Brian d’Arcy James: 'The confetti is still falling'

Brian Darcy JamesBrian d’Arcy James will perform with Kelli O’Hara at the annual Saturday Night Alive concert on March 5 to raise money for the DCPA’s arts education programs. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Broadway favorite Brian d’Arcy James, now a conqueror of TV and film as well, has had a whirlwind week like no other in his professional career. On Sunday, James was among the ensemble accepting the Academy Award for the Best PIcture of 2015, Spotlight. The next day, he was offered the leading role on a new CBS-TV pilot based on Tracy Letts‘ 2008 stage comedy, Superior Donuts. The next day, James was back on Broadway starring as Nick Bottom in the ongoing hit musical comedy Something Rotten!

Three medium in 48 hours. “I feel like I’ve got all my bases covered,” James said with a laugh.
And his week will not end with a nap.

Kelli O'Hara On Saturday, James will be here in Denver headlining the annual Saturday Night Alive concert alongside Broadway royalty Kelli O’Hara (right). The old friends will be performing together in concert for the first time, helping to raise nearly $1 million for the Denver Center’s arts education programs.

How does he sum it all up? How can he possibly? “The confetti is still falling,” James told the DCPA NewsCenter on Thursday. The moment Morgan Freeman announced that Spotlight had won the Oscar, he said, felt like “being shot out of a cannon.”

James grew up in Saginaw, Mich., the son of a mother who sold children’s books, and graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago. He has received Tony Award nominations for his performances in Something Rotten!, Shrek and Sweet Smell of Success, and originated the role of the harried husband in Broadway’s breakthrough musical Next to Normal. He also was in the original workshop cast of Broadway’s biggest hit, Hamilton. TV credits include Smash (created by The Nest playwright Theresa Rebeck), The Big C and The Good Wife.

Spotlight is the story of how four dogged investigative reporters from The Boston Globe exposed the Boston archdiocese priest sex-abuse scandal in 2001. James played journalist Matt Carroll alongside Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams.

Superior Donuts follows the relationship between the owner of a donut shop, his new young black employee and their patrons in a gentrifying neighborhood of Chicago. The comedy is based on the 2008 play by Tracy Letts.

Something Rotten is an original musical set in 1590s. Brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom are desperate to write a hit play but, stuck in the shadow of Shakespeare, they instead set out to write the world’s very first musical.

We asked James what to expect from his concert appearance with O’Hara, his castmate in Broadway’s Sweet Smell of Success. She is a six-time Tony Award nominee and the winner in 2015 for The King & I. (Watch her acceptance speech here.) One morsel: The pair will sing a never-before-heard song by Marvin Hamlisch that was cut from the Sweet Smell of Success score.  

Here are more excerpts from our conversation with Brian d’Arcy James:

John Moore: How do you even describe your life right now?

Brian d’Arcy James: Well, there was a 48-hour window where I was on the stage at the Dolby Theatre winning an Oscar for best movie, and then the next day I was auditioning for a new television show. By the end of that 48 hours, I found out that I got it. And the next day, I was back in New York performing in my Broadway show.

John Moore: Let’s start with Spotlight. What was it like for you to go on stage with everyone to accept the Oscar?

Brian d’Arcy James: It was stunning. I was sitting next to (sexual abuse victim) Phil Saviano, who is portrayed in the film by Neal Huff. We just bolted up there. It was bizarre walking up that aisle, knowing that you’re walking past all these luminaries and icons and you’re receiving acknowledgement for being in this film that has gone the distance. It’s an amazing feeling.

John Moore: What do you think the film says about the need for the continuation of real, funded, enterprise journalism at a time when the industry seems to be dying from a lack of reader curiosity?

Brian d’Arcy James: Well the answer is in your question. And all of those things you say are true. It rings an alarm bell. Hopefully, it will let people know in a loud and clear way that without funded and supported long-lead investigative journalism, stories like these won’t be told. I’ve heard Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, who wrote the movie, speak much more eloquently on the subject about how curtailing reporters on a local level invariably leads to fewer people covering local government. But in those cracks – that’s where the grass grows. If no one’s minding the store, that’s when institutional power tends to get away with abuse. So it takes an informed citizenry and a supportive citizenry to allow for this kind of work to happen. That comes from digital subscriptions and buying papers and reading a paper. Long answer short: Buy a newspaper. 

