It may feel like a thousand years ago in a faraway place, but it was actually just January this year when Broadway star and proud product of Central Florida's schools Michael James Scott enchanted Dr. Phillips Center audiences as the Genie in Disney's Aladdin.
Now, as Orlandoans emerge from their own Cave of Wonders (aka quarantine) seeking live entertainment that isn't live-streamed, Scott has returned home again to bookend 2020. He's helping inaugurate the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts' Frontyard Festival, an ambitious year-long outdoor event that's influencing arts organizations across the country. Scott talked with Orlando Weekly via Zoom ahead of his Dec. 19 appearance at Frontyard Festival. We discussed his brand-new album, A Fierce Christmas, and his journey from Apopka to Agrabah and beyond.
"I felt like I was living in a dream cloud that I always dreamt of when I was just a little boy running around Orlando, Florida, singing and dancing," Scott says with a glowing grin, recalling how he felt standing on the Dr. Phillips Center's mainstage in Aladdin.
"I am the product of a community in Orlando, Florida, that really, really supports the arts," explains Scott, an alumnus of Dr. Phillips High School's performing arts program. "To be the product of that, of a community that really gives a crap about young artists and the arts in general, just made me so proud. And it was an incredibly humbling experience to be able to come back and give to all of the teachers — teachers to me are superheroes in our world — and those leaders who really believed in me, when I didn't believe in myself."
After that Orlando engagement, Scott rejoined Aladdin's Broadway company just in time for the pandemic's first peak to hit New York City.
"We were in Times Square; I was in the middle of it all," says Scott. He contracted COVID-19, as did his husband. Although the couple recovered, they've lost several friends to the disease.
"It's been a really tough, tough, tough year to swallow all the craziness," Scott says. "One thing it's taught me ... is the idea of 'the time is now' in terms of telling your friends and family you love them, telling your friends you love them. Not just not taking them for granted, because literally overnight it could change."
But, ever the optimist, Scott hopes healing for others might emerge from his family's illness. "The good news out of it all — we still have the antibodies after all this time," says Scott. "They wanted the plasma right away from my husband; his tested off the chart in terms of antibodies, and right away the next day, they were like 'Can we get as much plasma as we can?'"
During his downtime, Scott has also delved into how the issues raised by Black Lives Matter impact the theater world. "It is so important, especially this year ... the idea of diversity, inclusivity [and] of the racial awakening that is happening in our country. And I can be a part of the change in that," says Scott. "A little chocolate boy like me could come from Orlando, Florida, and do the things I've gotten to do. I'm like, 'It is possible, y'all, it is possible.'"
Ironically, one of Scott's favorite roles is now being re-examined for racial sensitivity. Scott was in the 2011 Tony-winning smash Book of Mormon from its first workshop, originating the role of the Doctor, who closes the musical with the infamous line, "I have maggots in my scrotum." That lyric was initially "The third Matrix was the worst one," until co-creator Trey Parker slipped Scott a secret rewrite moments before a run-through. "I came up and I said my line, and literally the room stopped and erupted," Scott recalls "Josh Gad had to stop, like he couldn't get through what was going on. And it was a keeper."
That hilarious moment has, however, become emblematic of the anti-African attitudes critics accuse the show of embracing. Scott asserts, "We Black folks were all in the room when they were building the show. ... We knew what the material was and we believed in it."
In light of current awareness, Scott suggests future productions (or perhaps the rumored film adaptation) could make adjustments. "Stay tuned for how it may shift in terms of the material," he says. "And the great thing is that [the writers] are open to that, because they know that it's a new world."
But Scott doesn't support eliminating all of the script's sharp edges. "I think we need satire, we need humor. ... Stand in your truth. Be unapologetic and do it."
While the rest of us struggled to remain productive, Scott's pandemic project has been to record an entire album of holiday music. A Fierce Christmas, featuring the single "Christmas Time Is Here," was produced by Orlando-based record label Scratch 17 and was recorded remotely with the help of Disney musical director Jim Abbott and nine New York musicians.
"I'm obsessed with the holidays; I have been since I was little," enthuses Scott, who says he's been curating his ideal holiday song playlist since childhood. "People practice their Emmy and Oscar speeches; I've been practicing my holiday album." Drawing inspiration from Bing Crosby and Harry Connick Jr., as well as Aretha Franklin and Yolanda Adams, the album embraces Scott's diverse influences. "I'm a Broadway theater nerd. Hashtag theater nerd for life," he declares. "I'm a big band lover, and then my gospel, and funk; that fusion for me is what I knew I needed to do."
This Saturday, Scott brings his virtually assembled album to life for the first time ever as one of the opening-month headliners at Dr. Phillips Center's outdoor Frontyard Festival. Scott's concert — which will be followed in coming months by Tye Tribbett, Keb' Mo', Wynton Marsalis and many more — will be observed by attendees in socially distanced pods, which afford private seating and contact-free concessions delivery.
"This will be the first time I've been on the stage since this all went down," Scott says, admitting he's anxious about performing in public, but lauding the Dr. Phillips staff's extensive safety protocols for both performers and patrons. "Everything, including the rehearsals and all of that, are all socially distanced. It is all very, very well-taken care of ... it's not a free-for-all."
With the Great White Way dark until at least June 2021, Scott aches for his fellow Broadway actors, with whom he remains in contact. "It's been really interesting to see how everyone has kind of dispersed around the country, back to their hometowns," he muses. "I feel like 2020 is the year of the pivot." But he praises Disney Theatrical president Thomas Schumacher and his team for staying in touch with cast members. "They have been wonderfully open and very honest about the situation," Scott says. "They are committed to the brand and bringing the shows back."
Likewise, Scott's outlook remains optimistic for Orlando's performers, despite today's pain. "My heart is just broken for the amount of loss," he says, "[but] I believe it will be back, and we will get there, but it's going to take some time."
Accordingly, he felt it was important to invite "amazing, fierce talent from the Orlando area," including local musicians and vocalists, to be part of the concert. Even his mom's church and his in-laws (owners of Canaveral's Wild Ocean Seafood Market) got in on the act with sponsorships. "It was really important to include those local aspects to make this happen. That's what this is about, that's the 'front yard': It's bringing people together."
That craving for connection came through loud and clear throughout our conversation, especially as Scott looked forward to 2021 and Broadway's eventual return. "I need to be able to look into the audience and see a patron's face sitting there, looking into you, having that intimate connection in a theater," Scott says.
In the meantime, Scott lets his positivity shine like a magic lamp during these dark days. "All of the divisiveness that has our country right now so divided, I am protesting with joy," says Scott.
"I am showing [that] it's OK to see a different chocolate face than what's been seen in the news, and it's OK to be a man of color who is smiling, a man of color who is not afraid to be authentically himself."