After starring in On The Town as Chip, Texas-native Jay Armstrong Johnson is taking on the titular role in Harold Prince’s operetta Candide. Based on Voltaire’s novel, Candide follows an optimistic young man as he faces brutal trials and tribulations—but don’t worry, it’s a comedy. Candide was originally composed by Leonard Bernstein in 1956, but it became a mainstay under Harold Prince’s direction. Prince directed the Candide revival at the New York City Opera in 1982, and now at 88 years old, he’s bringing it back as the opera rebounds from bankruptcy. This newest revival will run from January 6 to January 15 and has already expanded its run from six shows to ten.
Standing centerstage for this historic New York City Opera production might seem daunting for some, but it seems like the next natural step in Johnson’s career. Performing alongside Broadway powerhouses like Audra McDonald, starring in his own cabaret show at Feinstein’s/54 Below and appearing as a recurring character in the TV show Quantico, Johnson seems prepared for any challenge.
What are the differences between this operetta and Broadway theatre?
Johnson: It’s awesome just because the people I’m working with are living legends. Hal Prince and Pat Birch come from theatre, so the approach is very similar to a lot of Broadway shows I’ve done. I guess the biggest difference is the score. I’ve been working so terribly hard with my voice teacher to get up to par with these people that are literal opera singers. That’s been the biggest difference, trying to get my voice in shape.
Paste: What song are you most excited to perform?
Johnson: Probably my very first tune in the show, which is called “This Must Be So.” It’s a really sweet, short ballad where Candide has gone through his first trouble in life. He’s convincing himself that the world must still be good and this must be happening for a divine purpose. It’s a really sweet sentiment.
Paste: For Paste readers who aren’t familiar with Candide, who’s your character? How does he evolve throughout the course of the show?
Johnson: It’s based on the satire by Voltaire. It’s very much like Pippin if there are any musical theatre fans out there. Candide is a coming-of-age story. He runs the gamut of going through troubles in life. He really starts off as a student, learning and growing. Throughout the course of the show terrible, terrible things happen to him. It’s very satirical in nature, because all of these crazy things happen to Candide. He’s flogged, his love is raped, and she’s taken away from him multiple times. Yet there’s this character that keeps showing up saying “All is for the best.” How can that be for the best?
Candide really is a comedy, but Hal is doing an excellent job of reminding us where there are moments where we can really live truthfully and feel the depths of the pain.
When studying for it before the rehearsal process with the current political climate, I really do feel like the show is going to say something different than it said before in previous incarnations in terms of the fall of man and good vs. evil. It’s nice to be able to revisit it with new eyes and a new perspective.