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On Our Radar:
If the name Jeffrey A. Johns doesn't ring a bell...it soon will!
Jeffrey A. Johns already has a very colorful career. A virtuoso entertainer encompassing practically all genres, he is a producer, writer, director, actor, singer, dancer and the founder of JJ Spotlight Productions. He is also this segment’s featured Artist Spotlight on The Show Report.
Since Jeffrey was old enough to talk, he found himself on the stage performing. In fact, he was performing in his church choir before he even knew how to read! He wasn’t much older before he became a popular actor in the oldest running Minstrel Show in the world. So, I guess it’s no surprise that Jeffrey still loves the music of Vaudeville. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have other interests. When he wasn’t on stage, Jeffrey became a competitive swimmer and an Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America. After high school, Jeffrey went off to college and continued studying theatre, but decided he also wanted to focus on children’s entertainment, graduating from Manhattanville College in New York with a degree in Elementary Education and Performance.
Following college, Jeffrey moved to California where he performed at Disneyland (“Mary Poppins”), with regional theater companies (“Barnum,” “West Side Story,” “Pippin,” “Hello Dolly,” “Fiddler On The Roof,” “Bye, Bye Birdie,” “Pageant: The Musical,” “Blood Brothers”), on national/international tours (Sesame Street Live - Dubai), all the while sweeping movie theatre floors, and living off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Eventually he headed to Las Vegas performing with the cast of “Naked Boys Singing” and “Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding” at the Planet Hollywood. With his return to California, Jeffrey continued to perform in theatre, but also started working in film and television. He appeared several times on “America’s Got Talent” and a variety of television series, web-series, and feature films (“BoysTown,” “Chelsea Lately”) and even wrote a children’s book entitled, “Have You Ever Tried to Stop the Rain?” He also always wanted to be a cartoon, so he loved performing as “Peter Pan” with Disney and in the live-action animated short film, “MacQuity.”
Then came 2014’s feature film, “Waiting in The Wings: The Musical.” Suddenly Jeffrey A. Johns found his calling as writer, creator, actor and producer, winning Best Actor in a Feature Film at the Pasadena International Film Festival and the Fort Myers Beach Film Festival for his portrayal of Anthony in the film. He has since co-written and co-produced its sequel (2018), “Still Waiting in the Wings,” and is presently beginning Tech Week at Rose Center Theater in Westminster with the World Premiere of the brand new stage musical, “Waiting in the Wings: The Musical,” (based on the hit movie) directed by Tim Nelson, set to open on November 5th, running through November 14th.
The musical is the story of two entertainers, destined for the big time, who are mismatched in a casting office from two very different online contests. Tony, a stripper from New York, is cast in an Off-Broadway musical and needs to trade in his tear-away trunks for tap shoes and tights. Anthony, a naive musical theatre enthusiast from Montana, needs to decide if he can take it all the way, just to stay in town.
But hey, I’ll let Jeffrey tell you more about that. We recently caught up with him and asked him to let us know a little more about the musical, and also what’s been happening with him lately.
"Still Waiting in the Wings" has made the rounds of various LGBTQ festivals across the country where it has garnered several top awards, including Best Feature Film and Best Ensemble Cast, and has been called “a backstage musical of the classic variety.” What has this recognition meant for you and the rest of the cast and crew?
"My goal when creating work is to bring joy and smiles to an audience. I feel there is enough drama in the world that I would love to create shows that gives an audience just 'a spoonful of happiness.' As far as awards, it never was a goal. I mean, most award winning films (like the Academy Awards) are not focused on light-hearted comedies.....let alone a musical comedy. However, being acknowledged with awards is an honor I can't even begin to explain. While winning Best Feature Film at a festival is the greatest honor for any film, I think I was most excited about winning the award for the Best Ensemble Cast. 'Waiting In The Wings' might be Anthony's story, but it certainly is an ensemble cast and I love to acknowledge the actors that helped bring the film to life."
If I’m correct, a few years ago you were somewhat hesitant to make a stage production of the film. Why did you decide to now take the next step and produce a musical theatre stage production at the Rose Center Theater, and what do you think will be the audience reaction compared to the film?
"I always wanted to adapt 'Waiting In The Wings' to the stage, but that is a huge undertaking. I didn't know how realistic that really would be. I was focused on the sequel to the film, 'Still Waiting In The Wings.' Then, I was starting preparation for the third film in series which would have been the Christmas movie. It just didn't seem realistic that a stage show was in the cards. I just didn't have time to make it happen. Theatre companies had approached me about the idea because it was already a musical. I think people don't realize you can't just take the movie script and pop it onto the stage."
"Then a little over 3 years ago, my life changed as the house I was living in burned to the ground. My car melted in the driveway, I had no renter insurance, no clothes, and I lost almost everything. I was in such a bad financial state and knew the dream of the Christmas movie was off the table and was trying to figure out how to even finish the release of 'Still Waiting In The Wings.' It was overwhelming, but I had so much love poured my way, especially by my friends in the theatre community. I knew I needed to stay creative and focus on what I could control. I could be sad about the fire all I wanted, but it won't change the fact that it happened. About 2 or 3 days after the fire, I decided it was time to write that stage version. I needed a distraction, I needed a creative outlet, and I could not help smiling when I began bringing new life to the characters I created for the film."
