butter anything, Hocus Pocus, Too many TV shows to name, the Hunger Games trilogy, Peter Pan.
Dislikes: too many TV shows to name, tomatoes, slow walkers, Fox News, red velvet sweets, being away from home.
MR: What do you find to be the most intriguing part about creating a character in a piece of theatre? What steps do you take to get yourself ready and in the mindset of that character?
JAJ: The most intriguing part is finding the parts of myself that relate to the character and exploring the parts that are unlike me. Perpetual vocal warm up, daily yoga practice, and transcendental meditation.
MR: On the Town is a classic. What about the piece particularly stands out for you? Why do you think it has endured for over 70 years?
JAJ: The dancing truly stands out in my mind. The dream sequences are stunning, and feel a though an MGM movie is coming to life before your eyes. The story is about love and war. Two subjects that have not really changed over the course of our history as America. As long as there are loves for which to fight, this piece will continue to be timeless, though I hope and pray and dream for a time when love conquers war.
MR: What is your favorite moment in On the Town? Why is that?
JAJ: I have two favorite moments if I can, and they are the completely opposite of each other. “Come Up to My Place” where my physical comedy and character relationship with Hildy are at their heights, and “Some Other Time” when I get to be completely still and just sing one of the more beautiful ballads Bernstein ever wrote.
MR: "Come Up to My Place" is one of the great comedy duets ever written for the musical stage. What are some of the challenges of performing this piece?
JAJ: It's physically the most challenging piece in the show so I have to make sure I'm properly warmed up, but more than that it's where I get to use my imagination the most. I get to act as though I'm zooming by and seeing the many sites of NYC.
MR: Is there a role in musical theatre that you are aching to play? Which one and why?
JAJ: I am aching to play Peter in Ryan Scott Oliver's dark deconstruction of Peter Pan. The score is haunting and thrilling and I've had my eyes set on the role for a good six years now.
MR: Is there any role that you have done in the past that you would like to revisit? Perhaps you have a new perspective that you have gained over time that helps you see that role differently?
JAJ: I would love to recreate my role of Floyd in Floyd Collins in a world class venue. I feel as though the older I get the more right I am for the role in terms vocal and emotional maturity.
MR: Tell us about a musical theatre performance that you have witnessed that inspired you or entirely blew you out of the water. What was it that you connected with in that performance?
JAJ: I distinctly remember Sutton Foster’s performance in Thoroughly Modern Millie. It was my first trip to NY and one of my first Broadway shows. I say second row orchestra with my friend Jason. Sutton gave you everything. The comedy, the heart, the moves and that voice. I have said I want to be the male version of Sutton mostly due to her range and commitment as an actress.
MR: What are some of your favorite songs to sing from musical theatre?
JAJ: “Neverland” from Peter Pan, “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George, “Song of Purple Summer” from Spring Awakening, and “Old Red Hills of Home” from Parade.
MR: If you were going to offer advice to young people interested in going into musical theatre, what would it be? What do you wish someone had told you early in the process?
JAJ: If you dream of and have a love for theater that is undying, I would say treat it like it’s a nine to five job. If a lawyer is spending and upwards of 8 hours a day studying and practicing law, that is what we should do as actors. It's work. Hard work. But at the end of the day, dreams are dreams.