Every year, a new crop of musical theater buffs flowers – kids excited by first exposure, high school students on local stages, college graduates ready to tackle the business. A fresh gush of tourists, intermittently or at last face to face with Broadway/Off Broadway arrives with how-many-can-we-see-and/or-afford wish lists. These join supporters and subscribers at all levels, some of whom keep hundreds upon hundreds of souvenir programs sequestered like shelved memories. (Both principals of J2, Jim Jimiro and Rob Schneider.)
An extraordinary wealth of past material will forever be original to a portion of theater audiences. Many have never seen a (live) production for date or geographic reasons. New York counts upon Encores, The York Theatre, and periodic company revivals (mostly of iconic shows) to satisfy what seems voracious demand. As of mid February 2020, The J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company joins the two stalwarts once again creating a triumvirate that formerly included the estimable Musicals Tonight.
How did this enterprise begin? “I went to see a 50th Anniversary production of The Happy Time (John Kander/Fred Ebb)at 54Below which Rob directed and thought, this is exactly what I want to do,” says Jimiro. Two days later, the two were having lunch at Applejack Diner. “I had the impetus and came to believe he could implement it. By the end of a meal, we had a handshake on it. I’m at a point where I’m retiring from full time work and feel lucky to have the money to fund this first year,” Jimiro tells me. “Jim is the only producer in commercial theater who’s said to me, no, you need more money,” Schneider adds.
The partners grin at one another. It’s clear they’re a mutual admiration society. Praise comes easily, deference is apparent. Jimiro has no doubt the project will be successful having placed day to day operations in the hands of a similarly zealous soul. Both are avid musical theater aficionados who save every Playbill ever acquired…in binders! Jim Jimiro will act as Executive Producer. Artistic Director Rob Schneider will direct this season’s three musicals.
The Debut Program, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. includes:
February 13 to 23, 2020. 1972’s Seesaw (Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields; Book- Michael Bennett) Based on William Gibson’s book Two for The Seesaw, is a warm, mismatch love story featuring Omaha-bred, conservative law student Jerry Ryan and quirky, uninhibited New Yorker Gittel Mosca who end up changing one another in unforeseen ways.
“It’s a show a lot of people love, one of those I always assumed Encores would pick up and for some reason hadn’t,” Schneider notes shaking his head. “Its songs have resonated with me all my life,” Jimiro says. “She’s (his wife) heard me sing, `Nobody Does It Like Me’ for years. I love the heart and character of the heroine.” The devotee bursts into happy song several times during our conversation.
February 27- March 8, 2020. 1962’s No Strings (Richard Rodgers; Book- Samuel Taylor) “I was excited Rodgers had done both music and lyrics. I’d call it a brilliant dalliance,” says Jimiro. “I wanted to explore the idea of an interracial piece. It’s a big conversation on Broadway today. This was one of the first of its kind and really controversial at the time,” Schneider comments. No Strings depicts the Paris romance of a high fashion model from Harlem and an American writer based there who discover love is not enough to navigate prejudiced times.
You’re not changing or updating it? “No,” Schneider responds. “None of the shows are updated and they’re all being presented acoustically. It’s a small theater and we want to preserve the purest sound we can get.” I recall (aloud) a recent, disappointing Off Broadway instance when half the young cast was unable to sufficiently project. “A lot of college theater programs don’t teach voice and speech anymore. You’re told, ‘Don’t push, the mike will pick you up.’ Anyone auditioning for us has to past the test of being clearly heard,” he says.
“We also want to give the stage to artists of an appropriate age,” he continues. “These three plays skew young, but in future, you’re not going to see a 19 year-old putting powder in her hair.”
March 12- March 22, 2020. 2001’s A Class Act (Ed Kleban; Book- Lonny Price/Linda Kline) “Kleban wrote the lyrics to A Chorus Line, but never got the credit he deserved and had difficulties after an enormous success. This celebrates him.” Lonny (Price) wrote, directed, and starred in the original. It was through his aegis, J2 was able to secure the rights. Its plot finds the protagonist returning to his own memorial service to set the record straight and represents a panoply of the songwriter’s real friends.
Fully realized iterations will have costumes (found and created), scenery, choreography, and a small band comprised of Resident Music Director, Grant Strom on piano, plus two varying instruments, perhaps a vibraphone for Seesaw and No Strings.
“To the extent we can, we want to redefine a theater-going experience,” Jimiro tells me excitedly. “I came up with this idea Rob has embraced called ‘Lagniappes’ from the Louisiana French meaning bonus or gifts. Every show will be accompanied by five events: cast talk-backs, Q & A with the producers, possible interviews with members of original productions…I went to The Paley Center and saw wonderful television footage of original cast members. Hopefully we’ll be able to secure some of those. I’d also like to offer a session that explores the history and story of each show. It will be a hallmark, an integral part of the company.” “The educational component is a big part of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Schneider concurs. The new kid in town looks promising.
At age six, Jimiro’s love of theater seeded when taken to see Mr. Wonderful with Sammy Davis, Jr. Apparently he was “the best actor at my high school…whose graduating class was all of 54.” The youngster intended to pursue the craft until he got to Penn State where, concluding he wasn’t good enough, he changed his major to Radio/Television/Film. The revised dream was to work at CBS or a film company. He was employed at CBS until Disney came courting.
Jimiro moved to California with reservations. Still somewhat wet behind the ears, he nevertheless conceived, developed, and launched The Disney Channel – the fastest growing pay service in history. “Lack of management made it possible to push the envelope of what was then a very conservative organization.” Finally winding down, he began the lively lectures presented in New York at the 92Y, in California at The Beverly Hills Library, and on cruise ships.
A younger man, Schneider caught the childhood bug with La Cage aux Folles. Every weekend, his parents took him to theater. Also attending Penn State, he began with the same ambition as Jimiro, then perceived others were better performers. His resolution, however, occurred after having been a working child actor in Los Angeles.
The 18 year-old student turned to directing, garnering an MFA in Directing for Musical Theater. His fortuitous first job after graduating was assistant to actor/director Lonny Price, experience Schneider calls transformative. He now regularly produces for 54Below, engages as a freelance director and is writing a book with Peter Filichia .
Why J2? “I used to sign my memos J2 (the two J’s in Jimiro’s name), then used the name for a privately owned company, and resurrected it here.”
Opening Left: Jim Jimiro; Right: Rob Schneider
NOW ON SALE: Single tickets are priced at $55 and may be purchased at telecharge.com, or by calling 212-239-6200. $25 Student Rush tickets will be available on the day of performance. A 3-Show Package is available at $124, a 25% discount, and may be purchased online at:
The J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company