Brian d’Arcy James Wants to Be a Rock Star

He’ll get to live that fantasy in a return engagement of his pop-infused cabaret show, Under the Influence, at 54 Below.

Brian d’Arcy James grew up on a steady diet of Billy Joel and Phil Collins. While the Drama Desk Award-winning star of Broadway’s Shrek is best known for his performances on the Broadway stage, there’s a pop star living inside him, just waiting to be unleashed. That’s why he put together Under the Influence last summer for 54 Below. As James’ New York cabaret debut, the show was an evening of some of his favorite pop and rock songs. (Click here to read TheaterMania’s review.)

It was a big hit, so James is bringing the show back for three performances (September 5-7). TheaterMania asked him about it, and what we got was a lesson from the Brian d’Arcy James School of Rock (on Broadway):

Brian d'Arcy James
Brian d’Arcy James
(© David Gordon)

Why are you bringing this show back to 54 Below?

I’m coming back because I love the venue. I love that they were interested in having me back! That always helps. It went really well last time so this is a chance for me to do these songs one more time, put them to rest, and start on something new. One of the great things about this venue is that it’s where Broadway goes after Broadway. But beyond my work on Broadway, I can do other things you might not expect. So now that I’ve been completely selfish and sung the songs that I’ve always wanted to sing, I can move on and maybe do some more traditional Broadway and standard stuff.

The material for this show is mostly rock and pop, right?

It’s pop. It definitely has a more driving feel than your traditional Broadway sound. There’s always been a symbiotic relationship between Broadway and pop music. Obviously it was different in the forties when pop music was something else entirely. But with the sound you’re starting to hear come out of Broadway, it wouldn’t be so unnatural or confounding to hear Adele or Genesis. I’ve always loved that about Broadway.

How will this run of Under the Influence be different from last year’s show?

I’m going to do “Seven Days” by Sting. I’m also going to do a Stephen Schwartz song from Godspell called “Beautiful City,” which does fulfill my Broadway requirement for the evening. If anything, people will leave having a good sense of the music I like.

How did you develop your musical tastes?

It was a combination of things. First there’s what I heard on the radio. I was always interested in music from an early age and pop music was the foundation of that. Albums were always playing in our house — Stevie Wonder, Burt Bacharach, The Temptations. When my parents started taking us to see theater in Detroit, it was this interesting new version of music. When I realized there was a place where music existed in a three-dimensional way, my relationship with theater began.

Have you been workshopping this show in front of a mirror and in the shower since you were a kid?

Hahahaha. Yes. Music is such a powerful thing. Imagining what it’s like to be a rock star — singing your music and people really enjoying it — is an infectious idea. I’m definitely fulfilling my middle-aged fantasy of days gone past.

Now, with shows like Beautiful — The Carole King Musical and A Night With Janis Joplin, at lot more Broadway actors are getting to fulfill their rock star fantasies on stage. If you were to star in a bio-musical or thinly veiled concert, what would it be?

You know what they should do… do know the group XTC? This is an incredible band. They were born out of the British punk phase. Then they moved into this pop-punk stuff. They were led by a singer-songwriter named Andy Partridge. I think there’s something there for an XTC musical. Their music is astounding. You could easily tell stories with their songs. I’m also a humongous fan of Kevin Gilbert. He’s an incredible singer-songwriter. He has this compilation of music that I’ve wanted to breathe life into as a theatrical endeavor. That is an actual pursuit of mine.

Brian d'Arcy James with wife Jennifer Prescott and daughter Grace celebrating his birthday at 54 Below last year.
Brian d’Arcy James with wife Jennifer Prescott and daughter Grace celebrating his birthday at 54 Below last year.
(© Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

You starred as cattle rancher Bick Benedict in Giant, which was a more traditional book musical by Michael John LaChiusa. Do you have any favorite memories from that show?

That was such a feast. The canvas was so vast and we were in great hands with Michael Greif. My favorite memory was the first time I heard the band in the sitzprobe. We had been rehearsing these beautiful songs that are so rich just with the piano. Then suddenly you hear Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations [that] allowed this incredibly rich, beautiful music to come to life in ways you never imagined. That was an unforgettable experience for me.

Now Shrek is getting a DVD. How does it feel to have your work memorialized in recording?

I’m all for it, particularly with Shrek. I’m actually really eager to see it! I haven’t seen the film. We took one night off when they shut down the show and put in six cameras. That was such an extremely challenging and rewarding experience. It required so much. To be able to see it is somehow going to prove to me that I did it. I know I did it, but I can’t quite believe. So this will be proof. Also, my daughter was in second grade at the time. She wasn’t very interested in seeing the show, mostly because of the makeup and seeing her dad in a different way. I was a monster. She just didn’t want to see it. It’s great because she regrets that and now she can see it.

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