by Sandi Durell
This zany, funfilled song and dance film musical is making its debut on May 15 worldwide on DVD and Digital on numerous platforms (Amazon, ITunes, Google Play) via JJSpotlightProductions.com. You can pre-order now! It’s filled with the tales, trials and tribulations of the many wannabes and more making their way to Broadway, hoping for stardom. You’ll meet the all-star cast waiting tables, slinging hash at Cafe Broadway as they sing and dance their way through the ups and downs while holding onto their dreams. You’re bound to laugh, cry and root for your own special star. You’ll also get a glimpse of some of your favorite celebrities.
Theater Pizzazz had a good time asking Jeffrey A. Johns (who both stars in and is one of the writers together with Arie Gonzalez), some pointed questions about Still Waiting in the Wings and here are his responses for you to enjoy.
SD: 1 – How did you first conceptualize Still Waiting in the Wings and why you felt it was important to bring to audiences?
JJ: This is my second movie. My initial film was called, Waiting in the Wings: The Musical with Lee Meriwether, Sally Struthers, Christopher Atkins, and Shirley Jones. While Still Waiting in the Wings follows the same characters as the initial film, we made sure each film could stand alone so that you don’t have to see one movie to see the other one. Lee Meriwether has become one of my closest friends and she really was the first person in the industry to believe in me as a filmmaker. She loved the script to Waiting in the Wings: The Musical and attended many film festivals with me promoting the film. When she spoke at film festivals, she mentioned that she dreamed of being in a movie musical and loved the movie, but was sad her character didn’t sing. It kind of became a gag when Lee Meriwether started telling people, “I wanted to sing in the movie, but Jeffrey didn’t think I could sing.” Lee Meriwether had given me so much and I wanted to create a project to showcase her in a big musical number. I wanted singers, dancers, and great costumes to give Lee that big movie musical moment she had always wanted. That little idea was the start of the film Still Waiting in the Wings. Lee Meriwether was in her 80s at the time, but her talent and energy were as strong as ever. Shortly after, I realized my driving force behind the film was the simple question: “Why should dreams ever have an expiration date?” Maybe your big break won’t come in your 20s or 30s. I feel that resonates with so many people in the industry that believe they may be washed up by the time they are 30. I also knew I wanted to create a musical film about theatre people and all the behind the scenes antics involved in this industry so the themes tied together beautifully.
SD: 2 – You had some major Tony and Emmy Award-winning stars – Chita Rivera, Ed Asner, Bruce Vilanch and others like Lee Meriwether, Patricia Richardson, Seth Rudetsky . . . how did they get involved in SWITW?
JJ: As a performer, I have always been inspired by other actors. When writing the screenplay with my co-writer Arie Gonzalez, I envisioned having various famous actors reading the lines in the script. When the screenplay was finished, I tried my hardest to contact those actors’ agents and do whatever it took to try to get them involved. I’ve moved filming dates, film locations, and adjusted scenes to cater to those actors. Most importantly, these are roles I think showcase these actors well, so they shine in the film even if it’s in a smaller role. It took me about six years to get Chita Rivera involved. I tried to get her in my first film and she even declined my offer several times for Still Waiting in the Wings, but when I finally got that “yes,” it was truly an incredible moment. Her personal assistant called and said, “Sit down. I have some good news for you.” Chita Rivera is one of my inspirations and I remember seeing her on stage and thinking, someday I need to work with her. It might have taken some time to get her on set, but she was an absolute joy, and working with her has truly been one of the highlights of my life.
SD: 3 – When Chita talks about following your dreams, that was good advice back in the day, but now with social media dominating who actually becomes “stars,” can you talk about how much harder it’s become for real talent to have those dreams come true?
JJ: I think the classic audition format is still there for people, but it’s not the only way to “make it” anymore. It’s definitely a different world than even 10 years ago with social media dominating who becomes a “star” in many cases. I think all performers need to realize being an actor is no longer enough. I think it’s about figuring out creative ways to showcase your talents and your uniqueness. The great news is you don’t need a major studio or production company to create work and get it out to the public. Social media is especially great for people who don’t live in the heart of big cities, but have big dreams, aspirations, and creativity. I think people with talent will still be discovered, but won’t necessarily become an overnight celebrity like social media stars.
