Curiocity: Q&A With John O’Hurley, ‘Chicago’s’ Billy Flynn
When “Chicago” opens Tuesday night at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts, audiences will be graced with a very familiar face.
Perhaps best known for his role as Seinfeld’s J. Peterman, the dapper, silver-haired John O’Hurley will take the stage in St. Paul in a role he’s played since 2005.
As Billy Flynn, O’Hurley said he likes to keep the audience guessing with plenty of surprises — for the crowd, as well as himself.
O’Hurley was gracious enough to take some time to chat with us before the show’s opening, Tuesday night.
Q: Tell me about your history with “Chicago.” How did it all begin?
A: I started Chicago back in 2005, shortly after “Dancing with the Stars,” on Broadway. Robin Givens was my Roxie at the time. I was there for about three months on Broadway. I had the time of my life and then took it out on the road to several cities — went to Atlanta, Tampa and near Charlotte, I think it was in Harrisville. And had a great time with the show. And what’s been happening is that every year, I spend 6-8 weeks on Broadway with it and then take it on the road for 6-8 weeks. And the trend continues. I was on earlier this year, on Broadway, around Thanksgiving time and Christmas and here, I’m back on the road now and I’ll have another five-city tour in the fall. I think what I’m saying is that I’ve probably done this show more than any single male has in the history of the show.
Q: I’d imagine. The show also celebrated its 15-year anniversary? How do you keep the character new and fresh after all that time?
A: We did the 15-year anniversary when I was on Broadway. Every night I say one prayer to myself and that is that I’m going to surprise myself on stage during the night. That somehow, something’s going to happen that hasn’t happened before. I’m just ready and willing and open to that — and sure enough, it does. So the role gets deeper and deeper and richer and richer every time I do it.
Q: Do you think your appearance on Dancing with the Stars helped your Broadway performances or do you think your theater background helped you on Dancing with the Stars?
A: Yes and yes. Theatricality helps quite a bit on “Dancing with the Stars,” as we found out. But then I think becoming more comfortable with movement on stage helped me quite a bit with “Chicago.”
Q: Switching gears a bit. I remember watching an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” where Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus talked about not being able to escape their Seinfeld characters. Do you feel that way at all with J. Peterman?
A: Well I don’t mind it. If that’s true, I don’t mind it at all. I do many other things outside that character but I like the idea of the idiosyncrasies of Peterman has kind of made him an advertising hero over the years and I owe a lot to that and I’m very grateful for it. The P.S. of the story is that the year after Seinfeld ended, I bought the J. Peterman company with the real J. Peterman. We own the company together so I don’t mind the Peterman mention at all. It keeps the brand alive.
Q: Why was that something you decided to invest in?
A: I’m an adventure capitalist on the side, I have several companies. I own an energy company and a software company as well on the side. I just enjoy investing in things that have an interesting stories.
Q: So have you become more of the J. Peterman brand than the actual J. Peterman?
A: Ah, no. (Laughs) The company itself has done very well and I’ve had the opportunity to put several items in the catalog. Which is a lot of fun. In my travels, when I find interesting things I pass them on and they end up in the catalog. I’ve had an active participating and I’m on the board of directors as well.
Q: I hear you were just playing golf with one of our former Vikings Matt Blair? How did you guys meet?
A: Yeah, we played together yesterday. Matt ran his charity for many, many years here and had his celebrity golf tournament attached to it. I was one of the ones that he brought out for many years. So for about 10 years, I’ve been coming out here (to the Twin Cities).
Q: Now that you’re coming back, in a different capacity, are you able to take in the cities a bit more?
A: This is the first time I’ve spent any time in St. Paul, which is lovely. I can’t say enough about it. It’s a gorgeous little town down here. Most of the time I’ve been here, it’s been either, I have written a couple of books so I’ve had book signings in Minneapolis but most of the time I’ve been in Minneapolis and not St. Paul.
Q: Going back to the musical. “Chicago” certainly seems like one of those musicals that’s a long-time fan favorite. Why do you think that is?
A: Well I think the core of the show is so good and it is on my list of the five great musicals ever done on Broadway. I think because the core of the show is so good, it’s interesting because it takes the shape of the people who do it. It’s a completely different show if I’m doing it than if another person is doing it. It’s a different show if there’s a different Roxie there. It’s a show you can keep going back because the show has a different personality based on the people who are doing it.
Q: When you first started the role of Billy Flynn, what was your inspiration? What did you bring to the character?
A: Well, what attracts me to him is that he’s a quick thinker. He’s not always right, but he’s a quick thinker. So he has to kind of change strides quickly, but he’s always thinking — always thinking on his feet. I think that makes him one of the most interesting characters of the show.
Q: You’ve been in “Spamalot” and had numerous TV appearances, do you prefer being on stage over TV?
A: I do. I love doing great shows on stage. For the simple reason that every night at 8 p.m., you know something that the audience doesn’t. You know that they’re going to have a great time, and you’re going to take a character that has an arc to it from A to B to C, the beginning, the middle and the end. And you’re going to complete that cycle. And by the end, the audience is going to have a great time and that’s a great feeling. You don’t get that on television. You don’t know, necessarily, that it’s a great show that you’re doing. If you’re not doing a great show, it’s a long week. But theater is something that is living, it’s organic, once it starts, there’s no retakes, you can’t stop and start again. That’s the beauty of it.
Q: You’ve really grown up with music. Is it true you taught yourself how to play piano?
A: Yep. I have two Billboard chart toppers there and two CDs that have topped the charts there, in the classical arena. Yeah, I taught myself in college and have been composing ever since then. About five years ago, I started recording. I put the first album out around the same time I was doing “Dancing with the Stars.” That hit in the classical arena, it debuted at No. 13 and I think it went up higher. And the second one took the second spot, twice. So both of them have done very well.
Q: Have you had to put that aside while you tour with “Chicago?”
A: No, I just compartmentalize. When I decide I want to do another album, I just put the blinders on and compose and come up with an album, put it out and go back to the other things I’m doing. Same thing with writing. I’m going to be writing my third book.
Q: Where did your musical background come from?
A: I think I’ve had it all my life. I grew up in a period with the great film themes — where movies had themes rather than songs with lyrics. I kind of loved that huge, expansive theme music. So that’s the style I write in.
Q: Is there anything you haven’t done in your career that you’d like to?
A: A few films that I haven’t done yet that I have kind of tucked under my wing here. I still would like to originate a role on Broadway. I haven’t done that yet. I still have some goals ahead of me of things I want to do.
Q: One last pitch for the Twin Cities audience to come out and see the show?
A: As I said you’re seeing one of the five great musicals ever done — it has the best music and the best choreography ever put on a Broadway stage. And especially if you’re seeing a Broadway musical for the first time, this is the one to see.
“Chicago” opens Tuesday and runs through Aug. 12 at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in St. Paul. For tickets, information and more, check out the Ordway’s website.