John O’Hurley Returns to Rhode Island for PPAC’s Chicago
The Providence College grad, who starred in "Seinfeld" and hosted "Family Feud," plays Billy Flynn in the musical.
Chicago, the award-winning Broadway revival, is coming to the Providence Performing Arts Center for a five-day run, May 2–7. There is a lot to love about this musical: It’s the story of two performers, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, who are put in jail for murder in Prohibition-era Chicago. They are defended by the best lawyer in town who uses the press to make them famous in order to beat the charges. The main draw for the production next week is its star, John O’Hurley. He is an actor, a musician and an entrepreneur and is most famous for his stint on “Dancing With The Stars” and his turn as J. Peterman on “Seinfeld.” He’s also a graduate of Providence College’s Theater Program and on the college’s board of trustees.
Orrin: So as a trustee and graduate of Providence College, what is your relationship with the city?
John: I try to give back as much as I possibly can. I’ve done many concerts at the college. I did my one-man show there last year, concerts with the Rhode Island Philharmonic; I was one of the major contributors to the theater there because that’s one thing we didn’t have when I was there. When I was at school, we never thought about going to Federal Hill, but now it’s my favorite haunt because I’ve discovered all these authentic Italian restaurants. It’s maybe one of the greatest urban renewal success stories in the country.
Orrin: Can you tell me a little more about your experiences in Providence as a student?
John: I remember in 1976 they held a fishing contest that summer for anything that was found alive in the Providence River. The winner, a thirteen- inch eel, was dissected by the University of Rhode Island zoological department and they said there was no way it should be alive. During the time I was here, I was in every play. To support myself, I had maybe six jobs: I was a reader for one of the priests at the college, I was part of the security staff, I was a theatrical carpenter, I ran a laundry service and also I would grab my guitar and I would go down to Salve Regina and sing in the boathouse in Newport. I was a traveling minstrel. It was a great experience for me.
Orrin: John O’Hurley “The Travelling Minstrel.” That’s intriguing. So now you’re coming back to do Chicago, tell me about the musical.
John: Chicago had basically disappeared after the seventies because it ran opposite Chorus Line. It ran for like 900 performances for a couple of years and closed kind of quietly, but it never got the accolades it deserved. It was also a very different presentation. Now it’s very stark and it’s all dark and the orchestra is on the stage, everything is in lingerie or black and white, and it’s meant to be a very dark comedy. It’s skit driven with very few props and certainly no sets. So it demands an enormous amount of exposition and character from the actors because they have to create everything that’s not filled in on stage. It’s just this wonderfully attractive performance piece.
Orrin: As a musician, what is your favorite number in Chicago?
John: I think the most creative number ever written for the musical theater is the number in Chicago called “They Both Reached for the Gun.” Sometimes people refer to it as the ventriloquist number. I say it’s one of the cleverest and best numbers ever written in the theater because music moves organically out of the fact that you can no longer speak. To accomplish what you need to accomplish you need to move to a higher level, so rather than scream you must sing. And that’s kind of where that number fits in. It moves perfectly right into when Roxie Hart starts blithering to the press about, “I bet you want to know why I shot the bastard.” So I have to grab her, sit her down and she becomes my dummy and we go right into the song and it’s this perfect Catskills vaudevillian routine answering all the questions from the press.
Orrin: Tell me about your character, Billy Flynn.
John: Throughout my theatrical career, I heard people say, “you’d be the perfect Billy Flynn.” I understand the character to within an inch of my life. Outside of acting, I’m a businessman so I can bring that experience and authenticity to the stage and you can believe that I’m actually a lawyer. But that’s just the surface of it. I understand Billy on a much deeper level. He’s urbane, elegant and silver-tongued, but also Billy is a paternal character and most people don’t understand that or even see that in him. These girls that have been arrested for murder and are being tried, he takes them under his aegis and they’re his girls for as long as they are in the court’s eye. He’ll take care of them no matter what. There is a very paternal quality about that which is missed in most of the performances and it has to be there or otherwise he’s the same thing from beginning to end, he’s just a slick lawyer. And if you play him as a just slick lawyer, you miss the boat.
Orrin: Giving him a paternal streak is an interesting choice.
John: And it also could be the other thing that I believe every actor should have onstage and that’s the ability to be silent. I’m not attracted by laughter as much as I am by silence in the audience.
John: Silence in an audience is the most compelling thing that an actor can ever experience. You can’t take very much of it, and the audience can’t take very much of it, but I’ll tell you when people are silent in the theater it changes the energy.
Orrin: Silence on the stage seems risky. How do directors take it?
John: Well… I drive directors nuts! They say, “No come on. Faster! Faster!” and I say, “No.” I’ve earned the right to be silent. I speak fast when I want to speak fast and I’ll speak WAY faster than anybody else will when it’s important that I do, but then I will also take the liberty of not saying anything at all and I’ll walk across the stage and I have no problem with that. It’s the sense of command that the character has and it’s appropriate and honest to the character. He doesn’t know what he’s going to say every moment. He’s thinking.
Orrin: So he’s contemplative, and thoughtful. That’s an interesting depth to find in him.
John: It’s not worth playing unless you find a depth to it. I might as well be doing him on QVC.
Orrin: That’s going to be an interesting take on the character. Do you have anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
John: I have a new movie out and we’re going to do a special screening of it Monday night after the run on May 8 at 7 p.m. at Cinema World in Lincoln. It’s the movie I shot in Greece with Shannon Elizabeth and it is called Swing Away.
Orrin: Thank you. Well, before you go, I told myself I wasn’t going to say this, but ehh, I’m going to anyways. Every time I tear my pants, which is more frequently than you’d think, I hear your line from that episode of “Seinfeld” when J. Peterman bought Kramer’s stories and it’s just the––
John: “The very pants I was taking to market.” And don’t feel bad about that. I have torn my pants in some of the most public of occasions, not the least of which was the third hole on the Phoenix Open on the PGA tour with the largest gallery in America. And Mr. Suave here was wearing black pants and white underwear.
Orrin: Well that makes me feel better.
Chicago is onstage at PPAC through May 2–7. Tickets range from $56 to $93. For more information, call 401-421-2787 or visit ppacri.org.