20120307__20120309_D14_AE11THBEAUTY~p1_400 Following a string of 2009-2011 Southern California theater gigs, Colorado native James May is making his return to Orange County stages for the first time since his OC debut in the Chance Theater’s award-winning revival of Hair. It’s Walt Disney’s Beauty And The Beast that brings James back in the role of Cogsworth, a part he’s been playing for over two years now. Having seen every James May performance since (and including) Hair, I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with James in anticipation of Beauty And The Beast’s January 14th opening at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts.

You’ve had an exciting four-and-a-half years since I first saw you as Claude in the Chance Theater production of Hair! I’m so glad that I’ll finally be getting to catch your performance as Cogsworth on Opening Night!

I’m so glad you’ll be able to be there as well!

Growing up in Colorado, were you hit by the performing bug at an early age?

Actually I didn’t do much performing beyond church choir and Odyssey Of The Mind until high hchool, and even then it was much more of a hobby than anything I expected to actually pursue as a career. I didn’t play a principal role until the second semester of my senior year, and actually originally planned on majoring in Biology at Occidental College in Eagle Rock.

So how did you end up making the switch to performing arts?

When I arrived there and started selecting my course load I had a minor epiphany and realized I needed to be doing musical theater. One of my best friends was attending the University of Northern Colorado, majoring in musical theater, and convinced me to audition. I was accepted and the rest is history!

04 What brought you from the University Of Northern Colorado to Orange County, where just a year later you were starring in Hair?

I was originally planning on moving to NYC after college, but before I graduated I was offered an understudy position at Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena in their World Premiere Musical Gulls, and Steven Dry at Connor Ankrum & Associates in L.A. was interested in having me as a client, so I decided to move to Los Angeles instead.

And from L.A. to Orange County?

I moved to the OC when my brother needed a roommate in the house he was moving into. A few months later, The Chance was looking for a Claude for Hair and I was recommended to them by a mutual friend at Boston Court. I auditioned a few days later, then a few days after that we started rehearsals!

That was quick! And now you’re starring in Beauty And The Beast, about which a check of your bio reveals that you’ve already “clocked in over 500 performances” as Cogsworth. 

In Costa Mesa Ill actually be rounding out on 650 shows!

That’s amazing! When did you join the tour?

I joined the tour in Nov of 2011, but I actually originally auditioned in Los Angeles in the summer of 2009. I remember it was on a two-show day of Hair and some of the cast members and myself drove up to Screenland Studios early that Saturday morning to audition. It certainly made for a long day but it was obviously worth it! I then had to travel out to NYC two different times for callbacks.

How tough was it for you getting cast? Lots of callbacks, I presume.

I was called back for both Lumiere and Cogsworth, and the first callback focused much more on considering me for Lumiere. It was nearly two years later before I went back for my second callback, where I once again started reading for Lumiere, but then they had me start on the Cogsworth stuff and we both realized that was a much better fit for me on this tour, and a few months later I received the offer!

I’m guessing that Beauty And The Beast is the longest run you’ve been associated with in your career.

Yep! It’s my longest run by about 610 performances, so this was a big change from what I was used to in Southern California.

The Enchanted Objects of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Photo by Amy Boyle What keeps you excited about playing Cogsworth after so many performances?

For me, it’s a perfectly balanced role. Significant enough that I feel the importance of why I’m there, but minor enough so that there isn’t the pressure of carrying the show. Also, it’s silly and funny enough that it’s a blast to play with, but it’s not entirely a hokey-jokey part and I get my “real” scenes and moments as well.

How do you keep your performance fresh each new city?

The thing that you learn when you play a show for this long, and what ends up keeping it fresh for you every time, is that you really learn how much every performance is different and how you have to respond to that. I may have said each of these lines hundreds of times, but I cannot become a machine with it, for as well constructed as the show and the cast are, it’s still live theater and anything can happen. You have to listen to what each actor gives you and respond to the slight differences. You have to listen to the orchestra because it might sound a little different in that venue. Also, a huge component of listening is dealing with the audience. You play the show differently, even if only minutely, for every audience.

For example?

