'Broadway Bares' Performers Jay Armstrong Johnson & Christian Dante White Talk Stripping Down for Burlesque Benefit
"Arts, to me, changes the world, so we're doing that in our own strip-a-thon fun way," White says of Sunday's shows.
The annual charity burlesque show Broadway Bares is back, and this time, the one-night-only spectacular aims to take its audience on a sexy trip around the world -- all while raising money for a cause: Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA).
This year’s striptastic show -- dubbed Broadway Bares: Take Off -- will take place on Sunday over two performances at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom and is slated to feature more than 150 of New York and Broadway’s finest dancers. According to a press statement, the show will “present a titillating, travel-inspired striptease” and visit such destinations as a “risqué red light district,” Burning Man and a “celebratory return to Stonewall.”
In total, the 28 previous editions of Broadway Bares have earned more than $19.1 million for BC/EFA (which also produces the show). Last year's show raised $1.9 million.
Among the featured performers in Broadway Bares: Take Off are Jay Armstrong Johnson (currently on Broadway in The Phantom of the Opera) and Christian Dante White (currently of My Fair Lady). The pair will help guide the audience through the evening’s story, alongside Stephen DeRosa (Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus) and two-time Tony Award nominee Christopher Sieber (The Prom).
Billboard chatted with Bares veteran Johnson and first-time Bares performer White to discuss the show, why it’s important to take part in Bares, who they’d love to see as a guest performer (are your ears burning, Audra McDonald?), if they are nervous about stripping down, what the worst mishap is that could happen onstage and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When did you first see Broadway Bares, and what did you think of the show?
Jay Armstrong Johnson: It was, I think, 2009 when I first saw the show. Because I was supposed to be in one of the numbers, but then I had to miss a couple rehearsals due to an outside conflict, so they had to cut me from my number, which I was devastated. But I did get to see the show and I just remember it being one of the more raucous nights that I've had in New York. I was 20 years old at the time, so I had really only been in New York for a couple of years, and it really opened my eyes to what that kind of event could feel like. And then on top of that… the fundraising situation adds a different feeling on top of it.
I'm curious, do you remember what the number was that you were cut from?
Johnson: I believe that the theme that year was … something about email… technology [Editor's note: It was an Internet-themed showed dubbed Broadway Bares: Click It!]. I was supposed to be a mailbox. And I believe Nick Adams was supposed to put mail in my box, if you know what I mean. [Laughs]
Christian Dante White: You got cut from that? What's wrong with you?
Johnson: I know, I know. I was really upset with myself. [Laughs]
Get your first sneak peek at #BroadwayBares: Take Off with the cast of "Ground Crew" featuring @FrozenBroadway's Adam Perry and choreographed by Andrew Turtletaub. For tickets, visit https://t.co/8ul1xXvw2p. pic.twitter.com/ixt7uj9l3h— Broadway Cares (@BCEFA) June 11, 2019
Christian, when did you first see Broadway Bares and what did you think of the whole experience?
White: Actually, 2017 was the first time I ever saw it… And I had this preconceived notion about it, and I was completely blown away by the performances and the love, and just… there were so many different people represented, which I didn't expect. Especially women, which I loved. And the body positivity. And the energy of the room was just so much fun. I went to the midnight show with a really close friend of mine, and seeing my theater community and people who I don't get to see all the time perform, who are not necessarily on Broadway, but still a part of the community, was just so much fun. The following year, I was supposed to be in the opening number, but like Jay, I had a scheduling conflict and I couldn't do it, and so this year, they were very kind to ask me to be in it again, so I'm really excited to finally get up there, because I've been dying to get up there ever since I saw it for the first time two years ago.
Jay, since you've been in the show before, what advice do you have for Christian going into his first Broadway Bares?
Johnson: Oh my gosh. Don't drink until after the midnight show.
White: Got it.
