Justin Guarini: The 'Idol' Alum Stars in Media Theatre's 'Chicago'

From Broadway to the Main Line, this American Idol vet is taking the stage by storm—this time, as Billy Flynn.

Photo by Matt BeardOn the merits of those curly locks and that soulful voice, Doylestown-bred Justin Guarini sang his way to runner-up honors in American Idol’s first season. And while his hair is shorter these days, Guarini still has the vocal chops to impress. After brief stints on Broadway in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and American Idiot, Guarini is back in the area, taking on the role of Billy Flynn in Media Theatre’s production of Chicago, which runs through Nov. 26.

MLT: When did you wind up in Doylestown?
Around 1990, when I was 12 or 13. When I first got there, we were in this beautiful, big house in a really nice neighborhood that was very wooded—it wasn’t all that different from where I’d lived before in Georgia.

MLT: What has the post-Idol reception been like for you in this area? 
It continues to be full of wonderful people who are so supportive. The best thing is that they still want to know what I’m up to, and they still care.

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MLT: How did you get involved in the performing arts? 
It’s in my DNA. My father (former Atlanta police chief Eldrin Bell) was a professional vocalist, and he’s still a politician, which has its own performance aspect. My mother was among the first 200 people to work at CNN as an anchorwoman. From birth, I was used to lights, cameras and big crowds. When I was about 4, my parents recognized that I could carry a tune and that I could plunk out melodies on the piano. I started out in the Atlanta Boy Choir and then joined the Archdiocesan Boy Choir of Philadelphia after we moved. 

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MLT: Who were your biggest musical influences growing up?
I had a really varied musical education, thanks to my parents, and I got into everything from Michael Jackson to Chopin to Sinatra. But two of the biggest influences were Michael and the Jackson 5. I knew I wanted to perform on stage after I watched the Jackson 5’s Victory Tour.

MLT: What’s the one thing the rest of us don’t understand about the Idol experience?
The amount of work and pressure involved in advancing. Over the years, you see people crack under the pressure. You never truly get to see the 24/7 job the show is.

MLT: The American Idiot character of Will had his troubles. And now, in Chicago, you play the manipulative Billy Flynn. What’s it like to play two characters with a dark streak?
It’s really interesting. I consider myself to be a very lighthearted and joyful person—but, at the same time, I love to play roles that are the opposite of my nature because it’s so wonderful to step outside of that and explore that part of your psyche.

MLT: Do you plan to do more work in the area after the Media show is finished?
I think my ultimate goal right now is to continue to work on Broadway. I love the city, so if I can work and play there, that’s what I’ll do.

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MLT: How did you get involved in Broadway?
In college with The Lion King in 1997. They came to the area auditioning for a replacement for their touring cast. I auditioned for them; they liked me. I made it very far through the audition process, but they thought I was a little too young and didn’t have a spot open for me at the time. It was a few years later, in 2002 or 2003, when I was auditioning for American Idol, that I get a call from casting for The Lion King saying that I got the role. I had waited years for this, but I had to say, “You know, there’s this show I’m going to do, but can I call you back and let you know?” They said I had a week to decide, but things were progressing nicely, so I had to call back and say, “Thanks, but I’m going to go with this show.” Almost 10 years later, we had the opening-night party for Women on the Verge in Millennium Hall at the Loews Hotel Philadelphia, which is exactly where I had my American Idol audition.

MLT: Who’s got real talent these days?
Most of the really talented people—the Beyoncés, the Timberlakes—have been around for a long time. Nowadays, it’s not as much about talent as it is about being interesting. But that’s the nature of the business: You don’t have to do it all. The role of producer is becoming just as visible as the role of the artist. As long as you have a talented group of individuals working around you, you can seem to do it all, too.

To learn more, visit mediatheatre.org.

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