James Snyder revisits his a cappella roots with In Transit

James Snyder is a fan favorite with his charmingly good looks and a super friendly personality to match. After bringing audiences to tears every night in If/Then, he now returns to Broadway with the ground breaking new musical In Transit. A throwback to his college days as a member of the SoCal VoCals, In Transit is completely a cappella. There are no instruments and every sound you hear is being made live by the talented cast. We spoke to James about what it’s like to originate his third role on Broadway and advice he has for aspiring actors.

Joy: When did you discover that you had a passion for theater?
I grew up in Sacramento and went to the Sacramento Music Circus which was in a tent. That was when I first discovered what theater could do and how fun it was, but I didn’t do my first show until I was 13 or 14. I played Jesus in Godspell – it was my first show at my high school, Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento. It was much more than I think I was expecting. Memorization was not a strong suit for me and so I don’t think I took it very seriously. It was just something that was a lot of fun. I would play soccer in the fall and would do the musical in the spring and it was great and then around my junior year I started to figure out what I was going to be when I grew up. My girlfriend at the time was auditioning at NYU and was going to be an actress and I was like okay, maybe I will see about doing that. So I auditioned for a few programs and I got into USC, Bachelor of Fine Arts program in acting. I would say college is where I really found my purpose and my ability to reach people. It’s where I found my calling within the context of being an actor.

You started out working in TV and film. Was that the ultimate goal or did you always plan on pursuing a career on Broadway?
I went to school in Los Angeles and Hollywood did have a cool draw to it – to do TV and film would be awesome. Then I ended up doing a ton of theater in Los Angeles. One of the first shows I did out of school was called Sneaux! starring Kristen Bell, right after she had done the Veronica Mars pilot. It was a weird gothic, horror, romance figure‑skating musical. So it was the weirdest thing I have ever done, but it was with director Andy Fickman of Reefer Madness when it was on off‑Broadway in NYC. Andy then went on to direct the movie She’s The Man and I got my foot in the door.

What it like being in She’s The Man and working with Amanda Bynes?
It was amazing. It was a few months, I worked two or three days a week. Amanda had to work really hard. She had like one day that she wasn’t filming. We were in Vancouver just having a great time. In fact, some of my best friends are from that. I got to have a lot of fun with my role, being the nerd and the goofball.

Are you still in touch with people from that movie?
Yes, absolutely. Jonathan Sadowski who played the hairdresser, yes. But I don’t talk to Amanda anymore or Channing [Tatum] really. He is a little busy so… You know, we were all just really young and trying to figure it out.

How did you land the lead role in Cry‑Baby?
I did Rock of Ages. Before Rock of Ages ever went to Broadway, we did it in Los Angeles – I was playing opposite Laura Bell Bundy, Chris Hardwick, Kyle Gass from Tenacious D. I was shooting a movie in Boston and had to re-audition to do a workshop of it and Bernie Telsey of Telsey and Company, they never heard of me and they were like, “you need to re-audition if you are going to do this workshop.” So I took the Fung Wah 14‑dollar bus from Boston to New York and auditioned for Rock of Ages at the workshop and then booked it, thank God. The week that I happened to be doing that workshop was the week John Waters was in town for the final round of auditions for Cry‑Baby and they came and saw me in the workshop and said “okay, he can do this.” So it worked out.

Cry‑Baby was great. It was a lot. It was such a huge undertaking. That was challenging in its own way too.

Your last Broadway show, If/Then had an all-star cast. How did you get involved with that and what was your favorite thing about it?
David Stone happened to come see me do Billy Bigelow in Carousel at Goodspeed Opera House and I finished singing “Soliloquy” and I think he was pretty set on “that’s my guy.” So he said I should come audition for If/Then. When the time came to audition for it, I had just had a baby. My son, Oliver, was six weeks old and one of the audition songs was “Hey, Kid.” And it’s like, I have just been through that entire experience of having a kid and being scared to death. So between that and having had the kid and being able to sing it and loving it… I had also worked with Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey a little before on a different project. So everything kind of came together and that was how I ended up in If/Then.

What was your favorite part about that show?
The people. I mean, hands down. It’s such a wonderful – and you know, this is an amazing cast too. You get such a family of people that you love and respect and that’s usually my favorite part. Getting to know people and getting to share an experience with these people on stage.

If/Then is a really special show and getting to sing “Hey, Kid” and sing opposite Idina Menzel – I walked into my first rehearsal scared to death because I grew up with the Rent original cast album. And then all of a sudden, I got Michael Greif and Anthony Rapp and LaChanze, who I saw in Ragtime and obviously Idina. And Jenn Colella I worked with before. I was like, “oh, my God.”

