Tony nominee Joshua Henry currently tears up the stage of the Imperial Theatre In Carousel with his version of Billy Bigelow’s “Soliloquy,” the marathon song by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein of the spinning inner thoughts of the father-to-be. The role marks the 33-year-old performer’s third Tony nomination, having scored one for The Scottsboro Boys in 2011 and one for Violet in 2014. (Fun fact: Henry and his current Carousel co-star Jessie Mueller read opposite each other as Flick and Violet in an early workshop of the show.)
Henry has established himself as one of the most sought-after leading men in the business. The actor has spanned musical theatre genres: from Kander and Ebb’s “minstrel show” in Scottsboro to punk rock in American Idiot, from R&B and hip hop in In The Heights to soul in Violet, from rap and jazz in Hamilton to classical with Carousel—not to mention his forays into Jason Robert Brown territory in one-night only concerts of Parade and The Last Five Years.
Here, he looks back at the first role that set him on his path to his favorite memories (silliness backstage at Shuffle), lessons learned (from Sutton Foster and Audra McDonald), and scariest moments (performing in his underwear) in his Broadway career.
Violet at the University of Miami
“The first role I did in college was with Michael McElroy directing me, who did [the role] originally Off-Broadway. That was really a big moment for me because I got to see first-hand what it was like to be a leading man and what was required of a leading man who was someone like me on Broadway,” says Henry. To this day, he practices the physical maintenance he learned from McElroy years ago. “I would see him in the gym, you know the types of workouts he was doing, his physique. [I learned] you can’t just think, 'I love lifting weights,' you have to be a little more well-rounded. The lessons were offstage and onstage as well: how to preserve your voice over a run, how to prepare for music rehearsal, how to come in knowing, not just cold, but knowing your role before you start rehearsal.”
In the Heights Off-Broadway (2007) and Broadway (2008)
Ensemble and understudy for Benny
“[This experience] was everything because the show, style of music, what it was talking about, hit me squarely like a stamp,” says Henry of his Broadway debut. “My parents are from Jamaica—what this show is all about. I loved being in the ensemble of that show. Some of my best friends, my groomsmen, came out of that ensemble. I miss being in the ensemble sometimes. I love where I’m at right now, but I did.” What about the first time he went on as Benny? “It was amazing. It was hard because, you know, when you’re singing a track that is much different than yours with all the adrenaline, you push pretty hard. I was singing for the gods. I was not playing and that role has been my jam.” Still, not everything went according to plan. “I messed up some of the lyrics in the Act 2 scene with Mandy Gonzalez and she was laughing a lot in my face. She ended up laughing for like two minutes straight onstage while Lin was in the wings just looking on in horror. Sometimes your dream comes true, it’s not always the way you thought it was going to be.”
American Idiot, Broadway (2010)
“That was like being shot out of a canon,” says Henry of the 90-minute Green Day musical, a stage adaptation of the eponymous album. “I just remember the physical toll because that was the hardest show physically I had ever done. Steven Hoggett’s choreography was so demanding. It was like being in a mosh pit and then going in a UFC fight at the same time.” American Idiot also brought Henry a once-in-a-lifetime moment rare for theatre performers. “One of the biggest memories was performing at the Grammys with Green Day with Billie Joe Armstrong.” The role of favorite son was a big lesson for Henry: “It was also way out of my comfort zone. I was the dude who, I literally came on stage in my underwear. I still don’t even think my parents saw that show. I was like, ‘It’s alright, you can skip that one.’”