"I knew I was free to write a stage show and hoped a theatre company would pick it up after I completed writing it. I contacted songwriters from the film, getting permission to use their music in the stage show and created new songs to bring the movie to life onstage. I always thought, even in a bad situation...good things can happen. I've always dreamed of having a show on the stage and if it wasn't for the fire, I'm not sure it ever would have happened. With that being said, I can't even imagine how I will feel now when opening night arrives."
"I am thrilled that the Rose Center Theater picked up the show. Not only do I love working with Tim Nelson, but it is one of the most positive theater environments you'll ever experience. It's also great that Tim Nelson, Chris Caputo, Jeff Batdorf and the entire creative team are so excited about bringing 'Waiting In The Wings' to life on stage.
When people are passionate about a project...it shows. I have 4 choreographers (Arianna Hyatt, Jennifer Kornswiet, Jenn Matthews, Trevin Stephenson) working on the show to bring all these original numbers to life. With no previous production to look at for choreography inspiration on many of the numbers, they are completely creating new concepts. When you're doing a new show, even behind the scenes it is completely different, from the design of the program layouts (with guest artist inserts) to the marketing, and I have been so thankful for Sherre Titus and Ryan Salazar. I can tell you from the rehearsals that this world premiere could never have received more love than at the Rose Center Theater. I am so excited about the new journey for 'Waiting In The Wings' beginning at the Rose Center Theater."
The films were orchestrated by Arie Gonzalez with original songs from a variety of artists. What is your favorite musical number and why?
"I have a wonderful working relationship with all my songwriters and think every song brings something special to the table. I can't really pick a favorite. Some songs make me want to sing...some make me want to dance....and some just bring the story to life beautifully. Arie served as my co-writer for the stage show and Jeff Batdorf has stepped up to the plate to orchestrate the stage musical. Jeff has been working with me throughout COVID to make sure the show really pops musically and am so impressed with his work."
I heard on good authority that following the world premiere, you will start working towards the Off-Broadway run of the show. Is that correct?
"That would be the goal. Fingers crossed!!! This is a show about theatre people, for theatre people (and people who love theatre). After theatre missing from our lives for so long...I think it might be the best time ever for 'Waiting In The Wings' to head Off-Broadway."
I believe it’s on record that “Annie” is your favorite musical. Is there a reason you like it so much?
"I do like 'Annie' a lot. I know...that is not the show a grown man typically would put on the top of his list! LOL I don't know if 'Annie' is my absolute favorite show, but 'Annie' is one of my favorite characters ever brought to life in the theatre. I love the optimism that no matter how difficult things may be, 'the sun'll come out tomorrow.' I really live by that philosophy. I think we often don't realize how powerful that message is because it comes to us in such a cute little tune!"
I’m curious how much of the story is from personal experience or based on people you know?
"More than I'd like to admit! LOL."
You had some major Tony and Emmy Award-winning stars in your films, “Waiting in the Wings,” and “Still Waiting…the Musical,” like Chita Rivera, Ed Asner, Bruce Vilanch, Lee Meriwether, Sally Struthers, Christopher Atkins, Shirley Jones, Patricia Richardson, Seth Rudetsky. Did it take a lot of persistence or special negotiating in getting any of them onboard?
"It took me over 5 years to get Chita Rivera to agree to be in the second film!! I tried to get her involved with the first film, but just didn't work out. Some would say I am relentless! LOL Chita is such an inspiration....and was worth the years of work to get her on set. Honestly, working with her was one of the most incredible days of my life. She also said I would be a great Albert Peterson in 'Bye Bye Birdie. She was in the show on Broadway opposite Dick Van Dyke where he played Albert.....so I took that as a HUGE compliment!"
There are so many crazy stories about making films and working with celebrities. Do you have any behind-the-scenes story you’d like to share, or funny thing that happened while filming?
"I had to get special permission and clearance to use the Tony Award on film. The American Theatre Wing gave me permission and part of the agreement included the rental of a Tony Award. When Chita heard I had to rent the Tony Award, she said, 'Why didn't you just tell me to bring mine? How much did they charge you?' I said, 'It doesn't matter.' She asked again, 'How much did they charge you?' I responded, 'I needed clearance so it was part of the agreement.' Chita said, 'Just whisper in my ear how much they charged you.' I finally just whispered in her ear the Tony Award fee and Chita lightheartedly slapped me in the face and said, 'You should have told me to bring my Tony Award!'" LOL "The day after the filming in NYC with Chita Rivera, I had to return the Tony Award to the American Theatre Wing, but I was in NYC and needed to get rush tickets to a Broadway show before I headed back to California. I actually waited outside a Broadway theatre for rush tickets with a Tony Award sitting in my bag!"
I have heard that you performed at a very young age in the oldest Minstrel show in the world living off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I also read that you were Peter Pan at Disney, a children’s book author, and later you were in a Vegas show called Naked Boys Singing. If all this is true, sounds like you’ve had quite an amazing life. Can you elaborate at all?
"I guess it is safe to say, I don't turn down work! LOL. I really believe it's about knowing yourself and not being afraid to grow as an artist."
Thank you Jeffrey!
With Chris Daniels — October 30, 2021
The "Artist Spotlight" is a continuing interview series highlighting entertainment professionals, working actors, singers, stage managers, producers, directors, designers and others in the arts and entertainment industry. This segment features Jeffrey A. Johns, the man behind "Waiting in the Wings: The Musical," a world premiere stage adaptation of the 2014 hit musical film by the same name, set to play at the Rose Center Theater November 5-14.
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