By: Courtney Dabney
Jay Armstrong Johnson, who stars in the Tony Award-nominated Broadway revival of On the Town, dazzled the town, June 7, when he performed New York, New York with his cast on the 2015 Tony Awards.
The talented 27-year-old Fort Worth native has four Broadway shows under his dancing shoes, but the first thing you notice about Johnson is his no-ego, no-bragging attitude, rather thankfulness for the blessings he has been given.
In addition to On The Town (Broadway, 2014), Johnson’s credits include Hands On A Hardbody (Broadway, 2013), Catch Me If You Can (Broadway, Standby, 2011), Hair (Broadway Revival, 2009), Wild Animals You Should Know (Off-Broadway, 2011), A Chorus Line (US Tour, 2008), and The Most Happy Fella (Off-Broadway, 2014).
Johnson has been passionate about music and dancing as long as he can remember. “As a kid, I looked forward to elementary school Christmas and Thanksgiving Day pageants, just anything where I could be on a stage. It’s the sports stuff that always scared me,” he says. “When we moved from Western Hills to Eagle Mountain, I remember being in the third grade, and the second I walked into that classroom, I guess kids could smell gay on me. I didn’t even know I was gay until I was 15 years old. The kids called me Gay Jay.”
Johnson says he has struggled with being gay throughout his career. “Do I talk to the press about it? Where do I come out? When do I come out? My religion is telling me I can’t. So I have now. Thank you. It’s liberating to be able to do that.”
His “rescue” and happy place was church, Johnson says. “We ended up going to Ridglea Christian Church in Fort Worth, where I joined the church choir as a boy soprano when I was in sixth grade. I thank God every day that I was raised in that church.”
It was at Kids Who Care Musical Theatre, a nonprofit international theatre company in Fort Worth, where Johnson caught the theatre bug in a big way. Deborah Jung, the executive director of Kids Who Care, was a big influence on Johnson’s life, he says.
He had been at Kids Who Care for a short time when he auditioned for the role in Peter Pan at Casa Mañana Theatre in Fort Worth. Johnson was turned away before he could even sing. But he went back, auditioned and won the role of John Darling.
The following season, Johnson performed the role of Baby John in West Side Story, where renowned Fort Worth dance instructor Dian West took note of his talent.
Johnson was 15 years old when he first walked into West’s studio. “I didn’t have money to pay for classes,” he says. “From that first class, Dian put me on scholarship. I never had to pay a dime.”
West taught Johnson and also connected him with friends in Fort Worth, New York City and Los Angeles who could help train him and keep him moving forward. “Now those people are as proud of Jay as I am, and they are all so happy he has had so much success,” West says.
“Jay is magic because he loves life and cares for others,” she continues. “He is the real deal. And, although he is tired of hearing this from me, I want him to finish his degree at the Steinhart School of NYU.”
Johnson dropped out of NYU in 2008 to do the U.S. tour with The Chorus Line. He says that ironically, it was Dian’s training that got him the job that caused him to drop out of school.
Johnson performs the role of Chip in On The Town. He co-stars with Clyde Alves (Ozzie) and Tony Yazbeck (Gabey).
“It was as if we were in the military together,” Johnson says. “The three of us became very close. Clyde and Tony amaze me. I’m just proud of our entire company in general. Everyone is so talented.”
What’s next for Johnson? “I’d like to study the television medium. I’d love to have my family get excited watching me. And those TV checks are so much bigger. I’m still getting residual paychecks from Law and Order SVU from five years ago.”
Johnson has worked in classical theatre productions over the last year or so. He and a composer friend, Ryan Scott Oliver, are workshopping a darker deconstruction of Peter Pan called Darling.
Advice Johnson would give aspiring performers: “Have confidence in what you’re doing, who you are and where you want to go. That’s what I’ve learned over the last few years. Having confidence gives you a different energy and helps in your work and in everyday life. You can do it.”
By: Courtney Dabney