Mike Hartman in 'Superior Donuts.' Photo by Terry Shapiro. John Moore: There was a production of Superior Donuts here at the Denver Center in 2011, so we know the story well. (Pictured at right: Mike Hartman in the DCPA Theatre Company production.) Playwright Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) is as good as it gets. And yet, I can’t think of another play being turned into a TV sit-com since maybe The Odd Couple. What’s the plan?

Brian d’Arcy James: That’s an interesting point; I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that, either. The plan is to basically use Tracy Letts’ play as a starting-off point to delve deeper, and let these characters explore their community, and all the issues that Tracy wants to address, on a weekly basis. I’m very grateful that it happens to be Tracy Letts. I’m a very big fan of his. He’s an extraordinary writer and a great actor. I think my background in the theatre makes me feel like I’m crossing the chasm between television and theatre in a very natural way. How it plays itself out remains to be seen, but the idea is a smart one, and an interesting one, and it is rife for exploring all kinds of themes concerning what’s going on in America today. 

John Moore: So with all of these changes, how long will you be able to stay with Something Rotten! on Broadway?

Brian d’Arcy James: I am working that out right now. My hope is to stay for an extended period of time. The confetti is still falling right now, so I’m trying to figure that all out. But needless to say, if it’s one day more than I thought, that would be a luxurious thing. I want to stay with the show as long as I can because it’s funny, it’s joyful and it’s so well done. It’s got great music. It’s just everything you want in a Broadway show. The audience leaves happy, and the company leaves happy. That’s a pretty good way to end the day.

Brian d'Arcy James in 'Something Rotten.' Photo by Joan Marcus. John Moore: You have done a lot of musicals based on existing source material, and you’ve done many that have been completely original. Is there an additional joy in bringing a show like Something Rotten! to life that isn’t piggybacking on a previous audience base?

Brian d’Arcy James: Yes, I do feel a certain pride in that. (Doing a show based on existing material) is a formula that works, and for good reason. And just because something works doesn’t necessarily mean it should be dismissed, obviously. But to take on something like Something Rotten, which is a completely original idea, is courageous. It speaks to the potency of the idea, and the execution of it, and the way it was written and drawn up and produced and directed. So I feel very happy and proud to be a part of that. We have to encourage each other to embrace the things we don’t know. By doing that, we make room for new things that become the new norm. Again, I’m not dismissing the things that are familiar because there’s room for that. But I think we should be mindful that we can’t put all our eggs in that basket. We have to be diligent in breaking new ground when we can.

(Photo above right: Brian d’Arcy James in ‘Something Rotten.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.) 

John Moore: Last year I heard you speak about seeing your first Broadway show. What did Dreamgirls mean to you at the time?

Brian d’Arcy James: I would have been 14 years old, I think. It was a remarkable experience because I was already very interested in theatre. But there was something about seeing this mythical world – Broadway – and what that meant, in the place where it lives. I was  struck that the theatre was a lot smaller than I would have imagined. But it had an impact in terms of the energy, and the impression that something in a Broadway theatre can make on a young person. It was pretty astounding. At least it was for me.

John Moore: Let’s talk about arts education, which is the primary reason you are coming to Denver on Saturday night. How do you think growing up with a mother who was a bookseller set you on the path to becoming a storyteller yourself?

Brian d'Arcy James quoteBrian d’Arcy James: My mother has a Library Science degree, and so books and reading were always a part of her natural reflexes. She was an educator as well, so it was always a natural thing to be surrounded by books. My grandmother was an avid reader, too. She had books all over the place when we would visit. Reading was just something we saw as a necessary part of life. So I guess my mother’s love for reading, and her interest in the significance that she saw in reading, were passed on to me in that I see that to be fruitful ground in terms of storytelling. Not so much as an author but rather as an interpreter of words. 

John Moore: What are the consequences of the continuing diminishment of arts education in schools today?

