Jonathan Bailey. Photograph by Markus Bidaux

Jonathan Bailey recently won the Olivier Award for his work in the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End.  Marianne Elliott directed this reimagining of the musical with a couple of main gender switches.  The lead role of Bobby became Bobbie portrayed by Rosalie Craig and the ditzy, panic-stricken, rather frenzied Amy, who sings about not “Getting Married Today,” was turned into Jamie and portrayed by Bailey.  The character was gay and, wearing a form-fitting white suit and pink sneakers that were just a bit too fabulous, got married that eight-times-a-week day to a man.    The acerbic, searingly moving Joanne still lunched with the ladies and Patti LuPone was the lady who sang about it, winning her own Olivier for doing so. Stephen Sondheim wrote a mutual friend of ours after seeing the show: “It’s thrilling from beginning to end. And the last scene of Act I (which is now two guys) will completely shatter you, as well as its being one of the funniest scenes on record. All due to the guy who plays Jamie, the Amy-equivalent. I only wish George [Furth, the book’s writer] could see it, as it definitively proves what Judy Prince said about him: he’s J. D. Salinger.”

I first noticed Jonathan Bailey in the role of the young journalist Olly Stevens in the British serial crime drama Broadchurch and on the Youtube video of his audition for the musical The Last Five Years in which he so stirringly sings “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” and which led to his being cast as another sort of Jamie in that Jason Robert Brown musical.  But it wasn’t until I saw him as John in The York Realist last year at the Donmar Warehouse that I came to appreciate the deepness of his talent.

On this latest trip to London, I met Bailey in the Gielgud Theatre where we sat in the empty Stalls before an evening performance of Company.  There were only a little over two weeks left in the show’s run.  The last nine months – from that first day of rehearsal with this extraordinary cast to these final upcoming twenty performances – had been one of the most rewarding experiences of his life.  There was a bittersweetness to this day in March as we talked in the empty theatre as the Deputy Head of Sound for the production, Michael Poon, punctuated our conversation from time to time as he went through a short check list at his soundboard at the back of the theatre.

JONATHAN BAILEY:  I hear you were at our matinee last Thursday.

KEVIN SESSUMS:  I like coming to matinees

JB:  You do?

KS:  Yes.  I like coming to matinees.  There is a relaxation that actors have at matinees.

JB:  Yeah, yeah. 

KS:  And from that relaxation other things …

JB: … come out … yeah, yeah …

KS: … when actors are not pushing.

JB:  I wish that were true of this at the moment.  With two and half week, it’s like the maternity ward.  Push …. push.  No. Just kidding.  But I’ve never done a musical like it.  And it hasn’t even been that long a run.  Although we’re on the West End, it’s still in the format of the National Theatre subsidized sector.  There have been no holidays so we’ve been going straight through for nine months which is tricky, especially when you’re playing a character like this.  

KS:  Have you missed any performances? 

JB:  Only a few. I had a wedding that wanted to attend that the producers contractually agreed to before we began the run.   But I also perforated my eardrum. 

KS:  It happened to you in the show? I know the role is taxing and frenzied, but that’s Method.

JB:  It was so ludicrous.  I was so determined not to go off.  But on a Thursday, I thought, well, I definitely have a severe earache. And the last time I had an earache, I was something like 3 /12 years old.  And then, when I finally woke up on that Friday, I couldn’t hear at all out of that side.  So I went to the doctor and she said it was the most high-pressured eardrum she’d ever seen.  So I said, “Okay, what does that mean?”  And she said, “Well, you need to take time off and relax.” She then asked, “So your part in the show, would you consider it a high-exertion one?”  So I misled her.  “Absolutely not,” I said.  “I just stand at the back and sing.” She said, “Well, then you should be all right.  Just make sure to have a hanky and then it will  probably perforate and you just continue.”

KS:  Does it bleed? Is there blood?

JB:  It’s where the eardrum pops and the infection comes out.  It’s disgusting.

KS:  More like pus?

JB:  It’s like pus.  And I thought, I can get through this because I have to because I’m in a show with Patti LuPone and that’s what you do.  And then I get to my number and I thought this is fucking ludicrous.  I couldn’t hear anything. ButI managed to really struggle through.  So the next day I took one show off and then I was sort of deaf for a month. 

KS:  What came first?  Your sneakers or your characterization?

JB:  The sneakers came very, very late down the line.  And, in fact, I contested them. 

