InDepth InterView: Joshua Henry Discusses New Musical AMIGO DUENDE, Plus COTTON CLUB PARADE, PORGY & More
Today we are talking to an incredibly charismatic leading man who has made quite a mark on Broadway over the last few seasons, having participated in the original Broadways casts of Kander & Ebb's THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS (for which he received a Tony nomination for Best Actor), Green Day's AMERICAN IDIOT (as Favorite Son), and, most recently, the rapturously-received revival of THE GERSHWINS' PORGY & BESS (as Jake), which won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Revival - the multi-talented Joshua Henry. Discussing the creation, casting, rehearsal and reception of each of the aforementioned musicals, as well as working with his collaborators on said projects - John Kander, Susan Stroman, Billie Joe Armstrong, Tom Kitt, Michael Mayer, Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, Diane Paulus and more included - Henry illustrates the process of bringing the three wildly different entities to the stage and how he shaped his disparate characters within them. Additionally, Henry also discusses his role in the original production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's IN THE HEIGHTS and that Tony-winning Best Musical's inception and legacy. Plus, Henry expounds on his new self-composed family-friendly musical, AMIGO DUENDE, directed by Luis Salgado, which runs October 5-7 at El Musio Del Barrio, and also shares the inspiration, story, musical style and message behind it. All of that, first news on his starring role in COTTON CLUB PARADE at City Center (co-starring GLEE's Amber Riley), recollections of sharing the screen with Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson and the Fab Four in SEX & THE CITY: THE MOVIE, his role in the recent MOTOWN workshop (as Marvin Gaye), upcoming films, future plans and much, much more!
AMIGO DUENDE runs October 5-7 at El Musio Del Barrio. More information is available here.
For further information on Joshua Henry, visit his official site here.
PC: What was the final performance of PORGY & BESS like for you? It must have been such a tremendous final show.
JH: Oh, my goodness - it was incredibly emotional! You know, usually during those types of performances I try to keep it really technical because nobody likes to… [Laughs.] I mean, I don't like seeing anyone blubber during a final performance, you know?
PC: It can lessen the impact of the show; sure.
JH: Yeah, it can. So, being there after having been with the show for over a year now, it was definitely filled with big, big emotions for me.
PC: Audra McDonald recently Tweeted a hilarious story about her daughter being backstage and not wanted to hear her "scream" anymore. Have you had any amusing encounters with her?
JH: Oh, with her daughter? She's so sweet. But, yes, actually, I talked to her a few days before the last show and I asked her if she was ready to have her mommy out of the show and she said "Absolutely!" [Laughs.]
PC: That definitely fits the bill! Had you worked with Audra or Norm Lewis before PORGY & BESS?
JH: Actually, no - never in a musical, at least; Norm and I had done a few benefit concerts together before, though. But, with Audra: I mean, I don't want to take up an hour of your time right now, but she is just the most incredible performer I have ever worked with; definitely the best actress that I've ever had the pleasure to work with, I'd have to say. Just her emotional commitment to something - you know, sometimes it's scary how committed she is and how far she will go with a scene. It's incredible.
PC: Such as?
JH: Well, there's the rape scene - she really just goes all the way, all the time. And, so, you know, it is surprising, in a way, to see someone commit themselves fully to the story the way that she has for over a year now with PORGY & BESS. I learned so, so much from her - it was like a master class every single performance. I feel like I am a better actor because I have worked with her. Once you've worked with her, you look at acting differently - I've heard other people say that and now I know that it is really true.
PC: How would you compare the process of bringing this to the stage versus the original musicals you have participated in - especially insofar as this adaptation?
JH: Well, you know, usually when you work on a new musical you build it from the ground up and this was originally written in 1937, I think, and so we got to watch Diane and Suzan-Lori Parks make this their own and the actors got to make it their own - that was the goal. Especially after we got that Sondheim letter when we were up at Cambridge, everyone kind of had a moment of, you know, "Well, we are doing the right thing - this is what the Gershwin estate and the Hayward estate commissioned Diane to do." But, that was definitely a trying moment of, "Yes, we have to continue on doing this;" joining together with the cast and with Diane and AuDra Leading us on was a growth experience for me as an actor that I definitely hadn't experienced before.
