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Student Blog: Yeah, But Not Right Now

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A Reflection on AJ Holmes' New Solo Show

A Note: To be honest with you, dear reader, I wasn't sure how to write this article. There were so many components I wanted to include - A review of the show, a summary of the songs, my reaction overall, and of course, the interview I had done with AJ Holmes. One idea was to just write about my experience at the show. Another was to pull a Harry Potter and make this a two-parter, saving the interview for another day. But I decided that I was going to follow in the footsteps of AJ himself and air out my feelings in a public forum, warts and all. So yes, this article will be a bit longer than my usual ones, but I hope you enjoy it. I definitely enjoyed writing it.

Back in September, I saw an announcement on social media that AJ Holmes (apologies, Broadway's AJ Holmes) would be performing a solo show at the SoHo Playhouse. According to the blurb I read, Yeah, But Not Right Now was AJ's attempt to "move past his crippling need for constant validation . . . in front of an audience," answering the question of whether he has ever truly been himself. As an admirer of AJ's work who had some time to kill after class one night, I decided to pay the show a visit. After all, the show's blurb claimed that I was going to be hearing about "the worst, most embarrassing, humiliating, potentially irredeemable parts" of someone I had been a fan of for many years - Who wouldn't want to see something like that? But as I took the subway down to the theater, I couldn't help but wonder what AJ was going to talk about. What had he done? Would I still admire him after the show had ended? Who exactly was AJ Holmes?

For those unfamiliar with AJ, he co-composed music for the hit Starkid show A Very Potter Musical as well as other Starkid productions like Me and My Dick, A Very Potter Senior Year, and Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier. You also might remember him from the Gilderoy Lockhart Mouse Prince monologue, a moment of theatre history that will haunt me and many others for the rest of our lives. But other than that one moment, most theatre fans know him for his incredible music, particularly songs like "A Thousand and One Nights" and "If I Believed" from Twisted. Starkid fans lovingly refer to him as "Musical Daddy AJ," a term referring to his musical talent and leadership. He has also played Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon on Broadway, the West End, and in places around the US and Australia.

To me, AJ Holmes had always been a bit of a mystery - He was talented and funny, but it was difficult to find solo content from someone who tended to be performing as a member of a group (one compilation of his solo performances refers to him as "criminally underrated"). Seeing Yeah, But Not Right Now would be my opportunity to see AJ's performance while also getting a better understanding of who he was as a person, even if it was just his stage persona. So you could say that I went into the show looking to solve a mystery that promised to be solved in an hour.

The SoHo Playhouse is a small theater with seats going directly up to the stage - In the front row, I felt as if I was almost onstage myself! Fortunately, this intimate venue is perfect for Yeah, But Not Right Now. It allows the entire audience to see AJ's emotions as he tells his story through song. There are also some opportunities for interaction that wouldn't have been possible in a larger theater. There's also a lovely little bar downstairs where you can grab a drink before or after the show, relaxing and chatting with fellow audience members.

I won't go into too many spoilers, as I want everyone to have the chance to see this performance without knowing everything, but I will share some of the moments that have stuck with me. My immediate thought after the show finished - Is it possible to be fond of someone you don't know? Because that's how I felt. I had gone on an emotional journey with someone who had begun his show with a cocky attitude and ended with raw lyrics that shocked the audience into silence. Within an hour I went from laughing at jokes about his mother and Facebook to simply watch someone share one of the lowest moments of their life on stage.

Some particular standout songs include "Yeah, But Not Right Now," "I Could Be That Guy," and "Perfect Fantasy," songs with very different tones that show off both AJ's musical skill and his emotional range. My particular favorite was "Fuckboi," a song about self-awareness with an incredible key change that had me headbanging even as a man was confessing to being a fuckboi. He also uses the Rodgers & Hammerstein song "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" as a way to express not only the face he puts on for the world but the way he feels inside. The callbacks throughout the show are clever and never feel forced.

From the moment he starts speaking, AJ has control of his audience. He knows what they want to hear and gives them that, along with some unexpected parts. When talking about the show with my friends who hadn't seen it, I found myself saying "It's like Bo Burnham with the singing and instruments, but different. I'm not sure how to describe it, but different." Indeed, AJ's show has a fascinating feeling to it that I couldn't quite place, even now, weeks after seeing the performance for the first time.

AJ Holmes, Broadway or not, is a star. His musical talents are absolutely insane and will leave you in awe, especially when loops are involved. But it isn't just his talent that makes him stand out. No, there's something more, and that is the joy on his face when performing. I found myself smiling along with him as he got into the music, nodding along to the beat and showing a pure love and devotion to his work. It's rare to see someone so passionately joyful and talented at the same time and I cannot wait to see more of his work in the future.

