Call Redialed: NEW Jay Armstrong Johnson Interview: "The Phantom of the Opera"
By the time I got to interview Jay Armstrong Johnson in 2012, I had already been a big fan of his as I had previously seen him in the Broadway revival of Hair & the Off-Broadway production of Wild Animals You Should Know (alongside Alice Ripley, Patrick Breen, & John Behlmann).
Now Jay has stepped into the longest running musical in Broadway history, The Phantom of the Opera. He has taken over iconic role of Raoul. It is truly an honor to catch-up with Jay to discuss starring in this timeless classic.
I had the opportunity to see Jay inThe Phantom of the Opera a few days prior to this interview. The show is as fresh and magical as it was when I first saw it back in 1980something. The music, the staging, the costumes, the effects, the acting have all stood the test of time, continuing to captivate me throughout the 2 1/2 hour run time.
The Phantom of the Opera continues to play at The Majestic Theatre (247 West 44th Street, between Broadway & 8th Avenue) eight times a week. Click here for tickets and follow the show at https://us.thephantomoftheopera.com, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube!
1. You are currently playing Raoul in Broadway's longest running musical, The Phantom of the Opera. How many times had you seen The Phantom of the Opera prior to auditioning for it? I had only seen it one time in 2013 or 2014 because one of my very good friends, that I grew up with at home in Texas, Mary Michael Patterson was playing Christine. So, I had to go and support my girl :)
2. What is it like to star in one of the most iconic shows in Broadway history? It’s fun. Mainly because Hal Prince is still around and he is the biggest reason as to why I’m in the show. We worked on Candide at New York City Opera a few seasons ago, so he brought into the company of The Phantom of the Opera.
It’s great having the original director, especially someone as formidable as Mr. Prince himself to attend the show every few months, give us notes and remind us that we are in a hit show. It’s exciting. The score is genius. The orchestra is huge. The costumes are so ornate. It feels like you are stepping into a different world every night.
3. The Phantom of the Opera is in its third decade on Broadway. What’s the most challenging part about stepping into the role of Raoul? This is the first time I’ve ever replaced in a Broadway show. Up until this point, I have been creating roles or understudying roles that were in the creation process. Stepping into a show that has been running for 31 years has been a bit of a learning curve for me.
There is a specific way that Raoul needs to be perceived, for instance, in the way he walks. I have to maintain the integrity of what was made over 30 years ago. Half way through my process, Hal did come in and allow me to find mine own Raoul a little. This has been a wonderful learning experience for me. It’s just a different ball game when you replace a character as opposed to creating it.
4. What do you relate to most about Raoul? I can’t relate much to him because he is this European aristocrat who has all the power and money in the world and that has never been me ever [laughs].
The one thing I can relate to is his affinity for the arts. He does choose to be the main patron at the Opera. He clearly loves the arts and supports it. That is what I identify with about him.
5. What is one characteristic of his that you are glad you yourself do not possess? His cockiness, not just because of his money, but because he knows he can get any girl he wants. That’s been a bit of a challenge for me going into this role as an actor, but it’s also been fun being this rich cocky guy that knows he can get whatever he wants. That has been the opposite of my life up until this point. I’m glad it’s not me, but it’s been fun to pretend it is me every night.
6. I think my favorite scene in the show is “Masquerade” at the top of Act 2 when everyone is on the stairs in their costume. What is your favorite moment in the show? I would have to say “Masquerade” as well. Back in high school, I was pretty obsessed with the movie when it came out and especially with “Masquerade.” I would listen to that song over and over again. I even had plans to make “Masquerade” a theme for one of our dances back in the day. I just love the costumes for that number. My “Masquerade” costume is my favorite in the whole show.
7. What is it like to jump into the Phantom’s Layer every night? Any scary moments you can share? It’s only scary when it’s really humid outside because the stage fog gets really thick, so it looks like I’m just jumping into an abyss full of fog.
It really is the thing I look forward to most in the show because I’m a big dare devil myself. Jumping off a bridge and hearing the audience gasp every night is fun. It’s different too because I’ve never had to do that kind of a major stunt before on a stage.
8. In all the theatrical shows you’ve been in, have you ever encountered a real life Phantom of the Opera? [Laughs]. I don’t believe so, but the closest thing I’ve come to was when I did the revival of Hair in 2009. There was this stage door fan that somehow broke in backstage after a show and stayed overnight in the theatre. This fan was taking showers in the male ensemble dressing room.
I had happened to come in early the day she was there and I think I scared her away because she left her thong hanging on hook in male ensemble bathroom and ran out dripping wet. So, she was kind of our “Phantom” for that day [laughs].
