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Justin Guarini Is Happy on the Verge

The former American Idol finalist discusses making his long-awaited Broadway debut in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Justin Guarini
(© Tristan Fuge)
Justin Guarini sure knows how to make a Broadway debut. The pop singer and season one finalist of FOX's American Idol is making his long-awaited bow on the Great White Way as the shy Carlos in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the musical version of Pedro Almodovar's popular film, now at the Belasco Theatre. He recently spoke with TheaterMania about the experience.

THEATERMANIA: Is this what you pictured your first Broadway show to be like?
JUSTIN GUARINI: I know this is certainly not the usual way a Broadway musical happens, but I have to say this experience is not only the most challenging and most rewarding I've had since American Idol, but it's beyond anything in my wildest dreams. I turned down a role in The Lion King to do American Idol, so it just took nine years to get here -- and it was worth it.

TM: How exactly did you get here?
JG: My role was the last one cast. I only joined about a week or so before the first rehearsal. I had been to [casting director] Bernie Telsey's office for other shows. So they called me and I saw Bartlett Sher [our director], Jeffrey Lane [our book writer], and David Yazbek [our composer], and because my character didn't have much to sing, they asked me to do something else. Because it's a Spanish show, I looked for Latin music in my book, and I didn't have any. But since I had sung the Gispy Kings' "Mon Amor" in Spanish in concert, and had it memorized, I did one of the biggest no-no's of the audition world: I sang a song a cappella. David told me that I was the first person to do something like that. But they liked it, and then Bart really took time to put me through my paces before casting me.

TM: What's the biggest lesson, as it were, that you've learned from working with Bart?
JG: I've learned that stillness in theater can be your friend. As a singer, being still is terrifically boring. But on stage like this, you can learn to be still and yet active at the same time.

TM: Had you watched the film before your audition?
JG: Actually I read the script for the musical before I got to see the movie, and when I did, what struck me is the pure art of Pedro's film; which is so beautiful yet overwhelming. I also realized how much Jeffrey had delved into Carlos' back story. It's an honor to play a role originated by Antonio Banderas, and I want to do it justice, I love him as an actor, he's so masculine and exudes such sex appeal. But I don't feel pressure to live up to him or his work in the film. They've let me put my own spin on it.

Laura Benanti, Justin Guarini, and Sherie Rene Scott
in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
(© Paul Kolnik)
TM: So now, you're the on-stage son of Patti LuPone and Brian Stokes Mitchell. Can you describe what that is like?
JG: As a rookie in this industry, it's a privilege to work under their guidance, Patti has been so generous, kind, informative, always talking backstage with me. I think she gave me the best piece of advice ever: she said when you go out there and you feel like your work is crap, always realize your margin of error is much bigger than you think. That was so helpful to me.

TM: And of course, you're also working with a whole lot of other great actors, including Sherie Rene Scott and Laura Benanti. Is it nerve-wracking?
JG: Not really. I grew up studying acting, and one thing I really learned early on is to be open and aware of your fellow actors' choices, and those ladies -- especially Laura -- make such great choices in scene after scene that their choices help inform my choices. It's like a great game of ping-pong.

TM: The way you've been costumed and wigged, you don't look anything like "Justin Guarini." Has that been a good or a bad thing?
It's been completely freeing to look different from what people expect. Look, I am, so grateful for the branding I got from my look on American Idol -- and yes, that hair is all gone. But when I step into those high-waisted pants and that wig and those glasses, it informs me about my character. I actually hope that people will see me and not see me. When I come after the show and people say they didn't recognize me, that's great! And if they still want my autograph, well, that's a real blessing!