Please note that the column’s name has changed from Channeling Theatre.
It’s a busy time for Hinton Battle, who thrice has won Tonys as Best Featured Actor in a Musical: Sophisticated Ladies (1981), The Tap Dance Kid (1984) and Miss Saigon (1991). He choreographed the Outkast movie “Idlewild,” which hip hops into theatres in late August; he’s choreographer and co-director (with Christopher Bond) for Evil Dead: The Musical, which starts performances Oct. 2 and opens Nov. 1 at New World Stages; he’s in the film version of “Dreamgirls,” which comes out at the end of the year; and he’s “starting a school for kids in Harlem, where they can study dance and vocals — at no cost.” But if you think all of that’ll rattle Battle, think again. The man loves what he does and does what he loves.
In fact, that’s the way in which he became involved with “Idlewild.” Explains Battle, “It happened while I was in the throes of doing Dracula [rehearsing for the role of Van Helsing in the 2004 Frank Wildhorn Broadway musical]. I love doing choreography, so I went ‘Dracula . . . Movie?’ I chose my love. Des McAnuff [who directed Dracula] was really good about it. [Stephen McKinley Henderson replaced Battle.] So, I choreographed the movie and worked with Bryan Barker, who created, wrote and directed it.”
While Rooster wards off gangsters, Percival struggles to please both his girlfriend (Paula Patton) and his father (Ben Vereen). Among the cast are Cicely Tyson, Ving Rhames, Patti LaBelle, Terrence Howard and Macy Gray.
Says Battle, “The club is called Church, and all the dances happen there.” He describes the numbers as “a mix between hip hop and Busby Berkeley. I worked with over a hundred dancers. We shot it in Wilmington, North Carolina.” Does he have a favorite dance? “Bowtie, a six-minute, high-energy number. I put hip hop and swing together, and called it ‘swop.’ It was a learning experience for a lot of the dancers. They were asked to do things they were not accustomed to doing — and also to document it on film for the rest of their lives. [Laughs]
“I rehearsed [the dancers] as if we were doing a Broadway show. It was like boot camp. We shot ‘Bowtie’ at three o’clock in the morning — and they kicked booty.” Do retakes make movie choreography different from creating dances for the stage? “They do and they don’t. It’s always nice to do another take. But my background is in theatre, so every take has to be perfect, a hundred and twenty percent. You never know which take they’re going to use in editing.”
Battle, the dancer, succeeded Cleavant Derricks in Dreamgirls on Broadway, playing James “Thunder” Early, which remains his favorite role. “You can be wild, scream, yell, and then drop your pants and have a good time. [Laughs] It was cool. Michael Bennett [who directed and choreographed] and Michael Peters [co-choreographer] came in and sort of re-crafted the role for me because I was a dancer. I loved the show, and I said, ‘I want to be involved in the movie; I don’t care how.’ [He plays Wayne.] Instead of the young buck, I’m [portraying] an older man.”
Eddie Murphy plays Early in the film. Did he consult at all with Battle? “No, he has his own take on it. It’s really cast well. Beyonce [Knowles as Deena] is fantastic! Jamie Foxx [Curtis Taylor Jr.] is great! I loved working with him. I’m pretty much his right-hand guy in the movie. Danny Glover [as Marty Madison] is in it. It’s a great cast.”
In addition to Knowles, the other title roles are played by Jennifer Hudson (Effie), Sharon Leal (Michelle), and Caroline, or Change Tony winner Anika Noni Rose (Lorrell). The original Lorrell, Loretta Devine, has a role, and John Lithgow plays a character not in the original.
Bill Condon directed and co-wrote the screenplay with the musical’s book writer Tom Eyen, who also wrote the lyrics to Henry Krieger’s music. “Seeing Henry Krieger again was great,” notes Battle. “I hadn’t seen him since Tap Dance Kid,” the 1984 musical that began and ended Battle’s tap dancing career. “Shortly after we opened, they posted a closing notice. I called the creative staff and the principals, and asked everybody if they’d be willing to take a pay cut. We kept it running for awhile, and eventually it became a hit.”
