Giving up or going quietly were never options for James T. Lane.
From growing up in the housing projects at 5th and Washington, to suffering a torn Achilles tendon, to falling down a hole of drug addiction and alcoholism, Lane faced his fair share of challenges in getting to the big stage.
Now, the 45-year-old is playing a significant role in Chicago, Broadway’s longest running American musical. Lane plays the part of Billy Flynn, the charismatic, flamboyant smooth-talking defense lawyer.
Landing that role, as well as several other important theater gigs, was always in the talented performer’s DNA. But Lane’s path wasn’t always the smoothest road possible.
“It all comes back to this 6-year-old kid, playing Rumpelstiltskin in Weccacoe Playground in Queen Village,” Lane recalled with a laugh. “I slipped down the steps and I fell and the audience clapped and applauded and I felt this is exactly where I want to be. I turn into that 6-year-old kid every time I’m on the stage.”
He’s done a lot of growing up since then.
Lane explored his acting chops at William M. Meredith Elementary School in Queen Village before attending the Girard Academic Music Program for high school. He was full throttle into theater in high school when he was told there would be no spring production during his senior year due to budget cuts. Lane saw a red traffic light and blew right through it.
“I’ll show you,” Lane said with a laugh. “Who knows why it was cut? But I thought, hey, let’s put on a show. Let’s make it happen. So the whole fall semester, I basically taught theater classes and over the winter break, I wrote a play, and that spring, we rehearsed the play. The audacity of that, right? Like who do you think you are? I just had no inhibition at that age.”
The play, titled A Killer Review, was a hit at GAMP as the school staff did agree to help with the administrative process. But the kids took on most of the responsibility.
“Once all the teachers knew I wasn’t (messing) around, they thought they better help out,” Lane said. “They took care of the administrative stuff but more of the creative stuff was under my tutelage. The students all rallied. We knew it was an uphill battle. We even paid dues so we could buy props. We were all doing it together.”
Lane then attended a couple of different colleges including Penn State University, which helped him travel to Europe and find work in theater overseas.
“It was a long and winding road for me,” Lane said. “I auditioned at different colleges and schools and I got into the best of the best with full scholarships. But I had a huge chip on my shoulder from being black and poor. I felt I had a lot of talent and that you need to see me and my talent. I got to these schools and felt like they weren’t going to show me anything. I transferred schools and then I just went out to work. I went to Europe and it was great. Some black kid from 5th and Washington got dropped into Zurich, Switzerland at 18 years old. It was, like, wow.”
Then it was on to Austria, Germany and France before returning stateside to New York. He was performing in a production of Fame when he suffered a career-altering injury, tearing his Achilles and needing to stay off his feet.
“I had a lot of time on my hands so I decided to use drugs for the first time,” Lane said. “That led me down a four-and-a-half-year path of death and destruction, or as they say, incomprehensible demoralization. The bottom couldn’t fall out fast enough before I landed in another one.”
During that time, Lane’s mother, Starlett Smith, who gave birth to Lane at age 17 as a single mom, brought her baby home.
“I was in New York City and I crashed and burned and my mama came to get me,” Lane said. “At the end of the line, I could always sing and dance. I could always pull it together. But I just couldn’t do it anymore. It felt like my God-given abilities were just draining away from me. It scared me. It felt like I was dying. In November 2004, I finally decided to get it together.”
Lane got clean and humbly went back to his roots and joined community theater at 17th and Delancey streets.
“They looked at my resume and were like, ‘You’ve done some stuff. What are you doing here?’ ” Lane said. “And I just said, ‘I need to be here.’ ”
Soon after, the calls rolled in from Opera Philadelphia, Walnut Street Theatre and eventually Broadway as Lane traveled back to New York for an open call for A Chorus Line, despite showing up on the wrong day. He made New York his home again, starring in other Broadway productions like Roundabout’s revival of Kiss Me, Kate, King Kong and The Scottsboro Boys. He also danced in Chicago on Broadway periodically over the last decade, which certainly helped prepare for his current acting role as Billy Flynn.
“It’s like coming home because I was there for so long,” Lane said. “But now I’m in a new position where I can drive the play. I steer the feeling in it and that’s an honor and a privilege and a duty. That creative responsibility — just give me the ball, coach. I’m prepared, I want to use what I got in this way.”
There’s still time to see Lane on Broadway as Chicago runs through March 12. He also has another project in the works as he continues to build momentum with his autobiographical play named Triple Threat. He wrote and stars in the production, which was filmed at the Zeiders American Dream Theater in Virginia. It documents all the twists and turns of his path and explores all the dark corners. But it’s not all doom and gloom as Lane beat his addiction and has been drug and alcohol free for 18 years.
“I started writing in 2015, little vignettes about the life of an alcoholic and an addict and it started to really stick,” Lane said. “These are stories that people aren’t telling. If you identify and keep it on stage, it might give a little insight on what a family member is going through.”
But there was more to it.
“I also wanted to know where am I going?” Lane said. “I’m a black man in musical theater and if I’m not in Lion King or Hamilton, what am I doing? Where are my opportunities? So I thought I’d create my own work.”
Lane acknowledges he felt completely vulnerable in performing his life story and including all the dark details in front of strangers.
“If you could imagine zipping open your body and laying it there and having everyone crawl around in it for 90 minutes or so,” Lane said. “It’s the hardest thing I ever attempted to do but it’s also I have never felt anything like the feeling I had at the end of the night when I finished telling that story. This story is guttural. I talk about where the bodies are buried. I really let it all go.”
There was a time he felt dead. Now he’s never felt more alive.
“I grew up in South Philadelphia all my life and people would just walk right through me because I was unrecognizable,” Lane said. “And now, at 45, I’m on one of the largest stages in one of the longest-running American musicals in theater history. I’ve managed to keep my feet on the ground while traversing the greatest stages of the world.”