Vould you care for some vine?" I ask Tom Hewitt in my terrible Transylvanian as we settle down to a modest feed at the Vestvay — er, Westway — Diner on Ninth Avenue.
His eyes roll skyward. He has had it up to here with the Dracula jokes. There have been three years of them since the day it was announced he'd play that Broadway bloodsucker in the new Frank Wildhorn musical. At the time, he was in fishnets, boa and stiletto heels, wobbling rockily around the Circle in the Square in The Rocky Horror Show as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a drag of a demented scientist trying to return to his Transylvanian home.
Well, Dracula: The Musical (now in previews heading toward its Belasco opening on August 16) has provided the transportation. "Something happens when you're in one show and audition for another: You always get it," contends Hewitt. "I was happy in Rocky Horror, having a great time, and I thought, 'Okay. Dracula. What the heck?' I remember walking into the room, and the musical director was wearing a feather boa he'd gotten from the merchandising concession at Rocky Horror. It gave one confidence."
But old habits die hard for this archetype of a die-hard. "I do wear what I'd safely call a gown in one scene, so I'm not totally away from the transvestite Transylvania thing." More than kismet is afoot here, he thinks. "I guess — if there's a monster in a musical — I get the call. Why that is, I dunno — well, actually, I do sorta know. I'm tall — six-feet-three — and a little creepy-looking, I think. It has been a relief to mature out of the romantic leading role characters. I'd be in a play where I was supposed to be good-looking, and I would pray somebody — preferably two or more characters — would refer to my character as good-looking so the audience would feel a suspension of disbelief and might actually believe that I was. I seem to play characters where creepy good-looks are appropriate."
It certainly serves him well as the neck-nibbling count; then, when you can factor in the fact that, at 46, he is graying nicely, you're pretty much home free. "I've always loved playing these sort of mythical, imaginary beings," Hewitt admits. "My forte is not naturalism. I don't feel my strengths are in playing doctors and lawyers. I have always been drawn to characters that are larger than life — and Dracula definitely fills that bill.
"In the past 100 years, the vampire mythology has evolved rather quickly. Bram Stoker injected a kind of sexuality into the character of Dracula, and that's exactly the way that Bela Lugosi played him. Then Anne Rice totally transformed him and gave him a soul. The ground rules for Vampire Behavior have now, I think, broadened dramatically.
"When you play characters like Dracula — or even Frank-N-Furter — a lot of your work is done for you. You have technical support, fabulous costumes, flying, lighting, wigs — plus the audience's expectations of who you are and who you're going to be. Your work is done. Often I just feel like I just float in and show up. That's sorta the challenge. I can be a very excessive actor. I love excess. I love to be sweaty and out of breath after every scene or I feel I'm not doing my job, but I'm finding more and more I have to do nothing. Let the audience do the acting. Let them use their imagination to make the character."
There have certainly been enough "training films" around for Hewitt to delve into for research, but he's picky. "I don't watch Bela. The one I kinda keep my eye on is Gary Oldman in the Coppola film. Romance, sex, horror — he got it all into that performance."
The fact that others have played parts before him — often famously — doesn't faze Hewitt. "If I worried about that, I would have no career. I've made a career of doing roles associated with others." Tim Curry, of course, in "Rocky Horror" comes to mind, and Jeremy Irons in "The Lion King". He did Cyril Ritchard's Captain Hook to Cathy Rigby's Peter Pan and toured Gigi in the Louis Jourdan role (opposite Jourdan in the Chevalier part).
"I was trained in the classics in regional theatres, basically. This whole musical thing is relatively new to me. I've done maybe a handful of plays with music in them in my life, but I didn't really do them until 1998, when I was in The Lion King. That's, literally, all I've done since then. It's kind of a career change. I've thought of myself as an actor who might sing pretty good if I needed to, but I've never ever thought of myself as a singer."
John Michael Higgins (late of Big Bill) and the Montana-born Hewitt, both Arena Stage vets in D.C., bounded onto the New York theatre scene at the same time in the same play. ("We were rival boyfriends in Beau Jest, then we dumped the girl and were boyfriends in Jeffrey.") Another actor he has crossed paths with is John Vickery, whom he followed into The Sisters Rosensweig and The Lion King. ("What is up with that? I always check out what John is doing because the likelihood of my replacing him is apparently strong.")
Dracula: The Musical, if it envelops him the way it envelops other actors who've made the count count, could give him first pickings, for a refreshing change. "What could I possibly do next?" he ponders aloud, and then a light bulb goes off, and his eyes start to twinkle: "Frank Wildhorn is writing a project based on "Frankenstein," so maybe..."
Ah, yes. The horror show must go on...