Debut of the Month: It's Showtime for BEETLEJUICE's Johnny Brantley!
Johnny Brantley III makes his Broadway debut in a multitude of roles in the new musical comedy BEETLEJUICE, the story of a devious demon from the Netherworld who is truly living death to the fullest! Today Brantley speaks with BroadwayWorld about making his Broadway debut in a show that bridges the gap between life and what comes next.
[NOTE: BroadwayWorld's fabulous photographer Walter McBride captures images of the Broadway stars profiled in our monthly column in a special photo shoot. Check out the pics of Brantley throughout the feature!]
How familiar were you with Tim Burton's "Beetlejuice" film prior to your casting?
Pretty familiar actually. First of all, I love Tim Burton. And it was one of the movies that when I saw it when I was little it became a staple of my childhood. I didn't have to watch it more than twice to understand that it was something very special. And after I got cast in the show I watched it again and realized that Beetlejuice is really only in the last twenty minutes of the movie, he''s not really in most of the movie, which is completely opposite from the show where Beetlejuice appears at the very top to the very end. So I find that we're kind of letting audiences get to know Beetlejuice the way they've always wanted to but didn't get to in such a short span of time.
This musical is one of your very first professional productions, which makes it even more impressive that you've already made it to Broadway.
Yes it is one of my first professional productions. I actually started as an opera major in school and switched to musical theater two years in, so I just started doing musical theater in 2012.
What made you switch?
Um, happiness! [laughing] I found that I was in need of more expression, I felt I needed something in my life to be more expressive, and at the time, opera was not giving me enough of that. I didn't even realize that I had a passion for dancing until I started doing musical theater and I was like, oh, I love to dance. And I love the different kinds of plays that I get to do through musical theater and theater. And with opera I had just been going down a different path which I think would have been amazing, but just not as expressive as what I needed.
Tim Burton's film has such a strong fan base, in fact it was so amusing to see audience members actually dressed up as characters from the story. Does that put an extra pressure on the cast and creative team to uphold their high expectations?
You know it does, and it kind of naturally informs the authenticity that we have to be our true weird selves. Because Lydia is in essence the quintessential oddball and I think that this cast is full of oddballs! When they cast it they were always talking about 'you guys are all unicorns because you can all do so many different things', and the show really requires us to pull out so many different parts of our abilities. And so I think just to be our authentic selves, that was kind of a nice challenge. And also they've been working on this show for seven or eight years, so putting in the little nuggets and giving Beetlejuice fans what they wanted was very important to them, but also creating a completely different entity was important as well. Because we need to be able to separate ourselves from the movie because we are very different. And because it is a musical, there has to be kind of an elevation of story and an elevation of the characters in order to give fans what they kind of didn't even know they wanted.
As fun as the show is, do you feel there is an important message that people are taking away from it?
Yes for sure. I think it's the idea of home being what you make it. You have this girl Lydia who is obsessed with death for the entire show because life has nothing else to offer her. But then at the end she comes to realize that everything she wanted she already had. I think her mom dying was the event that kind of sent her down a darker path, but through the show she comes to realize that everyone loves her and cares about her and that her mom would want her to keep on going. So she grows to see who she really is and how much people love her and I think that speaks to the heart of the show because it is a comedy but there is love, there is substance between Lydia and her father, and even Lydia and Delia, and Lydia and the Maitlands. And in turn, the Maitlands also discover who they really are. It's kind of ironic because it took them dying to really be able to live. So I think this musical gives a really interesting peek into the afterlife, and bridges that gap between the afterlife and life and shows that life continues to go on, even with death.
You play a multitude of characters throughout the show. How difficult is to make those quick costume changes?