The Scottsboro Boys, Broadway (2010)
“I did feel like it was a big break for me,” says Henry of his first leading role on Broadway. “I was ready for that moment thankfully. We had veterans [in that cast], people like Colman Domingo, Sharon Washington, Forrest McClendon. I learned so much from watching them. They are the OG’s of this theatre game.” The show ran for a mere 49 performances. “It was short-lived, but sometimes the best stuff is for reasons that you can’t control. But I think it’s great when things like that happen to you as a young performer because they quickly show you how fickle the business is and they remind me to focus on what is important and that is the storytelling for as long as you are given the opportunity to tell it.” However short-lived, Henry’s performance earned him his first Tony nomination. “We got to perform on the Tony Awards. That’s when I realized this show touched a lot of people. We got the audience’s response at the stage door, but to get the love from the theatre community, of course, is a very different thing. It’s phenomenal storytelling about a very important issue. That’s what also made me want to tell stories that are really saying something, that are having an impact. I think it would have a much longer run right now in 2018.”
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Broadway (2012)
“Well, let’s just talk about Audra McDonald,” Henry beams. “I remember the first time I rode an elevator with her at the 42nd Street studios and I saw her and a kind of shiver came over me because of everything that she’s done and accomplished. That was maybe 2008 when I was doing In the Heights. Then doing a show with her in 2012, I was like, ‘Wait a minute. It’s time to go back to school because here is a masterclass, sir.’ This is no joke. Her stage IQ and the way that she approaches her role and she knows everything that she is supposed to do and also the world in which she inhabits, it taught me: It’s not just about who are you. Where are you? What do people say about you? What are your intentions right now? She taught me really what it’s like to do backstory and fully know the world in which you are in.”
Bring it On The Musical, Broadway (2012)
“Cross the Line” soloist
“I always laugh because that’s one of my favorite Broadway credits because I was not on the stage, but I sang in the soundtrack and that song gets played every night in the show,” Henry says of the addition to his résumé. “My memory of being involved with that show is being in the studio with [director-choreographer Andy] Blankenbuehler, Tommy Kail, [composer-lyricist] Lin-Manuel [Miranda], who are just some of my favorite collaborators and friends. They’re just geniuses. I loved seeing that show on opening night and the fact that I got another Broadway credit because I was in the show recording was cool."
Violet, Broadway (2014)
After playing the role in college, Henry starred alongside Sutton Foster and Colin Donnell in the Roundabout production on Broadway. “Singing Flick’s song, ‘Let it Sing,’ it’s something that I had believed in so much. The lyrics just stand out to me, ‘You gotta give yourself a reason to rejoice.’ Give yourself room, let it sing. ‘Every living soul has got a voice.’ That has become my mantra.” But it’s also the relationship with his leading lady that sticks out in his mind. “What made that experience so incredible as well was working with Sutton, who I’ve been a fan of for a long time. Becoming friends with her, and asking her what she thought about this, and seeing her navigate this business. When you work with someone with that much experience, you just get so much knowledge.”
Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, Broadway (2016)
“Look if I got my masters in Audra back [with Porgy and Bess], I got my doctorate, my PhD, in Shuffle.” Henry starred alongside McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, and Brandon Victor Dixon, and remembers some backstage shenanigans: “Brandon Victor Dixon, me, and Audra were about to go into a scene where there was rain. We bust out these umbrellas and it was pretty tight quarters, so sometimes one of us would get hit in the face—it was really dark. And then right when we go onstage we’d have to be serious like there is actual rain coming down so that was a really fun moment. [But] my biggest memory of that is just standing in one place and listening to Billy Porter sing that blues number. You just get those sort of moments backstage where you’re like ‘Oh my gosh, I’m just going to close my eyes and let it hit me.’”
Hamilton, Chicago (2016) and National Tour (2017)
Before bowing as Burr in Chicago’s sit-down production, Henry told Playbill that he marvels at the character. “I’m fascinated by him, and I’m in awe of the material that I get to perform in the show. I get to show so many shades of myself as an actor." Henry even introduced a bit of new insight to the role. “[Burr] goes from this reserved, determined guy—who plays not to win, but plays not to lose—to this guy who ends up going for broke. He meets someone who just sees the world completely differently, and it starts to affect him, and throughout the night we see how he, in my opinion, transforms into Hamilton, but he doesn’t quite get the whole thing, and then he goes over the edge. It’s a wild, wild ride.”