INTERVIEW: Gay Filmmaker, Jeffrey A. Johns talks about Chita Rivera, Tony Awards, and ‘Still Waiting in the Wings’

Last week theOUTfront previewed the streaming release of the new movie musical, Still Waiting in the Wings.

“Awarding winning, Still Waiting in the Wings – the new movie musical: TRAILER”

 

This week we  interviewed Jeffrey A. John, producer, co-writer and star of the hilarious love letter to musical theatre about creating his film, and what it was like working with Chita and Tony.

TOF: Congratulations on the release of Still Waiting in the Wings. It’s ridiculously funny especially to anyone who has ever worked in and or around the theatre, is a musical theatre fan, or a gay man following his heart.  In the Venn diagram of life that’s probably a lot of overlap.

I’m curious how much of the story is from personal experience and/or based on people you know?

Jeffrey A Johns (Anthony) and Cindy Williams (Rosie) backstage at Cafe Broadway

Jeffrey: Actually, a lot of my first film stemmed from real life experiences, but the sequel was much more creative writing and was lucky to have a co-writer for the sequel. Arie Gonzalez and I laughed as we created the villain for the movie. We would reminisce about “theatre stories” to get us excited about creating this villain. We both agreed right from the beginning that we wanted him so evil, but yet funny.  We wanted the audience to gasp at his evil plots, but at the same time say “I can see that happening” or “that reminds me of” or even “I know someone who did that!” So our villain isn’t based on one person, but “theatre lore” and personal experiences definitely gave our villain, Bradley some depth.

TOF: Still Waiting in the Wings is actually the sequel to your 2014 film, Waiting in the Wings: The Musical (which I can’t wait to watch!) both of which have now been adapted for the stage. It’s typically the other way around.  What made you go film first?

 

 

Jeffrey: This is my second movie musical.  My initial musical was called, Waiting in the Wings: The Musical with Lee Meriwether, Sally Struthers, Christopher Atkins, and Shirley Jones.  While Still Waiting in the Wings follows the same characters as the initial film, we made sure each film can stand alone and you don’t have to see one movie to see the other one. 

 I love musical theatre more than life itself.  I’ve always wanted to create a stage show, but I see so many great local musicals that never really get much notice.  The show closes and it is forgotten which breaks my heart. How could I make my musical different? I needed to make it a movie first and grab an audience prior to even attempting to bring my idea to the stage. I never follow typical paths and think the best things can come from the biggest risks. My other thought: with a movie, I could perhaps convince celebrity actors to join us for just a few hours to add some magic to the film. In addition to the celebrity actors, we could assemble a great cast and then release the film on movie screens throughout the world.

Long after a movie is complete, people can enjoy it hope it brings smiles to people’s faces. which is incredible to me. I didn’t see how I could capture that kind of audience in a theatre show without a Broadway style budget. I thought a movie would reach a greater audience… and someday I would get that stage musical on its feet. As luck would have it, that time is now. Waiting in the Wings: The Musical is having its world premiere in September at the Rose Center Theater in Westminster, California. It’s based on the original film, but has music from both films. We have some new characters and 10 new songs by some of my songwriting team once again. It was so fun to revisit the first film and bring new life and ideas to it. 

TOF: The soundtrack features original songs from nine different artists. Usually there’s one composer or duo, yet the film manages to have a charming, at times hilarious, and unified sound.  How was it achieved?

Jeffrey: The reason for the multiple songwriters is when I was making my first film, Waiting in the Wings: The Musical, I had never written a movie before. I also wanted great music. I knew I’d never find a great composer to write the entire show for an unknown writer/producer. My idea was to beg and plead with several great composers to write me just one song. I would be specific on the style and tone that I wanted for the song.  After all the songs were set into the show, I had one orchestrator (Arie Gonzalez) create a tone to blend them all together to give the entire picture a uniformed sound.

I could probably have gotten one composer for the sequel, but having the songwriting team worked so well the first time and really enjoyed working with all the composers so invited them all back once again. I believe the music is the heart of this project and can’t rave enough about my songwriting team. Please note some of the incredible songwriters in the project including Danny Abosch, Andrew Byrne, Ken Clifton, Arie Gonzalez, Paul Louis, Matthew Lee Robinson, Nick Santa Maria, and Ruth Wallis.