So ultimately, the mystery was solved. AJ Holmes is "authentically performative," a man who feels at home on stage and expresses himself through song. He has done some things that may not ever be forgiven, but he acknowledges his mistakes and tries to remain true to himself, never trying to get the audience to view him as the perfect person. Yeah, But Not Right Now isn't a show about a perfect ending - It's all about progress. You may not be exactly the guy you want to be, but you are still yourself, and that's all you need to be. As AJ says, "We're getting closer."

After seeing the show, I had the opportunity to interview AJ Holmes and discuss what it's been like to perform such a revealing solo show.

Kat: So how did you decide you wanted to do a solo show?

AJ: Well, after I was done with Book of Mormon, a big-budget commercial musical, I wanted to do the total opposite of that. I grew up with musical theater - That's my audience, that's the core of my being. But I've also loved comedy my whole life and always wanted to have time to go into that side of things, but my career just went a different way. And so I wanted to test the waters to see if I could hack it - I figured I shouldn't let any more time go by before I started trying to put on my own specials. It was mainly driven by the desire to make something on my own after doing other people's words, choreography, instructions, and block scheduling. I can change it every night.

Kat: You mentioned Broadway - What have been some differences between places you've performed including Broadway, Australia, and the West End?

AJ: Certain things like audiences are a little new - They laugh at different jokes in different countries. Theaters range from dusty old places to ones that feel very old-timey and beautiful and ornate. There have been casinos in Vegas that are way glossier. The Sydney Lyric Theatre is connected to a casino in Sydney, it's one of their biggest theaters over there. You don't ever have to walk through the casino to get to the theater but on food breaks we did! But when it's a commercial show like Book of Mormon, they try to keep as much the same as possible. Same backstage, same font on the signs, same arrows pointing artists to dressing rooms. Every time you just find your way around - They make it actor foolproof. Not easy to do. Management shows up in advance and just lays it all out for you. So you can follow your path and stay on track. And when you're doing eight shows a week, that's all you really have the mental space to do - Eliminate everything else and just do things. People always ask on tour things like "Did you enjoy seeing San Jose?" No, No, I didn't. What do you think I'm doing? It's just like all about that one thing and then you're exhausted so you have some drinks and hang out after the show. Then you're in bed until one and then you got to find a way to give yourself sustenance and get ready to do it again.

Kat: How did being in Starkid help you evolve as a musician and performer?

AJ: In so many ways, it was just getting to work with all those talented people. And they were my peers! It showed us that we could make things together - We didn't need anyone's permission to do it. And we actually had the skill set necessary to make cool stuff right where we were as students. I think there's so much gatekeeping from people in the industry that are telling you that you have to do things a certain way. And it [Starkid] showed me right off the bat that you might know a better way because you're paying more attention. It taught me the importance of collaboration - When you have a shared vision, and you're really passionate about something, things get way easier. You're either making or you're wasting time.

Kat: Have you found it easier to co-compose or compose by yourself?

AJ: Depends on the song! There were songs in this show that I wrote with Caitlin Cook, my director, we're in a musical comedy duo, Two-Thirds of a Threesome. We have monthly shows at Littlefield called "Fake Birthday". We write a lot of songs together and I've loved that collaboration. She helps me take a lot of pressure off of myself in the writing process - I feel a lot more permission to just be silly and free. And she'll go with things that I would never approve in my own head. It can be super helpful. There were songs in this show that we were working on, like, "I Can Be That Guy," which is a new song for this iteration of the show. It's a very personal song. We were starting to write it as we usually write songs together, but then I realized I was having resistance to her stepping in and trying to write it in the moment with me. I chose to be like, "Hey, I would like to support on this, but I would like if you could support my personal writing." It just felt that way on that song. And she was great at that - We talked and clarified how we were going to do it. I think so much for me is learning to listen to that little voice inside, because I don't want to hurt her feelings. What does the song want? It's really allowing that resistance to exist. I've found myself giving myself a hard time for my process in the past. I'm shooting myself in the foot because I wasn't writing in the way I wanted to write.

Kat: How did you come up with a concept for Yeah, But Not Right Now?

AJ: The concept of a show that started with a title. "Yeah, but not right now" was something that Stephen Sondheim said. I got to go to the 75th birthday celebration of his at the Hollywood Bowl when I was in high school. I was a huge Sondheim nerd, still am. So I got to go sit in the front circle of the Hollywood Bowl during the day when they were doing all the rehearsals. So I'm sitting there with Len Cariou, Jason Alexander, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, and Stephen Sondheim. And, of course, I'm too chickenshit to talk to him [Sondheim]. I wait all afternoon and right before we're about to leave, I go up to him and ask if I could a picture with him. He was about to walk up on the stage and give some notes so he looked at me and said, "Yeah, but not right now". And then he walked on stage and I had to leave. So I never got that picture.

