The Last Goodbye — a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet featuring the songs of Jeff Buckley — opened at the Old Globe in San Diego this past weekend. Even if you’re all the way over here on the right coast, you need to care about this because it’s starring Craptacu-fave Jay Armstrong Johnson as the forlorn/possibly douchey/totally doomed lover, Romeo.
Clearly we couldn’t just let this all go down without getting the scoop from the man himself and luckily for us, Jay was able to make some time in his busy rehearsal and performance schedule to have a quick chat. Topics covered include all the important things. You know, like Romeo. And Alex Timbers. And of course, a quick game of M.A.S.H., which you probably remember from indoor recess in elementary school.
M: You’ve done two shows in San Diego recently–what do you love about it out here?
J: I always thought that I would hate California– this idea of the WestCoast LA Plastic Thing — but I’ve actually grown to love it. It’s the weather. The weather is absolutely stunning and now I want to be bi-coastal in my career, because I’ve tasted it almost six months out of the last two years of my life.
M: What do you miss about New York?
J: [Sighs] I miss the fast pace. I miss people being aware of pedestrians. [laughs] And actually, I do miss a little bit of the weather. I really do love seasons, so everyone is freezing their ass off in New York right now and sometimes I wish that I was, because I like to feel different things and different weather. It’s an actor thing.
M: I feel you, though. Fall is my favorite.
J: Fall’s my favorite! Absolute favorite. And I’m not really feeling it right now. I kind of feel it at night, like when the show comes down, but…
M: It feels like summertime during the day here.
J: Totally. It does.
M: What drew you to The Last Goodbye? What made you want to be a part of this?
J: I saw it at Williamstown Theater Festival, and Romeo and Juliet has always been a weird thing for me. It’s the very first play I ever did, as a fifth grader in Mr. Ingram’s English class. I actually wrote Mr. Ingram a note saying that I would like to play Romeo, very much like I wrote Mr. Timbers an email saying that I would like to audition for this piece when I found out he was helming the production, and both worked out very well for me! [laugh] But Romeo has been a role I’ve been wanting to reprise in my professional career. And Jeff Buckley is everything. He’s everything.
M: How do you see your Romeo?
J: I feel like Romeo has this thing about him that people either love him, or they hate him, do you know what I mean? Because he can come off as this overly emotional fucktard. He’s so upset at Rosaline and all of a sudden he’s in love with Juliet, so he’s so mercurial in a sense. I’m still finding my Romeo. It gets more clear every day. I thought he was a lot younger, but we’ve been growing him up a little bit so he can contrast Juliet being so young and naive.
M: How has he changed in the last five or six weeks that you guys have been working on the show?
J: It’s changed a lot tonally. I was playing it a lot younger at the beginning of this process, and a lot more jokey, which is very much my nature, like, I’m the class clown. And [Director Alex] Timbers has helped me strip that away, because this is a rock musical and I am playing the sexual lead. So in order to get the women of the audience to fall in love with me, we’ve grown me up a little bit, we’ve given me a little more edge. We’ve given me more of an arc between young, emotional, poetic lover and the man ready to kill himself for his woman.
M: How did you prepare for the role?
J: A lot of the prep was in music land, because Jeff’s music is so hard, I was scared shitless about it. He truly was a ridiculous vocalist, so the entire summer I was essentially giving myself Jeff Buckley voice lessons to be able to hit a high D every single night. Now I’m able to get back to the text. I’m not a Shakespearean trained actor, I was a dancer in high school and a voice major in college. So a lot of the work has been on text throughout this process, finding true Shakespeare on top of hard rock musical theater guy.
M: What is your favorite scene in the show?
J: Probably the song “Grace,” mainly because it’s the scariest one. Physically, vocally, emotionally — all of it. All of it is so hard and I get off on things that are challenging and it will continue to be a challenge to me throughout the rest of this run and if it goes to Broadway [knocks wood] it will continue to be a challenge throughout Broadway. So it’s my favorite because I get to it and I piss myself every night. But it’s also releases so much… I can’t even think of the word…
M: It gets you high?
J: Yeah. It really does. It does. Sometimes I chug a cup of coffee before I go on, just to give myself an extra crazy thing. [laughs]
M: What scene has been the most difficult?
J: My very, very first scene has actually been the hardest one to figure out, because it’s the first time that the audience is seeing Romeo and he comes out and just starts whining. So in order for you to fall in love with your leading character, you have to turn that into something that is less of a whine and more of a need for something. We’re trying to get the point across that I’m a love-sick puppy, but not in a way that makes people annoyed with Romeo.
M: Have you had any spectacular on-stage mishaps in the show?
J: I don’t really think so. Nothing that sticks out in my mind as really, really bad. I think I’ve like, cut off one of Juliet’s lines and then had so much music to fill before a vocal entrance that I just had to sloooowwww dowwwwn my liiiiiine to filllllll the underrrrrscoooooring [Ed: this took Jay a full 10 seconds to say]… I think that might be the craziest thing that’s happened so far. Other than that it’s been pretty smooth sailing even though it’s such a nutty, physical production.
M: What’s your biggest on stage mishap of all time?
J: Probably when I was 13 years old and I was playing Peter Pan. When the three Darling children and I were exiting the nursery, the [set] moved and we didn’t. It was supposed to be going stage right but it got stuck center stage while we’re halfway out the window. My line is the only line that goes left and right — the three Darling children just dangle — so the fly guys were pulling me stage left. But I’m holding the weight of three human beings on my right arm and we all started to slip. I flipped around and grabbed Wendy with my other hand but Wendy lost John and he and Michael swung stage right leaving these two pairs of people just dangling, midair. It was truly one of the funniest and stupidest mishaps of my life, and it happened at the very beginning of my life as an actor.
M: Okay, so… Tell me what you love about Alex Timbers.
J: He’s the number one most collaborative director that I’ve ever worked with in my life. I think he knows who to hire and he fully puts trust in everyone’s work. He knows how to bring people together in a beautiful, beautiful way. He creates gorgeous stage pictures and allows everyone to do their work and it’s a beautiful thing. There’s no ego, and with someone who’s been so lauded for his work throughout the last few years, it’s unreal how much ego is not there.
M: Okay, now we’re going to play M.A.S.H.
J: I’m so excited!
M: Actually, we’re going to play Super Theater M.A.S.H. Do you want your results right away? Or do you want to find them out after?
J: Let’s find out the results after.
M: Okay, so we’re going to go through this — you’ll give me all the items for each category and we’ll pick a number, but you won’t see this until it goes live. [Jay applauds] Okay, you’re in. This is happening. First up, potential partner…
Photo: Matthew Murphy