Monday, 18 January 2016

Big Interview: Joe Aaron Reid

Broadway star Joe Aaron Reid is currently making his London theatre debut as Benny in In The Heights at the King’s Cross Theatre.

Last year Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes' musical transferred to the King’s Cross Theatre following its UK premiere at the Southwark Playhouse in 2014. Directed by Luke Sheppard with choreography by Drew McOnie, In The Heights has extended its run several times.

Joe‘s Broadway credits include: Stephen in IF/THEN alongside Idina Menzel, Fred Casely in Chicago, Ronnie Driscoll in Curtains, understudy Willie Lopez in Ghost The Musical, ensemble in Catch Me If You Can and understudy Howard in Finian's Rainbow. 

His off-Broadway credits feature: Daniel in Once On This Island, Howard in Finian's Rainbow, The Tin Pan Alley Rag, Kismet, Why We Tell the Story and Lines. Joe’s U.S. regional theatre credits include: Gaby in On The Town (5th Avenue Theater), Gymnasia in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Williamstown), understudy Coalhouse in Ragtime (Paper Mill Playhouse), Ronnie Driscoll in Curtains (Ahmanson Theatre) and Munkustrap in Cats (Northern Stage).

In addition, Joe appeared in both seasons of U.S. musical drama Smash and played DJ Shaggy in Jerry Mitchell's workshop of Legally Blonde The Musical. I recently spoke to Joe about what makes In The Heights a dream job, the differences between working in New York and London plus his experiences with IF/THEN, Smash and more.

In The Heights marks your London theatre debut, how did your casting come about?
I moved here last March; a friend put me in touch with an agent and I was auditioning for a couple of shows. I actually booked another show that ended up getting cancelled (Stardust Road). Two days after I found out it was cancelled I had an audition for In The Heights, I think they had been re-casting for quite some time and I was brought in when it was final call backs. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason because the other show was only supposed to run for a couple of weeks whereas In The Heights was going to run for a month… but it has kept extending and extending. It has been a blessing, for sure!

Had you seen In The Heights on Broadway? Were you already familiar with it?
I saw it in New York when it was on Broadway. Also I had a bunch of friends who were in it and they did a reunion concert about four years ago which I went to see too. I knew the cast recording, but I found out that I didn’t know it as well as I thought I knew it [laughs]. When I started rehearsals I realised that there were some songs I had listened to over and over again but also songs I didn’t know so well… they said “Surprise – you’re in that number too!” [laughs]. So some bits were completely new to me!

Joe & Lily Frazer in In The Heights

How did it feel to go into rehearsals? There were quite a few cast members returning from its original London run as well as some newcomers.
It was interesting; out of all the Broadway shows I did I only replaced one time which was Chicago. Originating vs replacing is very different; I knew some of them had already been in the show at the Southwark Playhouse so I didn’t know how to mentally prepare myself. I wasn’t a huge fan of being a replacement because you have to stand on the same spot the person before you stood on and so on. However, when we started Luke (Sheppard) the director said “I know some people have done it before and others are new but this is a fresh production”. At Southwark it was a thrust stage but here at the King’s Cross Theatre we’re doing it in traverse. It was very important to Luke that, even though some of what we did would be similar to what had been done before, we created a new piece. 

That was very reassuring for me because from the moment he said that I didn’t feel like I was just going to be a replacement Benny who was going to be told exactly where to stand. At one point early on Luke said he was going to let me be free and have a little play. He obviously reigned it in a bit later, but I enjoyed being able to be very free to try things out. The guys who had done it before were very warm and welcoming to those of us who were new. It feels like I’ve been part of a completely new production which has been completely wonderful!

Joe in In The Heights
The energy onstage is always so incredible, what is the vibe like backstage amongst the cast?
It’s… silly [laughs]. We have a lot of fun and a lot of jokes. The last show I did – IF/THEN – I was working with a lot of people who were older than me whereas in this cast I’m one of the elders so it’s a change of tone for me. It brings out the kid inside me and we laugh a lot [laughs]. You can’t make a mistake onstage because everyone will laugh at you the second you come off – it’s really fun.

There isn’t another show like In The Heights in London, audiences have never seen anything like it over here! How does it feel to perform the piece each night?
It’s interesting because the audiences are different each night. Because there’s nothing else like it in London, people sit down and have no idea what they are about to see. Sometimes they take a little while to warm up, some people might think ‘rap isn’t my thing’ or whatever but then they realise there’s so much more to it. Then you have audiences who come in and are electrifying from the start which really pumps us up. To perform it every night… I mean… I love it! It’s so satisfying.

My track in the show is difficult. I quite like the emotional journey that Benny gets to go on, but by the end of the show I’m pretty tuckered out. The music, the story and the characters just warm my heart – I’m so lucky to get to do this show every day… and sometimes twice a day! 

So what can someone who knows nothing about In The Heights expect?
There’s something for everyone; in the context of the show everything – like the rap – makes sense. Lin-Manuel Miranda is such a genius, the writing of the songs is so smart and so character driven that the music becomes another form of narrative. There are some very poignant musical moments as well as huge dance numbers – it has everything. You’ll laugh and cry, I don’t know what else you could want from a show!

The In The Heights ensemble

You’ve been keeping yourself busy since the show opened! Did you enjoy performing alongside your friend Julia Murney at her concert last November?
It was really fun! I had done David Bedella’s chat show, but apart from that it was my first cabaret over here and my first time performing at the Hippodrome! I had a great time, she’s my friend from New York. Now that I’m over here, I welcome any chance I get to have a taste of New York and a taste of home. It makes me feel really happy and comfortable, she actually stayed with us whilst she was over here – it was so nice! We sang ‘Suddenly Seymour’ which is probably a show I’ll never get to do [laughs] so I was so happy when she suggested that song. It was really great!

