Cuba Gooding Jr. is back on Broadway, fresh off a successful run on London’s West End, where he made his British stage debut playing Billy Flynn, the smooth-talking lawyer in the Prohibition-era musical, “Chicago,” music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and book by Ebb and Bob Fosse.
The Oscar-winner and Emmy nominee made such an impact in the role, across the pond, that the producers invited him to play Flynn, once again, on Broadway starting October 6, for a limited run which ends November 18. 2018 is a banner year and “a career changer” for him, the versatile storyteller. He’s stepped behind the camera for the very first time directing an indie film, which he co-wrote, “Bayou Caviar” which opens in select cities on October 5.
For the award-winning actor to return to the stage, in a musical, is big news inside the Broadway community.
“As much as I love London, and I do love London, being back on Broadway is an undeniable thrill,” confessed Gooding Jr.
It’s important to say “back,” because he made his Broadway theater debut in 2013, in the Tony Award-nominated drama, “The Trip to Bountiful” with Tony winner Cicely Tyson and Vanessa Williams.
The stamina required to deliver eight shows a week, which is a typical Broadway schedule is demanding and requires a level of mental and physical dedication and training that many compare and correctly so, to becoming a first-class athlete.
“To be able to step into the role of Billy Flynn and actually sing and [too] use my entire instrument is a thrill,” adds Gooding. “Now, I have an understanding of what my father felt when he performed all those years,”
Music and the joy of performing have been a part of Cuba’s life from the very start. His father, Cuba Gooding Sr. was a member of the soul group “The Main Ingredient” and his mother, Shirley Sullivan, sang with “Sweethearts.”
To take it way back, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s breakthrough role was as Tre Styles in the feature film “Boyz n the Hood” (1991), but for many people of a certain generation, he will be best remembered for his Oscar-winning role as an American football player who wants his agent to “show me the money” in “Jerry Maguire” (1997) . Uttering that (now) iconic line placed Gooding in the pop-culture lexicon but, not one to simply rest on his laurels, he received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Mini-series or a Movie for his performance as OJ Simpson in “The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story” (2016).
His other credits include “As Good as It Gets” (1997), “Men of Honor” (2000), “Pearl Harbor “(2001), “American Gangster” (2007), “The Butler” (2013), and “Selma” (2014).
I caught up with the charismatic man during a Chicago press day event. To say that Cuba Gooding Jr. was in rare form is an understatement. He knows how to command a room, but most importantly, I think, he listens and that’s an arresting quality for any human being to possess.
Here is an edited conversation with the award-winning actor, screenwriter and now film director Cuba Gooding Jr.
Los Angeles Sentinel:
Let’s take a brief moment to rewind: London’s West End and back to New York’s Broadway in the same role, playing Billy Flynn in Chicago. Sir, how excited are you to be back?
Cuba Gooding Jr.:
So excited. Excited, excited. The last time I was on Broadway was in 2013 with Cicely Tyson and Vanessa Williams [Trip To Bountiful] and now I’m doing a musical. A musical that’s been on stages around the world for 20-some, odd years with a [live] orchestra behind me it’s amazing.
There is a lot of history that goes with [John] Kander and [Fred] Ebb’s musical, “Chicago.” How does that impact you?
When I first stepped on the West End’s stage, [at] the Phoenix Theater and [I] stood where Sir Laurence Olivier stood, I could feel the energy and the history of the stage. I took it that same energy with me on stage every night and I’m going to bring it back here [NYC].
This is not just a musical. This is a Kander and Ebb musical. How did you feel singing?
Truthfully? I was scared to death. I worked with a vocal coach in Los Angeles, so when I finally got to London it all clicked and as you perform more and more, with a live audience it’s like a drug. The energy propels each show.
So you can sing?
Yes, I can sing, but that nervousness never really leaves you. To sing and dance and act in that one performance really horrified me until I hit the stage and then — I got a glimpse of what it must have been like for my father [Cuba Gooding Sr.] who performed all those years.
And Billy Flynn is a great role. What do you love about it?
What’s not to love about it? [Billy Flynn] is charismatic and a manipulator. You can feel his love for his profession and those women. I love that! I really love that about him!
Plus the songs really tell the story. I grew up around music my entire life. My father performed all of his life so it’s a part of me. [Cuba Gooding Senior was found dead, inside his car in April of 2017] and so did my mother. She will be here on opening night. She didn’t get a chance to see me in London so the New York performance is going to be extra special for me. It’s going to be that emotional experience that I can’t wait for.
I understand, completely. I heard you talking about major changes in your career this year. To get to the point, you’ve added directing to your skill set! You’ve stepped behind the camera. I am so excited, I think that I am going to levitate from this chair. Details, please.
Yes, I am making my directorial debut. The film is called “Bayou Caviar.” I co-wrote, directed and I also star in the film with Famke Janssen and Richard Dreyfuss. It’s about power, money, sex, and corruption and you know what?
I love directing. I love it. I’ve been honest and telling people that now, I would rather direct. As an actor, there is always a bit of insecurity because you create this character and you hope that they [director] interpret it the way that you want them to. But as a director, you get to manipulate not only your performance, but everyone else around you. It’s like this drug that you get because now you literally get to tell a story that gets to an audience the way you envisioned it. Again, it’s one of those life changing experiences in my career.
Creative power. What advice would you give to aspiring storytellers that are stepping into the film industry for the first time, like me for example?
I have two sons; 21 and 23 and the advice that I give them is [to] write. Write. Write.
So on that note, what’s next after you jump out of Billy Flynn’s shoes?
Directing and writing of course, but I can’t share the name of that film, yet.
What? You wined me up. Gave me great advice and then let me on a cliff?
The producer of my next film is standing right over there. He’s nodding ‘not yet’ but you can ask him and get ahead of it…when the time is right.
Done and done.
Cuba Gooding Jr. steps into the role of Billy Flynn, beginning Saturday, October 6, 2018, in Broadway’s “Chicago” until November 18. “Bayou Caviar” opens in select cities October 5th.