Needless to say, security got a bit tighter around the Hirschfeld Theatre after that incident [laughs].
9. When have you ever fought for something or someone as hard as Raoul fights for Christine? It would have to have been getting to New York. I didn’t come from a lot of money and I knew you literally had to have money to live here. I only auditioned for NYU, early decision. I took out all the student loans I could possibly take out.
I had a scary moment my freshman year. They were going to drop me from all my classes because the balance on my account was in the negative and I had to go and take out more student loans.
My first year here in New York City, I fought tooth and nail, both mentally and physically and financially to just make it here. It has worked out pretty well actually.
I’ve been living here for 15 years now and The Phantom of the Opera is my fifth Broadway show. I’m still paying off those student loans, but I wouldn’t have any other way.
10. Have you ever had to compete with a phantom lover while dating someone in real life? [laughs] Maybe…I mean there are those times when you are not committed to someone and you are keeping things very loosey goosey, but then they go off and have a date with someone else and then all of a sudden you’re like, “Wait! You’re not supposed to be dating someone else,” but the rules are they’re allowed to date someone else.
I’ve absolutely been in that situation where there’s a phantom lover that comes in and swoops and then I’ve had to make a tough decision to commit or quit it [laughs].
11. Since Raoul is such an iconic role in theatre, what other iconic roles do you hope to play in your career? I’d really like to play Bobby in Company. I’ve always wanted to play Jack in Into The Woods, but I think I might have aged out of that role now, [with a hint of sarcasm] so I’d probably have to be a Prince these days, who knows. I’m probably more in love with the Princes as I get older anyway.
It’s not necessarily an iconic role, but Floyd Collins is a show I did in college that I fell madly and deeply in love with. It was never actually on Broadway. It was only Off-Broadway back in the ‘90s. But, I hope and wish and pray that someday it has its Broadway moment and I can be Floyd Collins.
12. What are some other projects you have coming up that you can tell us about? I have one project I can’t talk about because it hasn’t been announced yet, but I do my Halloween show, I Put A Spell On You, every year and we are going to do it again this year. It’s a spoof on Disney’s Hocus Pocus.
We are in talks with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS to come on as a presenting producer and have all of the proceeds go towards them. I’d love to make it a Broadway Cares fundraiser every year because I care so much for the organization. I love doing things with them and for them. To have my Halloween concert that I produce on an annual basis be a community building fundraising entity would be the cherry on top of one of my favorite times of the year. So, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it comes to fruition.
13. One thing we have in common is that we have both gone sky diving. What can you share about that experience? How did it change you? It happened on my birthday when I turned 30. I had promised myself when I was 25 that on my 30th Birthday, I would go skydiving. So it was very important to me that I kept this promise to myself.
It was important for me to do this with a bunch of friends, so it kind of taught me who my principle friends were when I asked who wanted to go skydiving. My current boyfriend, who wasn’t my boyfriend at the time, but we were kind of seeing each other, came with us, and that was a big indication that we could travel the world and make big decisions together.
I was also so, so, so excited before the jump itself happened until we got up in the air and they opened the door to the plane and then I got deathly afraid. Those few moments before we actually jumped were some of the more intense moments of my life. Once I was free-falling, it was truly an out of body experience. Now, I’m kind of addicted to it. I want to sky dive all over the world, on every island, every mountain, and dessert. I want to be high above the world falling towards many different terrains.
14. Rapid Fire Questions:
Favorite kind of donut? Nutella donut at Dough Doughnuts
Favorite M&M Flavor? Blue
Favorite go to Emoji when texting? 😝
Boxers or Briefs? Briefs
More on Jay:
Broadway: On the Town, Hands on a Hardbody, Catch Me If You Can, Hair. Off-Broadway/NY: A Chorus Line (City Center), Fire and Air (CSC), The Mad Ones (Prospect Theater Co.), Candide (NYCO), Sweeney Todd (NY Philharmonic), The Most Happy Fella (Encores!), Wild Animals You Should Know (MCC), Working (Drama Desk Award, Prospect Theatre Co.). First national tour: A Chorus Line. Regional: The Last Goodbye (Old Globe); On the Town (Barrington Stage); Newsies; Hello, Dolly!; 42nd Street; Pirates! (MUNY). Concert: Babes in Toyland (Master Voices at Carnegie Hall), 35mm: A Musical Exhibition (on iTunes). TV/Film: Quantico (ABC), Law & Order: SVU, Sex and the City 2. Jay Armstrong Johnson LIVE at Feinstein’s 54 Below is available on CD and iTunes. Voice teacher: Jeremy Aye.