Last week I found the following review/interview with Clay Aiken. It was first published in Broadway.com/buzz. The interview is rather long, but it is very interesting. I am sure I read this article in 2008, but there is a lot I didn’t remember.
The link for the story is no longer available so I tried to add pictures that I have that fit the text. I hope you enjoy this look into Clay Aiken history.
by Kathy Henderson
Everybody knows that Clay Aiken can sing, but—surprise!—he can also hold his own on a Broadway stage. To be more precise, he can hula, ogle scantily clad girls, discuss flying coconuts in a British accent, pretend to poop in his tunic, do a Cossack-style line dance and perform a lightning-fast patter song (“You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews”) without dropping a syllable. As Sir Robin in Spamalot, the 29-year-old American Idol runner-up appears perfectly at ease in the world of Monty Python—which, he recently claimed, he thought was a person until he saw the show. The “fish out of water” angle of Clay Aiken starring in Spamalot has already led to a couple of snarky magazine articles, including one in New York in which the writer recorded Aiken’s quotes in an exaggerated imitation of his North Carolina accent. No wonder his personal publicist now keeps a sharp ear (and a stopwatch) on Aiken’s interviews. The truth is, Clay is smart guy who knows what works for him, and he was shrewd enough to realize that Spamalot, in its own nutty way, would be a good match for his talents and his sunny sensibility. “If somebody said to me, ‘Who in this cast has never done theater?’ he is the last person I would have chosen,” says Hannah Waddingham, the Olivier Award-nominated British musical star who joined the Tony-winning musical as the Lady of the Lake the same night Aiken debuted. Three weeks into his run, Broadway’s new Sir Robin shared his impressions of life in Spamalot.
How did you feel after your first Broadway performance?
I thought, “Well, thank god that’s over!” [Laughs.] A lot of people had asked me if I was nervous, and I didn’t know the appropriate response. I really wasn’t. I don’t know if that’s bad—to not be nervous. Yeah, it was the first time I was doing this, but the audience thing doesn’t freak me out that much. I figured I was going to screw up at some point, so there’s no reason to be nervous about wondering when [laughs]. It was actually somewhat relaxing, because the rehearsals are sooo grueling. It’s not just the schedule, it’s all the information and learning “this that, this that, this that, this that.” Having the opportunity to go out and do everything you learned was kind of refreshing and kind of nice.
Had you ever acted on stage?
I played Will Parker in Oklahoma! when I was in tenth grade.
That’s a good part for you.
After that, nothing. I got cut from a high school musical [Guys and Dolls]. I must have done so bad, they didn’t want me back! [Laughs.]
Were you a fan of Broadway musicals?
I didn’t really know much about them. My knowledge of Broadway musicals ended at Oklahoma! When you do a show in high school, it’s supposed to be a learning experience, so you learn a little bit about where the show started and who wrote it and where it was produced, etcetera. I saw Miss Saigon on Broadway when I was in tenth grade; I drove up here with some friends from church and we saw that, and it was pretty impressive. But as I’ve told a number of people, the only other show I remember seeing outside of high school was a regional theater production of Big River when I was in seventh or eighth grade.
And Martin Moran, who preceded you as Sir Robin on Broadway, was the star of that show, right?
Yeah, that was kind of neat for me. I still haven’t met him, actually!
So, who talked you into coming to Broadway?
I wasn’t talked into it. My manager is not a pushy person at all; he brings opportunities to me and says, “Think about it. If you want to do it, that’s great. If you don’t, you don’t.” We had had…I wouldn’t say offers, I would say interest from a number of shows in the past.
I’m not telling who I didn’t pick! We’d had interest, but it was never something I ever thought I’d do. Nothing really struck me as exciting, but my manager said, “You know what? If you’re going to do one, I think [Spamalot] is the one to do.” And I was like, “Really?” So I saw the show and then I called him and said, “How do you figure this is the one to do?” He said, “Because of that reaction—because no one is going to expect it. It’s not a show where you get to sing huge ballads and moving, soaring numbers. It’s something completely different, and if you’re going to do something like this, you should do it not as ‘I’m bored,’ but as ‘This is an opportunity for me to grow and learn something new and branch out a little bit.'” And that’s the reason I wanted to do it.
