Broadway star Jay Armstrong Johnson on moving from NYC to the FBI in Quantico and his upcoming solo concerts

JAY ARMSTRONG JOHNSON

Jay Armstrong Johnson in Quantico.

Landing a recurring spot on one of television’s hottest dramas would keep any actor busy, but Jay Armstrong Johnson is a force to be reckoned with, and his passion for the arts always leaves him wanting to do more. Although the fate his character Will Olsen on the hit ABC drama Quantico remains unclear, Armstrong’s future is bright as he prepares to take the stage at Feinstein’s/54 Below this week for a highly-anticipated solo concert.

Armstrong said his upcoming concert is unlike anything he has ever done. In addition to spending over three years preparing for this project, Armstrong has also brought close friends Lindsay Mendez, Todrick Hall, and Billy Lewis Jr. on board to accompany him as special guests during the concert. As if that weren’t enough, Johnson also hopes to record a live album to document these historic nights with the help of an Indiegogo campaign that runs until April 27, the first night of his concert series.

Fresh off the heels of a successful Broadway run as the lovably geeky Chip in On the Town and wrapping up Quantico’s first season, Armstrong found the time to speak with Stage Door Dish about his exciting new projects and how theatre saved his life.

How are you working on this solo show that you’ve been trying to do for three years while on one of the biggest network shows right now? 

Going from theatre to film is so different. If you’re working theatre hours and want to get a coffee, you have to walk your happy ass to Starbucks and get a coffee. On set there’s just a craft services truck around the corner. The down time that you have between takes is more than you spend doing the takes. It’s actually been a blessing in disguise doing this awesome hit network television show because I’ve been spending as much of the down time as I can working on the show. I’m killing two birds with one stone.

Tell me about this concert. You’ve done a solo gig before but you’ve been hyping up that this show is really different. 

The last time I did a solo show my representation at the time put together my set list. I was in my early twenties and I didn’t really have much of a say in what was going on. Since then, I’ve had a bigger dream of doing it with a big band. I want a drum set and I want guitars. I want a horn section and a string section. I’m a musician. My dad is a drummer. I studied music in college. It’s this thing that I’ve been wanting to do for a few years. I’ve been taking notes for the last three or four years on my phone. Anytime I heard a song that I love or a song that I felt would be a great addition to the concert, I would jot it down in the notes section of my phone. I accumulated pages and pages of notes over the past few years. These last months has been me combing through all of the notes and creating a cohesive show through those.

You have a relationship with the word ‘eclectic’ and how it inspires you. Can you talk about that word in terms of the music people should be expecting at the show?

One of my favorite movies of all-time is Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. Whoopi Goldberg, as Deloris Van Cartier, gives her music class a monologue about the word ‘eclectic’ in relation to music. Ever since then, since I was six years old, that word has excited me. It’s how I’ve wanted to live my life musically – different genres and styles of music, never closing my eyes to any of them. There’s a little rock and roll, a little pop, a little musical theatre, a little Sondheim, a little Rascal Flatts. I’m trying to do a little bit of everything because I wanted to be able to show different styles vocally and dramatically. I want to run the gambit. I want to show everyone all I can do. In this crucial moment, after On the Town and Quantico, I’m trying to take advantage of this brilliant time I’m having in my life.

I want to talk about your special guests for the concert too, which include Lindsay Mendez, Todrick Hall, and Billy Lewis Jr. What’s it like to have these exciting friends who will come and play with you?

That’s the coolest part. I know almost all of the musicians from Broadway shows I’ve done and concerts I’ve done, and these guest artists are truly fantastic friends of mine.

I’ve known Lindsay for the past seven or eight years or so. We’ve sung in many concerts and readings and off-Broadway shows over the years. I’m glad that she’s joining me. She’ll be joining me for my more jazz-influenced tune because she’s one of my favorite jazz singers.

Billy Lewis Jr. is actually my boyfriend’s best friend from home. They grew up doing theatre together. He has quickly become one of my really good friends as well. He’s also über talented. He’s got the voice of a rock star and a head of hair like a lion. He’s a really cool dude. He’s well known for the last season of Glee so having him on board for the concert is exciting stuff.

I grew up with Todrick. I met him when I was 15 years old in Texas. We were doing Mary Kay Cosmetics industrials together in Dallas, wearing really flashy pink outfits, and singing about pink Cadillacs and makeup. He’s stayed a really close friend of mine. Watching his star rise over the last few years has been so exciting. I didn’t think that he’d even have time or ability to come to New York to do the show. When he said he was interested, I was pretty surprised and über excited.

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You’re also doing a Indiegogo campaign in conjunction with the concert to record a live album, right?

I’ve worked for three years on this concert and this music that I love. I’ve never recorded an album before so I figured ‘Why not?’ My friends Laura Benanti and Aaron Tveit and Norbert Leo Butz have done live albums at 54 Below. I know there’s a built-in system. I’ve had people ask over the course of my life if I’ve ever recorded an album or if I’ve ever been interested in recording an album. This group of songs is so special to me that I just want it to live on a little longer than three nights at 54 Below. I’m confident that we’ll get there but it’s a little nerve-wracking because it’s a big expense.

