Brian d’Arcy James on his return to 54 Below, the cast of Smash, and his thoughts on playing Jean Valjean someday

Brian d'Arcy James

Brian d’Arcy James

Brian d’Arcy James will be performing at 54 Below this week (Sept. 5-7), and will be making a return to the Broadway stage this season in Macbeth after appearing in Smash and HBO’s Game Change last year. New York has welcomed him back with open arms. Stage Door Dish caught up with Brian about his musical influences, future projects, and some of his career highlights.

SDD: If what I’ve read is true, the first time you ever performed in public was at the St. Stephen’s gym and you sang “Piano Man.”

BDJ: Yes!

SDD: Now you’re singing Billy Joel songs in concert at 54 Below. How does that feel? Did you grow up with Billy Joel’s music?

BDJ: I did. Nothing has changed. I won’t be wearing the same yellow sweater that I wore in eighth grade in my gym. I had many ways that I received music, mostly through my parents, who had a really great, eclectic taste in music. By the time you get to eighth grade, you find out what you like and gravitate toward the things that resonate with you. That’s where I ended up with Billy Joel and Elton John, piano-type pop music and good old storytelling, too. That combination is why I ended up listening to them quite a bit, specifically Billy Joel.

SDD: You’re also going to be singing songs by Phil Collins and Adele. You must resonate with their music as well, correct?

BDJ: Definitely. Obviously, Adele is a more recent artist on the scene and the people like to listen to Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel. Lots of people like that were a part of me growing up. For the most part, things that speak to me musically are very individual things. Everybody’s taste is different. This is the music that I like, whether it’s Adele and something more recent or going back a bit. For me, it’s all part of that major moment that moves me.

SDD: Would you consider putting out a solo album with these songs on it?

BDJ: We talked about that briefly and again, being a guy who loves Broadway records and 54 Below CDs with Laura Benanti and Aaron Tveit and Norbert Leo Butz, I would consider it. I want to do things that are good and I want to do things that are right. Before decisions like that, I want to make sure it’s right. I’m really happy to do this again because I can iron out a few creases that I thought needed to address for myself, artistically. I would love to find a way to do that, but there’s nothing planned.

SDD: What are you going to be talking about in between songs?

BDJ: I did this show before and it was directed by Carl Forsman, who directed The Good Thief. Carl and I talked about what I was going to discuss in between songs and how I could string the music together. What was the mortar between the bricks? I ended up telling stories and we whittled it down to a few that would provide ways of getting into songs. I think that, having done it once already, I don’t feel the need to do that as much. If it speaks for itself and is not in the way of the music, that’s fine. I don’t want to be lacking in personality but I don’t want to feel like I have to spin plates in between songs, which I felt like I did last time. I’ve seen some shows after having done my show and it’s a good education to see people who are just very comfortable and trust that the music will tell the story as opposed to being a really interesting person between songs. I think I’ll hopefully edit myself and have a few things to say but not be too verbose.

SDD: How do you feel about the size of 54 Below? Is the intimate setting more nerve-wracking?

BDJ: No, I like it. I like the intimacy of it. I do enjoy the spontaneity of having a conversation, really, with the audience. I mean that figuratively and literally because in an environment like that, it’s not uncommon to have an exchange with somebody. If they ask a question, you can answer it. If there’s a reaction to a song, you can respond to it. If someone says something or nods their head, you can join in their conversation. I like that. I’ve found that I enjoy that. It didn’t take away from my experience, only added to it. To answer your question, I like that space very much.

SDD: What can people expect from the concert overall?

BDJ: I’ve got an incredible set of musicians who are joining me. I’m lucky to be playing with them. It’s a big sound with really great arrangements by my musical director, Dan Lipman. I have piano, drums, bass, guitar, trumpet, saxophone, percussion. It’s really a great sound and I just came from rehearsal, so I’m even more excited now just having been reminded how it feels playing with excellent musicians. First and foremost, you’re going to hear a really great sound, not just because of the band but because 54 Below has a great sound system. They do a great job of accommodating who is in there, in terms of size of the group, and it’s going to sound great. That’s one thing they can expect, in terms of the sheer number of people who will be with me. I guess they’re going to get a bit of me looking back at stuff that moves me and putting my own spin on familiar songs that my generation will know and maybe some younger people will know as well. They may not have heard it when it originally came out, but that’s the great thing about music is that if you like, it doesn’t matter if it’s old or new.

SDD: I want to talk about Giant since the cast recording came out pretty recently. What were your favorite parts about working on that show?

