He’s played Billy Flynn more than 1,000 times for half a decade. But when John O’Hurley – actor, singer, “Family Feud” host and “Seinfeld” star – steps on the Pantages stage this weekend as the smooth-talking lawyer from Broadway’s longest-running musical, it’ll still be fresh for him.
“Chicago” kicks off its latest national tour in Tacoma on Saturday, bringing a star-studded Broadway cast – including O’Hurley – and the glittery decadence that has won it six Tony awards, two Oliviers and a Grammy.
The 1975 satirical musical about bad girls Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly in 1920s Chicago, who meet while in prison for murder and try to win their way out through fame, is as well-known as songs “All that Jazz” and “Razzle Dazzle.” It’s been in revival in New York since 1996 and has seen 10 national tours; it’s the longest-running revival and longest-running musical in Broadway history. And that’s not to mention the Oscar-winning 2002 movie version with Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger.
O’Hurley may be best know as J. Peterman in “Seinfeld,” a four-year host of “Family Feud” and other TV roles. Yet live theater is the silver-tongued, silver-haired actor’s first love, and on the phone from rehearsals he explains that love – and just why “Chicago” has stayed in America’s heart for so long.
O’Hurley has played Billy Flynn – the suave lawyer who takes Roxie and Velma under his wing – on and off since 2006, on Broadway and on tour.
But don’t think that makes it stale.
It’s exciting for Tacoma that the new national tour of “Chicago” is starting here. How’s it going for the cast?
A: It’s going to be so much fun. Putting on another concert tour together, you get to see all the old gang again. They have such a pool of talent to draw from, they try to cast people who are really going to get along for a tour like this. I’m back on stage with people like Paige Davis and Carol Woods. It’s great.
You’ve played Billy Flynn many times. Is it hard bringing something fresh to the role?
A: I’ve played Flynn maybe a thousand times, now. But I bring something new to it every night. Before I go on I say a little prayer, that at some point during the night I’ll surprise myself and everyone with something different. And it happens. I just stay present and wait for something new about the character or the story. It’s never a rote performance; every night is different.
So after all those years of Billy Flynn, is there anything more to him than just a smooth talker out to get what he can?
A: Oh yes, Billy Flynn is one of the most complex and interesting of all Broadway musicals. Yes, he’s dangerous, he’s slick, a smooth talker. But there’s a quality to him that no one seems to grasp – he’s always very paternal towards his clients. As long as you’re under my aegis, he says, I’ll always take care of you. But not always in a good way, they have to be under his control. So when at the end he says, “I was just in it for the money” as a way of cutting ties, that makes sense.
A lot of the audience will know you from your work on TV. Do you prefer live theater?
A: Yes, I like it a lot better. I like the ambience of theater. When I’m about to work for two and a half hours every night, I know something the audience doesn’t know – that at the end of it they’ll be up on their feet cheering. I love that, the surprise of it. I love the laughter, yes, and the applause. But I also love the silence. The sound of 3,000 people all listening in a room is one you’ll never experience anywhere else. ... Before a line I’ll pause and listen to that silence. It makes people uncomfortable; they don’t know what’s coming, they pay attention. You know they’re listening if you stop and listen to them. I find it fascinating. You don’t get that in TV or film; it’s an editor’s medium.
What’s your favorite part of “Chicago” – other than those silences?
A: I like the monologues. Flynn has a couple of them. I find them very interesting from a character point of view. You have to approach them honestly each performance.
Why do you think “Chicago” has been so popular for so long?
A: We’re not producing great musicals anymore. We’re not writing stuff this clever, this imaginative, this beautiful. This is the best music ... the choreography is extraordinary, and the staging is extraordinarily interesting because it’s right there, almost in skit format. There’s no set, everything happens in (the audience’s) imagination, as opposed to something like “Miss Saigon,” where a helicopter crashes onstage in front of you. We don’t have any helicopters – just a few girls in lingerie and men in suits.
It’s no secret that you’re a keen golfer. Will you be checking out the Chambers Bay course – site of the 2015 U.S. Open – while you’re here?
A: I have my clubs with me on tour, but I’ll be working hard from the moment I arrive. Golf is still a luxury for me; I have too many plates spinning right now. Later in the tour, maybe, I’ll get the chance. But I love the Seattle-Tacoma area – the course at Snoqualmie is very good.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma
Also: Broadway Sizzle at 5 p.m. Saturday, includes pre-show dinner and drinks, plus B-tier theater seat.
Tickets: $59-$109 for show; $150 for Broadway Sizzle
Information: 253-591-5894, broadwaycenter.orgRosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com