THROWBACK THURSDAY — JAY ARMSTRONG JOHNSON, SPRING 2013
In just one year, the rising theater actor Jay Armstrong Johnson has gone from supporting role to star billing, with a lead performance in the revival of Leonard Bernstein’s classic On the Town, which opens tonight. Today, we revisit our Spring 2013 feature on the young Texan, who discusses his early start as a dancer, his NYU dreams, and his path to Broadway.
There’s a moment halfway through the second act of Hands on a Hardbody, the new musical opening on Broadway tonight, that regularly raises a smattering of cheers from the audience. It’s not an acrobatic bit of choreography, or a particularly exhausting patter song, but a simple leap from the stage. The show, based on S.R. Bindler’s cult 1997 documentary of the same name, recounts an exhausting endurance competition in which a group of hard-pressed Texans fight, over a number of days, to win a truck by keeping their hands firmly planted on its exterior. That bit of applause is for Jay Armstrong Johnson, who plays one of the contestants, Greg, a dreamer with plans of driving his newly-acquired pickup to Hollywood to make it as a stuntman. He rushes offstage in pursuit of Allison Case as Kelli, a fellow competitor who has wandered off towards a freeway in a hallucinatory daze, giving up his chance at winning in order to rescue her. As the tension rises during his final moments of anguished indecision, it becomes clear that the audience wants much more for Greg than just a new Nissan. Some might credit this emotional attachment to Johnson’s considerable charisma, but the actor plays it off as pure shrewdness: “You’ve got to have a young love story in every musical,” he laughs.
Johnson, twenty-five years old and himself a proud native Texan, says he was drawn to the character of Greg by the many similarities he found to himself. “It’s like I don’t even have to act when I’m doing it because it just feels like my home,” he explains. “I always feel really close to the roles that I play, but this one is on a completely different level, because I am a Texan, and I did have the dream to get out of Texas.” That dream came early to Johnson, who got his start in community theater after friends from his church choir encouraged him to audition for a local production of the musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He performed regularly in shows at his neighborhood regional theater before deciding to major in dance—inspired by the energetic Robbins choreography he learned for his role as Baby John in West Side Story—at his performing-arts high school. “I was building a résumé as a thirteen-year-old,” he recalls, “and I had no clue I was even building it. I was just doing it because I loved it.”
As is the case with many young artists, Johnson began to plan to make his way to New York as soon as possible. “I had two friends from theater, and we made a pact that we would all go to NYU and live in the same brownstone,” he says. “We were just thirteen-year-olds thinking how easy it would be to just move to New York and live like on Friends. It was NYU or death, so I’m glad I got in.” He spent just over two years at NYU studying vocal performance before leaving, in a prodigious start, to join the national tour of A Chorus Line. “You hear about programs that are like, You’re not allowed to audition, you’re not allowed to audition, but I wanted to use the city to my advantage,” he recalls. “That’s the one advantage that a college student has going to New York—your transition to New York happens while you’re in college. You don’t go to the University of Michigan and then two seconds later have to move again.”
After seven months on the tour, which he likens to “college on the road without homework,” Johnson came back to New York, mostly because he “wanted to get back to the city and see what else would happen,” he says. The timing proved fortuitous, as he went straight into a round of auditions for the revival of Hair the week he returned, and landed the part of the understudy for the lead character of Claude. Months later, at just twenty-one, he made his Broadway début when Gavin Creel, who played Claude, got sick. “I went on the third week of previews, so as an understudy that means you don’t have any rehearsal, because you don’t start rehearsing until after you open the show,” he says. “So all I had done was watch the show and take notes. I hadn’t had a music rehearsal, a blocking rehearsal, a dance rehearsal, I had no actual stage time. They called me one morning and said, ‘You’re on for the matinée,’ so I had to take a cab to the theater and I had about an hour to go over all of my stuff onstage. I actually can’t remember anything that happened that day. It was nuts.”
Johnson landed his second Broadway show soon after finishing his run on Hair, as the standby for Aaron Tveit in 2011’s Catch Me If You Can—“I never ever went on, not once,” he laughs, “because Aaron Tveit is a machine.”—and gave a breakout performance that December in the Off Broadway première of Wild Animals You Should Know, playing a psychologically-troubled Boy Scout who torments in various ways the adults and fellow teenagers that surround him. “It was one of the craziest roles I’ve ever played,” he explains. “I went to some pretty dark places, but it was definitely fun.” His richly-nuanced performance was all the more impressive given that he had never properly studied acting, focusing instead during his adolescence on voice and dance. “I’d say my biggest training was just watching actors that flew in from New York to my hometown to play lead roles in the shows that I did as a kid,” he says. “At NYU, we had basic acting classes, but I never really studied it to an extent.”
Last spring, Johnson moved to La Jolla, California, for the out-of-town tryout of Hands on a Hardbody. With a book by Grey Gardens’ Doug Wright and music by Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio of Phish, the show represents a grittier turn for Broadway musicals. The cast of characters are all fighting to get by—why else, after all, would someone spend several days standing in the hot Texas sun?—and their daily struggles are not romanticized like Eliza Doolittle’s or Fantine’s. There is little in the way of optimism in the show, even for the eventual winner. A truck is, after all, in the end nothing more than a way to get around, even as the various contestants imbue it with symbolic meaning and pour their dreams into its bed. Some of the characters are lifted directly from the original documentary, but Johnson’s Greg is, he says, a loose sketch. “I think the one thing that they took from the guy in the documentary is that he drives a Volkswagen Beetle,” he laughs. “He’s awesome because he has so many physical mannerisms that are just so juicy to play with.”
That process of creating the physical and emotional cast for Greg was, Johnson says, one of the most invigorating aspects of working on Hands on a Hardbody, a new privilege he had not experienced in his two previous Broadway appearances and one he is grateful to be getting at such a young age. “Being an understudy is like working with a different part of your brain, because you have to fit into a mold that’s been set before you, and that’s hard to do, especially when you want to make it as natural as you can be in it,” he says. “Being able to create a role on my own, it’s like there are no limitations. You are the mold, so that’s what’s exciting about this particular show for me. I haven’t really been able to do that on a show for the last four years of my life.” He laughs, “I’ve been an understudy for so long.” But now those days, for Johnson, are over.
On the Town opens tonight at the Lyric Theatre, 213 West 42nd Street, New York. Styling by Clare Byrne. Grooming by Charlie Taylor using René Furterer.