James Monroe Iglehart has proved that there is nothing he can’t do on Broadway.
His hard-working, yet meteoric climb to Broadway royalty began with a Tony Award in 2014 for his show-stopping, toe-tapping Genie in Aladdin.
With a standout turn in Memphis also under his belt, he recently pulled double-duty on Broadway, simultaneously starring in both Freestyle Love Supreme and Hamilton.
He is fresh from hosting “50 Years of Broadway” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The illustrious event saw him sharing the historic stage with Norm Lewis, LaChanze, Stephanie J. Block and a slew of Broadway talents that would make any theatergoer salivate.
Iglehart spoke with The New York Independent about the decision to step into Billy Flynn’s sharp tuxedo in Chicago, his new physique, and being a part of the new season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
New York Independent: In 2021 you were doing so much theater, even taking on two shows at once. You could have taken a break or pursued more roles on screen; What was it about Billy Flynn that kept you coming back to the stage instead?
James Monroe Iglehart: It was a different show and it was a different challenge. Billy is a classic character. I thought it would be really fun to put my name on the list of amazing actors who have been a part of it. It had been a long time since I had been in a classic Broadway musical and I missed the song and dance of it. Billy has three of the best songs on Broadway. I have so much fun whenever I get to do, “We Both Reached for the Gun.”
NYI: How have your many prior roles informed your take on Billy?
JMI: They didn’t! Billy is a whole different animal. Each character is their own entity. I had to really go back and look at some of the things that Jerry Orbach did. I started reading the papers to find out more about two people who inspired Billy Flynn, and then I listened to the new soundtrack and read the script. The truth of Billy is right there in the lines. He sings: “All I care about is love,” and he does! He just wants to help people. He knows his skill and his worth. He wants to help you but you have to pay for it-he’s not going to do it for free.
That’s nothing like any of the characters that I have played. Billy is a shrewd shark among fish, and he knows it. He also knows that he’s literally the best one in town and no one else can do what he does. There’s something about getting to be in that kind of swagger that intrigued me. I thought, Let’s play in this tuxedo for a little while. It’s also kind of fun to wear one costume for the entire show. I never have to change!
NYI: What will surprise people most when it comes to the way you embody Billy? How is your Billy unique?
JMI: I think people will be expecting some kind of wink or slapstick, but I play him really straightforward. The jokes come because the lines are funny, not because I’m trying to make them funny. There’s a little bit of danger. Our musical director said it best: “Chicago is best described in two words: Dangerous pleasure.” Billy is a dangerous pleasure.
NYI: You have attributed some of your new leading man status to the fact that you have a new physique.
JMI: You always perceive yourself as a leading man, but there’s a certain leading man look that you have. With the way I used to look, I was always thought of as the best friend or the comedy relief, which I had no problem with. I always thought I was sexy, but there were certain characters that you just didn’t get called in for. When Billy came up, that’s when I said, “Oh I guess, I’m sexy now because I’m getting called in for characters like this.” I was always in shape and I enjoyed my shape, but I found out I was diabetic, so now I am 50 pounds lighter.
NYI: How has being a plus-sized person helped you be a more versatile performer?
JMI: You have to rely on your strengths and your confidence. When you walk in the door and you’re a plus-size person, there’s a certain opinion. You have to let them know that they shouldn’t let their perceptions blind them to what is really in front of them. I let folks know that I am a plus-size brother, but I can stand with brothers who have abs of steel and are 6’5” and I can sing, act and dance with them.
It doesn’t make a difference. [Memphis’] Bobby brought that out. No one knew what Genie was supposed to look like. When he came along I was able to do different things. Then when The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt came out, I was able to show that even though I am a round guy, I could play anybody. Being in the film “Three Christs” and doing “Maniac” on Netflix allowed me to still be a tough guy even though I was large. I’m good to spread the love, but once the spotlight is on me, I’m taking it.
NYI: Being chosen to host “50 Years of Broadway” at the Kennedy Center is a huge honor. Choose three moments from the experience that made you pinch yourself.
JMI: The first time I walked into the Kennedy Center and saw how beautiful it was! Then, to be on stage with all of those amazing Broadway stars, some of whom I have known forever and some I have looked up to, and now to be able to work with them and watch them sing these 11 o’clock numbers-and then realize they’re looking at me like we’re all in this one amazing community together-that is just ridiculous! My jaw was on the ground the entire show. I opened the show with “Magic to Do” from Pippin. That was a lot of fun.
NYI: On social media you put it out there that you would like to host the “Tony Awards.” Why would you be a good host?
JMI: A good host has to love Broadway, and I have loved it since I was 16 years-old. Also, I just love being in front of people and entertaining. It’s not about you, it’s about the show, the awards, the nominees and promoting the thing that is Broadway. I would love to find interesting ways to act silly with Broadway casts and audiences. I have wanted to host the Tonys since I saw Rosie O’Donnell do it. She loves Broadway, and when I saw that she got to sing a lot of the songs, I knew I wanted to do that too.
NYI: Next we’ll see you in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” What can you tell us about your character, Charlie?
JMI: The great thing about Charlie is he’s a musician and plays at this awesome place. He’s so chill. He’s not really thinking about life until Maisel comes in and he goes, “This place can be different and better than it is.” He got to enjoy watching a place that he played at for a while come alive because of this new energy that Maisel brings to it. He’s a laidback, comical character.
NYI: What does life after Chicago look like for you?
I’m working on a few projects right now, but I can’t talk about them. Cartoon [voice work] is a lot of fun. I’m enjoying the animated stuff. You’ll hear me in Disney Jr.’s new “Alice’s Wonderland Bakery.” Alice in Wonderland was one of my favorite cartoons as a kid. When they called, I was like, “Yes, please!” I am thrilled to be a part of that legacy.
Chicago is running at the Ambassasdor Theatre, 219 West 49th Street, New York. Call 212-239-6200, visit the box office or go to ChicagotheMusical.com to purchase tickets.
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