 

 

TOF: One of the fabulous things about the film is all the celebrity cameo appearances and we’re talking major celebrities. For an indie film, that is more than a little impressive.  How did you manage to wrangle ten, let alone the one and only Chita Rivera?

Jeffrey: It was easier for the sequel because at least I had a previous movie to showcase, but still getting great celebrity cameos is a challenge, but time well spent. I don’t just approach anyone to be a cameo. I approach actors that have influenced me in my career, actors I respect, and actors I think would shine in the role. Many times, I have that actor in mind when writing the role.

 You might have guessed that locking in Chita Rivera was the most challenging. In fact, the entire movie had been filmed and edited prior to getting a green light from Chita Rivera. I just felt in my heart, I needed to get her. In fact, we had scenes in the movie where my character refers to meeting Chita Rivera several times. We filmed that… before Chita said yes!!!!! Fear not, we did use some back-up dialogue in case Chita didn’t say yes, but I was always making sure we got a take where I referenced Chita Rivera, LOL!

The reality, it took me about 6 years to get Chita Rivera involved. I tried to get her in my first film unsuccessfully and she even declined my offer several times for Still Waiting in the Wings, but when I got that “yes” it was truly an incredible moment.  Her personal assistant called and said, “Sit down. I have some good news for you. Chita said yes!” It was definitely one of those moments I will never forget. It might have taken some time to get her on set, but working with her has truly been one of the highlights of my life.    

TOF: Inquiring minds wanna know. Is that one of her actual Tony Awards, and if so which one?

Jeffrey A Johns (Anthony) and Chita Rivera (Broadway Diva) with the Tony Award. Anthony claims he feels more talented just by touching it

Jeffrey: Ironically, the American Theatre Wing would not allow us to use any of Chita Rivera’s Tony Awards for the film. They needed the Tony Award to be the most updated and current award so I had to rent a Tony Award for the filming along with licensing to use the Tony Award. A little pricey, but this was no time to cut corners. I had to pick up the Tony Award the day before filming and return it the following day. Can you imagine walking around Times Square with a Tony Award in your bag!!!

When I got to the film set and Chita saw that I had a Tony Award she told me I should have just asked her to bring her Tony Award. I told her we wouldn’t have been allowed to use it and had to rent this one from The American Theatre Wing. She asked me “How much did they charge you?” I said, “It doesn’t really matter.” She asked me again, “How much did they charge you?” I said, “Well, it also gave us the rights to film the Tony Award for the movie.” She asked again “How much did they charge you? Whisper it in my ear.” So I obliged and whispered the price to her. Chita lovingly slapped me in the face and said, “You should’ve told me to bring my Tony Award!”

Her timing is hysterical and that lightened the mood for the entire day. She is so iconic in the theatre world, but so pleasant, down to earth, and professional. The day after filming, I had to bring the Tony Award back to the American Theatre Wing, but I needed to rush a Broadway show first. I was only in town from California for a few days, I couldn’t miss a theatre opportunity. I remember standing in the rush ticket line thinking, “I hope this Tony Award in my bag brings me good luck”!  

TOF: I have to be honest; I was laughing so hard during the Chita scene I had to watch it twice. I can’t say why because I don’t want to ruin it, and that’s true for a lot the film. Some of the one-liners are brilliant and there’s a certain scene with Anthony and the guys… #priceless. Anthony, who you co-wrote and play in the film is an eternal optimist.  When you were working on it, you couldn’t have imagined the world in which it would be released. How does it feel to be bringing some fabulous, musical comedy back into our lives with Still Waiting in the Wings.

Jeffrey: “We almost held off the release of the movie with everything going on in the world, but realized that since theatres all over the country are closed right now, many of us are missing the arts in our life. If this movie can bring the joy of musicals to people right now, I couldn’t be more thrilled. We could all use a smile and some laughter right now and hope the film can bring that to people during this difficult time.”

Lee Meriwether (Ethel) and Bruce Vilanch (Chef) join the cast of Cafe Broadway

Still Waiting in the Wing definitely delivers the laughter and joy of musical theatre and is available now on DVD and all digital platforms, including Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.

Website: www.JJSpotlightProductions.com 

Facebook: www.facebook.com/JJSpotlightProductions/

Instagram: @JJSpotlightProductions 

Twitter: @JJSpotlight 

(Main photo: Jeffrey A Johns (Anthony) and Chita Rivera (Broadway Diva) showing Anthony she never leaves home without her Tony Award )

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