Interview: John O’Hurley of Chicago at PPAC

John O'Hurley plays "Billy Flynn" in Chicago at PPAC (Photo: Lori Mars)

John O’Hurley plays “Billy Flynn” in Chicago at PPAC (Photo: Lori Mars)

I had the good fortune to interview John O’Hurley (Seinfeld‘s J. Peterman). He is an extremely tall, extremely handsome actor who has, in his own words, “cornered the market on arrogance and pomposity.” My personal observations about his appearance are noted only because – yeah, right – his physical presence is a great part of his public persona. There is a heading on an article describing an O’Hurley stage appearance: “A hunk is born.” Indeed.

John O’Hurley will be appearing at the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC) May 2-7 in the six-time Tony Award-winning musical Chicago. It is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history with 8,483 performances as of April 16, second only to the British Phantom of the Opera. A 1920s-era satire, it’s described as “a sensational tale of sin, corruption and all that jazz.” It’s just a noisy hall, where there’s a nightly brawl – and All that Jazz – with murders, murderesses and alibis.

O’Hurley plays Billy Flynn, the suave, slick, razzle-dazzle criminal defense lawyer – a role he has performed upwards of 1,500 times. I asked how he keeps each performance fresh. “I start every night with a prayer: God, let me be surprised,” he said. “Most times, I am.” He often appears with a sort of hand-picked cast, thereby insuring chemistry. Written by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb with original choreography by Bob Fosse, Chicago is described by O’Hurley as their best musical – and, in his opinion, one of the five best musicals ever, choreographically, musically, and story-wise. He did mention something about being surrounded by beautiful women in their underwear every night.

The show’s music is familiar, of course, including “All that Jazz,” “Razzle Dazzle,” the very funny “Class,” “When You’re Good to Mama,” and my husband’s personal favorite, “Mr. Cellophane.” The dancing is classic Fosse. Hurley said, “The story is more or less presented as a series of skits – a different one for each murderess” – Flynn’s clients. O’Hurley describes it as “connecting the dots. Black and white on canvas. Lighting and movement…. The skits move one to another in a jazz beat. There is a jazz beat nuance to the show.” In addition there’s dance, the Jazz Hands, finger pop, pelvic thrust, hat tip “Fosse-osity.”

O’Hurley could be considered a local boy made good. New Englandborn, he attended school in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and was a 1976 Providence College graduate as he put it, “time served.” At graduation, he was given a theater award and mentioned he was the only theater major at the time. The college awarded him an honorary doctorate. As a member of the Providence College Board of Trustees, he proudly noted that his alma mater is celebrating their centenary.

Because inquiring minds want to know, I asked some personal questions.

Q: When did his hair begin to turn gray?

A: He was dark haired in 1984 when he played the Pirate King in Pirates of Penzance, and it was transitioning when he was in the soap opera Loving.

Q: How much of his very distinctive almost-British-sounding speech is real?

A: Although the beautiful, deep voice is his, the affected patterns are all acting. In person, he does speak quite normally, without affectation.

Q: He was a late-bloomer as far as parenting is concerned. Does he believe it is easier for him because of his life experiences?

A: When he was younger, he said the theater was his lady and his life, so he would not have been a good father. Now, he feels his family is most important, and the reason for his career – his job. He loves being a husband and a proud father to his 12 yearold son who, when he sees his father on screen, it is not Dad but John the actor.

Multi-talented and renowned, he is a classically vocal-trained, self-taught pianist and composer. He is one of People Magazine‘s “Sexiest Men Alive.” He is an author as well as an actor on stage, television and film. He has been an actor in a myriad of prestigious commercials, a game show host, and the voice of 15-plus animation characters. Perhaps his most familiar role, and that which launched many others, was as J. Peterman in the Seinfeld series, for which he won a SAG award.

Dog lovers most likely have seen him every Thanksgiving afternoon since 2002 as one of the hosts of the Purina National Dog Show. Yes, he has two dogs of his own. He wrote, for his son, a lovely poignant poem, The Perfect Dog, which was released as a children’s book.

Adding to his interview remarks about being an actor: He enjoys TV but he loves live theater. “With film or TV, you do your acting job, your pages, your lines, often not in sequence. The finished product is in the hands of the editors. It is an editor’s medium. They cut and paste and put together to create the finished product. With stage, acting is immediate. You get an organic reaction from the audience. You perform the beginning, the middle and the end. You start innocent, end reflective.”

He said, “For instance, if I have to get a laugh, I can get a laugh. Breathe in and breathe out. It’s all in the timing. You can be silent on stage. There can be a silence. It might make them uncomfortable, but you can command the attention of an audience by the power of silence. An actor has earned the right to be silent on stage.”

Alas, oh sorrow – my Pirates of Penzance reference – due to time constraints and commitments, the interview had to end. But, I was allowed one last bit of contact: A photo and an autograph – sigh.

He’s so tall! And – did I mention? – extremely handsome. A very cool, calm, collected and comfortable professional.

 

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