Rich Hebert | On Fatherhood: Billy Elliot and Neely Hebert

I think being a father really helps, because I’m on this journey myself right now, and fairly new to it. I can relate what’s going on in the show every night to what’s going on in my life.

 

Billy Elliot the Musical opens at the Fox Theatre on November 1 and runs through November 13, 2011. Based on the movie, Billy Elliot, the production is scored by Elton John with book and lyrics by Lee Hall. Stephen Daldry directed both the musical and the film. The title character is a young teenager from a small northern English mining village who wants to be a dancer. His working-class widowed father doesn’t understand Billy’s dreams, and the story follows their journey toward enlightenment and understanding against the background of an economically devastating miner’s strike in 1984 during the Margaret Thatcher administration.

I spoke to Rich Hebert, the veteran actor who plays the elder Elliot about his own journey, how it has informed his performance, and his life in the theater and out.

From the Fox biographical sketch: “Rich Hebert returns to the stage after four years of living the “civilian life” of a theater instructor at Bridgewater State University. Hebert was last seen as Commander Khashoggi in the Las Vegas production of We Will Rock You. Broadway and National tours include” the original Broadway companies of The Life, Sunset Boulevard, Les Miserables (Bay Area Critics Award),Cats, Saturday Night Fever, and Rock and Roll the First 5000 Years. He starred as Manuel in MTC’s Captains Courageous, Zoser in Elton John’s Elaborate Lives in Atlanta, and Warbucks in Papermill Playhouse’s Annie. TV credits include: Brotherhood, Law and Order SVU, NYPD Blue, The Sopranos, Deadline, Line of Fire, The Oldest Rookie, 21 Jump Streetand numerous soap operas. Rich is a graduate of Boston University.”

Have you played the Fox before or been in it at all?

No. I haven’t seen it or played it, and it’s the same with the Fox in Atlanta. I’m really looking forward to it and excited to play them both.

[Note: Hebert has spent time in St. Louis, however. His brother lived here for a while, and one of his very good friends is Tony LaRussa. I mentioned that there was a 90 percent chance for rain tonight—we spoke on 10/26 before the game was canceled—and he was thrilled, because if there is a Series game on Friday night, he’ll come as the guest of the skipper. Back to the show…]

There are occasional sound problems in the Fox, but it’s getting better. I’m sure Billy Elliott will be great in the space. I have to confess I’ve never seen it except for the movie.

You’re going to be very, very pleased. We’ve been on tour for a year, and I don’t think we’ve ever gotten a bad review, or it was mixed at the least. Anybody, anybody who I’ve met—and I have friends in a lot of different places—they just love the show. It’s a lot of people’s favorite show.

Full disclosure: I will be reviewing it, as well.

Where do you want the money sent? [Laughs.]

I don’t have a lot of bio on you; I do have a list of your stage credits, which are impressive, and your television credits. Is there anything else about you personally or professionally you’d like readers to know before we talk about Billy?

I’m from Boston. I got married when I was 47, first marriage, and my first child, Neely, was born when I was in Las Vegas doing this show called We Will Rock You at Harrah’s. It was supposed to be a 10-year-commitment. Then Caesar’s bought Harrah’s and, when it happened, they decided to switch up on me on the show, so we were only open for a year and a half. So I was trying to figure, “Now I’m a dad; what do I do? Should I remain in this business (even though I’d been an actor for 30 years)?” So, I went back to Massachusetts and I tried to do different things. I substitute taught, then I sold cars, and I worked at a bank. Finally, I taught college and that was great, but I guess I wasn’t out of this business, really. So, when I saw Billy (on Broadway), I was out of the loop. When I saw Gregory Jbara win the Tony for playing the dad, I said, “That thing’s going to be going out on the road someday and I can definitely do that part.” And so I called my agent with whom I’d remained in contact, and after three final callbacks over a year, I was finally cast and got the national tour.

Persistence paid off for you.

These guys took their time in their casting. [They were a] very meticulous group.

When you decided to come back, you came back in a big way. And congratulations on your courage in having a child in your late 40s, by the way.

She is named after Neely O’Hara. [Valley of the Dolls] is my wife’s favorite book, but I think she just liked the name. She doesn’t want our daughter to be like Neely O’Nara! [Laughs.]

Do you travel with your family?

At the first part of this tour we did, but Neely (now six) had to get into kindergarten, so now she’s in Sacramento with her mom. I fly her up as often as I can.

That might answer a question I always ask in getting to know someone on tour: What’s the worst part of being on the road?

Yeah, that’s absolutely the worst part. I miss her like heck. I call her and Skype her every night.

On the other hand, what do you enjoy most about a road show?

Being onstage: That’s the best part. I mean, I like to see other cities, and when I’ve been on tour with my daughter, it was great because we would explore every children’s museum—anything that was child-related. It was a different way of seeing a town, and I really liked that a lot. But when I’m on my own, I generally like to explore the history of the cities and the music, if there is any, after we get out of shows, and the food.

Can you give me “a day in the life.” Not a matinee day, but say it’s a Thursday, for example. What would you likely do?

Get up around nine, have a little breakfast, then do some sort of a run, at a gym or outside.

Oh, you’re a runner?

Yeah. I’ve run three marathons in my time, but now I go about four miles and that’s enough. [Laughs.] Then I’ll try to see something of the city, find out what I should see locally. We also do a lot of rehearsing, and in St. Louis, we’ll be doing even more. We’re down to three Billy’s right now, and another is joining us when we open at the Fox, so we’re going to have to work with that. It’s a really hard show to tech anyway, and we have to tech it [go through technical rehearsals: lights, sound, etc.] for each Billy.

