San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of 42nd Street starts tonight, May 27th, for a 3-week run at the historic Spreckels Theatre downtown. The Tony Award winning musical features terrific tap numbers, classic songs and some fantastic performances by Robert J. Townsend, Ashley Ruth Jones, Laura Dickinson, Gabriel Navarro, Bets Malone, Todd Nielsen, Ryan Fahey and Katie Whalley Banville. I’m also in the show and its a huge treat to be on the same stage with these guys.
The show is directed by San Diego native James Vasquez and he took some time between rehearsals to chat with me about the show, the San Diego theatre community, his time at Juilliard and one of worst auditions.
So, I’m a bit biased but I think this is going to be a freakin’ great show. You’re fantastic, [musical director] Don LeMaster , Jill [Gorrie, choreographer] is great and the cast is one of the best I’ve ever been around. Not a question, I know!
James Vasquez: True, not a question – but I’m a bit biased, too. It’s gonna be a fantastic show!
How long have you wanted a shot at directing this show?
James Vasquez: I’ve loved this show since I first saw a college production on the mid-80’s. It was my official introduction to tap, and I immediately went and got myself some shoes and enrolled in a class. I never had the opportunity to do it as an actor, so jumped to direct it when SDMT announced it in their season. The last few years I’ve been tackling mostly newer works, so honestly, I don’t know that it was ever one that I sought out or thought would come my way. But, it’s a show about what we do, and have always connected with it on a very personal level.
I know you a little bit now but you just seem to be always smiling and calm and cool. Are you ever stressed?
James Vasquez: No. Never. (said thru gritted teeth while pulling out clumps of whatever hair I have left on my head)
It’s super stressful putting up a show, especially one of this size. I would joke coming home at the end of every rehearsal and comment how the show would seem to get bigger by the day. But I also acknowledge how crazy lucky I am to be working consistently in my job of choice – which is to play and tell stories!
I also love the challenge of having to find another way to do it. So when a hiccup occurs, I find it offers the opportunity to play and be creative even more.
I’m also truly grateful for my home life. My husband and my pack of dogs are an instant stress reliever.
You went to Juilliard and I love hearing stories about that place. I talked to your friend Carrie [Preston] a while back and she said it was like you guys went to Vietnam together. How was your time there?
James Vasquez: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Joking aside, some of the hardest yet most fulfilling years of my life. I went to Juilliard straight out of high school. All but 3 of us had been through at least some college, if not already out working professionally. So, it was about figuring life out and growing up immediately. The training was brutal, but life changing. I learned from the absolute best in the business, and trained alongside some of the most talented and exciting actors in the business. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
My class was a pretty brilliant ensemble. We really bonded immediately our first year. So as difficult and honest as the training was, I think we all felt supported – and have continued to support each other. Many of my classmates collaborate on projects to this day. And, of course, Carrie and I have a small film production company.
How did you end up back in San Diego?
James Vasquez: In the late 90’s I had a classmate who was making the move from NYC to LA. I had just finished a gig, my lease was about to be up on my apartment, and decided to take the adventure with her cross country. I was in LA for about 2 years, but kept getting theater gigs outside of LA. I was cast in a show here in San Diego in 2001 that ended up running for almost 2 years. By the time it closed, I had settled down a bit and just haven’t left. I mean, really, why would anyone want to leave San Diego?!
Before you did La Cage, you hadn’t acted in a while. Why did you stay away so long?
James Vasquez: It honestly wasn’t a conscious decision to stay away. I started getting directing and choreography jobs, was having a blast and just sort of segued out of auditioning. Playing Jacob in LA CAGE came out of the blue. I had the opening in my schedule, and jumped at the chance.
What was it like getting back on stage again?
James Vasquez: So fun! I love directing. But I was really anxious to have the actor experience again. I also love watching other people work. So the chance to be in a rehearsal room and have someone guide me in a way different from how I worked was a great escape.
It was also the type of role that demanded whoever play it get up and go full tilt boogie. I found it extremely freeing artistically and personally.
What are your thoughts on the San Diego theatre community?
James Vasquez: Well, first of all, what a community it is, right? It’s thriving. And with something for everyone. I’m in awe of the risks artists take in this town. And the risk taking is encouraged! For example, I love that we’re not just recreating the original production of 42nd Street – which is often the case. We’ve been given the freedom, and encouragement, to give it our own point of view. We’re honoring the original, but it’s coming from our experience and hearts and souls.
What’s next for you?
James Vasquez: Believe it or not, I’m getting back on stage. I’m playing Smee in Peter Pan this summer up at Moonlight Amphitheatre. It’ll be my acting debut at the Moonlight, immediately followed by my directing debut for them. I’ll be closing out their summer season with The Addams Family.
Carrie and I (and Mark Holmes, the 3rd partner in our company Daisy 3 Pictures) are chomping to do another film project. We have few things in the works, but have to get our schedules to line up.
Finally, as an actor, what was your worst audition?
James Vasquez: Just one?
I thought for sure I was going to be making my Broadway debut in the original cast of the play The American Daughter many moons ago. They were having trouble casting a specific role. I had worked with the director previously, and he called me personally and told me how to dress, walk, and talk – basically giving me the part. NYC was having one of its worst snow storms that year, so it was freezing and wet out. I got in the audition room and it was warm and dry. The extreme change of temperature in the audition room took its toll and I got extreme cotton mouth, and couldn’t get through a scene without my tongue feeling like it was stuck to the roof of my mouth. It sounded like I had a crazy speech impediment. As I was leaving the room the casting director stopped me and asked me to return the script they had sent in advance… and someone else made their Broadway debut in that role.
Performances of 42nd Street run May 27 – June 12, 2016 at the Spreckels Theatre. Show times are Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. For more information, call the box office at (858) 560-5740 or visit www.sdmt.org