BDJ: I was just dazzled by the scope of what had been written by Michael John LaChiusa, especially with his music, and the story that they were telling. They reimagined this great, expansive novel. As a musical, I think it was exciting, even before we got there, trying to figure out, ‘How are they going to do this?’ I was really intrigued by that. Of course, Michael Greif and I worked together on Next to Normal and he’s just an incredible director. That was the first thing that was exciting. Getting into it, it was a different kind of character for me to play. I don’t know why I say that. Maybe because of the protection aspect, the patriarchal kind of guy that Bick Benedict was. It was an interesting part to play. Kate Baldwin was another incredible reason. I enjoyed that experience so much. In one moment in particular, the last ten minutes of the show, Leslie and Bick are coming to terms with who they are as older people and their relationship and how it works or doesn’t work. That’s “The Desert,” as it’s called. That musical moment was always something I felt so fortunate to be doing. It’s a remarkable piece of music and a really unique relationship in the realm of musical theatre. That was a really powerful moment to experience.

SDD: Were there any physical or emotional challenges playing that period of time, 27 years over 3 hours?

BDJ: No, not really. The show was so well-crafted and written in a way that allows you to sing in communion with a particular age, which makes the job easy. Your job is to not get in the way of that. If anything, it’s just the attention and focus that is required for a piece that is longer than the normal length. The biggest challenge is your focus and just being in the right place emotionally and feeling confident in what has been designed for you in the structure of the story. That’s the stuff that you do in preparations for the show, in rehearsals and stuff. If you’ve done that before then you just have to keep your eye on the ball throughout the show.

SDD: Have you kept in contact with anyone from the cast of Smash?

BDJ: I haven’t seen anyone recently, but we’re all friendly. I haven’t seen anyone lately but I ran into Will Chase not that long ago. That’s really it. We’re not having sleepovers or anything, but I look forward to seeing any and all of my cast mates from that show.

SDD: What kind of impact, if any, did you notice that Smash had on the Broadway community and elsewhere?

BDJ: It was mostly an elsewhere experience because people who see the theatre and know that I’ve been around for a bit, it’s not surprising for them to see me pop up in a show or maybe it is, I don’t know. Being on a television show, the extent is so wildly different. People recognize you and say, ‘Hey, Smash!’ or ‘Hey Frank!’ or whatever. There are things that I’ve heard that have happened to people who are well known on TV, but that was an interesting experience for me, having that recognition from that audience. New Yorkers are interesting, too, because they’ll just come up and talk to you like you’ve had a coffee date and start conversations. I love that. That was an interesting experience. I think that the Broadway community was really excited about having this world represented on television, which was cool, too.

SDD: What drew you to Finding Neverland?

BDJ: Well, the invitation, to be honest, to join them for a reading. They wanted to hear the material. They redesigned the show, from my understanding, and they needed give a voice to that. That was really it. Also, Diane Paulus and Harvey Weinstein are legendary in their own right. It was interesting and really wonderful to get to work with them. That was a lot of fun. It’s a new thing and I always love the chance to do new things. All of those reasons made it appealing for me.

SDD: You’ve worked with a large range of composers: Marvin Hamlisch, Andrew Lippa, and so many more. Is there a particular composer that you’d like to collaborate with next?

BDJ: Adam Guettel is just beyond talented. He’s just an extraordinary force in this time in life and in the world and in theatre. I had the great pleasure of working with him a couple of times. I would love any chance to work with Adam Guettel again. I just think he’s extraordinary.

SDD: Since they are clearly two very different musicals, what was the transition from Next to Normal into Shrek like for you? Was it a rough transition?

BDJ: Well, it wasn’t a rough transition. I think actors are adept at making those transitions. That’s their livelihood. A career is hopefully, and ideally, made up of a variety of different types of shows and experiences, so you get used to having to put on a new hat with every new experience. In fact, rather than the opposite, it was a great experience, to be in a different mode and in a new way of storytelling. The naturalism and the drama and the emotions of Next to Normal is obviously very different than telling a fairy tale or being dressed up as an ogre. That was such a gift to be able to do that. I think that the wider the chasm between style and content makes it more challenging. It’s like a whole new plate of food. I think you’re lucky if you get to have those experiences, even back-to-back. You can really exercise different muscles. It’s the ideal experience as an artist.

SDD: What has been your favorite role that you’ve worked on?

