Jay Armstrong Johnson on How Sister Act 2 Inspired His New Cabaret Show

The ”On the Town” favorite explains how his love of the Whoopi Goldberg classic motivated him to embrace all forms of music.

After spending more than a year dancing up a storm as a sailor on shore leave in Broadway's On the Town, Jay Armstrong Johnson is heading back to the stage. It's a significantly more intimate space than the Lyric Theatre, where the Comden and Green classic ran, and it's a few blocks away from the bright lights of Times Square. But Feinstein's/54 Below, which welcomes Johnson on April 27, 29, and 30, is the perfect spot for this star-on-the-rise to premiere his very personal solo concert.

The goal for the show, which he created over several years, was to present all of the different styles of music he enjoys. The inspiration for such an eclectic set list came from the most unexpected of places: Sister Act 2. On a break from shooting TV's Quantico (Johnson appears as a former rocket scientist recruited by the FBI), he sat down with TheaterMania to discuss Deloris Van Cartier's sage advice.

Jay Armstrong Johnson will take the stage at Feinstein's/54Below on April 27, 29, and 30.
Jay Armstrong Johnson will take the stage at Feinstein's/54Below on April 27, 29, and 30.
(© David Gordon)

Why is this the right time for you to do a solo concert?
Over the last three or four years, I've been [gathering] this list of songs I want to do, and when Jennifer Ashley Tepper asked me to do three nights here, I was like, "Well, it's now or never."

How do you describe your concert?
When I was young, Sister Act 2 was one of my favorite movies of all time. One of the main reasons is that Whoopi Goldberg — Deloris Van Cartier — taught me the word "eclectic" in one of the music classes she teaches the kids at St. Francis Catholic High School. [That character] lived her musical life very eclectically. She loves rock and roll, and rap, and pop, and jazz, so that's how I wanted to live my life as well. I thought it would be really cool to be open to different genres and forms of music, so that's what this concert is.

What's on your set list?
You're going to hear everything from Rascal Flats to "Johanna" from Sweeney Todd. I've got a classic-rock piece thrown in there for my dad and a religious song for mom. Lindsay Mendez is going to join me for my jazz tune. Billy Lewis Jr., who was on the last season of Glee, will be joining me for a Hair-infused number. He did the national tour of Hair in the same track that I played on Broadway, and now we're best friends. My last guest artist is MTV's Todrick Hall, formerly Broadway's Todrick Hall. I met him when I was fifteen and we grew up a little bit together. He's going to come up for a gospel parody.

And you're doing a live album of the show that you're currently crowd-funding. Can you tell us a little about that?
I thought we might as well do the dream show and record an album at the same time. When I got the number I would need to raise for such a big show — I have an eight-piece band, three backup singers, three guest artists — it's a huge undertaking and it gets pretty pricey. We're doing it on Indiegogo. I think we're about fifteen percent raised, which is not bad at all. We've still got a few weeks to reach our goal. I've never done this before, so it's all just new and fun.

How different is a Broadway schedule from your TV-shooting schedule for Quantico?
It's night and day. I have weekends off. What a twist. I work from like 6 am to usually 6 or 8pm, twelve to fourteen hour days. It's time-consuming. When people say they pay you to wait around, that's actually what they pay you do. The moments between action and cut are exhilarating. It's the most fun because you're working with brilliant actors and brilliant directors on a high-budget television set, so it's all things I've dreamed of and never knew would come true.

You've got an On the Town reunion coming up with the San Francisco Symphony soon, too.
We start rehearsals May 19 and then it's a five- or six-show run. I'm excited to get back together with my peeps, see my boys, my Tony [Yazbeck] and my Clyde [Alves], again. Kiss on my girl Alysha [Umphress] a little more. We spent two and a half years together from Barrington to Broadway and they truly became some of my favorite people and confidants. We're excited to go back and not dance as hard this time, but sing our brains out with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. It's going to be brilliant.

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