There are certain beats in the show that I have probably about five or so different variations of what I do depending on what the audience is giving me. You don’t want to be the actor hamming it up beat after beat if the audience isn’t going along for the ride with you, nor do you want to be the actor who barrels on past the moment if the audience is still having fun with it. It’s kind of a secret dialogue between the actors and each given audience. It still can be easy to go into “auto-pilot,” because your body and voice remember what to do even if your brain takes a break, so you frequently have to check back in with yourself and reinvest in the moment and live in what that character is feeling.

This is fascinating!

When you really live in the truth of what the character is going through, you also open yourself up to finding new ways of doing things that you don’t even plan. They just kind of come out of you. When you find new things like that it really helps to keep it fresh.

The Enchanted Objects of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Photo by Amy Boyle b Unlike other shows you’ve done, as Cogsworth you’re recreating an animated character that already several generations of children have come to love. How closely have you needed to stick to that original Disney creation (voiced by David Ogden Stiers) and how much have you been able to make Cogsworth your own?

Just like many others, I grew up loving the movie. I never sought to do any kind of literal imitation of David Ogden Stiers, but I think on a subconscious level his voice is still a huge influence on me. One easy tool that helped to make it my own is accepting that this is stage, and different things work on stage that wouldn’t work on film. There are certain scenes and line readings that play perfectly in the movie, but onstage the presentation is entirely different and things need to be adapted as such. Also, while most everything you see in the movie is in the stage show, the book for the musical is greatly expanded and there is some added, wonderful, meaty stuff for the enchanted objects.

Can you give some examples?

In the stage show we get to deal with Cogsworth’s sympathy and fragility in addition to his fussiness, which really allows me to bring more humanity and more of myself to it. I try to bring more facets of his personality to the show and not just be the stuffy British naysayer the whole time. A big way that I bring myself to it, or perhaps bring Cogsworth to me, is the way I relate to thinking that his opinions are right and he really has a good reason for doing and saying everything that he does, even while everyone else just thinks he’s a stuffed shirt. He has good reason to think that what he says is best for everyone, darn it! It just so happens that even though no one ever listens to him, everything works out anyways, but his fears are perfectly justifiable and he does mean well.

What is it like having so many young children in the audience?

Having the kids in the audience is fantastic. It’s more rare than you may think that they’re distracting. It seems like they’re usually quite well behaved, plus nothing beats those occasional adorable sound bites we get with those kids out in the audience. Also, it’s so magical and wonderful to know that there are kids out there just enraptured with the magic and storytelling we’re offering them, and I hope they take the message of the show away with them as well.

How do they react when they see you as James after the show?

They usually aren’t able to figure out who I played, and believe me I almost always make them guess because I think it’s adorable to hear their answers. I’m obviously not as adored by the kids as Belle or Lumiere, but I’m glad they aren’t scared to meet me like they sometimes are with Gaston or The Beast.

What makes this musical in particular resonate with children and adults alike?

Beauty And The Beast has the ability to enchant, move, and entertain just about anyone. The story is so universally appealing, and the message resonates with everyone. It’s always important to be reminded that beauty is on the inside, regardless of what the outside shows. You have to spend time with a person and open up to them to fully understand and appreciate them for who they really are, and I think that message is what people are able to take home with them. Also, it’s a ton of fun! People leave with the biggest smiles on their faces, whether they’re young or old, fans of the story or people experiencing it for the first time, and even people who don’t think they even enjoy musicals. One of my favorite things is talking to friends or family who brought someone with them who goes in being a complete sourpuss about it, and then by the end of the show they’re the ones who enjoyed it the most!

Having lived and worked in Orange County, how excited are you about the upcoming week you’ll be spending in Costa Mesa?

Playing the Segerstrom is a real milestone for me, one that I’ve been pining over for years. One of the survival jobs I worked when I lived in Orange County was at a hotel that many touring companies stay at when they play the Segerstrom, and whenever I was frustrated at work I would just say to myself, “One day, one day I’ll be staying here as a part of a touring company,” so it’s really gratifying and is a true “achieved goal” to be performing there.

So will you be returning to the hotel as a guest this time?

I may stay a night there, but I’m really looking forward to staying with my brother and his wife, who also live in Orange County. Plus, it’s of course a joy to see all my wonderful friends and family that still live in Southern California, as I obviously miss them greatly.

