As an award-winning sound designer who’s also a composer, a musician and an actor, James Sugg is impressively versatile when it comes to theater.
Because his specialty is sound design, he most often works behind the scenes. But currently he’s displaying his onstage talents, playing a leading role in the Wilma Theater’s new musical, Embarrassments.
"I’m finally returning to musical theater," Sugg says. It was always his first love in the industry; his career began in Seattle, where he spent four years taking roles. In recent years, though, he’s been so busy as a sound designer, Sugg has had no opportunity to perform in a musical — until now.
"I haven’t had a musical lead since Seattle, so this has been a big challenge," says the 35-year-old actor as he’s relaxing in a caf� near the Italian Market, just a few blocks from his home.
He’ll soon dash off to prepare for the evening performance, just as he does every evening except Monday (plus two performances whenever there are matinees).
The whole experience has been quite a test for his voice — one which Sugg has had no problem passing.
"Age often improves the voice, and mine has aged like fine wine," he says jokingly.
He is one of the few people in the caf� drinking tea, known to be a voice-soother. Sugg will need his pipes to be in peak condition. With only eight actors in the cast, each one has a hefty role. Sugg appears in many scenes, using his voice for speaking and for solos and duets.
"The solos are sung almost like internal monologues, as if I’m singing to myself," he explains. "This is tricky, because a singer wants to reach out to an audience."
The musical, a world premiere, is the first commissioned play produced by the Wilma Theater. It focuses on a pivotal moment in the career of Henry James. The setting is London in l895, and it’s the opening night of his first play. As James gets ready for this make-or-break event, he imagines a parallel story about a young New York playwright. It’s Sugg who plays this imaginary character.
"I’m enjoying the challenge of doing a period piece — and a very innovative one," he says. "This is not typical musical theater. It’s far outside the normal mold — a truly original piece of work."
Sugg’s enthusiasm for musical theater began back in seventh grade when he played the lead in Oliver. At the time, the Tennessee native was living with his family in Saudi Arabia because of his father’s work. But starting in ninth grade, he attended boarding school on Long Island — and had leading roles in all the musicals right through his senior year. He played Daddy Warbucks in Annie, Curly in Oklahoma, Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha and more.
At Oberlin College in Ohio, the aspiring singer majored in opera and continued to perform in musicals. After college, Sugg moved to Seattle, where he sang with the Seattle Opera Company and took on varied roles in musical theater.
"Then it was time to hit Manhattan," he says, where "I had great times, but it wasn’t really productive in terms of my career."
A turning point came in l997, when he met several actors from Philadelphia who were planning to start a new company, the Pig Iron Theatre. Sugg went to see a play they were presenting on the Lower East Side. He was impressed.
So he readily agreed when the group invited him to help with music and sound effects for its next production. It was Sugg’s first experience with sound design, and he loved it.
In l998, Pig Iron was officially founded in Philadelphia as a theater company presenting only original work. Sugg was asked to take a role in the company’s first production.
It was the first time he’d ever been in the city — and he hardly knew then that he’d settle here. But he found himself even more intrigued with the fledgling company.
"They introduced me to a new way of making theater," says Sugg, who’s now a Pig Iron member. "They didn’t start with a script; they started with ideas, and then improvised."
When the first show ended, he was invited to create the sound design for the next production. He had intended to return to New York, but couldn’t resist the new challenge: The stage would have no set at all. Instead, everything would be defined by sound — and it would be live sound, not recorded.
"I dived headfirst into acoustic sound design," Sugg says. The play, Gentlemen Volunteers, was set in France during World War I. The resourceful Sugg decided to use an accordion to evoke the music of the era. He taught himself to play the instrument and found popular songs from the turn of the century.
The trial by fire was a resounding success. When it was time for the annual Barrymore awards (Philadelphia’s equivalent of the Tonys) that year, Sugg won for his sound design.
"It was a big surprise — even a shock," he says. "We were up against big musicals and it was only our first year as a company."
The award heightened his profile in the local theater world. "Suddenly, people started to think of me as a sound designer," Sugg says.
He’s been busy in that role ever since. In the three-story house he shares with another Pig Iron member, he works in a sound studio on the top floor. It includes an accordion, a guitar, a computer, a keyboard and a sampler. "You press a key and it plays a specific recorded sound," the soundman says, explaining the last piece of equipment.
Then, too, there are "a bunch of weird sound-making devices" in the home, such as an old porcelain washtub that makes odd noises when it’s rubbed or filled with water.
Using all these tools of his trade, Sugg has created sound design for the Arden Theatre, Freedom Theatre, the University of the Arts and the Wilma Theater. And he went on to win two more Barrymore awards for sound design — one for another Pig Iron production and the other last season for the Wilma’s Red.
This season, Sugg was one of five finalists for another Barrymore honor, the prestigious Otto Haas Award for Emerging Theater Artist.
The adaptable Sugg continues to play multiple roles in the theater. After the Wilma musical closes on Jan. 4, he’ll work on a production for the Folger Theater in Washington, D.C. This one really puts his versatility to the test: Sugg will play three roles, perform on both guitar and piano, and create all the sounds for the show.
"They’re really getting their money’s worth on this one," he jokes.
But Sugg first plans to savor his long-delayed return to musical theater in Embarrassments.
"I enjoy the visceral experience of singing," he says. "And the music for this show is gorgeous. I love singing it!"
The Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce streets, presents the world premiere of Embarrassments through Jan. 4. Tickets ($9-$50) are available by calling the Wilma box office at 215-546-7824 or online at www.wilmatheater.org.