What I find that has happened with me," Hinton Battle says with the air of surprised modesty, "is that a lot of people know me from different shows, so they know me as different things. Like, some people don't even know I dance. They've known about me since Miss Saigon and know me only as a singer."
The proof is in the Tonys. Battle has three of them more than any other Featured Actor in a Musical and each demonstrated a different dimension of the performer: In 1981's Sophisticated Ladies, he moved with athletic, balletic grace to the music of Duke Ellington; three years later, tap was his specialty as uncle of The Tap Dance Kid; and in 1991 he didn't dance a step, sang only one song ("Bui-Doi") and "just" acted in Miss Saigon.
His current Broadway assignment playing Billy Flynn, slick shyster and champion of the guilty-as-hell in 1920's-vintage Chicago will definitely keep his dance past a secret. Hinton's only hint of it hearkens back to the boa and pink heels of The Tap Dance Kid, occurring toward the beginning of Chicago when he emerges from a quivering mass of feathers and fan dancers to "All I Care About [Is Love]" which he does in spades. "I come out and stand and sing and walk four steps, then stand and sing and walk back four steps, then stand and sing" hardly the sort of stuff of which early Tonys are made.
The character won't dance don't ask him. The closest he comes to any kind of dancing is the ventriloquist number ("We Both Reached for the Gun") in which the accused Roxie Hart (Marilu Henner) sits on his knee like Charlie McCarthy and mouths the lies that will allow her to slip out of the hangman's noose.
What then, you're rightly wondering, was his attraction to the part? One, it is a star role. Two, it's Tony-caliber (winning one for James Naughton this go-around and getting a nomination for Jerry Orbach 20 years earlier in the original). Three, and most importantly: "I just got the urge to perform again. I had done TV show after TV show, and I'd gotten a little burnt out. In television it's over in a couple of weeks. There is no rehearsal. You learn your lines, you go on, you shoot it, and that's that. So I just thought I'd like to get back on a stage and perform again. And, when this opportunity happened, I said, 'Well, hey! I'll come.'"
There is also a fourth reason: Billy Flynn allows Hinton at last to play his comedy card. "He's got this great sense of humor about himself," says Hinton of Flynn. "I like his guts. I love that he's honest enough to admit he doesn't really care about anything but money and publicity. He knows how to manipulate the system, and he does it he's good at it, and it's fun to watch. I'm having a ball doing this part."
Lastly, he has never played a lawyer before although he did portray a senator once in a special on television, where he has been conspicuously employed the past five or so years, either as a sitcom actor or as a choreographer. "I've choreographed a lot of the promos for the WB network. The last thing I did was with Sharon Lawrence on her show, 'Fired Up.' She had this daydream that she has a hit record which is 'Heat Wave' and she's singing it on 'Soul Train.' They said, 'Here's two minutes and 15 seconds do whatever you want.' So I hired 17 dancers, and we got on the 'Soul Train' set, and I staged a number plus, I pulled a Hitchcock and did a little dancing in it myself."
Hinton also worked with Debbie Allen on the Academy Awards as her assistant and associate choreographer. They first met in the chorus of Raisin and were immediately partnered during the show's tryouts in Washington. Then, she moved up to a featured role, and Hinton returned to high school. A native of D.C., he only took it on as a summer job.
By the time The Wiz came along, he was 19, and his commitment to a showbiz career was starting to solidify. The game plan was to get to Broadway in its chorus line, then go to school here, but an incident between the first and second acts changed all that. Stu Gilliam, who played The Scarecrow, became ill in mid-performance, and Hinton was tapped to pinch-hit. The audience never knew the look of abject terror under his make-up. "I didn't know the role, hadn't rehearsed it. When I didn't know my lines, I'd just fall down or somebody'd tug at me and say what to say. He's a scarecrow, he's brain dead. It worked."
It worked so well that the next day the producers asked if he'd like to keep the role. He did. The only other Broadway replacing he has done has been for shows after they've opened (Dreamgirls, Dancin', now Chicago). But when Battle goes to bat in an original Broadway role voila! the Tony! three for three. You gotta admit: That's some Hinton.