Star Johnson, ’09, grew up in Temple Hills, Maryland, a little hamlet just outside of Washington, D.C. Accordingly, she always assumed her career would be connected in some way to government and politics. You grow up in the D.C. metro area, you work in government. Expected. Practical. Done.
Pointed in that predetermined direction, she enrolled at Buffalo State to test her mettle as a political science major.
“I was firmly set on working in the communications field in government. That just made sense to me as a career path,” Johnson said. “And I loved the Political Science Department at Buffalo State. It was a great environment with great teachers and great courses.”
But then came the grapes of wrath. Or, more literally, a Casting Hall production of The Grapes of Wrath, the John Steinbeck classic about people desperately fighting to change their destiny.
“I had been in drama clubs and performance arts programs before I went to college, but I put that part of my life aside until I ran into Drew Kahn [professor of theater] during my last year at Buffalo State,” Johnson recalled. “He saw me in the hallway looking at a casting call poster for The Grapes of Wrath and asked if I was going to audition. I told him that I was thinking about it and he smiled.”
It was a knowing smile that changed a life.
Johnson auditioned and landed the principal role of Ma, which by all accounts she played beautifully. For the remainder of her senior year, she spent as much time as possible in the Theater Department and thought constantly about what it would take to pursue a career in theater, not government or politics.
“Buffalo State changed my thinking,” Johnson said. “I realized then that I could have the career that I wanted, if I was willing to work really, really hard for it.”
Upon graduation, she accepted a position at, yes, a policy and communication think tank in Washington, D.C.—but just to put away some savings before moving to New York City. And then she made the move.
“I went to New York City to see what would happen,” Johnson said, “and what happened was I couldn’t find any acting jobs, I was running out of money to the point that my debit card was declined at Chipotle, and I was getting frustrated.”
Johnson began jotting down her thoughts. Little notes about her frustrations and her aspirations. That led to inventing characters and a story line. Which led to a lot of humming and da-da-da’ing and putting the lines to music. Without telling a soul what she was up to, and even surprising herself with the joy of it, Johnson penned her first musical, How to Quit Your Day Job, the story of four friends struggling to pursue their creative passions.
“After I finished the first draft, I finally told my friends, and they were like, ‘What? You’ve been writing a musical?’” Johnson laughed. “I felt a lot of support and encouragement, but also knew that driving this idea forward was totally up to me. And that’s where my political science background comes in—I’ve been campaigning for this show ever since.”
Johnson’s first campaign victory came when her Kickstarter campaign successfully generated $2,510 in small donations—enough to mount the musical’s premiere at the 2015 Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post was so impressed with Johnson’s initiative that the venerable paper featured her, complete with photos, in an August 6, 2015, article on crowdfunding.
Meanwhile, festivalgoers and critics were so impressed with Johnson’s work that How to Quit Your Day Job played a sold-out run and received the festival’s Best Musical Award.
That was step one. Step two was the jump to New York City. And she made that happen last year with an off-Broadway debut at Feinstein’s/54 Below, a coveted theater space on the Great White Way.
“Now, I’m working on getting it to Broadway,” Johnson said. “I’m looking for the right producers and theater to develop this project.”
Johnson continually tweaks and refines the words and lyrics, adding new thoughts and adjusting parts based on the casting of actors and audience feedback from previous shows. She says the book is, in certain ways, a diary of her life, but it also speaks for a generation.
“I really do believe that this will be the next big show on Broadway because it has meaning along with a comedic side,” Johnson said. “Much has been made in the media, positive and negative, about my generation—the millennials. But much of that is based on stereotypes. What’s not being talked about is how the reality of ‘getting by’ in today’s world confronts living the life you desire. And I think this show resonates with people on a very personal level.”
Editor's note: Johnson's latest project—#BlackGirlJoy: Star Johnson in Concert—premieres July 27–29 at The Green Room 42 in Manhattan as part of the acclaimed New York Musical Festival. The show features hip-hop-, soul-, and pop-infused music exploring the growing pains and pratfalls of young adulthood. Support Johnson's funding for the show.
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