Call Answered: Jai Rodriguez Interview: A Thousand Sweet Kisses at 54 BelowSep 17, 2023
I have been a fan of Jai Rodriguez since I saw him in the Off-Broadway production of Zanna, Don't back in 2003. 20 years later, I am still listening to Jai on that cast album. I loved that show!
I was so excited when Jai was cast on the original Queer Eye For The Straight Guy as the "Culture Guy." I continued to follow Jai throughout his television endeavors including roles on such shows as Malibu Country, Grace and Frankie, and Uncoupled.
When I saw Jai was coming to 54 Below with a new concert, I just had to speak with him about it.
In this interview, Jai answered my call to reveal:
- Why it took him 17 years to come back to the NYC stage
- The creative process behind putting this show together
- How he gets ready for a show
- Memories of Zanna, Don't & Queer Eye
- So much more
Jai Rodriguez will be performing his new show, A Thousand Sweet Kisses at 54 Below from October 26-28, 2023. Click here for tickets!
1. This October you will be performing at 54 Below. These performances mark your return to the NYC stage after a 17-year hiatus. What made now the right time to come back? I’ve been touring with Cabaret shows on the West Coast for years now. I was so excited to get a call from 54 Below to come play three nights. I always assumed that my career and life would stay firmly planted in New York City, that wasn’t the case. I came to LA to do a show for a few months and just stayed.
TV and film have become my bread and butter. I’ve wanted to come back for so long, but didn’t even know where to begin. Performing at 54 Below seemed like a huge dream and super far away. October 20 will be my 26th anniversary of my first professional role which was Angel in Rent. So it was only fitting to use a lyric from “I’ll Cover You” to be the title of the show.
2. What excites you about this upcoming show & what is making you nervous, if anything? I’m really excited about A Thousand Sweet Kisses because the story is super universal. We all have hilarious, funny and touching stories about love, sex and relationships. Part of me is nervous to be so candid on stage as some of these stories are quite honest. Also, I’m probably a little nervous thinking,"Is anyone going to come since I’ve been away from the city for so long? Have they forgotten about me?" But, I’ve already received so many messages from friends, family and fans saying that they’ve been waiting for this moment for so long. These are people who either saw me on Broadway and Rent, Zanna Don’t, The Producers, or my long running cabaret act at XL called Twisted Cabaret. Of course some will come not ever knowing I was a singer before my TV fame.
3. The show is called A Thousand Sweet Kisses, chronicling your journey through love, sex and relationships. What did you discover about yourself while putting this show together? I think the biggest lesson and gift we can learn from our previous relationships is exploring our contributions to its possible demise. Taking a moment to learn where we could’ve done better. Seeing what gems we can take away. I think that’s the biggest lesson and gift we can learn from our previous relationships. I’m a firm believer that former relationships and former partners can be the greatest teachers. I didn’t always get it right. And of course there’s a lot of comedy to be had when you talk about dating.
Jai Rodriguez, Photo Credit: Ben Cope
4. What do you hope audiences will learn about you from this show that they don't know already? I make sure to always approach new shows with the understanding that some folks in the audience might have an idea of my professional history, and some folks may not, so it’s fun to uncover some of the behind-the-scenes stories that I’ve never told that anyone can enjoy.
I think people will get to see more sides of me, that what they viewed on television, did not show them. For some, this will be the first time they hear me sing which is always triply for folks who solely know my TV work. Also, in some small way, I guess I’m hoping some casting Director or Producer will come see the show and consider me for a New York City Musical Theater project. When I lived in New York, I only auditioned for a few shows, and I booked most of them so I have zero relationships with casting in the Musical Theater space in New York City. I’d love to reintroduce myself with A Thousand Sweet Kisses.
5. Playing off of the show's title, if you could give A Thousand Sweet Kisses to anyone, who would you want to give them to & who would you want to receive them from? I think playing Angel and singing "I'll Cover You" eight shows a week to incredible, strong, kind and generous, acting partners who played Collins over the years, gave me fulfillment. I don’t think I dated much when I was doing Rent because the on stage chemistry felt so real.
If I had to choose someone to give A Thousand Sweet Kisses to, I think I want them to be bringing that Collins energy. Accepting, loving and my biggest cheerleader. A person who I look at and think is beautiful, kind, funny and smart. I guess this would’ve been a great time to throw in some famous Broadway leading man's name, but I’ve been gone for a minute and I don’t know many personally. I don’t want to embarrass anyone lol. I will say, each night a different surprise guest will duet I’ll Cover You with me. That always ends with a kiss.
