George Hearn has certainly played his share of widely diverse characters on Broadway — from his Tony-winning turn as a St. Tropez drag star (La Cage aux Folles) to Tony-nominated work as a Nazi-fighter in wartime Washington (Watch on the Rhine) and a sinister chauffeur/butler/first husband of a deranged silent-screen queen (Sunset Boulevard) — but never before has he run such a gamut in one show.
In Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, which opens Nov. 15 at the Neil Simon, he spends Act One building up Aimee Semple McPherson, the famed and fabled evangelist of the '20s and '30s, and Act Two tearing her down. And he has no problem making a credible case of both.
He got to this cross-purpose dual-role from Putting It Together, a 1999 revue of Sondheim tunes strung end-to-end in which he did another of his Tony-nominated jobs. During the show's 101 performances, he became pals with the Broadway newbie who replaced Carol Burnett as his matinee wife — Kathie Lee Gifford — and she kept him in mind for this McPherson musical she was working on even then.
Carolee Carmello has been playing the notorious bible-thumper for about eight years in various productions across the country — more often than not to critical hosannas — but the 78-year-old Hearn resisted Gifford's offer till the final stretch. "We meet Aimee as a young girl in the first act, and I play her father," he relates. "He's sympathetic, encouraging to her, knows that she's a wild and original creature even when she's young. She says to him, 'I want to go and hear this Pentecostal preacher.' He says, 'I thought you hated religion.' She says, 'I do, but I love theatre.'
"That's sort of a key, isn't it, to Aimee? It's not the only key because it's a complex characterization Kathie has written. She really examined the woman in great detail."
His papa character, James Kennedy, is too good a straight man, and a man, to live long — and, sure enough, "I die early on. Usually, that's all — once the part's over, right? Every time I get a part in a movie, I die early on. Here, it gives me a chance to come on as someone else."
|Photo by Jeremy Daniel|
Hearn explains, "In the second half, I play an adversarial preacher in L.A. who's trying to bring her down because she has gotten onto his turf. I think of him as Salieri to her Mozart. She was a genius in self-promotion and getting people excited, and he — isn't." The role, by the name of Brother Bob, does give Hearn a chance to draw on his Tennessee roots. "Yeah, I got 'em a little bit. I wasn't really a Southern hillbilly, but I knew that world well. John Cullum and I used to talk about it being from Tennessee and doing a Southern preacher in that period. This guy is fun to play. His sermons are fun. He's a successful preacher himself, but he's fascinated by her, clearly. He uses very erotic language talking about her in his sermons. She's 'beguiling,' she's 'trying to undermine you,' she's 'got those eyes that allure.' He gets turned on by her, I think. Still, they're opponents."
His work in the Encores! edition of Fanny is certainly worth remembering, as are the seasons he put in with the Sondheim summer musicals in Ravinia, outside Chicago.
"I had five years out there, and I've enjoyed it a lot, with Patti LuPone and others," he beams. "I liked Ravinia. My time up there was well used, but I'm delighted to be back here. I'm retired, but I'm not very good at retiring. People in the theatre aren't."