As word hit the street that Jimmy Osmond will be playing Billy Flynn in the U.K. tour of Chicago, it's time to get acquainted with Broadway's current Flynn, Tom Hewitt. A Broadway vet with loads of good humor, Hewitt was nominated for a Tony for Best Actor in 2001 for his role as Frank 'N' Furter in The Rocky Horror Show and later played the title bloodsucker in Dracula, the Musical. The western Montana-born Hewitt got the acting bug around the time he was in junior high: It was an Ashland, OR, production of Titus Andronicus that did the trick.
Question: How is Chicago treating you?
Tom Hewitt: I have to say it is one of the best jobs I've ever had. The role is great, and the company is so fun and nice and sweet. I'm having a great time.
Q: How did you hook up with the show?
Hewitt: You know [laughs]… I'm trying to word this in a way that doesn't sound like I'm bragging. I've been around for a while, and a lot of producers and directors know me, so I just got a phone call. I also think that they probably went down a list and one or two other guys weren't available [laughs], so I got the call!
Q: You actually ended up sounding quite humble there.
Hewitt: Well, I'm sort of at the stage now where a lot of people know me, so fortunately, sometimes I don't have to audition for stuff.
Q: Is there a downside to that at all?
Hewitt: You know, there's not! [Laughs.] Not one thing! I don't know of a performer that enjoys auditioning in any context. It's never really any fun, so I'm grateful when I don't have to do it. Q: I guess only when you can't get auditions at all, then you love to have them.
Hewitt: That's exactly right.
Q: Do you get to play around with the character of Billy Flynn at all?
Hewitt: I was encouraged to by Walter Bobbie, our director. He's the busiest man in show business. He's got a million things going on. When I was in rehearsals, he was putting together White Christmas, but I was fortunate to get a couple of hours with him and Charlotte d'Amboise, and Walter made sure that we were on the same page as far as intentions for the character and what the character wanted to achieve, and then he said, "Now we're clear on that, so go! Do what you want to do." And that's been great. There have certainly been vastly different personalities [as Billy], from Huey Lewis to Usher to John O'Hurley, and they've all pretty much played the same intentions. It's one of those roles that allows for one's personality to come through, I think. Q: So the show is not on some sort of autopilot. There is still a sense of attention to detail when people come and go?
Hewitt: I think it is one of the reasons why Chicago has been around for 12 years. The producers and Walter Bobbie have an investment in it. As you know, there are no scenic elements, no flying chandeliers, so it's about the performances and their integrity. The producers are very hands-on about maintaining the quality of the performances. It's also one of the reasons I'm on a pretty short contract, relatively speaking. They keep it short in case somebody more famous than I becomes available [laughs]. That's good producing. Keeping it fresh, getting return audiences. "Let's go see Ben Stiller in Chicago," or whatever, so they're smart.
Q:Or Ben Stein.
Hewitt: Now you're talking!
Q: Knowing that so many folks have played the role, how do you keep from thinking "anyone can do this"?
Hewitt: If I do think that, it really keeps me on my toes. You really want to do your best knowing that it's short-term and that it's not going to go on forever. Certainly, it makes me much less complacent. I'm really cherishing every minute I have on the stage. I don't have that sense of, "I just signed a one-year contract, so I'm going to settle in and show up and crank it out." Every day is precious.
Q: How is it working with Charlotte?
Hewitt: I. Love. Her. Every once in awhile, an actress comes along who you immediately feel a rapport with, and I certainly feel that with Charlotte. My agent saw the show the other day and said, "You and Charlotte work really well together." And I said, "Yeah!" So it's not just my imagination, I think we are a good team.
Q: You were Tony-nominated for your Frank 'N' Furter in The Rocky Horror Show. Was that performance the high-water mark for you having fun onstage?
Hewitt: I would say so. It's certainly a high-water mark as far as the most unique thing I've ever done. I know I will never ever do anything like that again. The nature of the character and the fact that the audience participated in the show physically and vocally…yelling things out, it was wonderful. You literally never knew what was going to happen from night to night. However much fun it was, it was also really challenging. It was a lot like throwing a party. I had to make sure that everybody was having a good time. Sometimes people were a little bit out of control. It was dangerous! I remember early on, especially, when we were trying to figure out the audience participation stuff, there were people with squirt guns inches away from Alice Ripley and Jarrod Emick, squirting them with water pistols. And one night when Lea DeLaria came onstage in character, [as] Dr. Scott, the stage floor was white with rolls of toilet paper! We had to stop the show because we couldn't change the set with all the toilet paper on the ground. It was crazy, and I will never have that experience again.
Q: It sounds like you were part ringmaster.
Hewitt: That's a good analogy. And the lions might escape from the cage at any time.
Q: How do you look back on your experience in Dracula, The Musical?
Hewitt: I was going to say, when you were asking about Charlotte, I was going to say, "Not since Melissa Errico, have I had such chemistry…" I loved working with Melissa. I loved doing that show every day. I had a great team. I loved my director, and I loved the creative staff. I would say it was my second-most fun job. There was so much flying and disappearing and all that stuff. I loved it. Of course, I would have wished that it was more of a critical success, but I think I got a little stronger for that. I know what's valuable to me. The fact that I was proud of it and loved my team. I have nothing but fond memories of that show.
Q: With what kind of eye did you look at the other vampire musicals?
Hewitt: [Laughs.] I did the voiceover for the radio campaign for Lestat, and I thought, "I wonder if the producers know that they've hired Dracula to do the voiceover!" I was grateful that the vampire musicals continued because I made a little money off of it!
Q: In your quest for an acting career, did you ever have that moment where you were on the precipice of giving it up?