KS:  Oh, good.  I’m stop glad to know you have taste, Jonathan.

JB:  They’re disgusting.  Any shoe that looks as if you can eat it is not worth wearing. 

KS:  Unless you have certain proclivities.

JB:  That’s true, that’s true.  In the deep dark way.  But I really did not like them for they were pushing the character into a realm that I really wasn’t happy with.  And then I was challenged.  Because I set out not to reinforce that stereotype.  The thing that was initially politically energizing about this gender-swap for me was that I was playing a gay character whose sexuality wasn’t commented on by other people.  It wasn’t a part of anyone’s narrative.  Their tragedy wasn’t their sexuality.  That was completely liberating.  And then in order to go forward and represent the character truthfully and be sort of uninhibited in that, I felt like the idea of wearing pink garish shoes …

KS:   … was a rather off-putting visual comment about the character – at least to me.  I saw you in The York Realist last year at the Donmar Warehouse.

JB:  Did you see it? Ohhhh

KS: I went to that not knowing what to expect.

JB: It’s  a beautiful play.

KS:  So beautiful.  It was one of my favorite things I saw in the theatre last year. 

JB:  I’d love to do it in New York.

KS:  It was rather Chekhovian, and the sexuality in that love story between those two male characters was not really commented upon.  It was more about geography and class.

JB:  You’re completely right.   It was about cultural distances.

KS:  The two gay characters just accepted who they were even though the story is set in the 1960s.   There was no angst regarding that part of the story.  The angst was all about class. 

JB:  Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m so glad you saw that.

KS:  So I’ve seen you play two very different gay characters – or two characters who happen to be gay.

JB:  That’s right.  And any work that I do in terms of “gay theatre” would have to be that way around.

Bailey with “Company” director Marianne Elliott in the rehearsal studio. Photo by Helen Maybanks.

KS:  At first with this one in Company, I thought, oh God, he’s playing gaygaygay.  And you use this sort of breathy voice that is not your real one.

JB:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

KS:  And then it dawned on me – since I’ve seen Company a lot over the years  – that if I were a straight women seeing a production in which your character is the woman, as she is written, I might think about that:  I’m not that ditzy.  So part of that is the role itself, not the sexuality of the character.

JB:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  But this is a character who has spent his whole life performing versions of himself.  Within the scene, there are so many quick changes and if something doesn’t work and he’s not feeling it, then he’ll put it on Bobbie. That to me is someone who is going to be presenting a lot of different versions. The portrayal has changed over the run, and it changes every day.  There are different ways of doing it.  But he is  someone who is actually very much, as it turns out, a victim of his sexuality, I think. 

KS:  It’s interesting.  At first I thought: Oh, God, he’s playing “that type.”  But then by the end of your big scene you had me tearing me.  I was moved.   So I thought:  If he can make me tear up wearing those shoes, he must be …

JB:  … doing something right. Yeah, yeah.

KS:  There’s a joke in New York about how you make the gay pilgrimage to London to see Patti in this.

JB:  Brilliant.

KS: Have you ever made a gay pilgrimage?

JB:  In my own life?

KS:  Yeah.

JB:  I suppose I made a pilgrimage to New York with one of my best school friends when I was 23 or 24.  I was playing Cassio in Othello at The National and we were in rep and I took ten days to go there.  I saw some brilliant theatre over there that trip.  But that felt like a gay pilgrimage.

KS:  You plyaed Edgar in King Lear with Ian McKellen at Chichester Festival Theatre, but you didn’t do it when it came to the West End.   Did you choose to do this instead?  Or is there more subtext to it?

JB:  Ahhhh … there’s more subtext.

KS:  I was excited to read you were going to be in it with Ian and even went to see the cinema version of it …

JB … thinking I might be in it?

KS:  Yes.  Because I’ve become a fan of yours since seeing you in The York Realist.

JB:  Ohhhhh …  thank you.  But if I had gone on to do it in the West End, I would have been doing theatre nonstop.  Actually, I was initially offered P.J. in this, the character who sings “Another Hundred People.” [That role, too, was switched from female to male.] I’d done the workshop in that role and that seemed to make sense to me, but I felt that maybe wasn’t a part I would be able really to say anything in.  So those two offers were on the table and I thought,  you know what, I’m just not going to do that.  But I knew that I didn’t want to do either.  But because they were both there, I felt I needed to start again.  And then Amy came later on, and that was a no-brainer.  [Amy is the original name of the character when his Jamie character was a female.]