I finished doing Mormon and I was talking to my friend Zach Zucker, who does Edinburgh Fringe every year and has a production company called Stamptown Comedy. I didn't know what to do after Mormon. I'm really thinking of doing something on my own - I want to feel like I can stand on my own two legs and not collaborate for a minute. I'd collaborated with so many people and had this chip on my shoulder. I needed to know that I can do it on my own. Of course, what I figured out is that I need to collaborate or I'm dead in the water. But at the time, that's what I thought. And so he was like, "Well, why don't you do a show in Edinburgh? Please let me produce you". I was like, "Okay". And it was as simple as that - An Instagram DM conversation. Then he was like, " I'm pitching your show, what's it called?" So I thought about it. And I thought that it [Yeah, But Not Right Now] was a funny title. And then suddenly, I'm doing interviews for my PR company about the show, which of course, doesn't exist. It's not outlined - I have no idea what it is. And then I had to get involved with another project, Starkid Homecoming, a big anniversary concert right before Edinburgh. It was the literal day before I flew to Edinburgh.

I was trying to write my show for months beforehand, but I got serious writer's block and it was making me very sad. So I decided I would stop doing it. When I started "Homecoming" I devoted my full self to that because it was huge - I was very proud of that. And then the next day I got to Scotland and started meeting all these other people who are doing shows there. I realized they were all very proud of their show, which they've all done many times, or have been working on them for many months or years. And I felt like a bit of a douchebag for showing up without a show. So I had four hours to do a tech rehearsal. And I didn't have a show! I just flew out all these weird instruments thinking, "Well, at least if I have all these instruments, I can do like five minutes here, five minutes there. I can fill the time somehow!" I was planning on improvising a show. And then luckily I met Michaella Drummond from the Stamptown production team and we were talking about my show. She had a really clear view of it very quickly and I connected with her really deeply. And I asked her to be my director and she said yes, so we stayed up for like, the next three nights. With Michaella's help, I wrote three songs in a night. I found some other songs I had written for other projects that I managed to incorporate, and we put a bunch of Post-It notes up on the wall and found a through-line. And then over the course of the first week of shows, anytime I got a laugh, we'd put that joke in - It's never leaving. By the end of the month, it was okay. It wasn't good - It was okay. And then we took it to Adelaide Fringe and it got a little better. And Caitlin's directing now because Michaella is off in Scotland. Caitlin, Craig Bundy (our sound designer), and I all got COVID together. So we were all quarantined inside my apartment for two weeks, and then we really cracked the show open and wrote a couple of new songs. We made it the thing that it always wanted to be. You gotta find the positive, multiple positives. Not fun, by the way - I was very sick. But the work had to continue. We had a deadline, you know?

Kat: Several people, including yourself, have noted similarities between you and Bo Burnham. What makes you different?

AJ: I think anyone who does musical comedy gets the Bo Burnham comparison. And it's funny because people before him probably would get the Tim Minchin comparison, and before him, people would get the Victor Borge comparison. It's this bastard genre that people don't know exists. But I'm glad it's Bo these days, because he's so talented. I've had the songs from Inside stuck in my head for months. And the dude has been working hard since he was like, 13 making this stuff happen. I stand on his shoulders, even though he's a few months younger than me. I think our tones are pretty different. I get depressed, but he leans into that and takes us to another level. I don't do as many suicide jokes - Not that I'm immune from the occasional suicide joke. And I wish I wrote a lot of things he wrote! But he has a blunt honesty and a "grounded darkness" that he's inhabited for a long while. And I've been on the other end of the emotional. But it's similar at its core. I don't know. But my whole deal is that I cater to your perception of what you want me to be. And Bo seems like he's always had a strong sense of "This is me and fuck you if you don't get it," which I admire. I want to get that too. And when he talks about the audience, with the "Part of me loves you, part of me hates you," I relate to that whole thing. But I don't know. We're both white dudes with the piano singing silly lyrics and irreverent shit. So I can't say we're too far apart. But tonally, we feel different. I'm not sure - I leave it to other people to dissect.

Kat: So what made you want to reveal so much about your life?

AJ: Good question. It's a difficult thing to do.

Kat: I can imagine.

AJ: Yeah. And some might say unnecessary. Certainly, my parents! I see in their eyes that they may carry that opinion, but loving, supportive parents that they are, they wouldn't tell me. But their support is unwavering. I've always been an oversharer. I think people are really afraid to say what's going on with them. It makes things taboo, and shame really has dominated years of my life. So if I can overshare, I guess I just don't put too high a premium on making people uncomfortable with that. If you're uncomfortable with my show, you can leave! And then if you're not, hopefully, you're someone who's like, "Oh, I didn't know we were allowed to say shit like this". It's trying to shed some light on that kind of thing. A lot of art is trying to do that. We all carry darkness - The point is not to run away from it. It's to accept it, right? I'm trying to own it, not condone it. I think I have this very squeaky-clean perception in the limited amount of fame that I have in the public eye.