You didn’t have to audition, or try out a British accent?
Well, almost all the people I work with are British; it’s been that way for five years, so I just mimic them. I did meet with [Spamalot director] Mike Nichols and we discussed some things and I did a few lines with him. They didn’t ask me to sing or dance; they probably should have asked me to dance. We sat down and very casually walked through a few things that they had already asked me to do before we committed to it on either side. I think they wanted to see how they felt about it and I wanted to see how I felt about it too, so we kind of auditioned each other. I didn’t audition Mike Nichols—don’t say that! But I wanted to get a feel for what this would be like, because I knew it was going to be very different from what I’m used to.
That meeting obviously went well.
There was a big concern for me—and I’ll speak to you about this because your outlet speaks directly to [theater] people—about what they call “stunt casting.” Based on some research I did, I know that a lot of diehard Broadway fans can’t stand it, so there was automatic concern that people within the industry were going to be upset that I was doing this because I took [the role] away from somebody else or I didn’t earn my way; I didn’t audition the way everybody else does. I was concerned about that, not just in terms of Broadway fans but people in the cast who might have wanted to see somebody else get it. And I could not have been more wrong when it comes to the people who work in the industry. There’s always going to be some 13-year-old sitting at his computer in Topeka who’s bitter. But every person I’ve worked with has been unbelievably phenomenal and welcoming.
Mike Nichols isn’t known for stunt casting. And in any case, you are a natural at this. What’s been the biggest challenge for you?
It’s so physically demanding, which is interesting because [original Sir Robin] David Hyde Pierce is an amazing actor, but he’s not a dancer and neither am I. The fact that they would ask us to do this part cracks me up. David Hibbard, who plays Patsy in the show and whose dressing room is next to mine, has become one of my favorite people because he’s been so warm and inviting. He was telling me that when he first got to the show, for whatever reason they had him play Robin for two weeks, and he said he was never able to breathe because it’s such a hard part. And he was in Cats for years. I said, “How interesting, because I can’t breathe either!” Every single night, it just kicks my rear end! It’s exhausting. So I’m not to the point where I think I’ve got everything right. They say that eventually your body gets used to it and it doesn’t wear you out as much. I’m hoping that when that day happens, I’ll be able to reflect a little bit more as I’m doing it. When I do a concert, I know the songs frontways and backways; I can sing a song and be thinking about something completely different while I’m doing it.
I doubt that!
Are you kidding me? When I’m singing a song onstage in concert, I’m wondering what I’m doing for dinner. I’m like, “Oh wow, look at that person in the third row. Does she know her buttons are not in order?” I don’t worry, I don’t listen to the lyrics, I don’t pay attention at all. I know that sounds horrible and I probably shouldn’t tell you that, but it’s true. I can think, “Oh that sounded good, I did well there.” I can critique myself as I go. Here, I’m still thinking about “OK, left, right, jump, left, up, down, left, left, switch switch, flip, turn!” I don’t have enough brain cells left over to consider whether or not I’m doing it well.
Is it fun to sing the show’s politically incorrect song about Broadway shows needing Jews to be a success?
You know, I’m kind of politically incorrect myself. I do worry sometimes, because it’s a very fine line between humor and anti-Semitism, so I’m very careful as to how I say it. It’s interesting, though—the first time I saw the show, I remember that being the song I laughed the hardest at. Every time I’ve seen it, it always gets the biggest laugh. I don’t know that I’m doing it justice because I can’t really get the audience’s reaction. I’ll watch other people’s scenes and listen to the audience laughing and enjoying themselves, but in mine, I can’t hear the audience for the amount of breathing that’s going on in my ear [laughs].
What are you enjoying most about being on Broadway?
I love the people I work with. I really enjoy getting there [to the theater] and talking to them and listening to what goes on backstage. It’s kind of nice to have a big group of people to work with as opposed to being by yourself [doing concerts]. I’ve only been doing this for three weeks, so it’s still new.
What’s been the biggest surprise?