6. How do you get yourself ready, both physically & vocally, for a show like this? This is a really good question that a lot of people don’t ask. I think every performer has their rituals or routines and for me it starts with rest, hydration, and rehearsal. I do cardio on my day off to open my body and sinuses up. I don’t eat anything too heavy. Typing this now puts me right back to pre-show jitters. Thankfully, I have an incredible musical Director named Drew Woytek. He has worked so incredibly hard on making the show special and unique to me. I feel like I'm in such great hands and can’t wait for the audience to see what we have cooked up.
7. When you are done with a performance, how do you celebrate? For me, the first thing I always think of the minute I leave the stage is “What am I gonna eat”? Food is such a big treat after a show and I tend to indulge in whatever I want to eat afterwards. I don’t eat much before. By the time I get through the show, I tend to be pretty famished.
Adam Rothenberg and Jai Rodriguez at Zanna, Don't in 2003
8. We first met when you starred in the Off-Broadway production of Zanna, Don't. What is one moment or memory that continues to pop into your head 20 years later? I feel pretty blessed that all the theatre work I did back then, especially early in my career, were shows with great messages and depth to them. Zanna Don’t was really playing a nonbinary character before we had the language for that.
For me, looking back 20 years ago, I think of how forward thinking that show was. To cap it all off, Liza Minnelli came to closing night and absolutely adored the show. I don’t think there’s a better way you can end a run of a show then by having Liza herself come backstage after and tell you how much she enjoyed you.
9. As the "Culture Guy" on the original Queer Eye, what is something you didn't get to do on that show that you wish you could have? Having been 23 years old when I started, a big part of me wishes that the show would’ve come into my life later, but I love the 100 episodes that we made. It was so fun to shoot. In our minds we were making a comedy and the byproduct of being our most authentic selves and helping others was the show touched people. The comedy let us have some really beautiful emotional moments that none of us saw coming. Each time a straight guy would cry or get emotional it took us by surprise, we didn’t anticipate it. We weren’t playing for tears.
Of course a part of me wishes we’d had social media back then so I’d have an easier way to stay connected with folks who are enjoying the show, but it was a different time. I look back at the memories that we made and the lives that we touched on a global level and feel thankful to have been a part of it. I think about the many folks who felt comfortable to come out, who felt seen, who felt like they had friends through the TV and think that era of my life was so worth it. I’m so thankful for the producers, Bravo and NBC for including me in such a groundbreaking moment in history.
10. What is something we didn't get to talk about in this interview that you would like my audience to know about you? I guess the biggest question we talked about was what took me so long to come back and to be honest, I didn’t see a future for myself in Musical Theatre (as much as I loved it). I didn’t see a whole lot of leading men who looked like me back then. At that time I just didn’t see a path forward or opportunity for me on Broadway. Remember, this was way before Lin-Manuel Miranda was around. I would do anything to work on one of his projects again. I did get to play Usnavi in In the Heights, but regionally.
So I guess for me, my time at 54 Below will be in a small way, my return to Broadway on my own terms. Hopefully it’ll open doors to Broadway opportunities in the future. Deep down, I still feel a calling to return to the stage. Of course the show would have to be right and the role would have to be right, but I am ready, willing and able to jump back into doing 8 shows a week.
11. Coffee or Tea? How do you take it? Iced oat milk latte w Splenda.
12. Summer Vacation or Winter Retreat? It’s been so long since I’ve taken a proper vacation but I’m gonna say summer.
13. Boxers or Briefs? You left out my favorite, the infamous jock strap, which I guess is half a brief. 🤣
Jai Rodriguez, Photo Credit: Ben Cope
More on Jai Rodriguez:
Best known as the “Culture Guy” in the groundbreaking original Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, theatre audiences first met Jai at the age of 18 when he played Angel in RENT, making him the youngest person ever cast in a leading role in that show. While in NYC, Jai appeared at Lincoln Center in Spinning Into Butter, as Carmen Ghia in The Producers and as Zanna in the cult classic Zanna, Don’t! While performing eight shows a week, Jai became a fixture in nightlife with his popular post modern pop cabaret night at XL called Twisted Cabaret.
Since then Jai has become a regular fixture in TV and film guest starring on shows like Grey’s Anatomy, The Rookie, The Magicians, How I Met Your Mother, Fantasy Island, and as the scene stealing Geoffrey in Malibu Country opposite Reba McEntire and Lily Tomlin to name a few. Most recently Jai was in the Judd Apatow film BROS and is in Uncoupled, which will begin production on Season Two once the Writer's Strike ends.