BDJ: One of them that comes to mind is a play that I did by Conor McPherson called The Good Thief, which was a one-man play about a man who has gotten in way over his head and things go awry. There’s this beautiful love story that develops. Conor McPherson is a playwright who I absolutely adore. His writing is extraordinary. The story was exquisite. The challenge of doing a monologue that’s 65 minutes with just yourself on stage is interesting. It was a technical challenge, which I love. The fact that it was received well and had many lives—we did it in New York and Los Angeles and London and Ireland—was wonderful. I think I’ll come back to it because the narrator, as he’s called, is a timeless character, and I think I’ll be able to play him when I’m 70. It’s kind of this magical little thing, a box that I hope that I get to open up again.

SDD: That’s really interesting. I was just about to ask, do you prefer things like that or are musicals where your real passion lies?

BDJ: I’ve spent most of my time and I’ve cut my teeth doing musicals, but I went to school at Northwestern University to study acting. I wouldn’t say that I prefer it, but I’m always very happy. I seek out the opportunity to exercise those muscles or to do something different. It’s just painting with a different color and I love that. I like being able to employ the things that I was trained to do, not just singing a song or interpreting a song as a character, but good old fashioned acting and being in a play. It’s pretty much moment-to-moment. If I’m enjoying it, I’m happy.

SDD: That being said, is there a role that you’d be interested in playing someday?

BDJ: I never used to have an answer to this until I got tired of myself not having an answer. My answer now is that I’d love to get a shot at playing George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I love that play and I’ve seen it a number of times. It’s just a kind of play that is so extraordinary and has such a pedigree and is twisted a little bit. It seems kind of ridiculous to say that I want to play that, especially in light of the long, tall shadows being cast by these amazing actors who have played it before. The first time I saw that play was in college and how a dog tilts his head when he hears a strange sound, I’ve always had that reaction watching that play. Something about that is really appealing to me.

SDD: A lot of people have said that you should play Jean Valjean someday.

BDJ: Wow.

SDD: Would you be interested in that?

BDJ: It’s hard to see myself in that role, only because I spent a year on the road playing Joly. If I was ever in Les Mis, I’d only be able to play Joly. That’s very flattering to hear. It’s such a vocally challenging role to play. I would definitely have to go back to school and learn how to sing.

SDD: Which do you prefer, television or Broadway?

BDJ: Not to be evasive, but there’s really no preference. I really enjoy having had the experience of doing Smash. I loved every second of it and I want to do more television. I’ve always loved TV. Now, having had a chance to be in both mediums, I love working that way. It’s something that I haven’t done that much of, so I’m interested in balancing the scale that way, in terms of types of experience. With the theatre, it’s where I started, so it’s my backyard. The best possible scenario would be to jump around in each and every one of those worlds and get the most out of it. I’d like to continue to grow and create in that way.

SDD: If you could trade places with anyone on Broadway right now, who would you pick?

BDJ: That’s a great question. For some reason Once is popping up into my head. Any one of those people in that pub, just being able to A. be in that show and B. have the ability to pick up an instrument and participate in the way that the show is designed. I think that would be a great experience.

SDD: What’s been your most memorable fan experience at the stage door?

BDJ: I was very, very touched by the people who would stick around after Shrek because it took me a good hour to get out of there. In the winter, when it gets cold outside, I would walk out there expecting everyone to be gone. There would be some people who were out there waiting and wanted to say, ‘We love the show. Great job.’ That always was really touching for me. That was a great source of energy for me because that was a lot of work and a lot of energy. It was always very uplifting and rewarding to see another young person or an adult who loves theatre saying, ‘Great job.’ They were committed, just sticking around. That always made me smile.

SDD: What was the last great show you saw on stage?

BDJ: One thing that pops out in my head is Peter and the Starcatcher. That was just extraordinary. I saw it downtown at the New York Theatre Workshop and had a lot of friends in it. Above and beyond, just the imagination and the theatricality of it. I was there with my wife and my daughter and my daughter was just seeing this kind of theatre and storytelling. It was so funny and quick paced and great. That stands out as being something that really got to me. The other thing that I have to say, for a whole different reason, was seeing Mark Rylance in Jerusalem in the West End. That, to this day and probably forever, will probably be the most extraordinary thing I’ve seen in the theatre. His performance in Jerusalem just blew my mind. It really was a great thing to see because it reinvigorated me. It was a recalibration for me to see what is possible and where the ceiling is in terms of acting. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, okay. That’s what acting is.’ Inspiring, truly inspiring. I am truly grateful that I got to see that. It’s great when you’ve been doing this for a while, and not that you go on autopilot, but you sort of forget the ceilings that you had when everything was new and every time you went to the theatre there was a force of energy and momentum as a person. That happened again, the rebirth of it for me at his performance.

SDD: Do you have any current obsessions?

