On Broadway, talented people tend to rise to the top, especially young triple threats like Joshua Henry. (Make that quadruple, if good looks are factored in.) Since his 2007 off-Broadway debut in the ensemble of In the Heights, Henry has climbed the musical theater ladder with supporting roles in American Idiot and Porgy and Bess and a fabulous, Tony-nominated lead performance in The Scottsboro Boys. Now, Henry is part of a poignant love triangle in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway premiere of Violet. Set in 1964, the musical centers on Sutton Foster as the disfigured title character and two soldiers she meets on a bus crossing the south, Flick (Henry) and Monty (Colin Donnell). The exuberant Henry recently chatted with Broadway.com about how the south has changed in the 50 years since Violet, his three-step shape-up plan and what he’s learned from working with Foster and Audra McDonald.
Violet began last summer as a one-night Encores! concert. How does it feel to have made it to Broadway?
Surreal! I feel such a connection to Violet. It was the first show I did in college [at the University of Miami], and Michael McElroy, the original Flick off-Broadway [in 1997], came down and directed me. It’s full circle in many ways.
What do you love most about Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s score—especially your big song, “Let It Sing”?
It’s one of the most beautiful scores in musical theater, and “Let It Sing” encompasses everything I believe about finding your voice, letting go of the past and embracing your own path.
How did you get a feel for what someone like Flick would have gone through in the deep south in 1964?
I’ve done a lot of research about the Civil Rights movement, and I’m fascinated with how difficult it would have been for a black man to show feelings toward a white woman in that time period. That’s what holds Flick back from Violet, although he is drawn to her bravery. Personally, I am married to a white woman [from Atlanta], and there have been no issues whatsoever. Would we have survived 50 years ago? It would have been a lot harder.
You’ve now worked with two Broadway superstars, Audra McDonald and Sutton Foster. What have you learned from them?
From Audra, I learned about the deepest level of emotional commitment—her understanding not only of her role in a piece but everyone’s role, and how that informs what she needs to do. I had never experienced anyone sacrificing their body, their voice, their everything to tell a story.
Sutton is the same way in terms of her preparation. She came into rehearsal ready to go to deep, dark places that we haven’t seen in shows like Millie, Shrek and Anything Goes. This is new territory, and her bravery is something that I admire. She’s had some difficult things in her life recently [Foster’s mother died in September 2013], but she goes full-out emotionally every night. I have soaked up so much from her and from Audra.
Audra and Norm Lewis have led the way in terms of non-traditional casting. Is that important to you?
I’ve certainly never liked the idea of being put in a box. I loved being part of shows like American Idiot and In the Heights, and I take pride in being able to sing different styles, not just “Old Man River” [laughs]. I would love, love, love to do a comedy like Gentleman’s Guide, something farcical and fast-paced, but I also want to do something that hasn’t been written yet, the story of Sidney Poitier. A lot of people tell me that I look like him.
Write it yourself! You’ve composed one musical for kids [Amigo Duende, produced in 2012].
The struggle with composing is that it takes up your whole life. You have to say, “Time out, actor” and focus on writing. I also love to arrange songs—I orchestrated every song in my most recent 54 Below show, “This Is the Love,” and it was so much fun to put my own spin on musical theater songs. I love connecting with an audience in an unexpected way.
You’ve worked with Ashanti twice [in The Wiz at Encores! and TV’s Army Wives]. Did you ever consider pursuing a pop music career rather than musical theater?
I’ve met with development people at record labels, and I always left those meetings with not-great feelings. Record labels want a certain image. There is more to me than being a sexy Brian McKnight-type guy or a Lenny Kravitz. I want to be funny and quirky, not this big, ripped black guy singing R&B beats and bedtime songs and [he imitates Barry White] “Yeah, baby.” [Laughs.]
You’ve posted some cute Vine videos on Twitter. What’s fun about that for you?
You can tell a six-second story. I recently did one about warming up for the show and one about working out.
Speaking of working out, your Broadway.com “Day in the Life” pictorial was a fan-favorite. Pretend I’m a guy your age. What should I do to look like you?
I’ll give you three steps. Portion control is huge. You can eat cheesecake, you can eat baby back ribs, but you’ve got to understand portion sizes. Second, a lot of cardio. Some people think it’s a certain kind of dumbbell curl…nope. Cardio. And drink a lot of water.
You mentioned your wife earlier. [Henry married Cathryn Stringer in October 2012.] Is it true you were college sweethearts? What does she do?
Yes, we met my senior year and her junior year, had a year of long distance, and then she moved here. She’s a labor and delivery nurse at New York Presbyterian Hospital and absolutely loves it.
Sounds like a good balance for a Broadway actor.
She keeps me grounded. This business is crazy, and she reminds me of what’s important in life. Bringing it back to Violet, our relationship is just two people loving each other, without thinking about skin color. I feel so blessed.
See Joshua Henry in Violet at the American Airlines Theatre.