NEW YORK — While all his friends were jamming out to Def Leppard or the Scorpions, Brian d'Arcy James was in a different state of mind — he was listening to Billy Joel.
"He was my North Star," the two-time Tony Award nominee says about the Piano Man. "He's just one of those artists, for whatever reason, who sort of plops down in your life at a formative stage and I latched onto him. I got a lot of crap for that in eighth grade."
James gets the last laugh next week when he takes the stage of the new nightclub 54 Below to sing some of his favorite songs, including some by his beloved Joel.
James calls the show "Under the Influence," a tip of his hat to the classic pop and rock tunes of the 1970s and '80s he adored while growing up.
Backed by two horn players, a guitar, a bass, a piano and two backup singers, he will belt out tunes by Squeeze, Steve Winwood, Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson, as well as covers from more contemporary acts such as Adele and Gabe Dixon. He even plans to throw in a few of his own.
"This is really a mini dream come true," James says.
James has been a Broadway fixture for years, able to be dramatic in such plays as "Time Stands Still" and "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" and carry a tune in musicals such as "Next to Normal," ''Shrek," ''Sweet Smell of Success," ''Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Titanic." Those outside the theater world might know him as the long-suffering Frank, husband of Debra Messing's character, on the NBC series "Smash."
James' career is hitting a purple patch, with recent appearances in HBO's "Game Change" and a story arc in Showtime's "The Big C" with Laura Linney and John Benjamin Hickey. He's been asked to help in a reading of the new rock musical "Something As Big As This" next month and also snagged a scene or two in "Admission," an upcoming film starring Paul Rudd and Tina Fey.
The nightclub act represents a new direction for the singer and actor who has never before commanded the stage solo for a night of cabaret in New York. He'll open his set with Winwood's "Take It as It Comes," which has the appropriate lines, "Raise the window on another day/Take it as it comes/Just an actor waiting for a new play."
"I've had lots of experience where I've had to sing songs I didn't really want to sing," he says. "This is a chance for me to be selfish in a way. This is the stuff that I would choose to sing because it's the music that I love."
He recently sat down with The Associated Press in the basement venue he'll be singing in to discuss his song list, what he'll wear and whether he'll return for the second season of "Smash."
AP: How did you come up with the concept of the show?
James: I'm just singing pop songs that I really, really love. All the advice from people who really know this world is, "Do something that you love. And if you enjoy it then hopefully that will be infectious." So that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to be indulgent and honor my own satisfaction first. That may be the life or the death of me. We'll find out.
AP: And you'll sneak in some of your own songs?
James: I won't be sneaky about it. I'm definitely going to put some of my stuff in there. If given the opportunity to do this, why not just let it all fly? This is the music that influenced my ear and I've been writing music as a hobby all my life. So this is a chance for that to be an extension, an opportunity to let people hear it.
AP: The songs you've picked aren't in the traditional set list at a nightclub. People might expect Broadway show tunes.
James: Yes, I feel like I am taking a bit of a chance by saying, "Hey, you might want to hear me sing 'Marry Me' from 'Titanic' or something from 'Sweet Smell of Success,' but that's not going to happen." Hopefully, the music is the thing that will be successful in terms of how people receive it. It all goes back to: What am I going to have the most fun doing? Hopefully that will be something that people will feel. If they're not fans of three-chord pop songs, then maybe I can make them fans.
AP: Fans of yours were waiting patiently for you to sing on "Smash." When you finally did in Episode 8, it was a warbling version of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" while accompanied by "Guitar Hero." Did you purposely try not to blow everyone away?
James: My intent was not to make it bad. My intent was to try to come off as a guy who wasn't singing for a living like Katharine McPhee or Megan Hilty. I couldn't do that even if I was trying to sound as good as they sing. But it was an interesting challenge. By no means did I go there and say, 'I'm really going to stink!' It was an interesting acting challenge in a way. You want it to be good enough to make it fit into the system but also distinct enough and believable enough.
AP: On stage, will it be leather pants or black tie?
James: No pants! I'm thinking no pants for at least the first three songs. I have the same style I had in the eighth grade, the equivalent of me playing Atari in my basement — that's about the height of my sartorial eloquence. So I've had to really think about these things. I definitely want to represent the class of this room, which is such a stunning room but also perhaps not to be so dressed up. Usually when I'm singing in concert, I'm in a bowtie or a formal suit. It would be nice not to wear a tie but hopefully look good enough so they don't kick me out.
AP: Will you be returning to "Smash"?
James: I can tell you that I'm coming back for at least one episode — where I sing for the whole hour! That's what I pitched them. I said, 'I think the first season should have been all Frank's dream and it should be retitled "Frank!'" That didn't go over with the NBC executives. The truth is that I will be used in a much, much more limited way. I know I'm coming back for one. The door is open for them to use me as they see fit dramatically, but I would guess that once Frank is out the door, he's going to pack up his knives and leave.
AP: On balance, how has the experience of "Smash" been? You've had to give up opportunities to stick with it, on the one hand, but it must have offered a lot of exposure, on the other.
James: Net-plus, for sure. Having a season under my belt, I learned so much. And the consistency of doing it was something I really enjoyed and benefited from. While it did kind of put a pause on some things theatrically, I think it's only really helped, especially in terms of perception. That's such a huge thing in this industry and in that sense it might make a producer a little less queasy to hire someone who's not Hugh Jackman. These are all steps forward for me.
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