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Scandalous - Broadway

Carolee Carmello stars in this new musical co-written by Kathie Lee Gifford.

George Hearn on Singing Sondheim, Donning Heels in La Cage and Reuniting with Kathie Lee Gifford in Scandalous

George Hearn on Singing Sondheim, Donning Heels in La Cage and Reuniting with Kathie Lee Gifford in Scandalous
George Hearn
George Hearn on the joy of playing Sweeney, Albin in 'La Cage' and more.

Theater fans too young to have seen George Hearn on stage at the height of his Broadway career can catch up via film versions of Sweeney Todd and Putting It Together. (Click below to savor Hearn’s rich baritone in two versions of “Pretty Women.”) “Musical theater has been very good to me,” the two-time Tony winner says, adding that he has also acted in 200 plays since launching his career 50 years ago alongside James Earl Jones in Shakespeare in the Park. Hearn was coaxed back to Broadway by Kathie Lee Gifford after a dozen years of semi-retirement to play dual roles in Scandalous, and the 78-year-old star chose his current show and five other favorites for Role Call honors.

Role That Was the Most Challenging
Sweeney Todd [1980] is as good as it gets. I think it will be around for hundreds of years to come because it’s so brilliantly written, so fierce and passionate, with such magnificent music. It’s both a great love story and a great murder mystery, and it’s told with such economy. I got to work with two wonderful ladies [as Mrs. Lovett], Dorothy Loudon in New York and Angela Lansbury, who is still a dear friend, on tour. [The role of] Sweeney was what I call ‘full employment’: It used my voice and everything I had to offer in a way that was exhausting but also exhilarating. When you're lucky enough to do a show like that, it’s like a hand comes down and lifts you up and carries you through. You get into the zone and feel like the basketball player who can’t miss. It’s a thrill to ride a great part like that—just glorious.”

Role That Was the Most Fun
“It was a great honor to be in La Cage aux Folles [1983, as Albin/Zaza; Best Actor Tony Award]. The show was so important and so groundbreaking for its time. They had called me [during casting] saying, ‘If we get a dress and wig and shoes and makeup, would you mind auditioning?’ Depending on my mood, I’d get very macho and think, ‘No way can I do that.’ Colleen Dewhurst, who was a dear friend, said, ‘Go on, George! If you do it, you’ll get a Tony, and if you don’t, someone else will.’ So I did the audition, because I thought they had a right to know how I would look and sound in drag. I put on a red dress and high heels and sang ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’ with my hand on the piano. Afterward, they said, ‘That was wonderful! You didn’t camp it up at all.’ They didn’t realize I was so mortified, if I had let go of that piano, I would have fallen down. But I got used to it, and it was great fun. I also met my wife [ensemble member Leslie Simons], and we’re still married and have two beautiful children.”

Role With Fabulous Songs
Putting It Together [1999, as the Husband; Best Actor Tony nomination] was a joy because I love Sondheim’s music so much. The show was a potpourri of songs from different shows—a lot of funny stuff, some wonderful duets, some complicated and difficult pieces. I sang ‘The Road You Didn’t Take,’ ‘Do I Hear a Waltz,’ ‘Pretty Women’ with John Barrowman, and many more; it was Sondheim at his best. I got to work with Carol Burnett, and also with Kathie Lee Gifford, who came in because was hard for Carol to do eight shows a week. Even then, Kathie said, ‘I’m working on a musical about Aimee Semple McPherson.’ And here we are, 13 years later!”

Role That Inspired a Happy Reunion
“Your best girl had better be the one you’re with now, so I’ve got to talk about Scandalous. I love this piece, and Carolee Carmello is just brilliant as Aimee Semple McPherson. I play her father in the first part, and then I get to play her antagonist, a preacher in Los Angeles who is upset because she is cutting into my turf. He’s kind of a farce of a character, but I’m having a great time playing him. He gets to do that kind of Southern Baptist singsong railing at the congregation, which is fun; I grew up in Memphis, so I get to say that. Kathie’s people called me about the show, and I said yes because I loved the script—and I’ve got two kids going to college pretty soon, so it’s nice to make a little money. It’s also nice to renew the connection Kathie and I had from so many years ago.”

Role That Brought Surprising Acclaim
Sunset Boulevard [1994, as Max Von Mayerling; Best Featured Actor Tony Award] was a joy, partly because it brought me back to Broadway. I was down and out in Beverly Hills at the time, wanting to come back east so badly. The American production of the show started there, and I went in and sang for Andrew Lloyd Webber. I loved the part, which had been played in the movie by a Hollywood director [Erich von Stroheim]. Andrew wrote some swell music that I got to sing, and I loved Glenn Close [as Norma Desmond] and the cast, and working with Trevor Nunn, who directed it. I was surprised I got a Tony, to be honest. A lot of times, you see the Tony nominations and say, ‘How come?’ But you’ll take it, right?”

Role That I Wish More People Had Seen
“I got my first Tony nomination for Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine [1980, as Kurt Muller; Best Featured Actor Tony nomination], an important anti-fascist play about the rise of Nazi-ism before the war. The critics had their axes out for Hellman—she had made a lot of enemies by then with her sharp tongue—but I thought it was a heck of a play. My character is a German father who leaves his family in America to return to Europe and help the resistance, and they know he won’t be coming back. His speech about how fascism has to be resisted is just gorgeous; it’s a play that should always be running.”
 


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