Sound Bites spotlights up-and-coming singers and conductors in the world of opera.

Sound Bites: Jay Armstrong Johnson

by SCOTT BARNES

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Photographed by Dario Acosta in New York
Grooming by Affan Malik
© Dario Acosta 2014
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Broadway's Jay Armstrong Johnson
© Dario Acosta 2014

Jay Armstrong Johnson is a charismatic triple threat who is increasingly on the short list of Broadway's hot young leading men. Although capable of playing the juvenile (this summer, he is performing Hello, Dolly's Barnaby Tucker at the Muny in St. Louis), the twenty-six-year-old has the vocal range and mastery of style to be convincing in rock (Broadway debut in Hair; Romeo in the Old Globe's Last Goodbye, music by the late rock singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley), country (Hands on a Hard Body) and traditional Broadway (Anthony in Sweeney Todd, with Bryn Terfel and the New York Philharmonic, and just recently, Herman in The Most Happy Fella at Encores!). What separates Johnson from the pack as a singer is his ability to get inside a lyric. Whether he is performing the works of rising composers or putting his stamp on a show-tune or a top-forty chestnut, he is always working moment to moment and willing to go wherever his actor's imagination leads him.

Born in Texas, Johnson came to New York for college but left NYU's Steinhardt School before his senior year, to play Mark in the national tour of A Chorus Line. After seven months on the road, he joined the Broadway cast of the revival of Hair and suffered a bruised vocal fold. "I thought it was the end of my life — twenty-one years old, Broadway debut, and I'm walking around on vocal rest, writing on a Magna Doodle to order at Starbucks!" 

These days, vocal hygiene is paramount. "I warm up before every performance, but even more important for me is the cool-down. I just had to sing a really difficult rock show out at the Old Globe, and every night after curtain, I would essentially do the whole score on a very light, airy lip-trill — just as you have to cool your body down after a dance show." (Johnson studies with Met Opera extra chorister Jeremy Aye, who has been his teacher since his days at NYU.)

At the end of the summer, Johnson starts rehearsals for a Broadway revival of On the Town, in the role he did last year at Barrington Stage. "I only get to sing about five notes by myself, but Chip is a killer dance role," he says. "I can't wait to do the show again."

In each theater dressing-room, Johnson displays a picture of his cats, Chauncey and Binks, sitting on a plaque that he's had since he was thirteen. It reads, "PRESS ON. Persistence is key. "

"I set an intention, and I don't stop until it happens," says Johnson. "I'm never complacent. I want the dream — a Tony Award." spacer 

SCOTT BARNES

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4