Joy to the World
Natalie Joy Johnson sings Reba McEntire, Michael Jackson, Harold Arlen, and more at The Cutting Room.
Happily, she hasn't had much time to sulk about the Bare situation; Natalie has kept herself busy since the Dodgers pulled the plug on that show, appearing as Sinead in the hit New York Musical Theatre Festival production of But I'm a Cheerleader, as Kegan in Joy, and in several other shows. Additionally, she was a featured soloist in concerts and benefit performances at such high-profile venues as Joe's Pub, Birdland, Feinstein's at the Regency, and the Iridium Jazz Club, not to mention the Palace Theatre and the New Amsterdam. Though her future as a musical theater performer seems brilliantly bright, she's equally at home in the pop, rock, rhythm & blues, and country music genres, as will be apparent to anyone who attends her concert at The Cutting Room on Wednesday, March 15. I recently spoke with Natalie about that gig and about her eclectic taste in music.
THEATERMANIA: According to the press materials for your Cutting Room show, you'll be performing with Our Lady J and the Pink Champagne Orchestra, featuring The Bubblies. What's all that about?
NATALIE JOY JOHNSON: Our Lady J is my musical director, Jonah Speidel. That's his name of choice at the moment; he's in a world of androgynous exploration! The Pink Champagne Orchestra is our fabulous band. When we were at Joe's Pub, we had seven pieces: strings, guitars, drums, bass, piano. I don't think we're going to have the string section at The Cutting Room, because the folks that usually play for us are unavailable. It's going to be more of a rock band. The Bubblies are Kevin Smith Kirkwood, J. Edward Lucas, and Michael Hammerstrom. They're good friends of mine who happen to be amazingly talented.
TM: You'll be covering songs that were written or made famous by everyone from Reba McEntire to Michael Jackson to Harold Arlen. You run the musical gamut.
NJJ: Absolutely! Jonah's arrangements are really insane. That's one of the things that we heard after the show at Joe's: Everyone loved the arrangements. We only use the original arrangements when they're so genius that they don't need to be messed around with; for the most part, we try to reinvent songs. We even have an R&B/Judy Garland inspired version of "Ribbons Down My Back" from Hello Dolly!
TM: Of all things! Did you ever play Irene Molloy?
NJJ: No, but I played Dolly in my senior year of high school. There's always one song in a show that sticks inside your head, even if it wasn't yours, and I've been singing that song in the shower ever since high school. Literally!
TM: Tell me about the Harold Arlen section of the program.
NJJ: We do "I Had Myself a True Love" -- and the arrangement of that is killer, too. We have a few other musical theater numbers in there, and two original songs by Jonah, but we're also doing a lot of epic stuff. "Moondance" is one of the songs that people really loved in the last show. In Jonah's interpretation, it's a funk/disco number. When the band started to play it at Joe's, they were really jamming and the audience was excited, but they didn't realize what song it was at first. Then they heard the lyrics and they were, like, "Oh my God! What are they doing to this number? Holy crap!" It was pretty cool.
TM: You were so wonderful in Bare. That show has a very loyal cult following even though relatively few people actually saw it.
NJJ: It was a great experience. I loved the cast. I was happy to do it.
TM: There's a theory that, if a show is really good, it will eventually resurface even if there were major problems with the first production. Do you think that might happen with Bare?
NJJ: Honestly, I have no idea. If it does happen, it probably won't be until I'm old enough to play Claire, the mother!
TM: I also saw you in But I'm a Cheerleader, which was hilarious.
NJJ: That show was fun to do. For one thing, we got to play crazy teenagers. And the director had a great outlook on things. He said, "Look, guys, we could all be making so much more money doing other stuff, so let's just have a really good time." That attitude informed the show. Also, I got to work with John Hill again. He's fucking hilarious.
TM: I don't want to sound like a groupie, but I also was there at Joe's Pub recently when you sang a few numbers in the benefit concerts Flopz and Cutz.
NJJ: Oh, yes. I sang "Above the Law," one of my all-time favorite songs, from Annie Warbucks. I don't care what people say; I love that show! Then I sang "You, You, You" from Annie 2, which is basically the same song as "Above the Law" -- the melody, the key change, the whole thing. They just inserted new words. I also sang "Love Comes First," a number that was cut from Applause.
NJJ: A couple of people came up to me that night and said, "Wow, I didn't know that you could sing like that!" -- which is hilarious to me, because that's how I've sung since I was a kid. It's what I feel most comfortable with.
TM: Some of today's younger musical theater performers imply or even state outright, "This is what I do for a living, but I don't like it. I want to be a rock star."
NJJ: Ever since I was really young, I've had a taste for all different kinds of music. My mom was heavily into country at one point, and my dad sang in a band when he was in his late teens, early 20s. When people in high school were listening to the current stuff, I was listening to the oldies channel. "Young Girl," by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, is one of my favorite songs. I love it all!