How have you found the differences between the New York and London theatre worlds?
It is different, I think American audiences are more outspoken. There are big cultural differences – I think Brits are a little bit more reserved. We have a small house that seats 500 which is why it’s so rewarding at the end of the show when people stand up and are clapping and cheering. In terms of the theatre scene in general, musicals are big and splashy in the U.S. and there are a lot of Broadway transfers in London. There are other differences between the shows which are hard to pinpoint. I find myself really drawn in to the dramas over here. I love some of the different spaces in London, especially the smaller ones. When someone asks me to see a play over here… I’m in… there’s nothing else like it!

Joe & Lily Frazer in In The Heights
So in 2014 I went to New York and saw a little show called IF/THEN…
[laughs] Did you like it?

I loved it! It took risks, the music was incredible and I was fascinated by the concept. What was the whole experience like for you? It was a very special show for a lot of people.
That year was life changing in both my professional and personal lives. Every time you start a new show you put your whole heart into it and I was lucky enough to be working on a piece which was based on a completely new idea with a cast and team who were all icons to me. It took me a while to settle down in rehearsals and to accept that these incredible people were my cast mates [laughs]. It was a mixed bag with the critics, but I found the show to be very poignant and very universal which is why a lot of people who came to see the show really loved it. 

In my personal life that year I got married and had two children – I don’t know if I would have even been prepared to do those things in my life before, the show really fostered me through the ‘what ifs’ and all the questions I had. IF/THEN put me into a different frame of mind and I was able to attack my personal life. Quite honestly I think it’s one of the best shows I have ever been a part of. I am still very, very close to the people I worked with. Some of us still tweet at each other and email each other every week. When I came to London the U.S. tour was going out and I felt bad that I couldn’t be there. 

I think IF/THEN allowed me personal growth as well as professional growth… and now here I am living in London! I have days when I say to myself ‘What if?’, but I know if you don’t make a choice nothing will get accomplished. I will forever be grateful to have been a part of that show.

It needs to come to London!
[laughs] I spoke to David Stone the producer about that and I think there’s a little bit of concern humour-wise that it wouldn’t necessarily translate the same way it did in New York – because the whole thing is set in New York, and now that I don’t live in New York any more I kind of get that. I think it should come – maybe not the same production that was on Broadway – but I think somebody should mount it here. I think it would work somewhere like the Southwark Playhouse, where In The Heights came from, or the St James and then see where it goes. It is a great show and the world would benefit from seeing it. 

Idina Menzel and the Broadway cast of IF/THEN

We also have to mention Smash! What was it like to venture into the world of television?
I loved it, loved it, loved it – it was so much fun! When you do a show you are confined by what you can do eight times a week whereas when you’re doing musicals for television you can try out different things and do crazy dance moves that you wouldn’t be able to do eight times a week! 

I was fortunate enough to work on both seasons of the show. My time got interrupted a bit because I was working on it and was then cast in Ghost The Musical which meant I wasn’t able to finish season one. But then when Catch Me If You Can ended I was able to do the majority of season two. I had the best time! You’re making great money, working with great friends, doing great numbers plus it’s like working on a Broadway show that your friends and family get to see at home. It was great to get called by my parents who would be like, “We watched you tonight, it was so great”! I’ve always had a few friends who have come to see me in my Broadway shows, but there’s something to be said for everybody being able to watch you easily at home. The whole thing was super fun!

I’m sending you to a desert island and you can only take three musical theatre songs with you. What are you going to take and why?
Oooo… three musical theatre songs… errrrm. I’m going to say ‘Your Daddy's Son’ from Ragtime because first of all, for me, Ragtime was a life changing musical and it’s my dream show as well!

I just read that you were finishing college and skipped a panel day in New York to secretly audition for the production at Paper Mill Playhouse!
[laughs] I did… and I booked it! I was like ‘oh my god I can’t believe I booked the show’ [laughs]. I love that show, it is the perfect show for me! I would take that song in particular because I love my Dad – I love my mum too, but my dad and I have not always seen eye to eye on everything and so when I hear that song it makes me think of my dad. It just hits me in that place – if I need a good cry I’ll listen to that song [laughs]… I can’t believe I just told you that!

What else? Right now I’m very into Hamilton and I love the song ‘Wait For It’. Anyone who has heard the song will know there is something magical about it. It makes me want to be a better me [laughs], I could listen to that song all day every day. So that’s what I want in my life on my desert island!

My last one… oh god this is hard! Only three songs?! I feel like I need something light to get me through it [laughs]. I’m going to go with… this is going to sound so camp! 'Gimme Gimme' from Thoroughly Modern Millie because I have to lighten things up! 'Gimme Gimme' will give me all the musical theatre feels that I need! …I’m so embarrassed right now!

What’s it like to have so much support behind you from the theatre worlds on both sides of the pond?
It’s the best! As an artist you go out there and do what you do and hopefully change people; whether that change is small or massive. The fact that we’re able to make people happy enough for them to let us know how happy they are is amazing – at the end of the day that’s why we do it. To have fans out there who want to let us know that they enjoyed the show and can’t wait to come back with all their friends makes me feel so lucky, grateful and thankful. Keep it coming! It really makes a difference, it makes me want to go to work and give it my all. 

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

In The Heights is currently booking at the King's Cross Theatre to 10th April 2016.

Read our interviews with David Bedella & Victoria Hamilton-Barritt

Photo Credit 2-5: Johan Persson

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