James Snyder & Margo Siebert in In Transit
James Snyder & Margo Siebert in In Transit

What is it like to originate a role as opposed to taking on a role that has been done before? Which one do you prefer?
It’s a really special thing to get to originate a role. I get to create essentially from me with the director – I try and tailor the role to how I would interpret this and then sometimes things get rewritten in order to make it work. Like in this show in the duet there was a line, “I felt this vibe, this authentic vibe. You know how sometimes you just know it,” and I went to the writers and I said I don’t know if I would be talking about a vibe. I was like, Nate is not a vibe kind of guy. He is pretty straightforward. And Kristen Anderson‑Lopez said, “tell me about your first date with your wife.” So I just started talking about my first date with her and what I love about her. So the line then came out of me talking about my wife– “She listened to me, I think she is smarter than me. You know how sometimes you just know it.” When my wife came and saw it, I was like, “babe, there is a line written because of you in this show.” That’s cool. Getting to originate a role means forever I get my mark on this.

You were part of an a cappella group in college (the SoCal VoCals). How do you feel that helped you prepare for In Transit?
Oh, completely because I did a little vocal percussion and then when they threw things like, “doom, digadoom, digadoom, digadoom”– so the nonsensical verbs and the type of arrangements were very familiar to me because Deke Sharon who did the arrangements is sort of like the a cappella god. I remember in college looking up to him and being in awe of everything he did. Coming in, it’s like I knew the program, I knew the drill. Even with that I was constantly humbled by this process of how hard it actually was to learn the music.

The cast of In Transit
The cast of In Transit

Do you find it harder to be in an a cappella musical as opposed to a traditional musical where you don’t have to keep the beat?
Yes. This is an hour and forty minutes, no intermission, but I don’t get much downtime because I am having to sing back‑up on all the other songs. I get two songs off basically and that’s more than most. So this is just a constant hour forty of really just having to be focused. At the end of it we are all just exhausted.

Has there ever been a funny mishap because something went off?
No real mishaps. We were doing my number “Broke” and normally we have a click track and Rick Hip‑Flores, our conductor gives us a chord and goes, “three, four” and we get our starting notes and then we go. He didn’t come in and so I just took a guess at the note and I was in the right key and everyone else was in the right key. So I would say that was almost a mishap, but because of the muscle memory and the musicianship of the actors, we avoided catastrophe.

Why do you think people should come see In Transit?
So many reasons. Eleven‑part harmony. All a cappella. I mean, it’s ground‑breaking what we are doing. I think it’s a truly touching story of people just trying to make it in New York City. It’s almost unexpected how much people end up caring about the characters.

What’s your favorite part of In Transit?
“Broke.” I get to dance more than usual. Well, since Cry‑Baby. It’s fun. I get to rock out. I sing “100‑dollar underpants” and move my hips. That’s funny.

In Transit is set in NYC and it really makes a point of showcasing the best and worst aspects of the city. What is YOUR favorite thing about the city?
That anything can happen on any street corner at any time. The possibilities in this city are endless. So I hop on the subway and I never know who I am going to run into or what amazing bits of humanity I am going to get to experience.

Any funny stories you can share from other shows?
Oh my God. So many on If/Then. At my birthday show I popped out of the bed with my shirt off. I warned Idina [Menzel] a little bit, but we got into the scene and she wasn’t looking at me and when she finally looked at me I didn’t have a shirt on. This is after “What The Fuck” and it was about three and a half minutes of her cracking up and explaining to the audience that I normally have a shirt on and this time I didn’t because it was my birthday and I was messing with her.

I was at a show once where LaChanze came out with the yellow stool at the wrong time.
Oh, shit. Yes.

At the same show Idina bumped into a stool and you introduced her as clumsy. You said she is clumsy tonight.
That’s the thing with Idina. You never know – she is so honest. As long as you can acknowledge that truth – if she goes off book or breaks, it’s sometimes fun to make a joke about it and then we get right back on track and everything is good.

What’s your most memorable fan experience at the stagedoor?
When I did the ice bucket challenge on the vlog. Oh, my God. Yes, that was a little nuts. That was insane.

If you weren’t acting and singing, what would you do instead?
I would be working with my dad in Sacramento. It could be a lot of fun to be near my family and have a normal life.

What advice would you give to an aspiring performer?
So many. To quote Jenn Colella, “you are enough.”

To expand on that though, listen – listen to yourself first and foremost and then listen to the people around you because there is never an end to the things that you can learn and bring to your experience on stage. So the more you can listen onstage, the more present you are. The more you can listen offstage, the more you can learn and bring to your life on that stage.

Do you have an all‑time favorite musical?
Carousel – oh, and The Music Man. If I had to go for heavy, it’s Carousel. I think The Music Man.

Would you want to play Harold Hill on Broadway?
Yes. I did it in high school. I grew up with that. It’s a near‑perfect musical. I love it.

Do you have any quirky talents that people don’t know about?
I think I have done plenty of quirky things on my vlog. Any quirky talent? I don’t know. I mean, the beatboxing I always thought was something quirky, but now I get to do it here every night.

This interview has been edited for clarity  // Transcribed by Yaffi

Watch James play Date, Duet or Dump at BroadwayCon 2017:

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