Saratoga Living sat down with Broadway star Zachary James, a self-proclaimed “dreamer” who will hit the SPAC stage this summer for the first time in the title role of Opera Saratoga’s new production of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha. Before you hear him belt out the famous lyrics to “The Impossible Dream,” the man bringing the world’s most famous optimist to life talks Don Quixote, his favorite Broadway memories, and what he’ll do in Saratoga this summer.
What was your last onstage experience before the pandemic?
My birthday! It was December 7, 2019, closing night of Akhnaten at The Metropolitan Opera. It was an unforgettable performance; my entire family was in the audience, and I got to bow with [composer] Philip Glass in front of a sold-out auditorium. Opening night of Man of La Mancha will be a year and seven months to the day.
You had a number of opportunities to perform this summer—why did you choose Man of La Mancha as your return to the stage?
I am a dreamer, and I have been dreaming impossible dreams for a lifetime. I was very attracted to the idea of bringing this story to life, outdoors, in the beautiful surroundings of Saratoga Springs. Telling such a timeless and important story, under the summer sky, reminds us that we must always have hope, and must always strive to be better and love one another. I am so similar to the title character, and to play someone that close to my heart, who lives in my heart, is a dream as an actor.
What is it about the role of Cervantes/Don Quixote that appeals to you?
He is good, he is hope, he is love, he is faith, he is optimism. If everyone were like him, it would be a wonderful thing. He sees the good in everything and lives in love, not fear.
You’ve had a career both on Broadway and the opera stage. How did that happen?
I got my training in musical theater but just had a voice and presence on stage that worked well for opera, so I was steered around and provided many different opportunities in both genres. I like to think of it as all the same: musical storytelling. I am also a recording artist and do TV and film. So I just say, “Why not try to do it all?” It’s really fun to bounce around.
How is performing in a musical different than in an opera?
Well, there’s the eight shows a week on Broadway—that just doesn’t happen in opera. And, of course, in opera you usually don’t have microphones. Otherwise, it is very similar, especially with contemporary opera, which I do a lot of. I’ve done Broadway shows with 40-piece orchestras and chamber operas with 12-piece orchestras, and operas with 80-piece orchestras and musicals to pre-recorded accompaniment. There’s no rhyme or reason anymore.
You’ve also done quite a bit of TV acting. How does that differ from being on stage?
TV acting is a lot of fun. You do so many takes of a scene and don’t know what they are going to use; it’s really in the control of the director and even more so, the editors. It’s also difficult in that there is no place to hide. The camera shows everything! So you cannot drop character for even a split second. On stage, there is always someplace to hide for a second if you need to catch your breath. On stage it is such a full-body experience while on camera, you are fully engaged but it is the eyes that communicate the most, and some of the gestures we do on stage would be way over the top on camera. It’s all about scale and adjusting to a different frame, the proscenium versus the screen.
What have your favorite roles been, and why?
Oh, there are so many! Originating Lurch in The Addams Family on Broadway was very special. Those characters are so iconic, and very few people have had the opportunity to bring them to life. My work with Philip Glass has also been a lifetime highlight, creating two roles, Abraham Lincoln in The Perfect American and Amenhotep in Akhnaten, in productions directed by Phelim McDermott. I got to play Lincoln in London, Madrid, Brisbane…it was a dream. I have to also mention a very special experience playing John Claggart in Billy Budd at Des Moines Metro Opera, an unforgettable experience for which we won an Emmy for a PBS broadcast of the production. This is year 19 in showbiz for me. Bebe Neuwirth, who I did The Addams Family with, told me, “Your favorite show needs to be the one you are working on right now.” Man of La Mancha will be exceptionally special and will definitely become one of those cherished and indelible experiences.
What do you have planned for your time in Saratoga Springs?
I have never been to Saratoga before! I have spent many years of my life in the state of New York between New York City and Ithaca, and I am so excited to get to know a new city. I am big on the outdoors and cannot wait to hike in my downtime. It is going to be a spectacular summer.