Can you talk about the financial burdens of recording an album and what it would mean to have this project completely funded for you? 

It’s an eight piece band. We have three backup singers and guest artists. The concert is a lot bigger than most concerts at 54 Below or solo concerts in New York City or cabaret settings. That’s what makes the show a little more exciting. That’s what is going to make the album even richer: having eight pieces of a band, having using brilliant backup vocalists adding beautiful harmonies. It’s a big endeavor. The expense pays my artists. I have eight instrumentalists and seven vocalists who are agreeing to come on board and make my dream come true. I want to be able to pay them for their time and their talents and their brilliant work that they’re giving to me. That’s the goal here: to support those artists who are going out of their way to support me.

One of the incentives on the campaign is coaching. What would you say to young vocalists who want to be a singer or who really want to be on Broadway?

What I didn’t realize when I was a kid and wanted to be on Broadway or a singer and an actor is the work that it takes. It’s one of the hardest industries out there to break into and to do well in. If you’re an accountant, you’re spending upwards of eight hours a day crunching numbers and doing your accounting thing. That’s what you have to do when you’re an actor or a singer or an artist. You have to make sure you’re spending upwards of eight hours a day treating it like a job. I started working on my career when I was twelve. I was going to dance class every night and rehearsal after that. It’s hard work. But if you love it enough, and you work hard at it, the sky’s the limit.

In the description for your concert, it says that music and theatre saved your life. Can you talk about where your passion for it came from and how it shaped your life?

I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas in the 90s. We didn’t have things like Glee and Will and Grace or Queer as Folk. All of these pop culture situations have happened over the past ten to fifteen years. They weren’t around when I was in elementary school. The kids could smell it on me that I was gay even though I didn’t know I was when I was in the third grade. They could smell it on me in Texas because I wasn’t the football playing jock like everyone was expected to be. I was ridiculed in school. I was bullied. I was more effeminate than the other guys. Third grade through 9th grade was not the best time. I found theatre and I found music through church. People in church asked me to audition for a community theatre group and I did. Once I found myself among artists, among all of the other misfit toys, among the techies and the performers – the kids who don’t fit in to the way society thinks you should go about life – it did save me. If I hadn’t found theatre and music and the arts, I could be living in Dallas with a wife and kids right now. I would be miserable. It truly changed my perspective on life. It changed my perspective on what it meant to be gay. I never had any gay role models as a young one. When I started doing theatre, I started meeting people who were like me and realized that it was okay. That’s what I mean when I say theatre and music saved my life; it gave me something to which to aspire to and me role models to look up to. It gave me an outlet to express myself when I didn’t know how or where or why to express myself.

It’s a funny theatre connection that Josh Safran who’s so well know for Smash is the show-runner for Quantico. 

That’s where I lucked out. Josh told me that he’d seen me in a couple of things and that he was a fan of mine. That blew me away. You never know when you’re up there doing your thing eight shows a week on Broadway that those kinds of people are coming to see the show. You might be aware but you never expect it to turn into a recurring character on a network television show. It was beyond my wildest dreams that it happened. Josh is amazing. His team is incredible. I love how gung-ho he is about theatre. Anytime an event comes up, Josh is always figuring out how to work around my schedule. He knows how much I love theatre and I know how much he loves it. It’s nice to have the head honcho in your corner when it comes to the wacky world of musical theatre.

We need to talk about Quantico. You actually auditioned for Elias, and then you became Will. Can you talk about that process?

 A few months before I got cast as Will, they were casting for Elias [played by Rick Cosnett]. I went and I auditioned. I got a callback. I met Josh and a few of the other producers. They had me come in for another callback but something didn’t work schedule-wise. I think I was away. I had to put myself on tape a final time and they had me do it four or five different ways so they could pick the best tape. They ended up going much older with the role. I was pretty devastated. I’d never made it that far in the casting process of a television show before. Then, a few months later when they were casting Will, I got another audition for it. It felt great that casting and the producers came back to me. It seemed as though they really wanted to make it work. I got the sides for Will and he’s an awesome character. Over the last few years, I’ve played nerdier guys. Chip in On the Town is a little bit of a book worm and rule follower. Greg in Hands on a Hardbody is an outcast, ‘nerdalicious’ guy. I’ve been playing these guys over the last few years. It clicked for me. I read Will’s breakdown and it sounded like a character who I would have too much fun with. The stars really did align. I walked into my first audition and I only did the scene once or twice and that was it. They cast me from that video, no callbacks, no producer sessions, no anything. It was that one time in and I had it. It’s been pretty fun.

What’s your favorite part of playing Will and how do you compare to his character? What’s it like coming from On the Town to this amazing drama that’s so insane?

