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How James Corden Brought Musicals to Late Night

James Corden. Photo: Vulture and Shutterstock

James Corden is a song-and-dance man. No one in the late-night landscape — not even the dance-battling, pop-music aficionado Jimmy Fallon — can match The Late Late Show host’s level of sheer musical-theater geekery. Corden’s early career included regular film and TV work in the U.K., but musicals and straight plays continued to call him — including, most notably, an award-winning run of One Man, Two Guvnors that played around the U.K. and on Broadway in 2011. Since taking over The Late Late Show from Craig Ferguson in 2015, Corden has brought that lively, let’s-put-on-a-show ethos to a show traditionally oriented toward jokes and celebrity chat.

The theatrical flare that has led to viral segments such as “Carpool Karaoke,” has also leant itself to more ambitious and sillier work inspired by Late Late Show writers. “Crosswalk the Musical” is an ongoing Late Late Show segment that features Corden, celebrity guests, and extras charging into busy crosswalks to sing snatches of musicals before the light changes color (and the players get flattened by midday L.A. traffic). We talked with Corden about the history of the segment and the future of his hosting career. Read a short excerpt from the conversation or listen below. Download the episode from Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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In fall of 2014, as you’re taking over as the host of the Late Late Show, what were you looking for in your writers?
In truth, I didn’t really know. I knew what I wasn’t looking for: a group of people who’d gone, “I did seven years at The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, then did this show, this show, this show.” My thing was, I don’t want to make a talk show. I want to make a variety show that can be chopped up and spread and shared on the internet. I want to make a show that is a visual feast, that has ambition beyond what had traditionally been in that time slot. I just wanted a new outlook, really.

Our first week on the air, we were like, “Guys, we’ve got to run out of the blocks. We got to let publicists and guests know that there’s a show here.” Night one, we did this thing called “Role Call” where we did all of Tom Hanks’s movies. Night two, we did a “Carpool Karaoke” with Mariah Carey. Night three, we did a sketch of Will Ferrell or something. And we’d certainly shot “Crosswalk the Musical” then.

Ian Karmel is the writer who came up with the idea for “Crosswalk the Musical.” What do you remember about his pitch?
We were going round the table and he just went, “I wonder if there’s a world in which you say L.A. doesn’t really have a theater community, but you’ve made it your mission to bring one, and you’re going to perform them on a crosswalk. So when the light goes red, everyone runs out, you perform a big musical number, and when it turns green you sprint off as fast as you can.” And immediately we were like, “That’s a great idea.” We loved the silliness of it, the ambition of it. Later on, it became, How is this not just a stunt? We don’t have the budget to make it as impressive as some flash mobs that happen in the middle of Grand Central Station. We were chatting, Ian and David Javerbaum and I, and we were like, “Let’s put at the center of it a character who thinks it is incredibly important.” I was like, “I’m going to play myself with this ludicrous ego that thinks that this is genuine theater.” With the ego and the shouting, we were like, “This could really work.” It’s both sketch and stunt.

How did you feel after your first successful “Crosswalk the Musical,” Grease?
I really had fun doing it, and I got the chance to do some acting. It felt like an original idea. It is difficult to have a new idea, and I was like, I haven’t seen a version of that on another late-night show. That’s what you’re searching for. I did get told off for jumping on someone’s car on my knees. An ever so slight, “James, if we’re gonna do this you can’t be jumping on people’s cars.”

Politics is ubiquitous in late night, but your show doesn’t share the same level of obsession as most of its competition. Why is that?
Some people say, “If you’re hosting these shows, you gotta play to your strengths.” I say, “You gotta ignore your weaknesses.” I don’t think anybody watching our show would ever think that we don’t have a point of view. We actively talk about politics and if something’s happened, if we wanna talk about it, and more than that, we want to try and go, “Well, what is our show’s way of doing that?” We just don’t want it to be all we’ll ever talk about. I don’t know that that’s what people want from me. I don’t think I’ve earned the right. We’re also very conscious of the fact that we follow Stephen’s show. There is nobody really better to talk with an insightful manner. So it would be foolish to then come out and go, “I know you’ve heard that. Let me tell you what I think.” It’s a strange one and people get very, very angry about it. But I think they’re just angry anyway.

What is a good show for you and what is a bad show?
A bad show for me is where we’ve not attempted anything different. If it’s just monologue, desk bit, chat, chat, music, good night. That’s when I’m most down about the show. I don’t think it’s what I was brought here to do. A good show is one where I feel like, “Well, there was effort in that. There was ambition in that. We really, really tried to put on a show.” And sometimes, you can try to put on a show and it’s still a bit shit. But I think people at home respond to effort and a desire to entertain. That’s what we wanna do. Oddly, the drive home from those good shows is the bleakest. Because you just go, “Well, it’s gone now. How are we gonna beat that tomorrow?”

Do you feel more comfortable hosting the Tonys room than the Emmys?
Oh my God, it’s not even a contest. The Emmys is quite a warm and open environment; I just think the Tonys is the absolute best award show on television. Most award shows are groups of millionaires giving each other gold statues. Whereas the Tony Awards, these are shows that people are paying hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars for a ticket. And these incredibly gifted people perform excerpts from these shows in your living room. And for a host, it’s one that allows you to do a big opening. It is the most warm environment, a room of people who are rooting for you. No one’s like, “Ha, let’s see what he’s got.”

You are four years into a five-year contract. Would you re-sign if they asked you to?
They asked a while ago. And I’m very grateful. I love doing the show so much that I imagine I’ll stay for a touch more. But, at the same time, we have to see, you know? I don’t want it to ever become just a thing that I do. I can see how I could quite easily slip toward that if not engaged creatively. That’s the thing that makes me wanna get up in the morning: Writing stuff, being in a room creating things. What you mustn’t do is get used to money because that can be quite dangerous.

If the show finished, do you know what you’d want to do next?
I’m completely at peace with the idea — my wife will tell you I’m not — that when the day comes that I’ll end this show, I will slip away and, at best, be a light remark of, “What happened to that …?” No bit of me is under the illusion that, like, I will leave the show and I shall immediately just …! I do hope that I would be resilient enough to not jump into anything unless I think it might be something. That might be a play in New York, that might be a tiny independent film that you never see, that might be a musical at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

So you’ve come to terms with the idea of the show ending?
It’s a weird thing when you’ve got an ego, which you’ve gotta have to do this. You’ve got to have an ego the size of a bus, you know? What I’m trying to work on now is the notion that you don’t have to be on television every day. And that’s gonna take a bit to work on. I read a quote once, I can’t remember whether it was about Johnny Carson or about David Letterman, but one of them said, “How’d you go from having a standing ovation every day to silence?” Also, maybe the funniest thing David Letterman said on his show was when he announced he was stepping down: “I told myself the day I got bored of this job, a decade later I’d retire.” I hope I would go, “I never got bored of it, and I jumped before it got old.” That is the trick.

How James Corden Brought Musicals to Late Night