KS:  I saw on your Instagram feed that you attempted Mount Everest. 

JB:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  It was literally the day after I finished The York Realist when  I headed off for that.  I did it with my best mate who is also an actor. 

KS:  What sent you to the mountain?  I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

JB:  I did that, too!  It’s hard, isn’t it. 

KS:  Yes.  Have you walked the Camino?

JB:  No, I haven’t.  You win. 

KS:  It’s not a spiritual competition, Jonny.

JB: No, no, no.  But we’re bonded by experience.  I just feel when you do theatre it requires you to go so into your own head and you have to so believe in what you’re doing and the details and the athleticism required – especially for this role in Company – it is kind of mind-numbing.  You have to be thinking about yourself all the time.  For me, the antithesis of that, which is so needed by the end of the run, is to go into the wilderness or to go and work for charity or do something that allows you to break away.  Otherwise, its really hard to maintain a balance.

KS:  You and Company helped raise funds for the Albert Kennedy Trust (AKT), the UK LGBT youth homelessness charity?  You’re a kind of goodwill ambassador for AKT.

JB: That was one of the most special weeks I’ve ever had professionally.  We did the buckets .

[Suddenly a Gregory Porter song comes over the theatre’s sound system.]

Ohhhh  … I love this song.  Mike, I love this song!

KS:   I asked him to play that.

JB:  Did you? Ohhhh… there’ll be roses and starlight next.

KS:  I did my research. 

JB:  Mmm …. ah.  .. mmmmm .. what was I saying then?

KS:  Roses and starlight.

JB:  Yeah, yeah.

KS:   Spirituality.  Climbing.  Albert Kennedy.  Getting out of your head.

JB:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Listen, the most frustrating part of the job is that it does take over so much of your life.

KS:  And yet when I saw those photos of you on Mount Everest, I wondered if you were a discipline addict since your idea of relaxing after the run of a show was to climb a mountain.  You have to have such discipline to do 8 shows a week.  One has to live a kind of monastic life.

JB:  Especially to do this.

KS:  And you started ballet when you were 11 years old.  There is lots of discipline running through the narrative of your life.  Are you a discipline addict?

JB:  Yeah, yeah, yeah. Possibly.  Hmmm.  You really picked that out.  There is that trend there.  I don’t know if I’ve ever considered that.  I have always been known to be  someone who would not thrive under discipline or a fixed structure.  There is something meditative about climbing a mountain, that’s why I do it. 

KS:  Yes.  I discovered the meditative quality of walking on the Camino.  That stillness one finds in constantly moving forward.  That incongruity.  But I find the sacred in incongruity – where the opposite of something pushes up against its opposite in that incongruous moment.  I think all the sacred myths are about incongruity.  The Christ story is about that: God incongruously in human form.  That is even what theatre is to me – a spiritual experience but completely physical, almost carnal in its application.

JB:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  There is a sanctity to it. 

KS:  So you began ballet at 11.  I just interviewed Gideon Glick who is playing Dill right now on Broadway in To Kill a Mockingbird.  He came out of the closet when he was 11.  You’re gay and open about it.  So were you aware of who you are when you were 11 and in that ballet world?

JB:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I’ve never had any problems knowing who I am.  I’ve never struggled.  I’ve never questioned it or been in the dark about that.

KS:  I’m sort of talking about your being an artist in that moment when you walked into a ballet studio, not really your sexuality.

Bailey in “The York Realist” at the Donmar Warehouse . Photo by Johan Persson.

JB:  But it was sort of the same thing. I think to be an artist you have to have an identity.  So I have luckily never struggled. 

KS:  If you never struggled with your sexual orientation, did you struggle with being out about it?  Did you have agents and advisers who told you to be more careful and circumspect about it?

JB:  You mean professionally?

KS. Yes.  You are dashingly handsome and a leading man and would being out as a gay man cancel you out for some of those kinds of parts in a narrow-minded way?

JB:  Yes, there are always those conversations.  They are perpetuated by fear.  But, yeah, I’m aware they still happen.  I have some contemporaries who are still in the closet and I wonder .. well, they’re not in the closet.  They’re out in the their own personal lives.

KS:  But they don’t talk about it.

