On the Fourth of July, Brian d'Arcy James will make his Muny debut as sharp-shooting Frank Butler in the Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun. Despite the fact that James has just completed his first day of rehearsal, he has yet to gaze upon the Muny's leviathan stage.
Let's go take a look.
As he passes through the administration building hallway, James makes a point to greet every dancer and singer he passes. No one goes ignored. It's an implicit acknowledgement that not so many years ago he too was an ambitious young performer hoping for recognition from a star. That's what he's become: Brian d'Arcy James has emerged as one of Broadway's most versatile young stars.
Born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1968, he was named for two uncles: d'Arcy was an artist; Brian [Kelly] was an actor who starred in the 1960s TV series Flipper. "He didn't talk much about working with the dolphin," James says. "The one statement I remember was, 'That (expletive) fish.'"
Early on, James took a shine to Irving Berlin: "The first song I ever learned was 'A Simple Melody' [a Berlin hit from 1914]. My sister and I sang it in a junior high talent show. Then I played Frank Butler in high school, and I sang 'Old-Fashioned Wedding,' in which Berlin employs the same kind of syncopated counterpoint. I just sang 'Old-Fashioned Wedding' this afternoon with Liz [Larsen, who portrays Annie Oakley]. That song is like a Lamborghini. If you just turn the key, you go. You can't go wrong with that duet."
James' first acting role after he graduated from Northwestern University in 1990 was Pawnee Bill in a summer tour of Annie Get Your Gun. That was followed by national tours, Broadway replacement roles, off-Broadway dramas, an Obie Award. He met his future wife, Jennifer Prescott, when they were paired onstage in the Lincoln Center revival of Carousel. They now have a three-year-old daughter. Prescott portrays Dolly Tate in Annie Get Your Gun.
His big break came eight years ago in the Tony Award-winning musical Titanic. In an ensemble cast of more than 40, James stood out (not easy to do when everyone's wearing life preservers) as one of the ship's stokers. Titanic led to recordings, concerts, additional musical and dramatic roles -- and eventually to Sweet Smell of Success, the Broadway musical version of the cynical 1957 movie about a cruel New York City newspaper columnist. As Sidney Falco, a press agent who will do anything to curry favor, James gave the performance of a lifetime -- only to see the show close after three months.
Why didn't people want to see Sweet Smell of Success? "That is a question I can't answer," James says in a muted tone that suggests he's asked himself the same question many times. Yet it's worth noting that the musical opened just six months after 9/11. "Our theme was so dark, and we peered so deeply into the underbelly of New York City, it may be that people weren't yet ready for that. But I admired the fact that the show was true to its template. It didn't pull its punches. I have no doubt that someday it will find a new life."
Perhaps the most enduring talisman of that disappointment was his friendship with costar John Lithgow. "Watching John is always a great example of how one should behave," James says. "John loves what he does, and in turn he is truly loved and respected by his peers. He's the person I want to be."
Meanwhile, the work keeps coming. Last winter in San Francisco James enacted the Bing Crosby role in a much-lauded stage version of the Irving Berlin movie White Christmas. Earlier this month he acted off-Broadway in a new drama about Charles Lindbergh. He also was supposed to star in the Barry Manilow musical Harmony, which has a long history of funding difficulties.
"I think it's fantastic, important material with a brilliant score," James says. "But it may be too great a challenge to convince someone to invest in a serious musical set during the Holocaust. Certainly the jukebox musicals are prevalent on Broadway right now. But to say that people don't want to see a show with a brain and a heart sells the audience short. I just saw The Light in the Piazza. It was so moving. I felt privileged as a human being to have seen it. For me that show is a line in the sand of what great musical theater can be. I have to believe that every audience is ready to be challenged."
After having crossed the bustling Muny back lot, James finally approaches the vast stage; now he confronts an actor's challenge. As he peers out at 11,000 seats, his eyes bulge. Then, with the surefire confidence of Frank Butler, he says, "It's not as unmanageable as I was imagining. This sounds like a crazy word to use, but there's more intimacy here than I was expecting. I've never acted in a theater like this before. It's going to be fun."