I think I’ve been surprised at how much of a family the backstage is. David [Hibbard] put together this little quiz about knowing your fellow cast and crew members and whatnot. He got tiny secrets about each person, things that no one would expect about you, and he put about 100 of them into this quiz. You would not believe how much that has occupied everybody in the building. Everybody is running around trying to figure out everybody else’s thing. It’s really like a family.
How does eight Broadway shows a week compare in difficulty to ten weeks of competition on American Idol?
Sixteen weeks! Without question, Idol was harder because there was the rehearsal period, kind of like I was telling you about for this, and the performance period all put together. There were so many different things involved, with eight-hour days, 10-hour days, 13, 14, every day of the week on Idol. Here, it is eight shows a week, but only two and a half hours a night. The weekends are unbelievably exhausting because we do five shows, but Idol does beat it as far as the amount of work. I don’t think people understand how much work is involved for the contestants on that show. It’s not just showing up on Tuesday and Wednesday night. At the same time, it’s different than a touring schedule. On tour, I do five shows a week, and they’re not as physically exhausting because I’m not dancing. But I’m sleeping on a bus and traveling to a different city every night, so it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.
Are you surprised that so many American Idol alums have turned up on Broadway?
Not really. My situation is slightly different because I went into a show that was kind of unexpected; it’s not a singing show. The other people who have done stage work from Idol have done shows where singing is important, and Idol finds people who are vocally talented. Fantasia was unbelievable in The Color Purple, but we always knew she could sing; we knew she had the ability to perform on stage. And we knew, because she was on Idol, that she had the ability to work hard. The same, I think, is true for everybody who has done [Broadway]. Diana DeGarmo was there with Fantasia, Frenchie Davis, Ruben [Studdard] is about to head out [on tour in Ain’t Misbehavin’], so it doesn’t surprise me that much. If you can handle three weeks of Idol, you’ve got the stamina [to do Broadway] because it’s very stressful. I will say this, though: If I ever hear Simon Cowell insult someone on the show by using “You belong on Broadway” as a put-down, he can kiss my butt for that!
There you go!
People on Broadway are, without question, the most talented people in the country because they’re doing seven things at once! They’re dancing and they’re singing and they’re acting and they’re speaking in tongues and they’re playing piano and tapping. I mean, if Simon uses that as an insult again, he can kiss it! If you think about the people who are most well known for being phenomenal at their craft—Glenn Close as a prime example—the reason they’re so good is because they started on stage. If you can do this Broadway thing, you can do anything. I’m considering running for President! [Laughs.]
How do you see your career progressing? Will you continue to do covers or record new music?
We did the cover thing last time; it’s not a goal to do that again right now. Our next album is going to be all new stuff. That’s kind of what I wanted to do last time and we took a detour. We’re in the process of working on it. There’s not horribly much to say about the next album, but we’re hoping it’s out in May.
Where are you on the spectrum of, say, a singer like Michael Buble vs. the kind of pop music they play on a top-40 station?
I’m not going to compare myself to anybody. I don’t know that I want to be on the spectrum. I don’t plan to be on the radio. I’m not cool enough to be on radio. I’m still dorky and not relevant enough to some people to be on radio, and it’s not a goal of mine. We’ve got this amazing producer who’s going to do the entire album, and one of the challenges for him has been not worrying about radio, because he’s been so attuned to trying to make hits. We’re like, “Uhhh, nooo,” because once you try to cater to the radio stations, you stop catering to (a) the listener and … me. I was discussing this very thing with my executive producers the other day and we said, if you try to make the music fit what you think radio is going to want, you’re going to miss the mark. But if we just go out and do what we do well, then it’s going to be natural and maybe radio will like it. It’s not something that I’m averse to; I would absolutely love it if it happens, but it’s not something to work toward at the expense of doing what we want to do.
You were a teacher before American Idol, and now you’re involved with UNICEF. Do you see yourself performing for the rest of your life, or could you walk away and do something totally different?
I’m never really good at answering that question; the answer changes every day. I enjoy what I’m doing right now. As long as I’m having fun, I’m going to continue to do it. When it stops being fun, I’ll stop. But right now, it’s fun.