Eric Lee Johnson No Business Like Show Business

A young singer from the United States started his career as musicals took off in Germany in the 1980s. A star then and now, Eric Lee Johnson keeps on reinventing himself as an artist.
Eric Lee Johnson, an American in Berlin.


It was typical of Berlin in 1984. Helmut Baumann had "Jesus Christ Superstar" all set to show at the palatial Theater des Westens.

But unsurprisingly, the theater wasn't ready, and construction work was dragging on. Mr. Baumann, the artistic director, had no choice but to open his first production in a dreary exhibition hall.

It was an overnight hit though, making Eric Lee Johnson, a young singer from Washington, D.C., a superstar too.

Mr. Johnson had been working in Europe for five years, on the way to achieving his dream.

After being tucked in, my brother and I would recite all the songs in bed.

He had been fascinated with musicals even as a child, he recalled sitting in his apartment.

"My mother had several original Broadway cast LPs. I was especially fascinated by ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘The King and I’ because there were so many children involved."

Placing a basket of homemade muffins on the table, Mr. Johnson said, "After being tucked in, my brother and I would recite all the songs in bed."

In primary school he joined the school choir. His mother, a teacher, said of his first performance: "Quite nice, but you were a bit quiet.”

It didn't discourage him. On the contrary. "That's why I became such a loud person," he said, with a deep laugh.

Throughout his school years, Mr. Johnson became more and more involved in musical theater. Right after his graduation ceremony, he jumped into his parents' car and drove to Williamsburg to perform in a hotel show, his first paid job.

The next summer he spent working at King's Island amusement park in Ohio. Then, after just three weeks at Howard University, age 19, came his lucky break. Director Wolfgang Zörner had seen "Raisin," the musical, on Broadway and wanted to bring it home to Switzerland. He asked Mr. Johnson to be his guest star performer at Theater St. Gallen.

And so Mr. Johnson came to Europe, learned German and afterwards, found other jobs in Bern.

It was an intoxicating time for audiences in the region who were seeing many musicals for the first time, each new show a magical new discovery.

And it was a journey of discovery for Mr. Johnson too. In 1981, he took the floating stage in Bregenz, Austria starring in "West Side Story." He was the first black man to play Jim Boy in Abraham's operetta "Flower of Hawaii" at Vienna's Raimund Theater. In all, Mr. Johnson spent several years in Austria and became an integral part of the country's small musical theater community.

These were the early years, right before a boom in musical theater in German-speaking countries.

Then came Mr. Johnson's fateful meeting with director Helmut Baumann, from Theater des Westens, one of the city's most famous theaters.

"It was destiny," he said. "Some things are meant to be."

Mr. Baumann took the young Eric Lee into his “family,” as he called his troupe. The director was the family patriarch, a man whose expectations were high. Even soloists performing in the evening had to show up for ballet training at 10 a.m. and join rehearsals in the afternoon for the next show.

It was the beginning of stardom for Mr. Johnson. The theater, finally renovated, showed "Guys and Dolls." Then came "Peter Pan" when he played opposite young female newcomer Ute Lemper. Looking back, Mr. Johnson recalled a scene where she had to rip off her skirt, debuting her famously long legs. "A bomb went off right next to me!" he said.

Ms. Lemper went on to win rave reviews in London and New York for her performance as Velma Kelley in "Chicago." Mr. Johnson starred as Billy Flynn in the musical’s Berlin production.

Many other major roles followed, on the main stage and in smaller settings too as Mr. Johnson created a series of "Late Night Shows" in the Theater des Westen’s foyer.

Five years on, Mr. Johnson was ready to cut the cord. Looking back, he said, "For my 30th birthday, I gave myself freedom." He resigned though he kept returning as a guest, in "Grand Hotel" and "Porgy and Bess."

But Mr. Johnson's dream of Broadway wouldn't let him rest.

In 1994, after playing in "Miss Saigon," he packed up his suitcase and headed back to the United States.

Back home things weren't quite what he expected, though. "I was annoyed my younger colleagues didn’t give older performers the respect I had anticipated,” he said. “These days, beginners acts like they are immediate musical sensations.”

And so Mr. Johnson did the American thing: He reinvented himself, took office jobs, and worked his way up at Warner Brothers Television. He started out as a receptionist and finally, thanks to his language skills, received a job offer from the German ARD studio in Washington D.C.

A second offer came along at the same time. Rolf Kühn, the former chief conductor from Mr. Johnson’s time at the Theater des Westens, asked him to star in "La Cage aux Folles" in Dresden. Even though the German news channel correspondent personally asked Mr. Johnson to stay in D.C., the call of the stage was louder. He packed up his bags and went back to Berlin. "This is where I belong," he said, arms spread in a hug for the whole city from his Wilmersdorf apartment.

Age 57, he is still an active performer, taking the stage for "Kiss me, Kate" at Komische Oper and appearing in "Cats" on their European tour.

He's also branching out into photography with an exhibition this year. "I still have a lot to express – also silently," he said. "This is not just a pretty face – there's also something behind it."

He's also busy fundraising for causes that matter to him, including AIDS relief after losing many friends to HIV.

He helps by doing what he does best: singing. Each month, he performs at the gay counseling center and the HIV ward at a neighborhood hospital in Berlin. The concerts are low key, he said. "We don’t make a big announcement. The mini concerts are intended to give hope to patients and relatives."

But the city is his biggest fan. Singing at Christopher Street Day, over half a million people came to hear Mr. Johnson sing.


This article originally appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]