PC: You came together instead of fell apart.
JH: Yeah, we really did.
PC: And winning Best Revival and Audra's win as Best Actress at the Tonys was edification in a way, no doubt, as well, yes?
JH: Yeah, just a few Tony Awards - that's all! [Laughs.] That was so great. You know, with winning the Tony Award, we had all gone through so much up until that point so that when that happened it was just like "Yes! We really were doing the right thing all along!" It actually brought us all together even more as a cast. You know, theatre is already like a family process - you just slam into storytelling with twenty-odd people in the room with you - but, something like this happening helped us gel even more.
PC: Are there plans for a reprise of the production - in the West End? On tour?
JH: Yes - I think so. Right now there is a plan for a 2013 tour first.
PC: Would you be interested in going with it to London if it goes over at some point?
JH: Oh, that sounds amazing! I've never been to London before, so that would be an opportunity I couldn't pass up. Let's talk about it! [Laughs.] I've heard there's talk about bringing SCOTTSBORO [BOYS] over there, too, so let's talk about it, Pat!
PC: SCOTTSBORO BOYS went to LA, after Broadway, of course.
JH: It did. Unfortunately, I was with PORGY & BESS at the time so I couldn't do it - I have no complaints, though. I loved that show so much - and I had also done it regionally before Broadway. You know, regional is a whole different thing just like the West End would be a whole different thing, so I would definitely be open to those kinds of opportunities.
PC: John Kander is such a brilliant and kind man. What can you tell me about working with him on SCOTTSBORO?
JH: Oh, he's just the greatest. John is the nicest guy in showbiz.
PC: He really is.
JH: I recently had the fortune of performing at this gala that honored him a few months ago, and, during the process, he was just a very sweet, professional gentleman who really valued actors, as he always is - you know, we say that a lot, but it's so true when it comes to him. I remember working with him at the piano and him being like, "Wow - you're really amazing!" And, you know, actors need to be stroked sometimes - we need to be able to know to trust our instincts to go further and experiment - and John is always just so encouraging and trustful. I mean, I would go home from rehearsal at night and just pinch myself because I was fortunate enough to be rehearsing every day with this legend - this legend who was so supportive of me. I will never, ever forget it! And, we are still friends to this day, years after SCOTTSBORO started, so it was all really, really cool.
PC: KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN would be a great show for you someday, as Valentin.
JH: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! Are you kidding me? I'd love to do that. I love that show.
PC: Are there any other Kander & Ebb roles you'd like to play in the future?
JH: Well, now that you say it, Valentin really sounds amazing! I actually recently almost went in for Billy Flynn in CHICAGO, too, so that might still happen at some point. We'll see.
PC: What was your favorite moment every night doing SCOTTSBORO? John Kander told me his favorite moment was "Go Back Home".
JH: Oh, that moment, definitely, and, also, this song called "You Can't Do Me", where Haywood goes into this like dreamlike state where he says, you know, "You can't do me like you did before," and he realizes that it is not about what just he is going through, but what everyone like him is going through and that he really needs to make a stand for everyone - that moment was just so, so weighty for me. I felt totally connected to him - I felt what that man did actually made a difference in my own life and then I got to play him on Broadway and tell his story to an audience. So, you know, all of that hit me in that moment when I did it onstage every night, wherever we were doing it - it was just such a weighty, weighty moment.
PC: What a powerful experience. Did anyone involved with the Scottsboro Boys trial come and see the show during the run?
JH: Yes. Some of the defendants of the boys did come and see the show.
PC: Did they seem to enjoy the show or did they perhaps find it a bit difficult?
JH: Oh, I think it was all of the above for them - they thought it was amazing, but, also, it brought up painful memories, too. With every single one of them, though, the response to me was, "Thank you. Thank you for doing this the way that you did." And, so, them saying that to us in the face of all that was going on at the time - you know, there were protests at the theater and crazy things like that; hearing them say "Thank you; you told this story in the right way," made all the difference in the world. And, that was before the nominations and awards and all of that stuff.
PC: You knew you had done right by those who were actually there, then.
JH: Yes. We knew we had done the right thing in telling the story the way that we did - and we showed people that some of the reasons why we have the freedoms we do today is because of what happened then in that story with those characters.
