BWW Interview: Joe Aaron Reid Talks London's IN THE HEIGHTS and DREAMGIRLS
American actor Joe Aaron Reid's Broadway credits include If/Then, Chicago and Curtains. In London, he starred as Benny in In the Heights and is currently playing Curtis in the hit West End revival of Dreamgirls.
What was the first musical you saw?
My parents weren't very into theatre, but my dad played the organ and piano for church, so I was always very involved with church choir. I was then in the chorus at school and we did theatre trips every year, so I saw my first stage musical when I was 11 years old - I think it was either Beauty and the Beast or Show Boat. I was hooked right away. I also loved the movie of Newsies, because when you're a young boy and you see a bunch of young boys singing and dancing, you think "What is that?".
I really liked the people I got to be around doing music and acting, because they were very accepting and I could be myself. I played sports too, but that was a different kind of people. Then in high school, when I had to start thinking about careers, it seemed like a no-brainer.
How did you parents react?
They really had no hand in the industry at all, but they were very generous in fostering my love of it. They did ask "What's your Plan B?", and because I've always been a little cheeky, I said "I don't need one, it's going to work out", and luckily things have gone that way.
What was your first professional acting job?
I booked at job in Ragtime at the Paper Mill Playhouse when I was on spring break, and I ended up moving to New York and starting that the day I graduated. It's one of the top regional theatres in the country and I got my equity card right away, so I was incredibly fortunate.
What was it like working with some of those great names early on?
I was so spoiled - you don't realise it at the time. For my Broadway debut, in Curtains, the wonderful Scott Ellis was our director, Roger Berlind was one of the most gracious, classy producers I've had the chance to work with, and we had David Hyde Pierce, Debra Monk, Edward Hibbert - all these legendary names in one cast. And it's the great John Kander, and Rupert Holmes who wrote that song "If you like pina colada..." - I couldn't believe it.
It was a real old-school work ethic. Now you have shows like The X Factor, The Voice, so it's more about the immediacy of fame rather than working in the trenches, digging deep and persisting through the long haul. Everyone was so kind and humble, and grateful to be there. I like to think that the people I work with now would say the same of me - I show up and work very, very hard to get the best possible product, and I expect that of others.
What made you decide to come to London?
I'd lived in New York for 10 years. My husband is French and he works for a private equity firm, and there was a chance of a good job for him in London. I'd studied here during my junior year of college, so I knew about the great theatre scene. Funnily enough at the time I was doing If/Then, which is literally about the different paths you can take!
Americans can be quite self-centred - we tend to think America is the centre of the universe. I did know I was giving up a lot and starting over in career terms, but it was also a fresh start. A lot of American casting directors knew me as a guy who could really dance and cover the lead, rather than play it. It's paid off tenfold - London has really embraced me, and the shows I've done here have been monumental in letting me grow as a performer and as a person, and achieving some of my career goals.
How did In the Heights come about?
I'd actually booked another show that got cancelled, and then I got a chance to come for In the Heights. I'd auditioned for Benny in the States and didn't get it - I wasn't ready for it then - and so I thought "Great, I'll get to play Benny here in London for a few weeks". Then the audiences went crazy, we won Oliviers, and the run just kept extending. I couldn't have asked for a better introduction - I got my feet wet in the industry here, and got to experience being a leading man on a larger scale. I wouldn't be in the position I'm in now with Dreamgirls without that.
Did the change of venue help you put your stamp on it?
Luke Sheppard, who I adore - he's a wonderful, organic director - told me to go out and do what I felt. Because Southwark was a thrust stage and we moved to traverse at King's Cross, everyone had to come up with new ideas, so I didn't feel like a replacement - I got to draw the lines, rather than just painting within them.
Could you relate to Benny?
He's a dream role for me - you get to do it all. I'm probably aging out of it, but to be the young ingénue lover, there's a piece of you that gets fulfilled playing that. I got to rap, sing a lot, do really fun scenes with the boys and gritty scenes with Nina's father, be romantic, have this big story arc, everything.
How do British audiences compare with the States?
I feel like we've almost had American audiences with both shows, in that they're very vocal and passionate - I've seen other shows here where audiences are a bit more reserved. That's a tribute to the material, the performers, and for Dreamgirls Casey's direction, which really streamlines the show. You never check out because a scene is slow - everything moves like a freight train. That suits me, I don't want down time - I want to tell those riveting stories.
How well did you know Dreamgirls?
I hadn't seen it on stage, but I auditioned for the film way back when. I was up for C.C., but the feedback came that they wouldn't buy me as the brother of who they had in mind for Effie. When I saw the movie that made total sense. Then my agent in London said they wanted to see me for Jimmy Early for the stage production, and having seen the movie I thought "There's no way". I'm funny, but I don't have that crazy, kooky, specific energy - Adam J Bernard is unbelievable. So I said call them back and tell them I'm a Curtis.
Knowing who you are, what you can bring is so important. I'm six foot two, I'm built like a leading man, and I don't want to get in the position of playing a role night after night I know I'm wrong for. It's about knowing your self-worth and how you can best serve the piece.
How did you approach Curtis? Do you consider him the villain?
