Interview: James Monroe Iglehart Steps Into Chicago: "Hey, I Am Sexy Now!"
Aladdin's Tony-winning Genie will also host an upcoming Broadway celebration at the Kennedy Center.
One of Broadway's most affable and mesmerizing stars, James Monroe Iglehart stole the spotlight by originating the role of the Genie in Disney's Aladdin, winning the Tony Award for his unforgettable turn.
Now, after having also starred in such hit shows as Memphis, Hamilton, and Freestyle Love Supreme, Iglehart has stepped into the iconic role of smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn in the long-running hit Chicago opposite Bianca Marroquín and Charlotte D'Amboise.
TheaterMania recently spoke to Iglehart about finally playing the role, how race has affected his long career on Broadway, and his upcoming role as host of the star-studded event 50 Years of Broadway at the Kennedy Center.
This is your 15th year on Broadway. Is this the career you imagined, especially as a person of color?
James Monroe Iglehart: Not really, but I was always hoping and dreaming and praying that it would work out this way. When I originally left sunny California for snowy New York, it was always the plan just to make a living as a performer, or I would never have moved. But to have had this kind of career, it's partially because I was lucky that so many of the parts I've gotten to play, including Billy, have nothing to do with race. Mitch in Spelling Bee could have been any race; the Genie didn't have to be African-American; and all the roles in Hamilton can be done by anyone. I am so blessed not to have been pigeonholed by my race.
Was Billy on your bucket list?
James: No, but at the end of my run in Hamilton, I was talking to my co-star Mandy Gonzalez, and she says, "Is there a role on Broadway right now you really want to play?" I mentioned the Phantom, because I thought that would be sexy and I'm never seen that way. So, when the Chicago folks called and offered me Billy, I thought, "Hey, I am sexy now!" The other thing that is so exciting about doing this role is I am now part of a real fraternity of special guys who have played this part, from Norm Lewis to Tom Wopat to Jerry Orbach, without whom we wouldn't have Billy. I am such a Broadway nerd that when I got to rehearse this part in the theater on 50th Street that is named after him, I started to tear up.
Billy sings one of the greatest songs ever written about show biz, "Razzle Dazzle." Is it cynical, or is it accurate?
James: What makes this show and this song so fantastic is that they're both timeless. And what "Razzle Dazzle" is talking about is how desperately some people try to keep their fame no matter what, and that is so true right now. Today, people with so much talent are killing themselves not to get overshadowed by those people whose only talent is that they can post on social media. So, the song is true and cynical at the same time – and it has some very dope rhymes by the late, great Fred Ebb. I think he and John Kander are really underappreciated.
In some circles, you will always be the Genie. Is that a blessing or a curse?
James: Honestly, while some people think it should feel like a curse, I think it's the best blessing in the world. You spend your life as an actor hoping that someone remembers you for what you've done. OK, maybe 20 percent of actors just do it for the art, but most of us do it because we wanted to be "cool." And I know you can act for years and years, and you can still be Mr. Cellophane, and I'd rather not be that person. Plus, I am such a Disney nerd, every day I felt I got paid for being at recess.
You will host a special concert event, 50 Years of Broadway at the Kennedy Center, in February. How excited are you for this gig?
James: I am so excited! My ultimate dream is to host the Tonys, but the fact that I get to introduce all these incredible stars – and I may even be performing – is amazing. When I was in California, I used to go all these amusement park shows, and whenever there was a host, I knew I could do that if someone would let me. If my 17-year-old self could see what's about to happen, he would flip out.