Actor/singer Rich Hebert will open Thursday April 12 at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood for Broadway LA in the second national tour of Billy Elliot, playing Billy's dad. Other credits on stage include in Vegas: We Will Rock You. Broadway/Tours: The Life, Sunset Boulevard, Les Misérables, Cats, Saturday Night Fever, and Rock and Roll the First 5000 Years. Other: Captains Courageous, Elaborate Lives, Annie. TV: Brotherhood, Law and Order SVU, NYPD Blue, The Sopranos, Deadline, Line of Fire, The Oldest Rookie, 21 Jump Street, The Young and the Restless, Loving. In our talk, he elaborates on the changes in Billy Elliot onstage since the first national tour and his challenges in playing this role and others.
How long have you been playing Billy's dad?
About a year and a half. We started in Durham, North Carolina. There are two aspects of this tour. This is the second. At one point we closed down for a while when we were in San Francisco last summer. We got new producers and they started rehearsing us again about a month later in New York. We basically brought together from the first national tour the people that wanted to come back or were asked to come back and merged with the newer actors who were cast. We resumed November 1 in St. Louis. There was a rehearsal down time period of a couple of months.
I understand that the latest production is much scaled down. Is that true?
It is scaled down, and ultimately it is to the benefit of the show. They took out automation, some lights; they took out the dancing dresses, that were these exaggerated giant things in the first national tour and on Broadway. When director Stephen Daldry, who also directed the 2000 film, came and saw this scaled down production, he said "This is the way it was supposed to be. This is the best production of the show I've seen." You see the community on stage because we're moving things around ourselves. It creates much more of a community effect, which is what the show is really all about. It's still the same amount of people. We have four Billys right now and they alternate every night.
It's challenging emotionally more than anything else. I played Valjean (Les Miz) for a couple of years in the nationals and that was physically, vocally and emotionally challenging. This is as emotionally challenging but not as physically or vocally challenging. I only sing one song. It's an arc and a growth. Responsibility, growth, arc, because he really comes from one place. It's not even that he's prejudiced or homophobic or anyhting like that; he doesn't know what's going on. He's trying to make do. He's a miner who's uneducated to a certain degree about a lot of things. He comes from a small town and what his dad did, that's what his oldest son does. Basically, it's providing. And that's being taken away from him. His wife died and he really doesn't know how to raise this second kid who's all over the place. He tries to send him to boxing to toughen him up and give him something to do. Billy decides to be a ballet dancer. It's all off the charts to him (his father), who says "You're not going to do that. It's the opposite of what I'm trying to do for you." And then there's the grandmother who's almost in Alzheimer's land; she's got a bit of dementia going on. So, there's no book for him; he's trying to do it all on his own.
Is this one of the hardest roles you've played?
Had I not become a father myself six years ago, I don't think I would understand the amount of commitment that is involved in trying to raise a child. The father in the play is the local head of the union that's on strike and he decides to cross the picket line, so that he can get some money to send his boy to a ballet audition at the Royal Academy. I stopped acting for about four years, I thought it wasn't steady enough money, although I've been an actor for 30 years. I tried to do other things. I sold cars, I taught, I worked at a bank, I taught college, so I made compromises in my life...and he has to do that. Having gone through it, I totally understand.
What remains your favorite role to date?
I have to say Valjean is my favorite. I've worked with kids a lot; I played Daddy Warbucks (Annie) a couple of times. I did it at Papermill in Jersey with Sarah Hyland who's now on Modern Family. I love working with kids. I did Captains Courageous at the Manhattan Theatre Club. When you work with kids, you always learn. It takes so much imagination.
I was in the original company here in LA and then went to Broadway with it. I played Max a lot; it was great. I got to work with some divas: Glenn Close, Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige. It was a lot of fun, and I got to learn so much from George Hearn (Max). I got to learn so much about how he would make himself invisible on stage. To be such a domineering presence while being invisible. He's the greatest guy any how.
Do you enjoy doing musicals more than plays?
I like to sing. I don't get to sing that much in this show but I like to sing. But, I like to work, so it doesn't matter.
What do you tell hopeful kids who want to become actors?
(He laughs) I met Ruth Gordon once. I'm from her hometown, Quincy, Massachusetts. We had a mutual friend, who was like a grandmother to me. She and Garson Kanin (her husband) were sitting at a table signing books. When I walked up to her, I explained who I was, how I had just gotten out of Boston University and I asked her if she had any advice for an actor going to New York. She said, "Kick ass!" (we both laugh) I'm not sure that that's what I'd tell the kids, but just learn everything you can about every aspect of doing what you can possibly do. Listen to people, listen a lot. Just get involved in classes, in every kind of class. I've been in musical theatre for a long time, but I'm not a dancer. I was in Cats and played Rum Tum Tugger. I walked out of the final call, because I said, "I can't do this!" These are the best dancers in New York. They said, "We'll teach you, we'll teach you." So, if you can get ahead of that and learn. The kids in this show are prime examples of that. They are constantly learning, and they are smart to learn from. Joel Blum, who is in the show, is a two time Tony Award nominee, and he showed the kids some steps that will be great for them for years to come.
We wish Rich Hebert and the entire cast of Billy Elliot the best of luck in their run in LA.
April 10 – May 13, 2012
Five Weeks Only