Kat: Not gonna lie, I was a little bit shocked.

AJ: Yeah. It's like John Mulaney in a way because everyone is so shocked by the fact that he went to rehab even though it was public knowledge for a long time that he was a drug user and an addict. I think interesting people get lost in all sorts of shit. And just have what my own corner of shame looked like and I'm trying to shine a light on it, like "Here's all of it! Here's the cringe!" It existed and I'm finding a way to be okay with it. You don't have to be ashamed. It's to help other people figure out that they can do that for themselves.

Kat: When you're sharing your story, is it more a desire to connect or a desire to be heard?

AJ: Oh God, definitely both. As I say in the show, "I'm the one with the microphone". So in that moment it's to be heard, then after the show, I like to connect. But it's definitely both - I think you can't have one without the other, honestly. So often we don't feel heard in most conversations. How do we find a way to both feel heard? Sometimes I find myself just repeating the things my friends have said, because I can tell they don't think I've heard it. Like, "Alright, I'm gonna make sure you know that I have heard you. But I also have ADD, so you're probably not convinced".

Kat: Do you have a favorite song from Yeah, But Not Right Now?

AJ: Probably "I Can Be That Guy," the new one. I feel like it was ready to come out when it did, and it feels like my calling card now. You can get a solid idea of who I am just from that song. It can be totally "Show Boaty", self-aware, and self-effacing all in the same four-minute tune.

Kat: Was it difficult to come up with the looping tracks?

AJ: Yeah, that took a lot of practice. Just repeating it over and over and over. Because if you mess it up a little bit, there's no click track or anything to help at all. It's just in the moment.

Kat: I was curious as to why you focus on "Broadway's AJ Holmes," something you say a lot in the show. What inspired you to do that?

AJ: Well, we just kept laughing about it and it just showed up over and over. Even though I was in Mormon for five and a half years, most of it was on tour. Yes, I was on Broadway, but I was a standby for Ben Platt and that was only six months. I only got to do that role a handful of times within those six months. I don't really have any right to say that I'm "Broadway's". But that's why we find it funny! I'm such this Broadway nerd, and I can tell you about Sondheim for hours. That's my heart and yet not really my career. But I'm not really trying to climb that hill as much as the comedy hill and writing my own stuff. So we just went screw it. You know what? I've been on Broadway! What's stopping me? And what's great is legitimate publications have referred to me as "Broadway's AJ Holmes".

Kat: You're stuck with it now.

AJ: It's fantastic. I have no claim to it at all and but you know, PR is a beautiful thing. In the show, we make the joke that I legally changed my first name to Broadway. And some publications and radio shows have literally said, "I heard he changed his name to Broadway! Don't know what that's about."

Kat: Some lightning round questions! Favorite musical?

AJ: Sweeney Todd!

Kat: Favorite character and song from Sweeney Todd?

AJ: Sweeney and "Epiphany". I got to do that show in my senior year of high school. It was one of those moments where I remember watching on VHS and singing along and then looking at myself like, "Whoa, you've got some power dude! You could maybe do this one day." So the dream is alive.

Kat: So is Sweeney your dream role?

AJ: Yeah. I'd love to do it [the role] as an adult. And also, George in Sunday in the Park with George is my other dream role for sure.

Kat: Is there any show that you're looking forward to seeing?

AJ: I want to go see American Utopia again because that thing was so good. It's one of the greatest nights I've ever had. It was just incredible musicianship and songwriting. I mean, David Burton is incredible. I also want to see Come From Away - I've never seen that. As soon as I have some time after all I'm gonna go stop by there.

Kat: One word to describe your show?

AJ: Therapy. Or performative therapy if I can use two words.

Kat: And final question. Do you have any advice for actors and performers?

AJ: Yes. Create - Make your own things and don't wait. Don't let people tell you to wait. And don't be discouraged if and when it's shitty. I should probably take my own advice even at this level, there are things that I'm struggling - Struggling to find its audience, struggling in the time of COVID, it's all struggling. But it's the best that I can accomplish right now. And I get to be proud of that. And I am proud of that. Whether you're making blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, or whatever it is, do it with joy. Get it seen, get it read, put it up on its feet. Even with a $2 budget, it's better to do something than nothing and things lead to other things. You prove to the world that you're serious by doing it. I've wasted so much time just waiting. If you have 10 minutes to jot down an idea, start jotting it down in real-time throughout the day. It's like panning for gold and catching whatever you catch. Or like butterflies - Be ready with your net to catch them. Find a way to love yourself and catch a butterfly.

Yeah, But Not Right Now has its final performances this weekend at the SoHo Playhouse. You can purchase tickets here. A special thank you to AJ Holmes for the wonderful interview!


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From This Author Student Blogger: Kat Mokrynski