Johnson: Really… get ready for feeling like you're the best version of your rock star that you've probably ever felt like. I've been in a few Broadway shows, and I've done a national tour, and I've been on some big stages in the world, but there is truly nothing that compares to the crowd that is filling the room at Hammerstein Ballroom. It actually is overwhelming. Especially at that midnight show. I mean, it was so loud last year that we could barely hear the music. We were off the music because the crowd was so loud.
Johnson: So, really, just prepare for yourself for that kind of a punch-in-the-face in the best way possible. [Laughs]
White: So I'm going to be Beyoncé [on] Sunday, is what I'm hearing.
Johnson: You know you are, you know you are! [Laughs]
Inevitably, you'll both probably be wearing next-to-nothing at some point during the show… Though obviously [the show] is very sexy, at the same time it’s also very light and fun… it's done with such theatricality and humor, and all for such a great cause… but as I say all of that, at some point, you might find yourself wearing very little. Does that make you nervous at all? Jay, you start first. You've done this before, but you don't normally find yourself in The Phantom of the Opera wearing briefs. This is very different.
Johnson: [Laughs] Correct. Yeah, it is. I kind of started my Broadway career getting naked onstage, because I was in the revival of Hair back in 2009. So I was given the opportunity to be scantily clad at an early part of my career. And yes, it is always nerve-racking. But you're right, the way the Broadway Bares writers curate the evening, it is so much about body positivity and letting yourself be free, and celebrating life and love and each other's bodies and diversity. When you look at it in that scope, and when you see the amount of artists onstage and backstage, it really feels like a community, and everyone is lifting each other up. And so those nerves quickly wash away.
Christian, are you nervous about stripping down?
Christian: I am nervous, but it's that good kind of nerves, before you do a show for the first time. Just like Jay said, when I saw the show, I too had that preconceived notion that everyone was going to look perfect, and it was going to be like going to some Chelsea gay bar. But I was so moved by the different body types that I saw, the different colors, and just so many people represented. And so it was more than just looking perfect; it was about everyone celebrating their individuality and being up there together. And that's something, especially in theater, that I love. When you're doing something for the first time, you're not up there by yourself. You're with other people as well doing it for the first time, so you guys jump and leap together. So I'm excited to jump and leap nakedly with everyone. [Laughs]
Christian, since this is the first time that you're doing this, but you've seen the show before, what do you think could be the worst mishap that could happen on the stage at Broadway Bares?
White: Oh my God, what could be the worst mishap? Probably either forgetting your choreography, or falling, or… a pastie or something falling off. [Laughs] But that won't happen, because literally they are like the best dancers in the city. So, everyone's professional, brings their A-game. No one's drinking until after the midnight show, as Jay mentioned earlier, so we're not going to even put out into the universe any mishaps. Especially for my first time. I'm only going to put out goodness.
Johnson: And if the mishap is a piece of clothing being taken off a little too scantily, is that really a mishap at Broadway Bares? [Laughs]
And not to sound indelicate, but with so much dancing with very little on, I assume there's probably excessive amounts of precautions that are taken into account when you guys are prepping all of the different tear-aways that you're wearing, so that nothing gets ripped away when it shouldn't have been ripped away.
Johnson: Absolutely. These artists that work on the wardrobe crew are truly top-of-the-line. I mean, they really are Broadway theater artists that are donating their time, just like the performers onstage. You're getting top-notch quality artistry on the costume and light and sound side. And it really is rehearsed, painstakingly, all of the rip-aways, to make sure that everything is perfect for the night-of.
Christian, is there a particular number that you are looking forward to seeing this year, aside from your own?
White: I'm a huge fan of John Alix, who choreographs numbers [in the show, including this year]. So, I'm looking forward to seeing what he did. He did that Katy Perry feminist "Roar" song [number titled Feminist Studies, from 2017's Broadway Bares: Strip U] with the Beyoncé poetic intro. I'm always looking forward to what he's gonna put down.
Johnson: Of the shows that I've seen, there's always one number where it's very female-driven and they’re all in tall stilettos. I am a gay man, and I truly love the male physique, but that number just gets me every single year. I hope that they will do another female stiletto heel tip across the stage number like they always do, because it really does rev me up. [Laughs]
Which of your current or former co-stars, in any show, in any venue or vehicle, would you like to see show up in Broadway Bares? Fantasy casting!
