For some actors who can sing and dance, musical theater is the gateway to television and the movies. For Brian d’Arcy James, who has been known to moonlight in front of rolling cameras, live musical theater is home.

Three decades ago, James made his Broadway debut fresh out of Northwestern University, first in the ensemble and later in the leading role of Mickey in the British import Blood Brothers. Since then, he has carved out his place as a mainstay in musicals on and off Broadway, lending his Arrow Collar looks, suave baritenor, and zesty diction to the lumbering Shrek, Hamilton’s prancing George “You’ll Be Back” III, and the dim but lovable Baker in this season’s Grammy-winning revival of Into the Woods, to name a few striking highlights.

Now he’s about to add a more naturalistic portrait to his gallery, playing Joe Clay, the P.R. flak who drinks for a living, in Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s musical reboot of Days of Wine and Roses, which begins previews on May 5 at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company. Go back to the Blake Edwards noir classic of 1962, and you’d swear Jack Lemmon is channeling James. It’s déjà vu in reverse.

“I’ve always had a magnet pull towards Jack Lemmon,” James said on a recent Zoom call from his home in Manhattan. “His style, his sensibility, his talent—they’ve always been on my radar as I try to figure out what this acting thing is all about. Not in an overt way, but somehow his style and sensibility are embedded in my evolution.”

In 2022, James starred as the Baker in a Broadway run of Into the Woods. His co-stars included (foreground, from left) Sara Bareilles, Phillipa Soo, and Julia Lester.

James has made his mark in the original casts of Titanic, Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party (not to be confused with Michael LaChiusa’s, which ran the same season), Sweet Smell of Success, Giant, and Something Rotten! Yet his two favorite Broadway roles were hand-me-downs: the former I.R.A. activist Quinn Carney, haunted by secrets, in Jez Butterworth’s straight play The Ferryman; and the con man Freddy Benson in the musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

“It was a comedic joy how off-the-wall Freddy was,” James says. “I don’t necessarily get to do that to that degree. Getting to be an idiot onstage! There’s nothing better.” And to think that Plácido Domingo said that suffering onstage was the greatest thing. “Ah, that’s where we differ!,” James replies.

Still, the siren song of new material never loses its allure. And if the topic of alcohol abuse in the mid–20th century strikes you as been-there-done-that, remember how Lucas and Guettel transposed the apparently dated source material of A Light in the Piazza into intimate music drama of aching immediacy. Kelli O’Hara, so poignant two decades ago as Clara, their child-like iron butterfly, is on hand now as the good girl Joe marries, who drinks to keep him company.

“By and large, what’s so special about Days of Wine and Roses is the unique, unexpected structure,” James says. “There are moments that make sense to musicalize and a lot you wouldn’t expect as moments for expression in song. The way Adam is writing music, the way Craig is telling the story, it’s not completely linear. I feel honored to be part of it. I hope I can rise to the challenge of what they’re creating. I don’t want to overstate, but it’s almost like learning a new language.”

Days of Wine and Roses will be on at Linda Gross Theater, in New York City, beginning May 5

Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL.He lives in Hawaii