PC: SCOTTSBORO BOYS is easily one of the best musicals of the new century. Was it a little disappointing that it was so short-lived despite the awards and great reviews?
JH: Well, first of all, thank you for saying that. You know, I like to think that there still is a place on Broadway for shows like this - shows that really challenge people and tell stories that need to be told that are relevant to our lives now, still. I really do.
PC: SCOTTSBORO is still ahead of its time, perhaps.
JH: It's right here and now - it's so applicable to today.
PC: What was your very first experience of the piece?
JH: Rehearsing it. I remember reading it through myself, but then just being blown away at the first read-through with everybody. I mean, reading the script you don't fully understand it, but when you see it… [Pause. Sighs.] it just blew me away. The fact that they have that amount of historical accuracy and the connection of it all to the show was just amazing to me.
PC: What was the vibe in rehearsal? It's a very confrontational show. The Rosa Parks ending is so poignant.
JH: Oh, well, that moment with Rosa Parks was one of those moments that was so impactful for everyone in that rehearsal room - our jaws just dropped. So, you know, it's like even if everyone is on board that there is going to be Rosa Parks and everything, when you actually see the moment it just is so impactful. And, in the show, we felt that it was really one of those moments that brought it all home - you know, the whole show is ninety minutes of a thousand crazy emotions, but, to end like that, it was a big bass drum of a moment; a flourish. This is the reason that Rosa Parks had gotten the courage to do what she did and we were portraying that; we were telling that story - and we felt it nightly when that moment landed with an audience.
PC: Tell me about working with Susan Stroman - the choreography with the chair set was extremely innovative and the way it all worked hand in hand with Beowulf Boritt's designs was really something else.
JH: Wasn't it? I'll tell you, Susan Stroman is amazing - it was amazing working with her. And, the trust that she put in me at the very beginning is what gave me the strength to perform that role - and, when she and Beowulf came up with the design and when we finally saw what it was going to be, it was another moment of "What?! No way!" I mean, we were all just blown away by it!
PC: It's very inventive.
JH: Each chair move and each little peg that connects one chair to another chair - it was so detailed! I remember when I was learning the choreography in rehearsal, thinking, "I am never going to learn all of this in time! It's not gonna happen!" [Laughs.]
PC: It must have taken a lot of practice.
JH: It was just a very complicated system of lifting the chairs and putting them together to make, you know, a jail or a train or whatever - it did take a lot of practice, though. We drilled it pretty much like you would lines - it was like a play rehearsal.
PC: A military type manner of getting the moves all down.
JH: Yeah, yeah, yeah - absolutely. It was like, "OK, chair rehearsal!" And we would do two hours of chair rehearsal. You know, the assistant director would sit there with a clock in his hand and Stro would be like, "OK. Everybody ready? We have to get this done in five bars of music," which is basically like fifteen seconds. Then, she'd say, "OK. Go!" [Mimes music.] And we put all the chairs together. It was like musical chairs - you know, when the music stops and everybody has to stop what they are doing.
PC: In this case, literal musical chairs…
JH: [Laughs.] Oh, wow - isn't that funny?
PC: What a pun! I am curious: was there ever an accident or an incident? Did you ever fall off when you got thrown around on top of that beam and everything?
JH: You know, I was so fortunate in that I never did fall off - you know, in that one number I am sitting on that plank and it's all about me keeping my balance; and, I was flipping off chairs in that show and all of that stuff, too.
PC: And you never fell?
JH: I never fell. For the entire run at the Guthrie and on Broadway I never fell off and I had thought that I might, so when we finished the run on Broadway I said, [Sighs.] "Well, at least I didn't get hurt!" [Laughs.]
PC: Besides SCOTTSBORO, you also were involved with two other original musicals - what was it like to move from rap to rock when you went from the original IN THE HEIGHTS to AMERICAN IDIOT.
JH: It was a little wild; you're right - hip-hop to hard rock - but, I have to say, I loved it. You know, AMERICAN IDIOT was the hardest show that I've ever done - ever.
PC: Why so?
