Chicago - National Tour

The Tony-winning revival of Kander and Ebb's classic will razzle dazzle you!

Chicago Star John O’Hurley on Discovering Billy Flynn’s Paternal Side

On TV, John O’Hurley played the well-suited J. Peterman on Seinfeld and glided across the ballroom floor to become runner-up in the first season of Dancing with the Stars. Now, O’Hurley is donning his tux as Billy Flynn in the new national tour of Chicago, reprising the role in which he made his Broadway debut in 2006. As this consummate gentleman prepared for his return to the stage, he spoke with Broadway.com about rhythm of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s hit musical, what makes a great Roxie and Velma, and how the “silver-tongued prince of the courtroom” keeps surprising him after all these years.

You’ve played Billy Flynn on Broadway three times and done numerous stints on tour. What keeps drawing you back to Chicago?
I’m sure I’ve done it more than any human being alive. I’ve done the 10th anniversary, the 15th, and I’m sure I will do the 20th. I love the role. It’s one of the best leading man roles out there.

Since you’ve played Billy so many times, does it still take practice when slipping back into the role?
I can walk on stage at three minutes of 8, begin the show and not even think twice about it. I can put it away for six months or a year and it doesn’t matter; Chicago doesn’t leave you. First, the numbers are unforgettable. Secondly, the text of the show is written as a jazz piece and there’s a rhythm to it. It’s like the Pledge of Allegiance; you just never forget it. I think that’s part of the brilliance of the piece too, in addition to being lyrically one of the best musicals ever written.

When you return to Chicago, do you add something different to your performance? How does your Billy evolve?
I’ve never done it the same two nights in a row. I have one promise that I make to myself before I go on stage: At some point during this evening, let me surprise myself. I’ll hear something a different way and I go, "Ah, isn’t that interesting!" So for me, this role constantly changes, in terms of its complexity and depth.

Over the years, what have you discovered about Billy that surprised you the most?
There is a paternal quality in him that only comes out at one point in the show. It’s when Roxie says to him, “Billy, I’m so scared,” before the trial and he says, “Kid, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” That moment is when he finally admits a sense of personal attachment to her, even though they’ve gone through their maelstrom and she’s fired him and such. It’s a very touching moment because it shows a vulnerability in him. It connects the two of them for that one moment before everything goes into “Razzle Dazzle.”

You’re in the middle of two of musical theater’s most memorable female characters. What makes a good Velma?
There’s a crustiness to her. She’s kind of like the old Gucci wallet that’s been folded over many times and it has a few stains on it. This woman has been through the grind. There’s a sense of depth that is necessary so that when she’s desperate, it’s not a youthful desperation, it’s, "You’re my only ticket out of here."

What makes a good Roxie?
The sense of naive narcissism. Roxie is the eternal narcissist and all she cares about is her. She’s myopic and it never changes. She’ll put on different coats, but she’s the same person underneath.

What’s your best Chicago memory?
It would have to be my opening night on Broadway, my Broadway debut. I’ll always remember that sense of standing backstage right before Billy makes his ostentatious entrance. I remember as I was coming down the steps to the stage, it was a sense of leaping and knowing the net will appear.

You’ve toured for many years in Spamalot, as well as Chicago. What is life like for you on the road?
It’s wonderful. One of the joys of taking the show on the road is that you have a beginning and an end every week. You have the excitement of an opening night with the brand new space and a brand new energy. And you have the sadness of a closing night, if it’s been a good run. When you play mid-run during a long-running show on Broadway, there’s no opening or closing and you never feel like there’s a word of mouth gathering. The audiences on tour are so appreciative of the show, and they listen. My wife and I just love the ambiance of theater at this level. I go to work at night at 7:30, I’m finished by 10:30, and by 11, my wife and I are sitting down having dinner somewhere. It’s a really enjoyable way to see the country.

Do you always bring your family with you when you’re touring?
As much as I can, but this year is a little difficult because my son is entering first grade, so he’s going to be seeing less and less of the road. Although he has his battle scars: He was three weeks old when we moved to Las Vegas and I started Spamalot there. He’s grown up backstage.

You are such a dapper man. You look great in the tux as Billy Flynn. You looked dashing in all those costumes on Dancing with the Stars. What is your number one tip for dressing to impress?
I always have a flair for the dramatic. But I’m not a trendy dresser. I look for classic wear. I don’t look good in trendy outfits, I just don’t. Many of my suits are designed off the template of an Armani style from 1991 that I happen to like. I think there’s a sense of classic that endures, and I like that.

See O’Hurley in Chicago at Portland’s Keller Auditorium through September 8.

Shows Subscriptions Theaters Buzz