[Note: Traditionally, several young teens play the part because it is so physically demanding; the producer Stephen Daldry has said its like “playing Hamlet while running a marathon.” The upcoming Billy has played the part before, and then the plan is to add yet another young actor to the company. They generally range in age from 12 to 14.]

I wanted to talk to you specifically because I think the dad is the most interesting character in the show. He has an even longer journey than Billy. If you don’t agree, please say so.

Oh, yeah. [The father] has the biggest growth arc in the show. Billy gets to it pretty quickly, once he gets excited about being a dancer. The boy is a lot more open. Plus the dad has a lot on his plate to start with. His wife has died, he’s raising two boys, his mother lives with them and she’s kind of lost it and needs care, and he’s dealing with the [miner’s] strike. He’s the local head of the union, and it’s a strike unlike any he’s ever been through before. He’s dealing with a son [Billy’s older brother] who’s a bit of an anarchist and Billy, who’s a wild card and he’s not really sure what to do with him, especially when he gets into ballet. This is out of his realm of thought and experience, so he tries to nip it in the bud, but then realizes that he’s going to try to help him. To do that, he has to cross the picket line; he does go a long way. For me, this show isn’t physically demanding, but it is emotionally demanding. Every night, every show, I take that ride.

Do you adjust your performance to different young actors, or are they directed consistently enough that you can play your role essentially the same way with each?

They’re all real good. They’re open and they listen, beyond the dancing, which is amazing. There are no attitudes or anything, so it’s easy to go from one to the other. The direction is consistent; it really is. The only differences are in their areas of expertise in dance—one kid has a hip-hop/acrobatic background, one ballet, and one tap. So they bring different things to the same dances. Every night, I sit onstage for Billy’s audition to the dance school so I have a close-up view, and that’s the place they’re most unique.

Where do you go (inside yourself) to get up for this performance eight times a week?

I think being a father really helps, because I’m on this journey myself right now, and fairly new to it. I can relate what’s going on in the show every night to what’s going on in my life. And I love doing this show. I love it! I’ve done shows for long periods of time that I was not real happy about doing, but this isn’t like that. When I took this four-year period where I wasn’t an actor, everything changed for me. When I was younger, I had side jobs that fit with being an actor, like bartending or waiting tables. I could make enough money to live and still be able to get to auditions and performances. When I became a car salesman—not something I particularly wanted to do, but I needed a job and someone helped me get that one—I was selling Lexus. That car’s an easy sell, but guys were yelling at me all the time, and everybody seemed fairly miserable. I thought, “I can’t believe people do this. I can’t believe people live their lives doing things they don’t like.” In this case, when I finally came back, I cried on an empty stage because I was back. I looked up and just, bang! Every time I do this, I’m doing something that I love.

You’re more grateful this time around?

Yeah. I love coming to work every night, and I never say “I don’t want to go tonight.”

That’s a gift. I have to ask: Did being an actor help you sell cars?

Well, yeah, but a lot of those guys were better actors than me. [We laugh.] I was unbelievably truthful. I was very personable, so being an actor helped me talk to people and all, but I tried not to act in that job.

Do you think that experience helped you in playing Billy’s dad? Probably no one loves being a miner.

Oh, sure. It helps me in a bunch of ways. I was going to work [in other jobs] so that my daughter could eat, and Billy’s dad does that, too. He also breaks the picket line and betrays almost everything he values in life to help better his son’s life and cultivate his talent.

It sounds like becoming a family man gave you a lot more texture, more context for your work. Would you agree?

Yep. I couldn’t play this part as I play it, had I not been a dad.

I looked at the history of the strike and noted the decision not to change the setting at all for American audiences. Do you ever find that we have any problem with understanding the politics of the situation with the miners during this period of the 1980s Thatcher administration in England?

There’s always a placard in the lobby that explains the strike, and I do think a lot of people read it. But even if they don’t, the center of this play is the family dynamic and the village story, and everyone understands that. I just don’t think the external circumstances matter too much. I’ve had people come up to me from the region with Geordie (a Northeastern dialect) accents, and talk about the subject matter because they’d either be miners or have fathers who were involved in those incidents.

That must be a little intimidating, since you have to do the accent, and it isn’t an easy one.

Oh, yeah. I figured they’d tell me how far off I was, but actually I’ve gotten many compliments on its accuracy. We have two dialect coaches and they give us notes. It’s hard not to fall into Irish, but everybody in the show is good at [maintaining the accent].

Do you think the musical works as both entertainment and political statement?

I think it works as a play with music, number one, and number two, because it’s deeper than a lot of musicals and is well-written that it does come down to being really “about” family and community. It’s also very much like what’s going on with us today, people rallying around each other just to keep life going, the reality of what’s happening. When all the mines shut down, the area actually became known as the heroin capital of the world.

So it’s fair to say the emotional core is the relationship between father and son?

Definitely. The father has dimension he doesn’t even know about. At first, he doesn’t understand what’s going on and as things begin to reel out of his control, but instead of clamping down further, he opens up. You see the opening up point, and when it happens, it’s news to him, as well as the audience.

Is there anything else you’d like to add to what we’ve talked about?

Just that I’m hopin’ for rain [so he can see the ballgame].

[Exit, laughing.]

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