By Brian Scott Lipton . . .

Through his stage appearances in such shows as On the Town, Hair, Scotland PA, and Hands on a Hardbody, Jay Armstrong Johnson has proven himself to be one of musical theater’s most versatile – and adorable – performers. He’s also become a favorite of patrons of cabaret audiences, for both his solo shows and his annual “I’ve Put a Spell on You” show on Halloween.

While Johnson may not be back on Broadway this fall, he’ll definitely return to Feinstein’s/54 Below on September 1 – his actual 34th birthday – for Jay’s Birthday Bash: There is No Place Like Home, an evening devoted primarily to his love of country music, that will also to be live-streamed. He’ll be joined by a six-piece band led by Will Van Dyke and singers Amanda Williams Ware and Alison Robinson.

Theater Pizzazz recently spoke to him about the show, surviving the pandemic, his Texas roots, and his future career plans.

TP: So you’re a Virgo, like me. Do you believe in astrology?

JAJ: I do and I hear that’s very Virgo-like. I really got into reading my chart and learning about my moon and rising signs. I do have the Co-star app, which offers you daily personalized horoscopes, to see what energies are swirling around me. And as I’ve studied astrology more, it’s really helped me understand my life.

TP: That must have come in handy during the pandemic. How did you hold up?

JAJ: It was really hard finding work during the pandemic, so I mostly did private acting lessons and I taught a month-long theater camp in Fort Worth. I always love teaching between gigs; it helps keeps thing focused for me. I also got a lot of TV auditions, and while I didn’t book anything, I did come close.

TP: Please tell me about the genesis of your birthday show and its focus on country music?

JAJ: I grew up in Fort Worth, and my earliest memories of music was that my dad was a singer/drummer at a local country club, and I used to go listen to him all the time. And being a kid in Texas, country music was on the radio all time. I think what country musicians do really well, like theater artists, is tell a strong story that they weave into the music. It’s the real reason I love it!

TP: You could have been the next Luke Bryan or Thomas Rhett. Why not?

JAJ: I thought about pursuing just singing as a career, but from an early age, I wanted to be actor. I think I’ve used my favorite star, Reba McEntire, as an example; someone who started as just as singer and then expanded into more forms of performance from TV to Broadway. And let’s face it, if I wanted to be a country music star, I really should have pursued guitar.

TP: What music can we expect to hear on September 1?

JAJ: I kind of started with songs I loved growing up, 1980s and 90s country hits by Garth Brooks and Brooks & Dunn, and I relistened to a lot of them in order to make some choices. I have to admit I didn’t know Dolly Parton’s music growing up, but I came to learn about her a bit later in life. Right before the pandemic, I listened to her podcast, Dolly Parton’s America, and I realize she has so much influence on the world because she lets her heart speak for herself.  She tries to reach all audiences, all creeds, all races, so naturally, I am doing a whole Dolly medley. A few songs of the ones I’ve chosen are pretty obscure because I think it makes a show more interesting. But I was also aware that you need songs that you have a personal connection to and good stories for patter. So, you’ll also hear about some hot summer nights in Texas!

TP: I know the future is a bit uncertain, but can we expect another I Put a Spell On You show in October?

JAJ: Absolutely! And although we had to do it virtually last year, we’re hoping to do it live this year, which means we’re trying to take what we did last year and translate it to a live show –and that is proving to be a lot harder than I thought. A lot of the challenge has to do with creating a new narrative for the Sanderson Sisters, while keeping the whole thing funny and kitschy. We’re reaching out to everyone who did the show last year and hoping to keep as much of the cast as possible. It’s hard being a producer.

TP: I hope none of this means we won’t be seeing you back on the Broadway stage?

JAJ; I am definitely not giving up on theater and am always workshopping new musicals and plays, But I know the business of Broadway is selling tickets, so I am also trying to find a higher profile in other mediums. I remember Keith Carradine telling me during Hands on a Hardbody that he did a lot of TV and film just to support his theater habit. I look to people like Keith and Neil Patrick Harris and Andrew Rannells as my role models.

Photos: Matthew Murphy