Born in Neubraecke, Germany, where his career-soldier father was stationed, Battle accompanied his family to the U.S. when he was four. As a child, he used to watch old musicals on TV (“‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and a lot of others”), and was inspired by dancers like “Ann Miller, the Nicholas Brothers and Sammy Davis Jr.” As an adult, he got to meet “quite a few of them: Gene Kelly and Sammy Davis and the Nicholas Brothers. I worked with Harold Nicholas in Sophisticated Ladies in Los Angeles. That was nice. To stand in the wings and watch that man jump off a table and into a split was really something.”
His first professional job was “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.” After his Broadway debut as the Scarecrow in The Wiz, Battle was added to the cast of Dancin’. “I’d done it on the road, and they put me in on Broadway.”
A Tony nomination for Sophisticated Ladies surprised him. “It was such a small role. When I won, I thought they’d made a mistake, but I wasn’t giving it back. [Laughs] It was also a surprise when I won for Miss Saigon because the role was mostly singing. To put yourself in another light is always scary. Winning that was really nice. It not only was saying the work was good, but also that I’d accepted a challenge.”
Following Saigon, Battle went to Los Angeles “to see what other talents I had. That were a lot of things I wanted to do that were easier to do out there. It opened a lot of opportunities for me. I did some choreography, some teaching, some acting. I went back to school and studied television at UCLA.”
Chicago, in which he took over the role of Billy Flynn in 1998, marks Battle’s most recent Broadway experience. “They added a few steps for me at the end of ‘Razzle Dazzle.’”
During 2001 Battle starred in three television ventures: He played Sweet in the musical episode (“Once More, with Feeling”) of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; he was Pete in “Those Old Broads,” which featured Shirley MacLaine, Debbie Reynolds, Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor; and he portrayed Bill Robinson in “Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story” (which he also choreographed). A highlight of the picture was his dancing as “Bojangles” Robinson with the young Shirley (expertly played by Ashley Rose Orr).
He’s looking forward to working on Evil Dead: The Musical, based on the 1980’s Sam Raimi horror films, and is very excited about his projects for the Hinton Battle Theatre Lab. “I’m trying to give back to the community that’s been so supportive of me, and give opportunities to young talent. We have internships for new playwrights, and I’m working with Raven Kane and David Campbell on the kids’ school, which starts August 1.” And, concludes Hinton Battle, “It culminates with the kids coming to the benefit screening of ‘Idlewild.’”
Boyd Gaines’ three Tonys are each in separate categories and were won in different decades: Best Featured Actor in a Play (The Heidi Chronicles, 1989), Best Actor in a Musical (She Loves Me, 1994) and Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Contact, 2000). Reminded that there remains only the Best Actor in a Play category, the self-effacing actor (who’s not too interested in awards) replies, “Don’t hold your breath.”
What attracted Gaines to “Angela’s Eyes” and the role of Colin Anderson, an FBI agent’s father who has served 15 years in prison on charges of treason? “It’s an unusual situation. The man’s been in jail a long time, essentially in solitary confinement, and he’s trying to reconnect with his daughter [played by Abigail Spencer] whom he hasn’t seen in many years. I thought that it was an inherently dramatic situation.”
The July 14 New York Times review of the “Angela’s Eyes” premiere observed, “The estimable Boyd Gaines makes an appearance as [Angela’s] father.” As we speak, production, which takes place in Toronto, is midway through the tenth of 13 episodes, in half of which the actor appears. Thus far, claims Gaines, it’s been “a very enjoyable experience. The people are all very nice — terrific to work with. And I’ve done almost all my scenes with Abigail Spencer, whom I’m crazy about.”
Previously, his series work included (from 1981 to ’84) the role of Mark Royer, the dental student who marries Valerie Bertinelli’s character in “One Day at a Time,” and (in 1986) the recurring role of Jim Perkins, “the abusive, alcoholic husband of Michele Greene, on ‘L.A. Law’.” He also portrayed a preacher in six episodes of a Dolly Parton sitcom that never saw the light of day. “Thank God!” he exclaims. “Dolly was great to work with, but I can’t say for publication what kind of mess [the series, shot in 1994] was.”
How important is TV and/or film work in maintaining a stage career? “I’d say very important,” declares Gaines. “There are certain situations in the theatre that, if you don’t have a high television or film profile, it can hurt your opportunities. I’ve been excluded from several things because of that. Sometimes, theatre credits can prove the least important. [Producers for] a lot of Broadway shows just think box office, and it’s a reality that stars can sell tickets.”
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