Aramie Payton Takes on Broadway as Michael Jackson Understudy in MJ the Musical
By Portia King
Chicago is the breeding ground for some of the world’s greatest talent. From musicians to athletes and actors to dancers, the city continues to be the pulse of creativity and charisma. Singer, actor, and dancer, Aramie Payton, is currently playing the iconic King of Pop, Michael Jackson, in the New York City hit Broadway stage play, MJ the Musical. As the understudy, Aramie regularly performs, bringing the King of Pop back to life.” As a Chicago native, Aramie continues to be a shining example of the elevated raw talent that exists within our city.
Chicago Defender: You’ve been singing and dancing for most of your life. At what point did you realize this was your passion and you wanted to pursue it professionally?
Aramie Payton: My parents always said I would sing as a baby and make music with the bells on my baby socks. I knew at a young age that I was passionate about the arts. When I was 12, I did my first musical, FAME, and at 13 I started doing professional plays. I trained as an actor and singer throughout my school years and every summer until I was 18. From then, not a season passed where I wasn’t working on a show or project that involved singing, acting, or dancing.
Chicago Defender: You moved to New York years ago, not too long after college. What was the motivation behind the move?
Aramie Payton: Doesn’t every kid who dreams of living as an artist want to move to NYC? I knew as a teen that I had to go, especially after I saw my first Broadway show. I chose to go to college because I also loved learning, but I fought the constant desire to be in NYC. I did a few productions in Chicago and garnered some love and accolades for that and my solo music, so I decided I was ready to tackle a bigger, new market and live my dream. I bought a plane ticket with no apartment or job and now I’m here!
Chicago Defender: How would you describe your journey in New York up until this point? (Auditions, callbacks, setbacks, motivational signs, etc.)
Aramie Payton: Well, I can’t lie. I moved to NYC and fell right into the swing of life there. I remember I quit my job because my first Broadway audition I did 7 callbacks! I didn’t book that but I got a stage play, a musical (that I also choreographed), and a national tour and I didn’t stop working once I began. I was auditioning EVERY SINGLE DAY, sometimes three or four auditions, running from building to building, sending in tapes, and emailing people who didn’t know me. I had the hustle that was necessary to make sure people saw me and that I met every opportunity. That’s the only way to make NYC work. I got told “no” so much, but I also got so many callbacks it let me know I needed to find MY spot.
Chicago Defender: You were cast as the understudy to play the iconic Michael Jackson in Broadway’s production of MJ the Musical. What did it feel like when you first got the news? What was the audition process like?
Aramie Payton: Oh my god, I won’t pretend it was easy or sweet. I spent years auditioning to play Michael, getting to finals, and losing out on the role. I think any other person would have given up, but this was my dream. It felt like I manifested it myself. When I finally booked it, it was after a week-long, full-time audition process that started with about 30 guys and ended with just me and one other dude. By the end of the week, I knew I was going to be in the show in some capacity. I had always known. I just needed to convince them. When my agent called, I felt euphoria, relief, satisfaction, excitement, and a sense of self-actualization which is a really dope feeling.
Chicago Defender: Were you intimidated at all by such a massive role?
Aramie Payton: Intimidated, no. I am an actor at the core. It’s where all of my artistry is rooted – storytelling and examining human truth. I was SO excited because I had been researching and building my version of MJ for a long stint. As I said, this was my biggest dream. I’ve been a huge fan all my life, so this was the ultimate chance to not only honor him but to push myself to be as great and display a certain artistic prowess that I’d been dying to give myself.
Chicago Defender: What’s it like being on call, filling in for shows? Does it get hectic?
Aramie Payton: Whew. I wouldn’t suggest this job to anyone, ha-ha. I’m a bit of a control freak, so this gig goes against my everything. Not to mention, it’s mostly thankless. But what it does allow me to do is trust my gifts and trust my teammates. There’s no time for the BS and that’s a good feeling. For My debut show, I went on at intermission for Act 2. That was so cool to me. My first full performance was actually the first time I ever got to do the full show with all the elements. After that, I did a month-long stint of performances, which was like a rehearsal for me (since understudies, swings, and standbys don’t typically get rehearsal). I got to really settle in and refine. My experience is different from that of other standbys. I found ways to make the show completely my own and also to keep it fresh for me and my cast mates but the job position itself is wild.
Chicago Defender: What’s your favorite song and/or performance piece in the show?
Aramie Payton: The show is full of Michael’s hits! My favorite number to perform in the show is Thriller because of how it is executed. I’d say Stranger in Moscow or Bad would be a close second.
Chicago Defender: What advice would you give someone considering taking a leap of faith towards pursuing their dream?
Aramie Payton: If you feel it in your bones, body, and mind, it is achievable and it is already yours. Do the work to get the thing. And, last, know that the moment you stop believing it is yours is the precise moment that it is not.
Chicago Defender: How long is the show running in New York? Will it travel/go on tour? How can people get tickets?
Aramie Payton: The show recently received 10 Tony nominations so hopefully it’ll be here for a long while. e! It has an open-ended run-on Broadway currently, with plans for a tour coming soon. Visit mjthemusical.com for more info. and find me on socials to know when I’m performing!
To keep up with Aramie Payton, follow him on Instagram, @mynameisaramie!
Portia King, The Media Maven, is a multi-media personality, host, and moderator based in Chicago. For more information, please visit PortiaKing.com or follow her @PortiaKingMedia.