James Corden Still Loves Theater, Even if His Left Eye Is in Pain
The Arc de Triomphe was lit up in the spring sunshine. In front of it, James Corden walked down the middle of Avenue Carnot, singing to the camera while he tore at a long brown wig and dirty floor-length frock.
“I dreamed a dream in times gone by,” he warbled with committed agony, as bemused Parisian taxi drivers flew past.
Mr. Corden is best known as the host of “The Late Late Show” on CBS, but he started as an aspiring stage performer, and when he gets the chance he still treads the boards, at least for a laugh. So it was that one day last week he was costumed as Fantine, the doomed unfortunate of “Les Misérables,” for a coming episode of his show’s regular television sketch “Crosswalk the Musical.”
Actors dressed as French soldiers cantered into the road, waving baguettes. A mime lurked on a street corner. For “Do You Hear the People Sing?” a huge funeral carriage almost squashed a rogue teenage cyclist.
Mr. Corden played a monstrously inflated version of himself, taking all the good parts, from a flag-waving Jean Valjean to the raucous innkeeper Thénardier, complete with blackened teeth and a reddened nose.
He feigned outrage as a fire engine blared by on the Paris street. “If a building is on fire, I get it — but if a show is on fire, maybe a bit of applause?” he suggested.
Mr. Corden has loved theater since he was a child. And at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday he’ll have a chance to express that affection, as the host, for the second time, of the Tony Awards.
In anticipation of the broadcast, which begins at 8 p.m. Eastern time on CBS, we decided to ask him about his long love affair with the stage.
A rude awakening
Mr. Corden was about 14 when he announced that he wanted to be an actor.
As a young child in Britain, his theater diet had consisted mostly of annual Christmas pantomimes, but as he got older, his parents started giving him show tickets for his birthdays — “Return to the Forbidden Planet,” “Cats,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Aspects of Love.”
And then came “Me and My Girl.” A revival of the 1937 musical comedy was playing at the Adelphi Theater in the West End. Gary Wilmot was starring. And that’s when Mr. Corden knew.
“We left the theater that day,” Mr. Corden recalled, “and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do, Dad.’”
He dropped out of high school at 17 to join the cast of a promising musical, “Martin Guerre,” by the creators of “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon.” It was not a success, and Mr. Corden was not a star.
“I had one line, which wasn’t even a line,” he recalled. “It was three words that I said on my own, which was ‘Roast the meat!’”
Still, just getting the role was an accomplishment.
“The only thing I ever really aspired to was being in a West End musical,” he said. “That was the single greatest thing you could do with your life, I thought.”
He imagined he would quickly be plucked from the ensemble for something bigger. But that didn’t happen, and he concluded that he had been cast mostly because he was young-looking.
“I realized that I needed to work out a way that I can be at the front of the stage, if only for a moment,” he added, “rather than hugging the back wall all the time.”
Mr. Corden never went back to school. Instead, he booked a film (“Twentyfourseven”), signed with an agent and moved on.
New York, 2006
From the West End to Broadway
“The History Boys,” a play about a group of British boarding school students, was a first for Mr. Corden in many ways. He played Timms, the overweight class clown, in London, on tour, on Broadway and then in a film adaptation.
“I had never been in a play before,” he said. “And I’d never been in New York before. It took me 28 seconds to fall in love with the place.”
He loved the conviviality of Broadway — running into other actors on the street, hanging out with them in local bars. And, throughout the life of the play, he got to work with Richard Griffiths, who starred as the history teacher, and who died a few years later.
“There was something quite magical about him in that role, and the play started to inform how we treated each other backstage,” Mr. Corden said. “He was very much our teacher and our greatest supporter. I miss him dearly.”
New York, 2012
Winning a Tony
The next time Mr. Corden returned to Broadway, it was as the star of “One Man, Two Guvnors.”
His damn-the-torpedoes comic performance was widely hailed, and he won a Tony as best leading actor, besting a murderers’ row of stage titans: Philip Seymour Hoffman, James Earl Jones, Frank Langella and John Lithgow.
“It was without question the high point of my career so far,” he said. “I won’t be upset if I never play a better part than that.”
The role, he said, was both exhausting and invigorating. “I don’t think I’ll ever be as tired again in my life,” he said. “The highs will never ever come close to the highs of doing that show on Broadway or in the West End, no question, but then by the same token, the lows will never be as low.”
The lows? Seven years later, he still has physical pain.
“I still to this day wake up with pain in my left eye sometimes,” he said. “I used to hit myself in the face with a trash can lid, and one show a little shard flew off and it cut my eyeball slightly. It’s un-healable, and if I’m particularly tired, I’ll wake up and I’ll open my eye and I’ll be in agony.”
He said he continues to believe that “you can be the fastest runner, you can jump the furthest, but to be the best actor is impossible.”
“I was thrilled to win it — but at the same time I just was very conscious to remind myself that the worst thing that could happen now is that you might start to think you’re more of a dude than you really are.”
New York, 2016
Hosting the Tonys
Going into the 2016 Tony Awards, it appeared that there would be one big story that night: “Hamilton,” already a juggernaut, and sure to sweep the major categories. But things changed the morning of the show, when a gunman opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people.
“I remember it incredibly vividly,” Mr. Corden said. He recalled arriving for the dress rehearsal that morning, unaware that a tragedy was unfolding in Florida.
“When I got to the Beacon [Theater] for the rehearsal, I heard some people talking, and then I looked at my phone, and ‘Oh My God,’” he said. “All of the details hadn’t dripped through, but over the course of that dress run it had gone from a shooting in a nightclub in Orlando to America’s biggest mass shooting. And the saddest thing is that that was the biggest mass shooting then, and today it isn’t anymore.”
Mr. Corden said he never thought the ceremony should be canceled, but he also rejected an initial idea to simply pay tribute to the victims during the show’s In Memoriam segment. He knew it had to be addressed up front.
He and a writer retreated to a room with a laptop. “I remember just saying: The greatest thing about any theatrical community is that historically their arms have been open to anybody, regardless of gender, race, sexuality. They say ‘Come, and we will welcome you here.’ That’s what we have to say: Hate will never win.”
After the speech, he segued into a parody of “Hamilton,” a few jokes and his opening number, which included a segment directed at children who, as he did, aspire to be in theater.
“I just felt incredibly proud to be in that room that night,” he said. “I just care a tremendous amount about that community, about what it’s given me and my life, about what it’s giving people every day. I’ve been to the Tonys twice, and I’ve hosted it once, and each of those nights have been unforgettable moments in my life, and I hope to have another one next Sunday.”
Michael Paulson reported from New York and Holly Williams reported from Paris.