SD: 4 – You started out in musical theater. How have your dreams changed over the years, and what are some you still have for the future? Can you also tell us who was the first celebrity who influenced your work?
JJ: I am one of the biggest musical theatre geeks you’ll ever meet. Theatre will always be the greatest love of my life and nothing makes my heart race like musical theatre. Filmmaking is very different, but I have really developed a love for that as well. I think making a movie musical is a great blending of both art forms. What I love most about a movie musical is that I get to bring my love of musical theatre into people’s homes that don’t often get to experience live musicals. I think my dreams and passion have been adjusted based on opportunities that have arrived growing as an artist and becoming more fascinated and curious about different elements of the arts.
I think I was most influenced by Carol Channing. She was so unique, so different, and not the “type” of person we would expect to be successful. Not only did she do it, she became a mega-star. Whenever I felt discouraged in the industry, I would try not to let excuses like ‘I can’t get this because I’m not the typical whatever,’ get in my way. She proved to me that you don’t always have to fit the mold to be successful. You sometimes have to create your own mold and I think that’s what Carol did so beautifully.
My biggest goal for the future is on the horizon right now. We are having the world premiere stage adaptation of my film, Waiting in the Wings: The Musical which will feature songs from both Waiting in the Wings and Still Waiting in the Wings along with ten new songs. To see a show I created be fully produced on stage is an excitement I can’t begin to express. It will premiere at the Rose Center Theater in Westminster, CA with an incredible production team including my co-writer, Arie Gonzalez, orchestrator, Jeff Batdorf, and director/musical director, Tim Nelson. After this staging, my goal is to start working on getting the show ready for an Off-Broadway run as I can’t wait to get the stage show to New York City.
SD: 5 – We hear so many crazy stories about making films and working with celebrities. Tell us a funny behind-the-scenes story in the process of getting SWITW made.
JJ: Celebrity filming days are usually pretty tight because we only have them for a certain amount of time and we need to make every minute count. So those days are a bit of a blur for me. I have lots of stories, but thankful to say that none of those days really had any crazy antics for us. I can tell you about the most interesting part of filming was giving a film shot in California the New York City vibe. I wasn’t content at just grabbing exterior shots and calling it a day. I said, “This film is about Broadway and the energy of New York. How could we not have New York exterior scenes?” I insisted that we had to go to New York for some filming. My choreographer, Cassie Nordgren, was based in the city, so we had many conversations on how to film in New York and hired our New York crew. That idea of having a simple scene grew into capturing the excitement of New York City in the opening number of the film.
We were in Central Park at the Bethesda Fountain the minute we could get into the park meeting the cast outside the park before sunrise. I wanted to beat the crowds and get clean shots of the fountain and our dancers without other people interrupting the shot. Then we raced to Times Square to film the Naked Cowboy (which took weeks to work the logistics for this filming), and he made me my own Naked Cowboy outfit (a.k.a. Naked Cowboy underwear, a guitar, a cowboy hat, and boots). We also needed to film in very specific zones and avoid all the copyrighted characters that roam Times Square as well as locate all our background actors for the scene. I mean, just try to welcome background actors to the filming when you are dressed like the Naked Cowboy! Ironically, we filmed Chita Rivera’s scene months after the rest of the movie. One of her requests was to film in New York City, so we all got back together and added some more New York charm to the film and some amazing theatre actors to the cast including Nick Adams and Seth Rudetsky.
SD: 6 – What do you want people to take away with them after seeing Still Waiting in the Wings?
JJ: We almost held off the release of the movie with everything going on in the world, but realized that since theatres all over the country are closed right now, many of us are missing the arts in our life. If this movie can bring the joy of musicals to people right now, I couldn’t be more thrilled. We could all use a smile and some laughter right now and I hope the film can bring that to people during this difficult time.