For our purposes I'm the villain of the show, but the real villain is the circumstances. In the 1960s and 1970s civil rights is a huge issue, and here's this guy who has all these ambitions - he's trying to make something of himself and of others. Unfortunately, due to those circumstances, sacrifices need to be made for the greater good - it's business and you can't always take everyone's feelings into account. Like when I say Deena should sing lead, it's not that I don't love Effie, and love her aesthetic and sound, but the people we're trying to reach in order to cross over want a certain product, so I have to make that call and hope she'll understand and she'll forgive me.
When it gets to Effie singing "And I Am Telling You", everyone forgets she did decide to come along with us as a back-up singer, then she decided to be late, be rude, walk off the set, so Curtis is backed into a corner. She has a child and never even tells him. Jimmy is funny and zany, but he's cheating on his wife the entire show, and he has a meltdown and stops doing what Curtis has asked. So I'm trying to keep the train on the tracks! They all understand that until it affects them personally. It affects him too, but Curtis can compartmentalise it better.
What's your favourite song to perform?
"When I First Saw You". Growing up I was always the balladeer, but it's not a typical love ballad - there's this rage and anger and passion, even though the words are lovey-dovey. It's riding that line of "I love you, but I'll hurt you if you don't do what I want". And as much as I do love her, I'll do whatever it takes to protect my business investment.
Did you look at people like Berry Gordy to create a backstory?
A little, but because it's a fictionalised version I wanted to see where Curtis came from in me. My teacher at college wasn't a fan of backstory - everything you need to know is in the script if you look hard enough between the lines.
The fun thing about playing Curtis is he's similar to me but he goes further. We all have those thoughts of "I wish I could just do this or say that or get back at someone" - I get to exorcise all of that nightly!
Have you had that experience of altering yourself to fit a mould?
I'm biracial - my mother's white, my dad's black - so the way I look, I've gotten "He's ethnic, we're looking for a white guy" or "He's not black enough, we need someone more urban". So I've struggled to fit in. I'm a gay man, I don't think I've ever played a gay character, and when it comes to casting leading men, nine times out of ten they're looking for a straight actor because they think it's easier - they forget that's our job! I've had people ask how I fall in love with a woman on stage. For me, it's truth: I know how to love and be loved, so I find that truth with my castmate.
What's it like being part of such a diverse cast?
When I was in New York I couldn't get in the all-black shows - next to other performers, I didn't appear "black". So I ended up being the token in things, and as I got older I got sad and bored of having the only other ethnic person be the theatre doorman. So it's really nice to be part of such diverse casts, and I hope that with shows like Hamilton theatre is changing a bit. Theatre's all about allowing people to evolve, so what better way to do that than telling stories in new ways.
What did you think of the recent debate over casting in shows like Half a Sixpence?
I haven't seen the show, I've heard it's great, but I was disappointed in Julian Fellowes' response - that felt a little lazy. It's easy to say "They were white, so they're white now", but to not even cast someone in the ensemble blows my mind in this day and age. To suggest that someone who's not alabaster can't play someone from any time ever is pretty silly - it shows a lack of thinking outside the box, or not even wanting to. What's the point of remounting the same thing over and over again? Why not do something new and interesting with it?
There are so many issues in Dreamgirls that are still prevalent, like cultural appropriation
Cultural appropriation is still happening left and right. With Bruno Mars, some people are saying his current incarnation is very Nineties R&B, Bobby Brown. I don't know what Bruno grew up on, if that's his truth, but it's good we're having these conversations. Like the response to Beyonce's Lemonade - for me the definition of art is honesty, and we're multifaceted human beings, so to suggest the girl from Destiny's Child isn't also allowed to sing "Formation" or speak her truth on certain matters is bizarre.
I think it has to go both ways. There's a lot of people who work and live and breathe fear, of the unknown, of difference, of change. We have to come together as humanity - different ideas spark art forms. I don't care if a white girl has braids, as long as we all share our experiences. That's the key, cultural sharing. Yes, there'll always be some people who abuse that, but it's like water - it should be able to go anywhere.
And audiences are clearly embracing those inclusive shows
You really need to give credit to the audience - don't make the decision for them that so-and-so might not get it. With Dreamgirls we have a lot of people who are new to theatre, and they're getting that first time of being transformed by it. Being able to share that electric experience with them is incredible - that's why we do this.
Do you have any dream future roles?
I worked as a dancer on Smash for a couple of years, and I'd really like to get into film and TV more. I've always wanted to make movies, and it's a different schedule too. When you're doing theatre it's eight shows a week for months on end, and by the time I get home my husband and kids are in bed. I would like more time with them for sure. On stage, I'd love do Ragtime - it was my first job and I understudied Coalhouse Walker Jr but I never got to play him, so that would be great.
And how about Hamilton?
I wasn't able to audition for the London production because of contractual dates with Dreamgirls, but I love it. When I saw it in New York I had to sit back down after the curtain call just to process what I'd seen. Talk about storytelling, well-crafted theatre, blowing up the box. Very few people are doing what's doing these days.
There are a few different roles in it that speak to different sides of who I am. Because I played Benny people say I should do Washington, which is a fantastic part, but a piece of me would also love to sink my teeth into Lafayette or Burr. They're all challenging roles, and that's the key: I really want to keep learning, keep growing and keep making great work.
Dreamgirls is currently booking at the Savoy Theatre until 21 October. Book tickets here
Photo credit: Johan Persson, Brinkhoff/Mögenburg