BDJ: I don’t think I do. I guess I’m boring. The closest thing might be this bakery here on the Upper West Side called Levain Bakery where they make these cookies. Maybe that’s it, maybe that’s my obsession. Luckily, I don’t act on it. L-e-v-a-i-n. I always spell it out so that maybe they’ll send me a box of cookies. They’re amazing cookies.

SDD: Do you have any secret talents that nobody knows about?

BDJ: Let’s see. No, I don’t. I guess being an actor, you say, ‘Here’s my talent, for better or for worse.’ No, I don’t think I do. I do a terrible impression of Donald Duck. That’s really it. I have a banjo that I don’t know how to play. Those are my two answers.

SDD: How have you felt that audiences have differed for you, over all of the shows that you’ve been in?

BDJ: There’s no difference in the audience per say. It’s usually the show that defines that answer. For example, if you’re doing a one-man show, you’re having a relationship with an audience that you don’t usually have if you don’t break the fourth wall. It’s not so much the audience as it is the material or the play that you’re working on. Even the actual physical space will, by virtue of the stage, give an audience an identity. The bigger space, the more anonymous they become. They’re bigger and heftier. The smaller the house, you can hear more of what people say. You can hear comments, you can hear eye rolls, and you can experience things in different ways depending on all types of variables. I would say that the audiences are the same for the most part, it’s just the show and the space that dictates how you perceive the audience.

SDD: Who do you think you’ve learned the most from, out of all of the shows that you’ve been in and all of the performers that you’ve worked with?

BDJ: John Lithgow. He’s an extraordinary actor, as everyone knows, and he’s a beautiful person. I met him right when I was becoming a father. He’s a father who is also an actor. He has a family and he loves acting. It’s fun to watch him do his thing up close when I had the chance but also I get to appreciate him. I know him and I feel lucky to have that insight into who he is as a person and seeing who he is. He’s a genuinely good guy and I got to see how that infuses into his work as a good actor and how that becomes such an interesting and necessary component to how he works. I guess I learned a lot from him, in terms of how to be a leader if you’re in a show where you’ve got a lot to do and people are looking to you to carry the ball. I think there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. He wears that all very well. The list goes on and on, but I think I learned quite a bit from John.

SDD: It sounds like you trust your instincts a lot when you’re picking jobs, going onto the next career move. Do you think that’s correct?

BDJ: Yes and no. That’s a really good question because I think that experience breeds knowledge. The more time you spend doing something, you can allow yourself to follow your instincts. You can tally up how many times they’ve led you in the right place and they usually do. But on the other hand, the flip-side of that coin of having a good chunk of time in this business…I go back to something that John Lithgow said, which is apropos, he said, ‘Whatever decision that you make in this business, just know that it will be the wrong thing.’ It was his funny way of saying that you just never know. You never decide to do something because it’s going to get you something or it’s going to get you some place. You just have to do it because you want to do it. I’ve tried to kind of give up being strategic about decisions I make. It’s kind of a mix of following your instincts but also not being too concerned about getting it right.

SDD: That being said, is there anything confirmed for your future?

BDJ: I wish I could give confirmation of things. The only thing that I can say that I know is happening is this pilot episode of Ironside, which is airing on NBC Oct. 2. It would be cool to see where that goes. I’m only in the first one, but that’s my next appearance will be on a little TV screen in your house. (Writer’s note: Briefly after this interview took place, it was announced that Brian would be starring in this season’s revival of Macbeth on Broadway.)

SDD: Could you talk about that episode? What’s the premise of it?

BDJ: It’s obviously setting up the character of Ironside, who he is and what he’s challenged with. He’s a cop who is presented with the challenge of being in a wheelchair, having been shot, and been tenacious and relentless in getting the job done. That’s what his character is all about in a nutshell. I play, for story purposes, the requisite bad guy, a hedge fund manager who is up to no good. He has to come in and shake me down and scratch beneath the surface to see all of the terrible things that I’m doing. I’m one of a handful of really colorful characters that he has to deal with. I remember this show from when I was a kid, because it’s a remake of an old show. It’s an interesting thing to be in a show that you remember watching as a seven-year old on TV. What goes around, comes around I guess.

SDD: Do you prefer originating characters?

BDJ: Yeah, I do. Yeah, for short, there’s something beautiful about stumbling around in the dark and just truly trusting the collaborative process of everybody finding something together in a show that people don’t know. That, to me, is really exciting. I’ve always enjoyed that experience. If I got to choose, I’d say, ‘Give me something new,’ because that’s a big reward too.

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  1. Very interesting article. Brian d’Arcy James is so talented and clearly very humble. It was nice to hear about his future plans. We’ll miss seeing him on Smash, but looking forward to McBeth.