Brian D’Arcy James notes American musicals are always evolving

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Veteran Broadway star Brian D’Arcy James will be honored by the Sarah Siddons Society. | Sun-Times File Photo

Broadway veteran Brian D’Arcy James laughed as he thought about his upcoming “reunion” with Sutton Foster — when the two stars are honored by Chicago’s Sarah Siddons Society May 16 (at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall at Northwestern University in Evanston).

“While I have seen her a few times in the last couple of years, we haven’t had the chance to spend much time together. So, it will be nice to see her without my big, green latex foam head on!”

James was referring to what he called “most of my relationship with Sutton Foster,” co-starring with her as he played the title character to her Fiona in the Broadway production of “Shrek.”

Though the Michigan native and Northwestern alum has appeared in many TV shows and a number of films, James is primarily known for his career gracing the Broadway stage. Tony-nominated for “Sweet Smell of Success,” he also has starred in such shows as “Next to Normal,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Hamilton,” where he played King George III in the musical’s pre-Broadway run.

“I think the great thing about the form of musical theater is that it’s constantly evolving. I don’t believe there really are plateaus that we reach and then stay for a very long time. Of course there’s the traditional roots when it comes to the term ‘American musical,’ but I do think in the last 10 to 20 years we’ve seen lots of examples of how things can change and be accepted. Among shows I’ve been in, that ranges from things like ‘Next to Normal’ — in terms of tackling an idea of bipolar disease in a musical — to, of course, something like ‘Hamilton,’ which expresses a story not in a traditional way.

“Thankfully, there seems to always be a corner in the commercial theater market that allows for some elasticity in the form taken by the contemporary American musical. I believe we’re in a very rich time of that definition becoming broader — that will buck the traditional sense of the description for musicals.”

Later this month James will end his 14-month run in the Broadway show “Something Rotten,” as another example of “taking a completely original idea and bringing it to the stage.”

The actor does note that Broadway and all musical theater tends to go in cycles. “We go through periods when there’s lots of new concepts being tried — not always successfully. Then we’ll go through a period when the trend seems to be focused on lots of revivals of classic shows. Familiarity is a big thing on Broadway — and that’s always been the case. That’s why you see the idea of movies being turned into musicals.”

Away from his stage work, James is especially proud of “Spotlight,” this year’s winner of the best picture Oscar, in which he co-starred as a Boston Globe investigative reporter.

James said being in the film, “was an extraordinary experience. Just doing the movie was enough. Just to be part of that ensemble and to have [director] Tom McCarthy to trust me with that role.”

Yet, beyond the mere aspect of acting in an award-winning film, James said it was particularly rewarding to be part of the team that conveyed “the social significance of the story we were telling. … All of us in the cast were so honored to represent these extraordinary journalists who did such an incredible job revealing the story.”

Looking to the future, James is hopeful that a proposed television series may be on the horizon. “Along with a couple of films coming up, I’m waiting to hear if a sitcom will be picked up for the fall season by CBS: ‘Superior Donuts.’ Of course, that was written by Steppenwolf’s own Tracy Letts — also a big theater guy,” said James, wryly referring to the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor.

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