Justin Guarini has traveled his own yellow brick road to fill the current shoes of Fiyero in Broadway's Wicked. Guarini remembers wanting to perform from a very early age, always having Broadway in mind as a long-term goal. In fact, he auditioned for The Lion King repeatedly until he finally landed a role in 2002 — just after having been chosen for American Idol. Ultimately the runner-up in the music competition's first season, Guarini went on to release two albums and work in film, radio, television, and regional theater before landing his first Broadway role in the 2010 musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Vastly different roles in American Idiot and this season's Romeo and Juliet proved that Guarini can take on any genre, landing him the role of Elphaba's love interest in the Broadway blockbuster Wicked. Guarini spoke with TheaterMania about how working with the Jackson Five instilled in him a love for performance and how bringing a unique style to his new role distinguishes his Fiyero from all others.
Early in your career you made many risky decisions, such as moving to New York to pursue your dream, and then taking part in a television singing contest. How do you think those decisions had an impact on your career?
Whenever I come to a fork in the road…I usually just go with my gut. I think it worked out the way it was supposed to. I had a choice to go into The Lion King or to do a television show that no one had ever heard of…It was really a difficult decision. As I progressed through Idol I realized that it might be something. What's interesting for me is that ten years after I made that decision I opened in my first show on Broadway (Women on the Verge) and we had our opening-night party in the same hotel in one of the rooms where I auditioned for American Idol. It was a crazy 360 moment!
Wicked is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Broadway musicals. How and when did it first appear on your radar?
Funnily enough, about eight years ago I auditioned for the Broadway and touring company of Wicked, and they offered me the tour but I wasn't able to do it due to scheduling conflicts. Seven years later they were recasting the show and [director] Joe Mantello and [producer] David Stone had actually gone to see Romeo and Juliet, and I was on the short list for a Fiyero replacement. Romeo and Juliet was what got me the opportunity!
How are you making the role of Fiyero your own?
I don't ever come to a role and think, "How can I be this person or this character?" I ask, "How can I find this character in myself?" I heard a Sanford Meisner quote, "Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances." That sat in my brain and helped me not "act" so much as opposed to saying, "How would I respond if someone…" I've been sort of spoiled at certain points in my life, and in considering Fiyero I imagine how that old version of me would behave if somebody, like Elphaba, woke me up after I had been out partying all night and started yelling at me. I try to find my own wacky sense of humor and physical comedy. I get to go to the darker, more serious side of who I am, and show two facets of my personality.
Who are some of the most inspiring people you have met on the road to Broadway?
Before I even started in my career professionally I was around the pinnacle of entertainers because my mother was a CNN anchorwoman and my father was the chief of police in Atlanta. I got to meet all of the Jacksons and went on tour with them for a little bit. Jermaine Jackson was a good family friend. Seeing The Jackson Five Victory Tour was the whole reason why I wanted to be in entertainment. I was ten years of age and I remember as clear as day saying, "I want to do that." "Once I got to Broadway it was getting to sit and talk with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Patti LuPone and getting to trade jokes with Chuck Cooper.
It seems that you are very adept at conquering genres that demonstrate your many talents. What would you most like to see yourself doing next?
I love playing fun, funny roles, but what would be really fun for me is moving into darker, more gritty roles that expose that side of my being. I know I've got to earn the right to do that. The darkest role people have seen me play is in American Idiot, and in Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which is a Stephen King-John Mellencamp musical that is hopefully going to make its way to Broadway soon.
Hopefully people will begin to see less of the curly-haired singing guy on TV, and a more valuable asset to theater and to entertainment. I literally have to convince one person at a time, and I'm okay with that. Some people don't expect me to be able to do the things that I do, so if I do a good job, I look really good to those with low standards. It's kind of a win-win! I don't take offense to it. I was given a huge leg up through Idol, however that came with a lot of stigma. It's a balancing act.