JH: Well, physically, we were head-banging and jumping up and down and catching people falling off scaffolding and all of that stuff every performance. The choreography just had this style that was so physical, too - you know, before rehearsal every day we would have strength and conditioning training to prepare ourselves for the run of the show. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life - it really was. In a way, it was kind of like going to basic training every day, I suppose.
PC: How did you stay in shape for that role? Do you have a regular routine you follow? You had to stay in shape for PORGY, as well.
JH: Yeah, I definitely did - but, oh, you know, I just want to be Norm Lewis when I grow up! [Laughs.] He's like fifty years old and is in this amazing shape. I want to be like him someday. But, yeah, I guess I do have a routine - I think my favorite at the gym is super-setting, where you do just two or three body parts in a day; for instance, a set of arms, chest and back, back-to-back-to-back, and then you rest and repeat it all four times. But, you know, I don't have time to be in the gym all day, for hours, especially if I have a show at night, so I just try to do things that keep me strong and together in as short amount of time as possible. I do a lot of cardio all the time, too, because, for me, I never want to feel like I am failing my show or letting anybody down; I want everything that is thrown at me to be easy for me to do and I don't want to be running out of breath. You know, once you have your breathing down, really, it's half the battle.
PC: Speaking of which: do you have a vocal routine?
JH: Oh, yeah - I do vocal warm-ups every day. I like to change it up, too, by doing like a classical style some days and a more pop style other days. I remember when I was rehearsing SCOTTSBORO BOYS, I was in AMERICAN IDIOT, so, every night, I was screaming, singing these high, belty Cs and Ds, and then during the day I would be doing these legato lines - I am very lucky that I have had the training that I have so that I could handle all of that. But, yeah - I really want to be able to do everything, so I'm glad I've been given some chances to show it.
PC: Did you find you had to fully commit yourself and live very cautiously and conservatively during that time?
JH: Well, I mean, I don't drink alcohol and I don't go out at all, so I am sort of like a little monk anyway - it's all about the water and it's all about the rest and getting a full warm-up in before the show, for me. You know, when I talk to my fiancée, I whisper; if I'm on the phone with my mom, after a certain amount of time I have to say, "Sorry, mom. I've got to go." [Laughs.]
PC: You feel it's your responsibility as a performer.
JH: I do. I think that in order for you to give your best and give people in the audience what they deserve and give the story what it deserves, you have to concentrate on keeping your instrument in as good of shape as you can at all times.
PC: Green Day's follow-up to AMERICAN IDIOT, !TRE!, is apparently delayed due to Billie Joe Armstrong's recent rehab stay. What was it like for you working with him on the show?
JH: Yes, I heard about that. You know, I got to work with him quite a bit in Berkeley and on Broadway - and he was always really helpful and seemed really excited about all of it. Each one of the band members really treated AMERICAN IDIOT like their baby and every line that was said and every note that was sung they were involved with and approved of - every step along the way.
PC: Do you have any one-on-one moments you recall with him in particular?
JH: Yeah, I do. I remember that when I first sang the song, I sang it very punk and very ¾-time - very by-the-notes - but, then, Billie Joe and Tom Kitt encouraged me to put a little of my own spin on it, which I did. So, I think that "Favorite Son" was let loose a little bit and I added a little riff-ery to Green Day, as it were. [Laughs.]
PC: What a great word!
JH: Riffery - yes! Thanks! Use it anytime. [Laughs.]
PC: What was Tom Kitt like? He is such an interesting writer - and such a nice guy.
JH: Yeah, I agree. I think that Tom is just so interesting, too, because he straddles that line of pop and musical theatre so well - you know, he was actually on the AMERICAN IDIOT album before it was a show, too; he did some of the arrangements on the actual album. So, you know, having him and his knowledge of musical theatre and pop - as far as recording the album it was all based on and everything - was just completely invaluable. He really is such a nice guy, too - so incredibly precise and smart with everything he does. So, yeah, he really knows his stuff and he is just amazing to work with in my experience.
PC: How would you compare him to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who you worked with on the first, Off-Broadway production of IN THE HEIGHTS?
