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INTERVIEW: Brian d'Arcy James Is Having a Big Year

The Broadway and television star is preparing for a big benefit at Bay Street, co-hosting the Drama Desk Awards, and making his cabaret debut at 54 Below. logo
Brian d'Arcy James
(© Tristan Fuge)
No one has been busier this year than Brian d'Arcy James. He's spent much of the past year filming NBC's hit musical drama Smash, in which he plays Debra Messing's beleaguered husband, Frank Houston, and a scintillating guest stint on Showtime's The Big C.

Now, the popular Broadway star is preparing for three live projects: a benefit concert with Ana Gasteyer called One Night, Two Voices, Three Cheers at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor on Saturday, May 26; co-hosting the 57th Annual Drama Desk Awards with Brooke Shields on Sunday, June 3 at The Town Hall, and then performing his new cabaret show at 54 Below, June 26-30. James recently chatted with TheaterMania about his many endeavors.

THEATERMANIA: How did this Bay Street benefit come about?
BRIAN D'ARCY JAMES: I have friends at Bay Street who wanted to have something unique, and Ana and I are represented by the same agent. They basically just floated the idea of the two of us doing it. It's going to be an unusual duo in a way, because Ana has this great history of comedy on Saturday Night Live, but she's also this extraordinary musician and a great singer, so she's got this battery of ammunition that she can employ for an evening like this. I think that opens it up. We're going to do some things that are more traditional and representative of the Broadway shows that we've had a chance to do, and then maybe some of the standards. I'm giving her all the hard work of kind of cutting through the water, and I'll just be in the wake of it, just hanging on and just trying to hold onto her coattails.

TM: Is your show at 54 Below going to be something completely different?
BDJ: They're completely different shows. I'm really excited about 54 Below, because deciding whether or not to do it was a dilemma for me. I appreciate the things that I've been able to do that have defined my career, working with incredible composers like Maury Yeston, Adam Guettel, Jeanine Tesori, and Marvin Hamlisch. But the one thing that I've always loved the most is pop music. The thing that drew me into the world of music was my AM/FM radio. So I made a choice very early on to basically satisfy that instinct with this show. I'm putting together a great band with some really great arrangement, and I'll be able to sing songs from Phil Collins or Todd Rundgren or Squeeze, or Harry Connick Jr. -- all of these voices and sounds that really shaped who I am as a musician. Plus, the week of the show is my birthday, and that will make it extra special.

TM: Now that you finished the first season of Smash, what do you think is the best part of being on a hit television show?
BDJ: It has been a remarkable change of pace for me. The rhythm of doing a TV show is obviously different from a Broadway show in so many different ways. The thing that struck me first was having the weekends off to spend with my family and go see football games. It seemed very sane.

TM: Do you think Frank will get to really break out into song next season?
BDJ: The answer to that question is twofold. Clearly the character has functioned in a way that is not in that world of the Broadway musical. I like that aspect of not everybody jumping into that pool. But I have not given up lobbying for some kind of fantasy sequence where I get conked on the head and get to sing. However, it's a problem I don't mind having; I will be happy with anything!

TM: How do Smash fans react when seeing you on the street?
BDJ: Most people are empathetic with me. They say, "I can't believe Julia's doing that to you, just hang in there," or "Why are you hanging in there? She doesn't deserve it!" It's always very defensive on my behalf, which I get a kick out of. But the other day it was the funniest thing, this person said, "Well, you just have to give her a chance. That guy Michael [played by Will Chase] is really cute." And I said, "Well, this is a first. I have not heard the cute factor being a reliable defense for infidelity." I love that everybody gets to weigh in.

TM: You went way outside the box with your current turn on The Big C -- your character, Tim, initiates a three-way relationship with Tammy Blanchard and John Benjamin Hickey. How did you feel about the direction your story took on that show?
BDJ: My friend Laura Linney [who stars on and produces The Big C] invited me to be on the show, and kept her eye open for something that I could do. When this idea first came my way, I said, "Absolutely! Yes! I'd love to do it!" And then I read the script and thought, "Oh wow. This is not what I was expecting at all." It was great, though. I think whenever you get something that makes you pause, it's an opportunity to figure it out. It was such a great joy to work with John and Tammy and to create this little subplot. And what I like about our characters is that they're genuinely and sincerely interested in figuring out how a three-way could work in a very common and acceptable way, since they get a great deal of satisfaction out of it.

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