This past summer I walked into a theater where the face of the Statue of Liberty floated on a bare stage. The first pensive notes of the piano played and the Ogunquit Playhouse production of Ragtime began to unfold. I was moved by many of the performances, including the actor playing Tateh, who made him gentle yet fierce, humble yet proud, burdened by darkness yet drawn towards lightness. I recently spoke with that actor, Josh Young, about performing for Andrew Lloyd Webber, the bold experiment of Amazing Grace and the power of shows like Ragtime to tell our story.
Do you get audition anxiety and if so, how do you manage it?
I don’t get nervous once I have the part. I also don’t get nervous if I’m prepared for the audition. Sometimes they give you a day to learn way too much material and I will just stay up all night learning it and will just have to go in nervous. But I think that the people behind the desk want you to be your best, they want you to be the answer to their prayers. If you can train yourself to know that they need you to be good and are hoping that you’re the solution to their problem, that alleviates some of the nerves.
You made your Broadway debut in the 2012 revival of Jesus Christ Superstar as Judas. Can you talk about what it was like to make your Broadway bow in that show?
I had been playing the role for a year at that time. We started at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival with that production and then the La Jolla Playhouse but there was no thought of going to Broadway with it. We got such praise that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice [composer and lyricist, respectively] came to see us. Somehow we ended up getting a Broadway theater. I had the time of my life doing it in Stratford and La Jolla but I really didn’t enjoy my Broadway experience. This might have changed if we had run longer but I found it to be less about the art and enjoying the process and more about the commercial aspects. Another part of it might have been that opening night, I got really sick from about the second week of previews until two weeks after opening. I almost didn’t go on opening night! I find that my best experiences have been doing work out of New York City because there is so much pressure to make people money in New York and you feel that all of the time.
Then you played John Newton in Amazing Grace, which is based on the backstory to the writing of that song. Were you as surprised as the audience to learn about the genesis of the song?
Very surprised, I don’t even remember what I thought when I read John Newton’s story. I do remember thinking that this story would make an amazing musical. At the end of the day did we make an amazing musical? I don’t know. But we tried. It wasn’t as successful as the story could have been if other factors had been considered. It’s an amazing life story and it was an honor to be able to play John Newton.
This past summer you played Tateh in Ragtime at the Ogunquit Playhouse, which ran during the events in Charlottesville. Being that it is a show about, among many things, prejudice, hate crimes, and political turmoil, what impact do you think the show can have on the audience?
I really wish that production could have a life beyond this past summer. I think Ragtime should have a permanent place in New York City, just like a museum. A lot of tourists come into town and they see Phantom of the Opera but that’s not learning about a very important part of America’s history. Especially because people are coming in from other countries and immigration is such a big deal right now, I wish more people could see a production of that show, it should be a mainstay.
As someone who comes from a Jewish background, what was it like to play Tateh, a Jewish immigrant?
My great, great grandparents arrived just like that on Ellis Island. The challenging part of that role was getting the right accent. Tateh is Latvian but a Jew from Latvia would speak with a Latvian Yiddish accent which doesn’t exist anymore. Thankfully I remembered that my grandmother, who was from Austria and had lived through the Holocaust, had been involved in Steven Spielberg’s Shoa Project where he filmed all of these survivor’s stories. I thought maybe I could find a survivor on that database who had that accent. Luckily I was able to use it as a way to get that authenticity. A lot of times actors grab onto a prop or make-up or costumes. For me, it’s the accent. And Yiddish really brings out the flavor of a character, the sound of the language is warm and friendly.
What’s next for you?
I do a one-man show and I’m getting ready to do it on a three separate cruise ships. I’m getting married and I have a honeymoon coming up. I have been offered a couple of developmental shows. I’m just back to auditioning and seeing what comes up.
How important is it to you to feel connected to both the material and the creative team when signing onto a project?
It is now. I’ve done enough stuff that I didn’t enjoy. During the developmental phase, it doesn’t really pay so if it’s good I’m willing to work for very little. It’s not worth it if it’s not something you really believe in.
To find out when Young will next be performing, you can follow him on Twitter @joshpaulyoung.