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Interview: Jay Armstrong Johnson Is Having a Gay Old Time in His New Show To My Girls

The comedy about a modern-day gaggle of queer friends is running at the Tony Kiser Theater.

Through his stage appearances in such shows as On the Town, Hair, Hands on a Hardbody, and Scotland, PA (for which he won an Outer Critics Circle Award), Jay Armstrong Johnson has proved himself to be one of the theater world's most likable performers.

But even Johnson admits it's not very easy to like Curtis, the central character in J.C. Lee's revealing new dramedy, To My Girls, now at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater. In this millennial take on "The Boys in the Band," the clean-cut Curtis is ultimately less than a good friend to his longtime gay besties (played by Maulik Pancholy, Britton Smith, and Carman Lacivita), leading to some very unpleasant consequences.

TheaterMania recently spoke to Johnson, who is openly gay, about the role, and about working with a cast of other queer men, the importance of having the "right body," and his lifelong love of musical theater.

Maulik Pancholy and Jay Armstrong Johnson in To My Girls
(© Joan Marcus)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What were you first impressions of the play?
When I first read it, I thought "these guys are so mean to each other." But when I was doing my audition, my acting teachers' voices kept swirling through my head reminding me to emphasize the positive aspect of the character and his humanity. I was told that's what got me the part. And I found out later that every white homosexual actor in town wanted this role! I am so grateful and honored they gave it to me.

Did you realize at first how funny the play was?
No, but now I really want to emphasize the humor in the show. Honestly, I don't think any of us in the cast realized how funny it was until the first preview. And the reactions we get every night from the audience have really helped all of us find the laughs and discover what works and what doesn't.

What has it been like working with an all-male cast?
It's been one of the coolest experiences of my life. Not only is it an all-male cast, it's all-queer, as well. And beyond that, every person in the rehearsal room is somewhere on the queer spectrum. I'm pretty good at "code-switching" as an actor, but it's amazing not to have to do that. The space Stephen has made for us is remarkably open and collaborative. In fact, we spent the first 20 minutes of every rehearsal just talking about our lives and that was great.

The play's biggest theme is the difficulty of maintaining deep friendships in the gay community. Is that something you've experienced personally?
Yes, I've had to grapple with some of my own relationships from the past, and it's been tough to relive some of those experiences. For many years, I had a long-term partner and most of the people we lived with were gay. When that partnership ended, I lost a lot of those friends! So, yes, I can relate.

The play also concerns the emphasis we put on having the "right" body type in the gay community. How relevant do you think that topic is?
For me, it's more about my profession. I grew up as a dancer, so my personal awareness of having a certain kind of body and physique was drilled into me from an early age. And I've always been fixed on keeping my body "right-and-tight" to get a job. And in many of the shows I've done, from A Chorus Line to Hair, I am aware of how my body has been used and how much of it I've had to show. Fortunately, it's something I'm personally comfortable with. However, my friends in the dance community and I talk about this often and we think the standard for what should be considered the "right" body type is definitely changing.

You certainly show a lot of your body in To My Girls. Did you have to change your workout or diet routine in any way?
Believe it or not, I am not a gym rat; but I did go to the gym more often so I could lift weights. Since my legs have always been muscular, because of my dancing, I tried to get my upper body to match them. And yet, I know all anyone is talking about is my legs [laughs].

You also get to show off a little bit of your musical theater chops in the show when the guys do a drag video. Was that important to you?
When I first read the play, these guys were written to be bad dancers and singers, and I was excited to play around with that, like I could in Scotland, PA. But then the choreographer wanted to really get into it, and I suddenly found myself doing these insane Britney Spears moves – in heels, no less. Musical theater is my first love and it's what I will always love. Still, what I love most is creating a great character and surprising both myself and the industry – which is what I hope I was able to do here. This is only my third non-musical play and I love not having to automatically fall back on what I usually do!