JB: Yeah.  And it sort of affects their ability to be free in the way they talk about their projects, which finally depends on what you want to do.  With me, it’s tiring.  It’s a waste of energy.  And if you can just get on with working with people authentically, that’s how the best work is created. And that’s not to do with just working within the realms of your sexuality, but it’s also outside of it. I know that I respond really well to people who are willing to be open.

KS:  Are you aware of being a role model?

JB: No. No.

KS:  Do you want to be a role model?

JB:  No. I think it would be foolish to think that. 

KS:  But you did the Albert Kennedy Trust week raising money for homeless gay youth. You spearheaded that .  You are a kind of ambassador for AKT.   That is a role-model-like thing to do as a gay man. 

JB:  Yes.  I believe in awareness.  But I also believe in privacy.  I don’t like to divulge any information about my personal life.  But if I think there is an opportunity to talk about your sexuality that would help other people, then, yeah, I think you should take it.

KS: And yet that’s so hard for some people to understand.  When I’m talking with you about this subject, I’m not talking about your private life.

JB:  No, you’re not.

KS:  I’m not asking you who your boyfriend is. I’m not asking what you do in your bedroom. That’s none of my business.  I’m talking about who you are in your kitchen.  I got a lot of flak a few years ago about having this kind of discussion with Kevin Spacey, of all people, who couldn’t separate out that I was not asking him about his sex life when I was asking him about his being gay. 

JB:  But when I’m talking about privacy, I’m not talking about sex at all.  I just don’t want to bring anyone else into the frame. I don’t want to talk about my family or who I am in that way.  There’s a sanctity to that.

KS:  So you wouldn’t talk about your mother and father?

JB:  Yeah, of course I would, but only within the realms of what they would be prepared for me to say and that’s what privacy is.  Privacy to me is about managing your precious  .. ahh .. things that aren’t for the public.  It’s not about sex at all.   I think probably for someone like Kevin Spacey it was about sex, and that was the issue. 

KS:  Yep.  That was the issue.  I knew how his narrative was going to play out.

JB:  We all did. 

KS:  So when Company closes are you going to climb another mountain?

JB:  No.  I’m going to go to San Francisco for the first time.

KS:  I lived there for five years.

JB:  Amazing.

KS:  I just moved back east to a small town upstate from New York City.  Hudson, New York.  Are you going to work in San Francisco?

JB:   No. I am just going go there as a complete break  And then I’ll do a road trip to LA.  I’ve put off going to America all this time.  So my whatever – my people over there – want me to come.  I finally said, okay, I’ll be there for a bit.

KS:  Does America scare you?  You’ve arrived at a certain point in your career here.  You are successful here.  Your name is on that marquee above the Gielgud Theatre outside.

JB: No, it doesn’t scare me.  I just think it’s a long way to go.  I don’t prioritize it, being there.  I am hopeful there will come a time when those opportunities will arise for me to go over there.  That will be great.  Better to go with a job than to go hunting.  But the pursuit of work over there, I don’t feel the need for that. Luckily, there’s brilliant stuff I can do over here.

KS:  Yes.  I have come to love London.  I would like to live here and am trying to manifest a life here.  But when I was walking today in that meditative state we were talking about, I had an epiphany.  The manifestation is already here; it just has to recognize you. It has to recognize me. 

JB:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

KS:  I went to the Kiln Theatre to its benefit cabaret the other night hosted by Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton.  I went with an old friend of mine, Michael Engler, who just finished directing the Downton Abbey film so I had some adjacent agency because I was with him.  Some of the Downton cast members were there – Michelle Dockery and Michael Fox, performed and Lauren Carmichael was there because Michael is her boyfriend – and it all felt like a small town.  Another friend was there, Charles Randolph Wright, who directed the Motown: The Musical.  He was with his buddy Sharon D. Clarke  who also performed.  It was all so  .. well … sweet.  I loved it so much.   It was so small town.  I feel so at home here. 

JB:  There are all these brilliant little theaters and these little communities.  But that’s what the theatre is, isn’t it: community.

KS:  Thank you so much for doing this, Jonathan,  and for making feel a bit more like a part of this community here in London. 

JB:  No worries.

KS:  Thank you.   

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

  • Show Comments

  • Don Spradlin

    Thank you, Kevin, for such warm and delightful insights into Jonathan’s life and times. I’m so happy to hear that he’s decided to come to San Francisco for a while. He’s coming here, you’ve moved to Hudson and Armistead has moved to London. Change is the spice of our lives.

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