James T. Lane on Creating, Reviving, and Replacing in a Broadway show
This is part two of our interview with James T. Lane! In the first part, James and I
talked about how he got from Philly to Broadway. In this part we’re talking about his idols, the Scottsboro Boys and more.
With an experience like that in the audition room what was it like to book the show and be a part of it?
James: Well, one of the first musical theatre dance giants in my view was a guy named Greg Burge, who was the Richie in A Chorus Line remake and on Broadway. He was also in Sophisticated Ladies and was the Scarecrow in the Wiz on Broadway, just a great great talent that was gone too soon. But I used to watch that movie religiously about six inches from the screen and to be a part of that legacy in that role, and a part of that A Chorus Line Family was a dream come true. I was actually walking in the footsteps, you know.
You dream of doing the same types of things as your heroes.
Another Hero I have is, Hinton Battle, who was in Sophisticated Ladies, The Tap Dance Kid, Ragtime, The Wiz, and all these wonderful musicals, and these guys are heroes to me. So to be walking in their footsteps and doing the same things that they were doing and being seen in the same likeness and images of these icons is astounding and amazing to me. Especially when there was a time where it got really dangerous for me in my life so to come back into the community with such an amazing and iconic show was life changing for me.
What has it been like reviving, originating, and replacing in shows on Broadway?
James: One thing about reviving shows is there’s a certain level of expectation so you really let other people do their jobs. Let the director do their job, let the choreographer do their jobs, and you try to honor what came before you but being yourself within that. I think I found a Richie that was really me and not the original guy but paying dues to what that is. Replacing in shows, in four weeks when you’re at the start of something whether it’s a revival or an original show, you have four weeks to discover what that is. If you’re replacing you have maybe two weeks to learn the show.
Not like a Hamilton where it’s a 4-6 week learning or a Starlight Express in Germany where you’re trying to learn how to roller skate or something like that. But for Chicago, you’ve got two weeks to learn the show. So it’s you, a stage manager, and a dance captain and you’re learning your show. Then you have a put in rehearsal with the cast maybe a few hours before and you just hit it. And you’re finding your way through your show versus a month or two of doing it
. Now creating something new like with the Scottsboro Boys, I had a moment with John Kander…
we were teching the Scottsboro Boys at the Lyceum. And at the end of “Never too Late’ I was playing around with opting up as I like to do. Then John came down to the Orchestra and was like “Do that again” and I was just playing around. The next day we came in and it was in the music. That’s just having legends like John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Scottsboro Boys. Here he is, still being inspired by what he hears in tech and being gracious enough to save room for you to create in this new work.
If you can get in on the ground floor of new work that’s where your money that you spent in college. The time you’ve spent learning in libraries, imagining things in your room, creating, and discovering what your authentic voice is. that’s where it really comes in handy. Because you can create a role tailored to you.
There’s this mythologized story of Andrew Rannells when he was creating Elder Price in the Book of Mormon.
You know he sings so high he’s like an alto and he was singing the song “I Believe” and kept going let’s take it up a key, let’s take it up another key, let’s go up one more. Because he knew that very few people would be able to do it! It’s His key! I love that story! Sometimes you’ve just got to stake your claim and do it like you would do it.
Even with Too Darn Hot, that’s an iconic song and Paul Gemignani (Music Director), David Chase (Dance arrangements), Warren Carlyle (Choreographer), and Larry Hochman (Orchestrator) we found a new way to present this song everybody knows. They were doing their work and I had to do mine to find out what my influences are. There’s some jazz in there, there’s a little bit of gospel, and good old-fashioned musical theatre. But we really had to take it to another place for our own production, that’s uniquely about us. Creating something originally is the space I love to be in it, you don’t always get the opportunity but when you do you better grab a hold and stake your claim.
Could you talk a little bit more about Scottsboro Boys? That show remains current in the same way a show like Ragtime does and it didn’t run for long.
James: Yeah. It ran from October 31st to December 12th or something like that, so six weeks. The Scottsboro Boys remains the show that used all of me. I felt at the end of that show nightly that I was totally spent, and I was glad to be totally spent. I was absolutely exhausted and completely fulfilled. Because it allowed me to heal some of the broken places inside my African American spirit and soul. It allowed me to revisit the pains the past as a black man today and put a solve on those wounds. Because we still carry that stuff, you see it in the papers, you hear it on the television, we’re still fighting the good fight. It ain’t over. Even with Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us on Netflix.
I’m watching it and it’s the story of the Central Park Five. And that story is so familiar because it’s the story of The Scottsboro Boys just 50 years later.
It’s still happening today, there are young black and brown men being incarcerated on charges that shouldn’t be because people are lying. It’s a tragedy. So being able to step into Ozie Powell’s shoes, which is the young man that I portrayed was absolutely magical.
I didn’t know about it when I was young either and neither did a lot of people because it wasn’t in my textbook. It was not Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, or Harriet Tubman. It was Harriet Tubman got the slaves free and that was it. So I’m really grateful to have that history lesson and to work with that cast. It can be really intimidating to come into a room and usually the people you’re auditioning with you never got to work with. Because there’s usually one or two slots for black and brown people in a show. But here you got a show that was all black, which is a really powerful and scary thing.
Because we’re not used to that comradery, love, energy, and support that I felt as we brought this production to life. It was immeasurable and I have friends for life because of that. The run was very short, we needed more outreach and education about the show beforehand and that just wasn’t in place. We also hit at a strange time in New York City. October/November that’s holiday season, people want to see White Christmas and Radio City instead of trying to feel their feelings with Scottsboro Boys.
How would you describe workshopping and the lab process of a show especially now with Kiss Me, Kate?
James: Well I did the one-night concert of Kiss Me, Kate. I couldn’t do the lab for it because I was still in King Kong. But we worked hard in Kiss Me, Kate to be a classic show with a contemporary perspective. Especially with the Me-Too movement and we worked hard to diversify the cast. That cast is real multicultural which is wonderful. We also took out a lot of the “sirs” and “ma’ams” out of the text and I worked hard to find my version of Too Darn Hot. The director, Scott Ellis and Warren Carlyle really made it a Kiss Me, Kate for 2019.
How would you describe being on the ground floor of King Kong?
James: Haha! Well being in King Kong was like being in a contemporary dance company with a puppet. Because Drew McOnie, who is a star! Such a visionary as a director and choreographer. Comes from the Matthew Bourne, Royal Ballet, kind of school of learning. So he was creating theatre for dancers and that was remarkable because I was living my best contemporary dance life.
But I was like “oo I got to get off these knees because I want to keep dancing!” So when the time came I made the choice to move ahead. But that puppet is absolutely amazing. The men and women that operate him daily, there’s 13 people altogether. Three people do the voice and facial expressions, and then there’s ten puppeteers that bring Kong to life. It’s absolutely amazing to watch every night and putting together a show like that takes a lot a patience. A lot of patience. We were in tech for a month.
James: Yeah! It was pretty intense, and you know tempers get high. You want to ring somebody’s neck, but you don’t because you want to keep a job. He laughs. But it was really lovely, and I had a wonderful time and you make friends for life when you go through something like that.
There’s one more part of this interview that cover how he approaches the mythology of the Tin Man in the Wiz how he’s keeping it ‘Too Darn Hot’ in Roundabout Theatre’s revival of Kiss Me, Kate. You can follow James on instagram and twitter here! For more Beyond the Stage Door, click here!