JH: Oh, well, I just can't say enough about Lin-Manuel! He is just the best. I mean, he grew up on hip-hop and he is so brilliant - and he is such a goofball, too! He is one of the most brilliant people I have ever had the pleasure to work with - his knowledge is just incredible and he can write any kind of song. I mean, I just did a demo for Bring It On! with him - he brought me in to sing the eleven o'clock number in that - so, since IN THE HEIGHTS we have worked on a couple different things, actually.
PC: Have you heard the complete ALEXANDER HAMILTON yet?
JH: No, I can't say I've heard the whole thing - I've just heard some it so far. I mean, I really just can't believe he put rap music with telling the story of a president like that - and then did it at the White House! For the president!
JH: That's what I love about Lin - he is just so passionate about hip-hop that he will do that; he wants to put hip-hop on the map like that and bring it to everyone. He speaks through hip-hop - you know, there's IN THE HEIGHTS and ALEXANDER HAMILTON, and, then, there's his Tony Awards speech, too, which he also rapped.
PC: And quoted Sondheim while he did it, no less.
JH: Right! I mean, there's a lot of people who are fans of hip-hop in musical theatre, too, because we are all fans of storytelling, but to merge the two? Are you kidding me?! To have IN THE HEIGHTS be my first show in New York after moving here, I remember feeling at the time like, you know, "It doesn't get any better than this."
PC: And now you are premiering your own self-penned musical in New York a few short years later! You've come full-circle.
JH: I guess I have. And, actually, it's funny, because Luis Salgado and I met doing IN THE HEIGHTS.
PC: No way!
JH: Yeah, we did. Luis approached me a little after we did that show, in 2008, and he said that there was this play that he had done in Puerto Rico and he knew I wrote music and so he asked me, "Would you be interested in doing music for this?" And, I said, "Sure!" So, we've been working on it steadily since then. We have done three readings and some workshops and now we have our first full production.
PC: What can you tell me about the show?
JH: It's called AMIGO DUENDE and I have composed the music and lyrics for it; Luis, Heather Hogan and myself did the book for it; and, of course, Luis is directing and choreographing it. It's at this amazing children's theatre - El Musio Del Barrio - and it's been four years in the making for us, so we are all just so excited about it now being up in front of an audience. Hopefully, this run will bring other things - we really want to continue with this piece because we feel it has a really important message.
PC: Which is?
JH: It's about imagination - being childlike and maintaining your imagination in a world where kids are told to grow up too fast; especially now and especially in New York City.
PC: Indeed. What's the story of the show?
JH: The story is about a six-year-old girl who has an older sister who keeps telling her to let go of her "imaginary friend" - and, so, the big question becomes: will she let go of her imaginary friend and be like her sister and move on into the real world? It touches on a lot of other themes, too - school and how teachers have different styles of teaching and how we all learn. You know, people all learn things differently and sometimes imagination isn't considered as useful a tool as it can be in the learning process - especially in school in subjects like math and science. So, our lead character is the same way - and we show that it takes a balance of imagination and an awareness of where your place should be in society, growing up, in order to become a full, complete person. You can have both, in a balanced way, and that's the message we hope kids and parents and teachers will be leaving with - imagination and learning used together.
PC: Ages 8 to 80 are appropriate, then? How would you describe the score?
JH: Oh, yeah - any age; 8 to 80, definitely. The score has everything in it - pop, rock, reggae to even a jazz poem and a bolero and some Latin stuff, too. You know, IN THE HEIGHTS and what Lin-Manuel did with it influenced me so much, so there is a lot of Latin influence in it - I would say it is mostly a Latin-pop score, but there is a little of everything.
PC: What does the title AMIGO DUENDE mean in English?
JH: It basically means "kindly ghost" - friendly ghost, more or less. You see, her friend - her "imaginary friend" - is sort of a friendly troll who comes over at night and they play games and he teaches her about using her imagination and stuff like that. It's a lot of fun.
PC: So, are there other plans for AMIGO DUENDE following the El Musio Del Barrio run this week?
JH: Well, we are scheduled for eight performances here at this theater and we are trying to get people in to see it and see the potential with it. Of course, in an ideal world we would go to New World Stages or someplace like that right after, but right now we are keeping all our options open and we are all trying to learn every step along the way. I will definitely say that I don't think that October 7 - which is the last performance of the show here - will be the last people hear of AMIGO DUENDE; definitely not.
