Entertainment & Life

With Sacramento roots, James Snyder is on Broadway – and beyond

Idina Menzel and James Snyder star in the national touring production of “If/Then.”
Idina Menzel and James Snyder star in the national touring production of “If/Then.”

Rancho Murieta native James Snyder has worked extensively in television and film, but theater is his first love.

Snyder, now 34, started performing at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, and earned a bachelor of fine arts from the USC School of Dramatic Arts.

He made his Broadway debut on March 15, 2008, originating the role of Cry-Baby in the John Waters-inspired musical of the same name. He has appeared in “Rock of Ages” in Los Angeles and played Billy Bigelow in “Carousel” at Goodspeed Opera House.

His return to Broadway in 2014 was opposite Idina Menzel in “If/Then,” originating the role of Josh. He, Menzel and co-stars Anthony Rapp and LaChanze are on the first leg of a tour that started in October in Denver. The show reached the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco this week and runs through Dec. 6.

Menzel is scheduled to be in seven West Coast cities through January.

The contemporary musical by the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award team of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt tells the story of a 40-year-old woman named Elizabeth (Menzel) who moves to New York City to re-start her life, and the two paths that life could have taken. Josh becomes her husband on one of those journeys. Snyder spoke by phone from Seattle where “If/Then” was playing.

Q: Can you tell me a little about your Sacramento background?

A: I was born in San Jose but at 3 months old we moved to Rancho Murieta – and spent my whole life there. I went to Christian Bothers, played soccer, did plays, played in the band, had a great time being a kid in Sacramento. We went to lots of Music Circus stuff, I remember “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Will Rogers Follies,” “Bye-Bye Birdie,” which I saw when I was in high school. I remembered the guy who played Albert Peterson because he was so great, and then I ended doing “Bye Bye Birdie” at the Kennedy Center (2008). I was playing Birdie, and he was playing Albert. Brooks Ashmanskas was his name. It was crazy. We were in the middle of rehearsal, and I was like “Wait a minute, Brooks, did you do this at Music Circus in 1991?” He said “Ahh, yeah …”

Q: How did you get into musical theater?

A: I was always a bit of ham, and my parents were really great about encouraging music. I was always in the band. I played clarinet, piano, trumpet, guitar and always sang. I love old musicals. I would watch “Singin’ In the Rain,” “Music Man” and “Oklahoma!” with my grandparents. Music was always around in the house. My dad was in a barbershop quartet and always sang. That fostered this perfect storm of loving music and loving to perform that really pushed me toward doing musicals in high school even though I didn’t do my first play until my freshman year.

Q: Did you have an epiphany about doing theater for a living?

A: It was gradually and all at once. I remember as a kid I wanted to be actor, though I don’t think I ever said that. I also wanted to be a veterinarian and a lot of other things. I would watch TV on my parents’ bed, and Aaron Sorkin wrote a series called “Sports Night.” I remember finishing an episode that had that perfect Sorkin ending of where somehow everything worked out, and everybody did the right thing, the human thing. I turned to my parents and said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I was lucky enough to tell him that story.

Q: Have you run into other Sacramentans in your work?

A: I ended up doing a guest star on a thing Tim Busfield was directing. “Without A Trace” was the name of the show. His son Willy went to Christian Brothers also. We performed in the same talent show one year.

Q: What was the most important step in your apprenticeship?

A: I went to USC, and I spent a summer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We were there two months doing 13 plays in repertory. The first month we built all the sets, rehearsed all the shows and brought in what we could. Then we performed them all the next month. That was the defining summer. There was a mix of alumni and students involved with the production, and I had these people I looked up to who really lived “the show must go on.” The first week of performances they were still pinning people into the costumes because they didn’t have time to sew the costume up. It was this crazy immersion into two months of theater. We had two days off. I got involved in every single part of all of those productions opening a curtain, running the box office, stage-managing. It was that lesson in the collaborative art of theater and the sheer joy of just getting the darn show up and performing for the joy of theater, which is wholly inclusive of the audience. We did a show for one guy, it was the Fringe Festival, it was very special to that one guy.

Q: How is it switching between working on stage and in television?

A: They’re completely different muscles. On my down time I try and get whatever work I can, and it’s so interesting to stretch that film and TV muscle for those auditions. Performing on a stage for 2,600 people, that’s a lot different than one tiny little camera lens that can see every detail.

Q: What’s the experience on “If/Then” been like?

A: I was the last person of the original cast hired. I came on for the out-of-town tryout because they couldn’t quite find the guy. I play Josh, an Army doctor from a small town. Three weeks before my audition I got the music, and it’s this song “Hey Kid” about having a kid, and the first time I heard it my son, who was 6 weeks old at the time, was sleeping right next to me. …The parts were written for Idina and … Anthony, and they didn’t know it, but it feels like this part was written for me and I fit in, I’m the guy. I went in and auditioned, and I finished the “Hey Kid” song, and they were crying, and I was crying. I was so happy to be singing this material and singing about my son. It was life and art slamming together in an amazing way.

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

If/Then

What: SHN of San Francisco presents the Broadway touring production, starring Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, James Snyder and LaChanze

When: Through Sunday, Dec. 6

Where: SHN Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco

Information: www.shnsf.com; www.JamesSnyder.com; Twitter: @TheJamesSnyder

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