How The Other Half Loves_2 Let’s chat a bit about your life before Beauty And The Beast. One of several shows I got to see you in before you joined the Beauty And The Beast tour was as William in Alan Ayckbourn’s How The Other Half Loves at Long Beach’s International City Theatre. How was it for you as a musical theater performer doing a straight play? Did you miss the singing and dancing?

I love doing straight plays! I love singing and dancing, and if I was entirely without them for an extended period of time, I’m sure I would miss it, but I’ve never gone long enough between musicals to really get to that place. I really enjoyed How the Other Half Loves, and it wasn’t a long enough run for me to really ache for the song-and-dance. This is actually another reason why Beauty And The Beast is a show that I’m able to do for so long. I feel like I’m basically doing a straight show, as Cogsworth isn’t involved it many of the musical numbers, but then all of a sudden in the second act I’m in the middle of a giant production number with “Human Again!”

You also appeared as Prince Charming’s right hand man Dandini in Lythgoe Family Production’s Cinderella at the El Portal Theatre. What was it like for you performing in such a large theater after the intimacy of the Chance or ICT? Do you find yourself adjusting your performance for a larger space?

Playing these larger venues is a balancing act for sure. You have to play it large enough for the people way back in the nose bleeds, but you don’t want to over-act it for the people there in the front row. I don’t think I was really able to engage in that balancing act until I was comfortably in Beauty And The Beast and had done it for a few performances, and it definitely took some time to feel like I was where I should be. I sure hope I’m where I should be, anyways!

Are you still aware of the audience when they aren’t nearly close enough to touch?

It’s definitely very different than the intimacy of venues like ICT and The Chance, but I’m no less aware of the audience, it’s just a different kind of awareness. Intimate spaces make it feel like you’re dealing with a small group of individuals. You can see their faces and expressions and really feel their energy in the room with you. With the big houses they’re definitely more of a singular blob, but because there are so many of them and they’re capable of such drastic changes in response from audience to audience, you really have to listen to them and play with them as a group.

Cast 3 One of your last credits before touring with Beauty And The Beast was as Donovan in Roger Bean’s Summer Of Love at Musical Theatre West. It must have been fun for you to revisit the time period of Hair, albeit in a considerably sunnier musical, right?

It was such a cool experience to be a part of a show that felt sort of like a “sister” show to something else I’d already done. I really enjoyed that I felt like I was getting to explore the hippie culture on either coast, as Hair is set in NYC and Summer of Love in San Francisco. In fact, just the other week I went for a run in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and was thinking a lot about Summer of Love, as that was where the show was meant to have taken place.

Also, how was it for you as a performer being part of a World Premiere as opposed to an established musical?

As for doing a World Premiere, it was a lot of fun! It wasn’t my first time being involved in something non-established, though. I was an understudy for a World Premiere at Boston Court, and did multiple small shows in LA and the OC that were U.S. or West Coast premieres, and even though Hair is an established show, there’s so much freedom in how to stage and realize it there isn’t much of a feeling of restriction or adhering to expectations. I’d say that Beauty And The Beast is really my first experience where I really feel like I’m joining something very established.

How much longer will you be touring with Beauty And The Beast?

Ill definitely be with the show through the first week of June of this year, and after that I’m really not sure! Depending on the offer and the schedule, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that I would stay with Beauty And The Beast, but I think it’s most likely that this will be my final year with the show.

What do you see as the next step in your performing career? West Coast? East Coast?

I’ll probably spend a few weeks at least in California after I finish my contract, just to decompress, but then Ill probably be moving to NYC to pursue more theater work. I adored living in Southern California, and as you know the theater scene is wonderful, but compared to NYC there just aren’t as many opportunities for consistent employment in theater for someone at the level of their career where I find myself. I think I’m ready for the hectic NYC lifestyle and audition routine, as daunting as it may be.

Thanks so much for the career update, James. It’s been a pleasure knowing you and seeing you perform over the past nearly five years. I can’t wait to see you on Opening Night!

Thank you, Steven! It’s always a joy to see you, and you’re such a positive presence in the theater world, as well as the world at large! See you on Opening Night!

Click here to purchase tickets to Beauty And The Beast, playing January 14 through 19 at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts, Costa Mesa.


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