Hewitt: I have it now in midlife. Early on, no. I devoted my life [to acting]. I was monastic in my approach to the theatre. I had very few belongings, and I could go anywhere at any time. I worked with an avant-garde Japanese theatre company, and it was very physically difficult, and I really devoted every ounce of my being to the theatre. As I mature, those things aren't nearly as important. What's important now are personal relationships. My partner and I recently moved into our house in Putnam County, New York. So things like a home and a family, those things are much, much, much more important to me, and I fantasize now about what else I might be able to do with my life. I don't have any plans to quit, but if I didn't get to act anymore, I don't think that I would die [laughs], so my attitude has changed as I've matured — I think!
[Chicago is playing The Ambassador Theatre, located at 219 West 49th Street in Manhattan. For more information, go to www.chicagothemusical.com.]
The DeGENNARO GENERATION
Jim Caruso's Broadway at Birdland series has brought back singer/songwriter Patrick DeGennaro for a gig on Jan. 19. DeGennaro, who has had two sold-out shows at the venue, won a lot of fans — and a MAC Award for Outstanding Male Vocalist — with his debut show The Bacharach Songbook, and his own work has been nominated for 2008 MAC Song of the Year. The Bronx-born, Long Island-raised DeGennaro is proud to be compared to fellow Islander, Billy Joel, but that is only the beginning of the stylistic trail he hopes to blaze. Question: Are you excited to return to Birdland?
Patrick DeGennaro: I am. I love that venue. And, this is my third time there, so it has really been nice. It's a beautiful room that is very comfortable for my audience as opposed to some of the rock clubs that might not be as classy or sophisticated as Birdland.
Q: What is your approach to cabaret?
DeGennaro: I've always felt that the rooms allow for anything you want to do. There's the typical — and I don't mean that in a bad way — American Songbook that you see often, but there are also original writers and people who are writing their own material, and the material I write is very top 40, pop-rock, and nobody seems to mind. My show is definitely on that angle, but Broadway is getting a lot more pop-rock, too, so even under the heading, "Broadway at Birdland," it's not that far a departure — I don't think — these days.
Q: Aside from the venue, the Broadway at Birdland format is so great, as run by the inimitable Jim Caruso.
DeGennaro: Absolutely, when I decided to do the Burt Bacharach show, that was probably the most commercial show I've ever done, but even that was a very hip treatment of Bacharach material, but Birdland was the room I had hoped for, and I was thrilled when Jim welcomed me into the series.
Q: Who are the songwriters and singers who have influenced you?
DeGennaro: Billy Joel has played a big role in influencing my singing as well as my writing. I like Maroon 5, Rob Thomas, I always liked Simon & Garfunkel, and I'm a huge Beatles fan as well.
Q: Were you a natural showman as a kid?
DeGennaro: I was. I couldn't shut up. I started playing the piano when I was seven and immediately started singing along. Neighbors would run into my mother at the supermarket and say that they could hear me down the block. It's all I ever really wanted to do. Q: Do you like a good New York song?
DeGennaro: I do. The first show I did, titled Only in New York, was a lot of the most famous New York songwriters: George Gershwin, Billy Joel… and I did songs of friends of mine like Ann Hampton Callaway, whose music I love. My first CD was called "Only in New York," and I did songs of all of my very talented New York City writing friends: Keith Thompson, John Bucchino, Wendy Robbins, Ann Hampton Callaway, Rick Jensen, and none of my music was on there yet, and it was awhile before I started to put my own music out there.
Q: What do you think makes a great song?
DeGennaro: It's funny, people have been interviewed about that, and I know a lot of highbrow musicians will look down on top 40 pop music, but writing a good pop song is one of the hardest things. I think it has to have a simplicity to it, it doesn't want to be so difficult. You want to remember it, you want it to stick with you, but you also want it to be about something that immediately means something. The emotional content has got to be relevant to today, which is why I don't sing the Great American Songbook. That doesn't really resonate for me.
Q: Do you set aside time to write or does your writing come naturally?
DeGennaro: It comes naturally, which any songwriter will tell you is not a good way to work [laughs], but I can't seem to force myself any other way.
Q: I see Annie Golden will be a part of your Birdland show. How did the two of you connect?
DeGennaro: I've been a fan of hers for many years, and I met her last year at a reading of a musical that she was doing and introduced myself, and this year I decided that I wanted to reach out and see if I could make a connection. Not only was she lovely and agreed to be my special guest, but as we started singing together, we started to write something together as well, so we have our first collaboration — a duet — in this show as well. It is hard to remember not knowing Annie Golden now.
[Birdland Jazz Club, home of the Broadway at Birdland series, is located at 315 West 44th Street. Go to birdlandjazz.com for more info. Or call 212-581-3080.]
HITHER AND YON
The wait is over. Jeff Denman's latest White Christmas rap video is on youtube, and the man may have outdone himself this time, especially for fans of The Dark Knight. . . . Pat Cooper is still plying his trademark angry zaniness (or zany anger) and will be at Feinstein's at the Regency Jan. 26. For ticket reservations and club information, call (212) 339-4095 or head to feinsteinsatloewsregency.com. . . . Fans of failure can enjoy Broadway Bombs featuring the Joe Allen Players at Don't Tell Mamas, several times this month, The ensemble highlights tunes from disasters of The Great White Way. Visit donttellmamanyc.com for details on show times and reservations. . . . Thrift store vinyl find of the month: a promo copy of Michele Lee's solo pop album on Columbia featuring her rad track, "L. David Sloane." Why that song didn't top the charts, I have no idea. Take it easy until February my friends, and drop me a line when you can.
Tom Nondorf can be reached at email@example.com.