You know it was crazy at first. At the beginning it was just like, oh my God I have to do a full make-up change, not just mascara and eyeliner, I'm talking about skin tone change, within X amount of minutes, and trying not to panic and just be like, 'ok you got this.' I mean literally doing an Elphaba situation! It was crazy at the beginning with all the different costume changes. In DC we actually had even more quick changes, so compared to that, the New York production is actually pretty chill, and we've all really settled into it. But you do have that opening number which in terms of the ensemble we are very different characters than we are in the very next scene and we have to completely Take That off. And [Director] Alex Timbers and [Choreographer] Connor Gallagher are amazing, amazing collaborators and creators, who did a great job in directing us into the different stylistic changes of the show and the different emotions that the show plays off of.
In that great number "That Beautiful Sound" you all portray alter egos of the Beetlejuice character. Were you encouraged to put your own spin on the character, or is that all very carefully choreographed?
Well yes, we are all kind of these off-branches of Beetlejuice so we all have our own version; you know someone's the 'dumb' Beetlejuice, someone's the 'crazy' Beetlejuice, which I think is me, I'm a little crazy! So yes we all have our different versions, but at the same time we also have to meet at one point so that we can all tell the same story and it all has to circulate around Beetlejuice and Lydia. So we can't be too much, but we can also add a little seasoned salt, a little paprika, or nutmeg into our characters.
There is a number in Act II in which the ensemble is wearing giant skeleton heads. How difficult is it to dance and move in that costume?
Oh yeah, you'd be surprised how hard it is to move in a skeleton head that's the size of your torso! But actually once you begin to feel the framework of the skeleton and you feel it on your body and you feel that stillness of the head, it really informs all your other movements. So everything you do just feels silly and it turns out it looks just as silly! But to flip with those heads on is a little scary because the vision is a little blocked so it took a lot of safety, very slow walk throughs. We really took it very slowly to make sure everyone was safe and that the number was eight-show-a-week doable. So even though it was a little inconvenient at first, when we realized how much the number was landing with audiences, it made it easier and well worth it.
What has it been like to work with this cast and creative team and what have you learned from them?
You know it's kind of hard not to get emotional about that because they are all very caring and loving and so supportive and I've never worked with a group of actors who have first of all been as experienced as this group collectively is. I'm working with some amazing, amazing people. And we just encourage each other to make choices and we offer consolation when needed to each other and we guide each other without having to say anything, we just kind of all feed off of each other. And I'm incredibly humbled and grateful to work with people who are just willing to go the extra mile. Watching Jill Abramovitz change into all of these different characters and watching her fearlessly make choices, same with Alex Brightman and same with Leslie Kritzer and Rob McClure and Kerry Butler; watching these people just perform this amazing show and create with each other. And I find myself literally every night just watching them and seeing how their going to take the audience's energy, and how that's going to inform their choices.
And in terms of the ensemble, everyone is so talented with everything, and everything that Alex asks they take, and are able to make it into a reality in a beautiful, authentic way. So this has been such a big learning experience for me, to work on and create a big musical like this from the ground up. And to do it with such amazing collaborators is truly a blessing and probably the best experience of my life thus far.
What was it like the night you made your Broadway debut in Beetlejuice?
It was overwhelming. I mean, where are the words honestly? First of all the audience, their enthusiasm, you could feel it in your bones, the love that people had for the show - it was penetrating us. After that opening number, it was just a wave of joy and gratitude and it was quite overwhelming. And then from all of my family members to be there. I'm from Dallas, Texas, and all of them showing me so much love and being so proud of me. Because when you're in the moment you kind of forget the magnitude of something like this, and all you see is what's in front of you and you don't get to see the grand picture. And for my mentor Kaitlin Hopkins, who helped me from the very beginning when I didn't know what a pirouette was, or I when I didn't even know who Bob Fosse was, for her to see this once twenty-year-old guy be performing on a Broadway stage five or six years later, that was just so cool. And then all of my teachers, my dance teachers, my acting teachers, my voice teacher just showering me with love and I was like, 'wow this is amazing and I am so grateful.' And then for my mom, she's always believed in me and that's the most powerful gift other than love and protection, that she has given me. She's always believed in me and is always empowering me to do more. So all of those things were packed up into one day, so it was quite an experience, a wonderful experience!
*Johnny got his BFA in Musical Theatre from Texas State University Department of Theatre and Dance.