White: I'm going to go with two of my Dollys, actually. I'd like Bette Midler or Bernadette Peters to do some Broadway Bares situation [White appeared alongside Midler and Peters in the recent Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly!], and I think they'd both be down.
Johnson: They totally would.
Bette got her start in bathhouses for God's sakes, of course she would be onstage!
White: Totally. [Laughs] She was really in the first Broadway Bares, we just, you know, made a different name and capitalized on it. … Those two, I would love to see them do something.
Johnson: You know, to keep the female-centric theme, I would kind of really love to see [six-time Tony winner] Audra McDonald do her thing.
White: Oh, I agree.
Johnson: I think she's such a consummate artist, that she would find a way to make her number just the most spellbinding thing you've ever seen. So, really, Audra. Final answer.
She could just tape all her Tony Awards to her body to cover up the naughty bits, I suppose.
Johnson: You need to tell Broadway Cares immediately.
White: I feel like she's done that at home on her own time.
Here's another sneak peek at rehearsals for #BroadwayBares: Take Off with the cast of "In-Flight Entertainment" featuring @connierousouli and choreographed by @TheEmmys nominee @Al_Blackstone. Get tickets for Sunday's performances here: https://t.co/8ul1xXvw2p pic.twitter.com/UApDaWEDKl— Broadway Cares (@BCEFA) June 13, 2019
We've had a lot of fun in this interview, but ultimately, Broadway Bares does an incredible thing and it raises tons of money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Why is participating in Broadway Bares important to you?
Johnson: It's important to me because I grew up in a bit of a conservative household in the South, and so the idea of this seemed quite not in my realm of something that I would even think about doing when I was a kid. Really, being in the Broadway community, and doing shows like Hair, and marching on Washington for gay rights, and doing as many events with Broadway Cares as I have, I've just realized that it's a community that really does give back every single minute of every single day. Sure, it's fun to take your clothes off in front of thousands of people and feel like a rock star for a night. But when Judith Light steps out onto that stage and finally says how much money we've raised [the Tony and Emmy Award winner regularly participates in the show to help announce how much money has been raised], it really is an earth-shattering moment when you can look out across the crowd, and across all of your fellow artists onstage and backstage, and realize the hard work and blood and sweat that you put in to this one evening is really actually changing lives across the nation. So that's why I keep coming back every year.
White: When I saw it two years ago, I was completely blown away -- not only by the performances, but the heart of this show and this great cause, and how many millions of dollars they raise. So anything that I can do, that I do freely at home by myself [laughs] to make for a great cause, why not? Why wouldn't I do that? I think it's important for us to not only be great actors and performers, but also make sure that we come together and give back, because arts, to me, changes the world, so we're doing that in our own strip-a-thon fun way.
Any parting words?
Johnson: I don't remember who said this to me, but it just came up in my mind, that I believe the first Broadway Bares [April 8, 1992] … it was in the heat of the AIDS crisis, and these people decided to do a fundraiser at a bar. It really was a moment for gay men, especially, in that crisis, to reclaim their bodies as sexual. And not be seen as leprous, or as condemned, or as diseased. Thirty years later, here we are, and it's grown to such a big event, and we're celebrating Stonewall… so I'm excited to celebrate those that came before us, and fought the good fight, and reclaimed their bodies so that we could kind of live freely and not have to reclaim our bodies. We can just claim them.
Broadway Bares: Take Off will be directed by Laya Barak, who co-directed last year’s show, alongside Nick Kenkel. The latter will serve as an executive producer of the 2019 show with two-time Tony Award winner Jerry Mitchell, the creator of Broadway Bares. Broadway Bares: Take Off is one of a number of charitable events produced by the organization each year. According to BC/EFA, the organization has raised more than $300 million for essential services for people with AIDS and other critical illnesses across the United States since 1988.