Glass meets West End and Broadway star Joe Aaron Reid

“DREAMGIRLS is kind of a hot ticket at the moment,” says Joe Aaron Reid, stating the obvious. The West End show recently sizzled at this year’s Olivier Awards – it was nominated for five awards, including Best New Musical and Best Costume Design, and walked away with Amber Riley’s Best Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Effie White and Adam J Bernard’s Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical. Joe took to the stage at the live awards ceremony for And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going in his role as Curtis Taylor Jr, as made famous by Jamie Foxx in the 2006 film, telling Glass: “I’m there as a prop for Effie, but what a prop to be!”

Moving to London two years ago, native upstate New Yorker Joe made his West End debut as Benny in Tony-award winning musical In The Heights, which was preceded by an impressive line up Broadway and off-Broadway roles, including those in IF/THEN alongside Idina Menzel, Ghost The Musical, Catch Me If You Can and Why We Tell The Story.

Joe Aaron Reid - Dreamgirls_3Joe Aaron Reid. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

Tell us about Curtis Taylor Jr, the character you play in Dreamgirls.
Curtis is the manager of the Dreamettes. He is very ambitious, to the point that it’s one of his greatest flaws. He wheels and deals. He tries to play by the rules, but in the racial circumstances of 1960s and 70s, he quickly finds out that it doesn’t get the results he wants. He ends up bending rules and side dealing to get his group and his acts to where he wants them to be. It all works out but power corrupts and once he’s successful he becomes rather controlling – and not everyone is ready to go along with that, so it eventually becomes his undoing.

What is it like to play a character like that?
Oh, it’s fantastic. It really is. I never really get to be the villain – people say that I’ve got an approachable face – but this role is an actor’s dream. Curtis isn’t a bad guy although he does make questionable decisions. So to be able to start the show ambitious as ever, despite being kind of naive in a way, but also open and warmhearted and longing for everyone’s success, it’s such a great arc to play to where the character ends up. I get to act, have amazing scenes, sing great songs and dance a big number – honestly, it’s everything that I could want in a role.

Do you ever find any Curtis-isms slipping into your everyday?
Although I don’t think I go as far as Curtis, we aren’t that different in terms of ambition. We go about things differently, of course, but there are definitely things about me that I’m able to put into my Curtis. So Curtis doesn’t slip into my day to day – I hope I treat people a little bit better than that – but it certainly happens the other way around. We do have our similarities and I didn’t shy away from that creating him.

Joe Aaron Reid - Dreamgirls_2_Joe Aaron Reid. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

Which Dreamgirls number is your favourite?
There’s the iconic And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going, which I’m in but where I don’t really do anything (I’m just there as a prop for Effie, played by Amber Riley – but what a prop to be!). I also love Listen – the girls sound beautiful and there’s something about their voices together – it’s the big 11 o’clock number and it’s really amazing. I love performing Stepping to the Bad Side and You’re My Dream. There are so many great songs that it’s hard to choose one that’s a stand-out favourite, as they all speak to difference pieces of me.

Amber is a powerhouse. And of course she’s just won Best Actress in a Musical at the Olivier Awards. What’s it like to work alongside her?
She’s fantastic and so kind. I’ve had my fair share of work with stars and celebrities, and the one thing I love about Amber is that she could have come in and said “I’m Effie and everyone will do everything how I want it done and that’s gonna be it.” But she doesn’t do that. She is very gracious in life and on stage. Doing scenes with her is pleasure, because she gives it back to you and that is all an actor could ask for from their scene partner is that they’re getting them something  to work with – and Amber is that tenfold.

Joe Aaron Reid - Dreamgirls_1Joe Aaron Reid. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

You can act, you can dance and you can sing. What else makes you perfect for the stage?
I like that. I’ve done this for such a long time. I had my first play when I was in second grade and I did theatre in the middle school and high school. I went to four-year private university for musical theatre, which I was actually studying abroad here in London for the semester, which is why it was little easier to move here.

And I think I have a love for it I have a passion for it and I love the thing that comes across when I’m on stage. There are a lot of people, I think, that similarly to me have done acted their whole life and they just get to a place where they don’t really want to do it anymore. They just don’t know what else they would do.

They are in their 30s or 40s and may think, “I’m doing this because I always done it and this is how I know how to make money.” The love for it , the drive, isn’t there anymore. But I haven’t experienced that. I’m in love with what I do. Maybe it’s the show, maybe it’s this role, but I come to work and I’m actually excited to be there every day. Some days are harder than others, but once the show starts… And because I don’t really have any down time, I’ve never had the chance to sit back be like, “Oh god, I wish it would just be over.” I really enjoy it.

You are very lucky.
Oh yeah, absolutely. Not everyone gets to do what they love. I feel very blessed.

What was the play you did in second grade?
I can’t even remember what it was called, but I played a possum [laughs]. And I really suffered from stage fright. I was so terrified during one of the rehearsals that I ran away and hid under a table. So I find it interesting how things have changed from then to now. I’ve really come out of my shell!

Do you feel any stage fright these days?
No, not really. Depending on the day there are times on stage when I’ll blank and I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. Sometimes I imagine menopause feels similar, because I’ll get a hot flash [laughs]. Sometimes I’m like, “Oh my god, what’s gonna happen?” But it’s also the great thing about live theatre – we’re not machines, it’s not a movie where it’s going be the same thing every single time. So I while I don’t really get nervous to be on stage, there are other moments that I don’t particularly love, but they happen.

I always think of ‘Fame’ when I hear someone attended a musical theatre school in New York. You studied at Ithaca College – was every day like a scene from that 80s film?
Nooooo. Well sometimes… I’ve never really thought about that. But in ways, yeah. Classes would start at 8am and, usually, that was like voice and movement class, when you go and everybody rolls up in sweat pants and things like that. And we’d be doing all these big vocal exercises and massaging each other, playing different roles and doing different poems to work on our voices. And then we’d transition into a scene study class followed by a ballet class.

There was a keyboarding class over in the music building, so you’d see a bunch of people walking over still in their tights. Ithaca had one of the best theatre programs in the United States, but it’s actually a liberal arts college, so we were surrounded by journalist majors and business majors. Those students always looked at us like, ‘there are the eccentric, crazy kids,’ – and we were eccentric and crazy.

You’ve been in London now for two years now. How is it going?
I’m really enjoying it. London is an amazing city – especially when the weather is nice. We moved here from my husband’s job, so when he asked me to move, even though I knew there is a big scene here, I was a bit apprehensive, just because my career was starting to go where I wanted it to in New York. But I also knew moving would be a fresh start, so I was giving something up, but hoping that it will pay off.

And it has. The London theatre scene has embraced me wholeheartedly, between In The Heights and Dreamgirls. I’m getting to do all the work I want to be doing and at a level comparable to New York. I’m pleased as punch: I’ve got my husband, I’ve got my kids, I have a great career, I’m living in an amazing city. What’s not to like?

by Natalie Egling

Dreamgirls is now playing at the Savoy Theatre, Savoy Court, The Strand, London WC2R 0ET, until October 2017

The Savoy Theatre can be found on twitter