In 2002, Justin Guarini passed up his first shot at Broadway—a role in The Lion King—to compete on the initial season of American Idol. It worked out: Guarini found fame as the runner-up to Kelly Clarkson, and eight years later he finally made his Broadway debut in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. After roles in Wicked, American Idiot and Romeo and Juliet, he’s playing Trent in the first a cappella Broadway musical, In Transit. Guarini and his castmates provide all of the music and sound effects for the production, without help from an orchestra. It’s a challenge.
The show is of special interest to nycgo.com because its plot follows a cast of New Yorkers as they travel on the NYC subway system (and, yes, navigate transitions in their own lives).
Guarini—his hair shorter than in his Idol days but his voice as strong as ever—took some time before a recent performance to talk about the show, his days as a struggling artist in New York City, and song and dance on the real subway.
Do you have any favorite subway performers you’ve seen during your own commute?
Justin Guarini: Totally, yeah! There’s this group of middle-aged African-American men who do this really cool doo-wop on my train. I love performances on the subway, the dancers in the subway. I remember when I would go to Brooklyn—especially that long stretch under the water—they would dance their faces off. At the 34th Street station, there was a skinny, tall, young, white kid with a drum kit playing the funkiest beat. It was amazing. I will always give to street performers, especially when they’re in the subway.
What do you remember about your time living in New York City, when you were studying acting?
JG: I went to the School for Film and Television. It was probably 1999, 2000, something like that. I lived in Brooklyn at Prince and Tillary, kind of at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge. Then I lived around 86th and Broadway on the Upper West Side and shared a bathroom with three other apartments.
I remember having good friends here. But what I remember most is being so flat broke. First I was a busser. Then I got a gig waiting tables, and I absolutely hated it. Looking back on it today, it was a lovely place. It’s called the Cupping Room, downtown. Lovely people. But I was terrible at it, and back then I couldn’t stand it. That’s why I really respect people who do it now, and I’m a good tipper.
I lived around 86th and Broadway on the Upper West Side and shared a bathroom with three other apartments.
How does the challenge of this show compare with your previous experiences on Broadway?
JG: It is by far the most challenging show I’ve ever done, because it is nonstop. I did a cappella in high school—I was in a group, we made a CD, we sang around the region. But, oh, man, this is insane. You have to plan where you breathe. You have to plan where you drink water. We are the entire score of the show—so not only are we singing, dancing and acting like we would in any Broadway musical, but we’re also the orchestra and the band. So that’s the biggest challenge—to take 11 people doing 11 different things in 11 different places who more often than not can’t see one another, and make it sound like we’re coordinated.
Were there times when you wondered if it was going to come together?
JG: On the third day of rehearsals. You usually get three, three-and-a-half weeks to learn a Broadway show before it goes into tech and you put it on the stage. We had a month and a half because it was so complicated. So I would say that, on the third day, we started looking around at one another saying: “Are we going to be able to do this? This is really hard.” And we hadn’t even gotten to the staging, the choreography or any of the book scenes. We were just dealing with the music, and the complexity is unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of. It’s taken a lot of practice for all of us.
Do you have a favorite sound effect you do?
JG: There’s one thing during the number called “Saturday Night.” That’s Erin Mackey’s song, about her character. I end up being the sound effects guy. I do a phone ringing; I do a message machine.
Do you do the sent-message tone—the “booop”?
JG: Yeah! That’s me. I’m doing it right on the stairs there.
It sounds just like a phone.
JG: Thanks. That’s one of my favorite parts of the show.
I do a phone ringing; I do a message machine.
You live in Pennsylvania now, but what do you do when you come to New York City with your wife and kids?
JG: My kids will not let me come into the City with them or leave it without going to the M&M’s Store. They’re so crazy about the M&M’s Store. Anything sugary, but especially M&M’s. What else? There’s this great place in Central Park near Columbus Circle where there’s a mix of playground and rocky terrain. I love taking them there when it’s warm so they can climb on the rocks and play in the playground.
What defines the character of the City for you?
JG: You have millions of people with millions of different stories, and an untold number of backgrounds, races and creeds all coming together. And when something happens, good or bad, we’re all New Yorkers.
You can always tell when there’s a group of tourists, because they walk three and four next to each other on the sidewalk. We don’t do that. Because we know we’ve all got to get around. And you can tell the New Yorkers who are on their phones looking down and managing not to hit one another; we’re taking care of each other. There’s a mentality that we have where no matter who we are or where we come from, we’re in it together.