PC: Do you have any other projects coming up, as an actor?
JH: Yes. I just became involved with a show going to City Center - COTTON CLUB PARADE - and so I will be doing that in November at City Center. I just got the job, so I have to say as little about it as possible at this point, but I can tell you that I am really excited. [Laughs.]
PC: What else can you tell me about it, in that case?
JH: Well, I can say that it is based on the real-life story of the Cotton Club and it has a really great team - the director is Warren Carlyle and the music director is Branford Marsalis from Jazz At Lincoln Center. You know, I have honestly been watching that guy since I was six-years-old on PBS, so to finally work with him now on this show will be really amazing for me. So, yeah - I think it's really going to be something special.
PC: Do you have any film and TV appearances coming up?
JH: Yes, I do. In January, I am supposed to be in a movie called WINTER'S TALE - I have a little role in there that I shot, so we'll see if my cameo will make it out of the editing room. [Laughs.]
PC: You never know these days! Uma Thurman was recently cut from SAVAGES at the last minute, after all.
JH: Yeah, you never, ever know - but, yeah, there are a lot of New York actors in it, too, so that will be interesting to see when it comes out next year.
PC: Speaking of film: how did you become involved with the SEX & THE CITY movie?
JH: Well, it was actually pretty simple - I auditioned for Bernie Telsey and Michael Patrick King; I was doing IN THE HEIGHTS at the time. So, I went in and auditioned once And Then They called me back in one more time and then I got the offer for it. At that point, I hadn't even been in New York for a year yet, so I was just flipping out about it. I mean, to be in the movie of SEX & THE CITY? That's just such a staple of a title for people - and to be with Jennifer Hudson, too, who is just so sweet and so talented. She is just such a nice, sweet girl and I loved working with her. And, in my limited time off-camera, Sarah Jessica Parker and the girls were just great - especially Sarah Jessica, who is just such a class act, always.
PC: Jennifer Hudson is on SMASH Season Two and Sarah Jessica Parker is on GLEE this season, as well, as a matter of fact. Would you like to do either of those shows - or both?
JH: Absolutely! I'd absolutely love to do either - they are both such a big boost for musical theatre. You know, people back home or in middle America or wherever now understand why their kids are going off to do this thing called Broadway and what it is really about for actors. So, I think they have both had a really positive impact on how people see musical theatre.
PC: What workshops or readings have you done recently that you enjoyed?
JH: Well, I just did the MOTOWN workshop recently.
PC: Did you get to work with Berry Gordy one-on-one at all?
JH: I did, actually - we got to talk for about a half hour about Marvin Gaye and all of his history with him, since I was playing him in that workshop.
PC: What did you discuss?
JH: Oh, well, he just gave me all of the character traits of Marvin and how he was just one of the most talented guys he had ever come across. I asked him, "How soon did you know that he would be a superstar?" And, Mr. Gordy's response was, "The moment I met him. The minute he walked in the room I knew he was this good-looking guy who had all of these extraordinary gifts. I knew then that the only thing that could get in the way of him was himself - and it did." So, he knew right away - Berry really has a great eye for talent and all that stuff and I think it's going to be amazing to see Brandon Victor Dixon in it - he is an amazing talent and he could really soar in this role.
PC: So, you won't be continuing with it, then, since you are doing COTTON CLUB instead?
JH: No, I will not be continuing with MOTOWN at this point, I don't think. Right now, actually, they are doing another workshop and I am not a part of that, so as of right now I am not involved with the show. But, I think the show is going to be great - the music is something people just love, so if they can get the book in better shape it should be a lot of fun.
PC: Would you like to play Jimmy - or Curtis, for that matter - in DREAMGIRLS someday? The show centers on pretty much the same world, after all.
JH: Oh, of course - are you kidding?! Either of those parts would be just great. I love DREAMGIRLS. You know, I really love shows that bring in all styles of music like that and tell a real and compelling story that people can relate to - like we were saying about IN THE HEIGHTS and what we are trying to do now with AMIGO DUENDE.
PC: Congratulations on all your success, Josh. All my best with AMIGO DUENDE, COTTON CLUB and whatever is next!
JH: Thank you so much, Pat - this was really, really wonderful. I really appreciate it. Bye.