When Raleigh-born American Idol star Clay Aiken, 34, takes the stage this month to star in North Carolina Theatre’s The Drowsy Chaperone, he will be coming home in more ways than one.
“My first audition ever was at North Carolina Theatre,” he says. Aiken was 17, the production was the Declaration of Independence musical 1776, and the odds were long. The part in question was several years too old for Aiken, and he had to sing for an intimidating director: celebrated Broadway veteran Terrence Mann. But Aiken’s choir teacher told him it was a perfect way to get some auditioning experience. “There was no pressure, because I couldn’t get it anyway,” Aiken recalls.
He not only got the part but also ended up performing in three shows with the company and forging a career in the process. “I sort of found a home with NCT.” One that would prepare him for bigger stages, including the glaring limelight of American Idol and national tours for the multi-platinum record (and four others) that would follow. As it does today, NCT took its mission seriously to nurture local talent and to stage professional productions. A homegrown company started by De Ann Jones 30 years ago, NCT today puts on half a dozen acclaimed shows a year and maintains its local flavor.
Aiken’s first role with NCT was a dream come true, one sparked when his mother took him to see his first musical, Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, also at NCT. It was 1991; Aiken was 13, and he was bowled over.
“Marty Moran was playing Huck Finn,” Aiken recalls. “I was sitting way up high in Memorial Auditorium, and I remember seeing this guy dancing around and singing on stage, and it was the first time I realized in my life that people could make a living off of singing, that people could make a career out of it. I knew I wanted to make a life out of it at that point.”
That didn’t happen until the second season of American Idol, in 2003, when Aiken, then 24, was transformed from an earnest hopeful with talent into a polished performer with a big Broadway voice. He came in second to eventual winner Ruben Studdard, but a star was born.
None of it came as a surprise to NCT founder Jones. “I have watched thousands of people audition over 30 years, and I have seen a lot of talented kids,” she says. “The number of people who have Clay’s talent I can count on one hand.” It’s more than the perfect pitch she knew he had at 17, or the kind of technical proficiency that is commonplace on Broadway. “He has his own sound. It’s amazing.”
The public agreed. The next years brought several hit singles, 10 successful concert tours, and the emergence of legions of older female fans who called themselves Claymates.
But Aiken wasn’t sure about Broadway when it came calling – insistently – years later. Aiken, at that point, was busy not only touring and recording, but acting on shows like Scrubs, writing a New York Times bestseller (Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life), and working on behalf of UNICEF and the National Inclusion Project, which he co-founded to support children with disabilities.
Then Mike Nichols called. The world-famous director wanted Aiken to join the cast of his Tony Award-winning Monty Python musical Spamalot in the key role of Sir Robin. “I thought, I don’t want to do this,” Aiken recalls. He was busy enough. “But they’re giving me free tickets to see the show, so I’ll go see the show. And when Robin came on the stage, who was playing Robin? The same guy who’d played Huck Finn, Marty Moran. I said right then, I’m going to do this part.” The two are now great friends.
Kismet played a role in Aiken’s decision to take the part of “Man in Chair” in NCT’s Drowsy Chaperone as well. The company had asked him for years to come back to its stage, but it wasn’t until they offered him this role – which allows him to interact directly with the audience while delivering a meaningful message about the power of art – that Aiken decided the time was right.
The production is about an unhappy man made happy by his love of a musical, a production that literally comes alive before his eyes as he describes its characters to the audience and listens to its soundtrack on his record player. “He ends up being enchanted by the power of the theatre, which is what NCT has done so well for 30 years now. That’s why I was willing to do it,” he says. That, and the chance to share the stage with co-star Beth Leavel, another Raleigh native who will reprise the role of “Chaperone” she created on Broadway, and which earned her a Tony.
“Some comedies are just trying to make you laugh, but sometimes you find a comedy that has a real message,” he says. It also gives him a chance to do one of his favorite things. “I’ve done a lot of TV stuff, but it doesn’t give you the satisfaction of doing theater.”
Performing in Raleigh is its own kind of reward. The Leesville Road High School graduate moved to L.A. for a while after the success of Idol, but came back home in 2005. He now lives near the border of Cary and Durham and says there’s no better place to be than here, or to raise a family. Aiken’s son Parker was born in 2008, at which point he decided to acknowledge publicly that he is gay. The Claymates showered him with support.
“There’s just no place in the country like it,” he says of his hometown. “It is a testament to the leadership of Raleigh and the city council that they have maintained the ‘park with a city in it’ environment here. It is a great place to live.”
And to perform. Singing on stage with NCT again is a way, Aiken says, of saying thanks to the theatre company that first believed in him: “It’s appreciation for being such an incredible part of my life.” And, “it’s just about 10 years to the day since I did Idol,” he says – as good a time as any to come back to where it all began. -L.R.
The Drowsy Chaperone runs from May 7-12 at 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on May 11 and 12. For tickets and more information, go to www.nctheatre.com.