Brian d’Arcy James: Well, my sister is an art educator. She is a theatre administrator for New Trier High School in Wilmette, Ill. Her whole job is teaching kids about the theatre. Thankfully – and luckily – they have a healthy budget to do that. That’s not the norm. These days schools move money around to take care of issues that may appear to be more pressing, and oftentimes it is arts and music that get cut. It’s my belief that those are just as important, if not more, in any budget, in order to pass along the chance to awaken a young person’s mind to see what a creative life can be. Not only as a possibility of a profession but, more important, as a chance for someone to find their own voice. And a chance for a person to have an opportunity to express themselves when perhaps they were afraid to, or weren’t allowed to. Those are just a few ways arts education can give young people a new sense of themselves, and help them find new dimensions of their own personalities. That’s invaluable. And that pays itself forward in terms of how we as a society grow and become more healthy. 

John Moore: People are obviously very excited that you will be performing here with Kelli O’Hara at Saturday Night Alive, which will raise as much as $1 million for arts education programs here at the Denver Center.  How far back do you go with her?

Brian d’Arcy James: We met doing Sweet Smell of Success on Broadway. We had an extraordinary experience doing that because it was a really big deal for both of us at that time in our lives.

John Moore: Congratulations on your Tony Award nomination for that.

Brian d’Arcy James: Thank you. That was thrilling. We haven’t had many chances to work together since, but we’re good friends. And we thought it would be fitting to honor that time when we worked together by singing something from that show. It’s a beautiful song by Marvin Hamlisch that was cut from the score of Sweet Smell of Success. That’s a part of our personal history that we thought would be fun to share with the Denver audience, because that’s something that’s very rare that we get to do.

John Moore: Is this show something you’re doing for multiple cities or is Denver getting a one-and-only performance?

Brian d’Arcy James: Well, let’s see how it goes. I think the latter is mostly true. These types of shows are often very unique. In this case, Denver had what I think is a great idea, which was to invite both of us to come and do this. It would be lovely to think this is the beginning of many more times doing this show. But I would say it’s a work in progress. And that Kelli and I are excited about the chance to sing for this incredible organization that is raising a great deal of money for a great cause. That’s exciting. And then, just to be able to share that experience with each other, with our history, and maybe bring a little bit of New York City to Denver – that sounds like a lot of fun to me. 

John Moore: Is the song list primarily show tunes or will there be some pop as well?

Brian d’Arcy James: Yeah, there will be some pop. I’ve always been a pop-music fan. The great thing about the era I’ve grown up in is that popular music is well-represented on Broadway in a pretty interesting way in terms of Elton John and Billy Joel and Sting and now Sara Bareilles and just a variety of different musical singer/songwriters who are on the radio and are Grammy Award-winning musicians and singers. They’re finding an interest and a home in representing themselves on Broadway.  For someone like me, that is fantastic, because I can justify the idea of singing a song by Sting and legitimately say that he was represented on Broadway (in The Last Ship). It’s not going to be all pop tunes. We’re definitely going to sing some classics, too. It will be a nice mix of Broadway and a bit of pop.

John Moore: I wanted to ask you about Hamilton and Next to Normal and Smash and Theresa Rebeck and the apostrophe in your name and everything that is happening in Flint, Mich., and about 10 other things. But I am going to exercise a tiny bit of restraint and thank you for your time and end it here.

Brian d’Arcy James: Well, why don’t you pick one of them. I’d be happy to talk about any of them.

John Moore: Well, thanks. We just had Theresa Rebeck out here in Denver for the world premiere of her newest play, The Nest. What are your thoughts on working with her on Smash, and the voice that she brings to the American theatre?

Brian d’Arcy James: Oh, that’s great. Smash was a great experience, and I had an amazing time. She chose me to be in her television show, and I’m forever grateful for that. She has a very unique voice, a very funny voice, and a very strong voice. She’s obviously proven herself as someone who’s prolific, and she just has a great sense of story and dialogue. I love her writing. The experience of doing Smash was a dream come true for me because I was doing a television show that shot in New York City, and it was about my profession. It was a complete no-brainer that I wanted to be a part of it. I’m very proud to be a part of that tapestry. I love what she did, and the bold vision she had to make that show happen.

Saturday Night Alive: At a glance
Annual fundraising gala for DCPA Education
Saturday, March 5, at the DCPA’s Stage Theatre
Headlining concert: Broadway stars Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James
Five intriguing auction items, from Denver Broncos to African safari
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