Country Boy in the City
Jim Newman stars in Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver.
It remains to be seen whether Big Apple audiences will take to Almost Heaven, but one thing it definitely has going for it is Jim Newman. He more or less plays John Denver in the revue, which also features Jennifer Allen, Terry Burrell, Valisia Lekae Little, Lee Morgan, and Nicholas Rodriguez. A veteran of such Broadway shows as The Who's Tommy, Steel Pier, and Minnelli on Minnelli, Newman has charmed audiences beyond NYC as Josh Baskin in the national tour of Big, as Bill/Lucentio in the Rex Smith-Rachel York tour of Kiss Me, Kate, and as Jerry Lukowski in a highly successful production of The Full Monty at the Denver Center. I recently spoke with him about his current project and other matters.
THEATERMANIA: I know you're from the South, Jim, but where exactly?
JIM NEWMAN: Center Point, Alabama. Kind of a redneck suburb of Birmingham. We say "Cennerpoint," but it's two words.
TM: You've done Almost Heaven three times before, isn't that right?
JN: Yeah. The show was originally done five years ago as an experiment out in Denver; it was the concept of the producer, Harold Thau, and it went so well that he thought, "Maybe we have something here." So he brought in Randal Myler, who had done Love, Janis and Hank Williams: Lost Highway and so on. I was in the show when they did it again at Denver two years ago, with Randal directing. It got extended three times and ran there for six months. Then, this past January, someone on the board of directors of a theater in Birmingham was up in Aspen. He read the reviews of the show in Denver and he thought it would be great to do it in Birmingham. He looked it up online and saw that I was in it, and he thought, "Now I've got a hometown boy, that's a good angle!" So I went and did it there. Then I thought it was dead in the water again, but Randal called me and said, "Don't take a job this summer. The show is back on. We're going to do it in California and then maybe in New York."
TM: Tell me about the structure and style of the show.
JN: It's a revue of John Denver's songs in the context of his life. The book is made up of interviews, fan letters, and passages from his autobiography. I play John, but I don't impersonate him; I don't wear the glasses and I don't age. I think the point is to show that these songs aren't elevator music. They have a lot more substance than that. Denver was really, really popular and successful, but the tone of the country changed around the time of Woodstock when everyone started getting into that hippie, anti-war stuff. Denver was certainly anti-war and he tried to write protest songs, but it just wasn't his thing. He moved to the mountains and became passionate about saving the planet.
TM: Have you been to all of the places that he wrote about?
JN: I've been to West Virginia, and I've been to the Rocky Mountains a bunch of times. It's easy to understand the "high" quality of "Rocky Mountain High," especially if you live in a city like New York. I mean, this is my favorite city in the world, but sometimes you've gotta see something that's not made of stone or brick or metal.
TM: Is there any sort of dramatic conflict in the show?
JN: Well, The Village Voice and Rolling Stone came after Denver as phony. They didn't buy that good ol' boy act at all, and some of their criticism is in the show. But Denver's whole vibe was, "If you don't like it, you don't like it. I'm not gonna pretend to be something I'm not." His whole persona was about deflecting anger. I had dinner with his ex-wife, Annie. She's a therapist, and she thinks that now he would be diagnosed as bipolar. His mood swings were huge, from high to low, but his general persona was that he was just a nice guy.
TM: You've been working pretty steadily; you did Newsical in New York for a while, and then you had a nice run in The Full Monty in Denver.
JN: That was a really good show. Because of the way it's set up, the audience is allowed to be rambunctious, which is fun. Plus I was nude onstage, and that was liberating. The way the nudity is done at the end of the show, all those lights flash in the audience's eyes; that means they can't see the actors very well, but it also means that the actors can see the audience clearly for the only time in the show. You can see them looking at you at the exact moment when you're completely nude, and it's kind of scary at first. But I have no fears of that anymore. Now, I'd say I'm an exhibitionist. I could go join a nudist colony at this point!
TM: What kind of reaction did you get from people after the show? Did they always comment on the nudity?
JN: One time, I walked through the stage door and a woman said, "I saw you. I saw it." I asked her, "Well, how was I?" and she said, "Good!" We had a lot of bachelorette parties coming to the show, which is interesting, because it's so little about the stripping. Even when we did interviews, that's all they wanted to talk about. No matter how hard we tried to steer them back to the story of these down-and-out men who are looking for self-esteem, what they wanted to know was, "How much can you see?"
TM: Though you don't make a huge point of it, you're an openly gay actor. Do you think that has affected your career at all?
JN: At this point, if I lose a job because I'm gay, then I don't need that job. It's about my life now, not just about my career. I'm in a great relationship. If somebody isn't going to hire me because they don't think that I can "play" straight, or whatever their issues are, that's their own small-mindedness. I'm not militant in an "Everybody should come out!" way; I don't wave a huge flag around. But if someone asks me, I'm not going to deny it, and I don't think it's really been an issue in my career. If you're good for a role, you're good for it. I came out really late, when I was 32. I spent the first half of my life dealing with the self-hate, and I'm not going to spend the next half that way.
TM: Do you think Almost Heaven will fly in New York?