Going into TV, I was nervous as shit. I had never done it before. Anytime I even walked into an audition for TV, I was always sweating the camera. Give me a theatre room and give me a piano and I can give you gold because I’ve done that my whole life. That’s kind of like Will. Will realizes that his weakness is his social abilities. He’s on the Autism spectrum. In order to go undercover, and in order to do certain things, he has to be able to make it look like he’s a person without a learning disability. It’s not even a learning disability; he’s a genius. That has been the fun part of finding Will’s character and using my nervousness on set as Will’s nervousness around these other NATs. When I walked on the set for the first time, my heart was beating so hard. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was hoping that they didn’t think that they’d made the wrong choice casting me. Channeling those nerves has been probably the most fun, and figuring out the things that happen to Will physically like his nervous ticks. It’s really such a blast. Dreams are coming true. I get to play a really cool character that is unlike anything that I’ve ever seen on television before.

Your chemistry with Graham Rogers is so top-notch. Did you guys meet and become instant best friends? How did that rapport develop?

Graham is the opposite of me. Graham is a few years younger than me. He’s from LA. He knows nothing about theatre. He’s a bro. He reminds me of my boys from back home. It’s easy because he’s such a great actor. He does such good work on the show. I’m happy that the writers wrote us a little arc together. I don’t think that Will necessarily has a lot of friends. Maybe Caleb is the first person who has really reached out to Will as a friend. That’s why Will is really excited. He has a confidante and a partner in crime for the first time.

Can we please talk about Hands on a Hardbody? I miss that show so much. Obviously everybody in that show is trying to win a truck. If you were to enter a similar competition, what would be your incentive? What would it take for you to do a competition like that?

I would do a competition like that for a brownstone. ‘Keep your hands on this brownstone and the last person to keep their hands on it gets to live there.’ That would be my answer right now. I’m looking for apartments because my boyfriend and I are moving in together without roommates for the first time in June. A brownstone has been the dream, so hell yeah.

You have guys have remained pretty close and supportive of each other’s careers since that show. It had a pretty short life on Broadway but what was that experience like? What is it that keeps you guys connected to that show and each other?

Despite the short run on Broadway, we started doing the show in workshops and readings in New York City before La Jolla. I was getting to know and love most of these people a year or two before Broadway even happened. We took a journey from workshops to readings to an out-of-town tryout to more workshops to dance labs and then to Broadway. When you go through a process like that with a group of people you can’t help but become bonded. It was a tough show. It was a pretty small ensemble show. We were all literally and physically moving a truck around onstage. I’m from Texas and the songs rang true to my home and where I’m from. It felt very close and near and dear to my heart. That’s my family. I call Keala Settle my sister from another mister. She’s one of my rocks and she considers me one of hers. I love my Allison Case. We did Hair together as my Broadway debut and then we got to play lovers in Hands on a Hardbody. It was a really cool group of people. I really loved the show. I thought it was unique and different. It was just bad timing. I wish it could have lasted longer. But if I hadn’t closed, I wouldn’t have gotten On the Town. You have to count your blessings.

 Since you mentioned On the Town, I want to talk about the cast going to San Francisco next month. 

I’m so excited. When do you get to close a Broadway show and then, a year later, link back up with your cast and have a little reunion and do the show again without having to do the big dance sequences? Just like Hands on a Hardbody, On the Town was the same thing; we started out of town at Barrington Stage Company, then had about a year or so of dance labs and readings and workshops then Broadway. There was just as much of a bond and friendship and love for Tony [Yazbeck] and Clyde [Alves] and Alysha [Umphress] and Elizabeth [Stanley] and and Megan [Fairchild] that I have with my Hardbody peeps.

I get to go to one of my favorite cities in the country, work with one of the best symphonies and the best conductors, Michael Tilson Thomas, and then reunite with my buddies to sing one of the best scores ever created. There’s so much happening right now. I’m really happy.

 If you could work with one person who you’ve with in the past, who would you choose?

Emma Thompson. I’ve got to go to my A-list movie star. When we did Sweeney Todd together, I was nervous to work with her because she’s literally the Dame Emma Thompson. She’s one of the best actresses out there. It was her generosity and her spirit and her openness. She knew everyone in the cast’s name, including our huge 30 person ensemble. During rehearsals, she would sit and watch my scenes and take notes on my dialect. It was a British dialect, and they had me learn a very posh British accent. When she met us for rehearsals, she didn’t think that the accent that I had learned was necessarily the character’s accent. I had my own very personal dialect coaching from Ms. Emma Thompson on ten minute breaks to help me work on rounding my sounds a little bit more. To have someone of her stature walk into a setting and take interest in a young boy in one of his first big gigs and go out of her way to make my performance better by helping my dialect – I found her to be one of the more delightful humans that I’ve ever met. Not to mention that she’s a genius actress. She’s one of the more generous people I’ve ever come across in life. She taught me a lot about what it means to be a lead. It’s not just showing up and doing the job and taking the final bow, it’s showing up and being generous and being open and communicative and lovely as a person and an artist. If I could get back in a room with Emma Thompson, I’d be able to say all of this to her face.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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