by Nancy Rosati
NR: You did the CD first, and pretty much with the same creative people. Did you always plan to stage that?
JH: Yes. It was always going to be a show. Since you brought up I Love New York - my acting basically turned into my “day job.” The last three Broadway shows that I’ve done (Once Upon a Mattress, 1776, and Pimpernel), I've done so I could have time to write. In Once Upon a Mattress I would sit in orange tights on the stairs right by the door and I would be writing between scenes and asking the actors for their opinions, or rewriting. I’d put down the pages and go on stage to sing. Then I’d walk off and go back to it. When I did Scarlet Pimpernel, Casey (Nicholaw) and Russell (Garrett) would just go crazy. They kept saying, “Pete ‘n’ Keely!, Pete ‘n’ Keely! Will you shut up already?” I would drag them off stage in between scenes and make them listen to stuff and see what was funnier. In 1776 I would go up in the rafters of the Gershwin Theatre. Ray Roderick would come meet me and that’s where we wrote I Love New York.
NR: What role did you play in 1776?
JH: I was a standby.
NR: Ah, that makes sense, because most of the actors are on stage all the time in that show.
JH: Right, but my guy never missed so I was hardly ever on. I even went up to Rainbow & Stars and I was on beeper. Once they were on stage I knew I was fine.
NR: Back to A Christmas Survival Guide - you always planned for it to be a show?
JH: Yes. We’d always planned for it to be a three person show but we wanted to get the CD out last Christmas. We knew that the CD would help sell the show so we had a choice to make. We could either pick three people and have them sing all the songs, which we knew would be very taxing, especially when we were doing it - a year ago in October. We were worried about trying to get anyone to commit that amount of time and effort. But we knew that we could get Bryan (Batt) to come in for an hour, and Marin Mazzie, and those kind of people.
NR: So you just called up all your friends.
JH: And called and cast it while I was in Texas doing Scarlet Pimpernel in Dallas and Houston, on my cell phone.
NR: You knew all these people so it’s not like you had to audition them. What did you do - assign a song to them, or give them a list and tell them to pick one?
JH: Both. Mostly it was knowing people’s voices and knowing what they would be good for.
NR: Listening to the CD, the choices were obvious.
JH: Now we’re working on a book as well. It’s called “A Christmas Survival Guide” and it will be like a gift book.
NR: How are you staging the show? Are you going to do more of a full length production in Springfield than what I saw in the reading?
NR: Will Arci’s be the same show?
JH: No. Arci’s will be smaller. Arci’s will be more like what you saw in the reading. There may be another number but you can’t do any sketch stuff in that space. There are some numbers that won’t work without props. We need to keep it more like a cabaret show. But what happened is that the CD itself actually sold the show. We have it playing somewhere in Milwaukee. We’re not involved with the Milwaukee one. They’re putting it together and we’re just giving them the material. But no one else will be able to do it unless we put it together for the next couple of years. City Stage in Springfield did Pete ‘n’ Keely last year and that’s how we got a relationship there. He wants to work on new shows so they’re doing this. It runs from December 6th to the 23rd. Then Arci’s wanted to do it so we’re doing four Monday nights at 10 o’clock, and we’re really excited about that. Next year we’d like to do it either in a theater, or a place like Arci’s for a three week run. We have a couple of theaters interested for next year, as well as for a tour. I think once we get it out there in a couple of places, it will sell.
NR: It is a little bit daunting for any one person to sing all of those songs, especially for the man. It’s very rangy.
JH: It’s a lot of work. From the CD to the theater, we had to rearrange so the guy didn’t have to be both a tenor and a bass. Even the women had the keys changed a bit.
NR: Last time we spoke, you told me you were going to stage I Love New York again. Are you still planning to do that?
JH: In January it’s going out on tour for nine weeks all over the country. It will come out of New York. I’m not sure where the first stop is. I know they’re negotiating with some theaters. That won us a 1999 Bistro Award and a song we had in it won a MAC Award - “Goodnight New York” by Julie Gold.
Now we have another one we’re working on. I think it’s going to be The Retirement Survival Guide. That’s the next one. I’m not sure if that will be the title or not but it will be all about baby-boomers coming to the age of retirement at all different ages. It’s the whole point that life isn’t over, it’s just different.
NR: Are you going to stage that one too?
JH: Yeah. I don’t know if we’ll do the CD or the staged version first. Right now we’re still working on it, but we’re putting it on hold while we get the Christmas shows up.
NR: You’re striking me as someone who thought, “I’m going to launch a few things. Maybe one will hit” and they ALL hit at the same time.
JH: Yes! We have the Christmas show in Springfield and at Arci’s, and Pete ‘n’ Keely Off Broadway at the exact same time. The Lark Theatre wants to do a reading of my Mercada starring Carol Woods just before Christmas, and my other show, The Incubus, won an American Playwright Award in Connecticut so they did a reading of it up there. I’m hoping that Williamstown will want to do something with Mercada. So, yeah, it’s kind of “knock on wood” that everything I’ve been writing is going.
NR: That’s incredible. Let’s just hope you can be in all of those places at the same time.
JH: I know. I can’t believe they’re all happening in the same MONTH.
NR: Tell me about Mercada.
JH: That’s a one character show that I wrote. While I was doing Joseph - yet another job that was my “day job” - touring in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ... so I have Andrew Lloyd Webber to thank for that one.
NR: It’s about an African-American woman, right? (laughing) I’m sure you have a huge frame of reference for that.
JH: (laughing) I know. I started writing a one person show for myself and ended up with an African-American woman from Jamaica. Who knows where these things come from? She’s a woman who’s a volunteer at a hospital. She’s talking to someone in a coma who you cannot see. The patient tried to take his own life and she’s talking him back. One of the things that musical therapists do is get people on the other side of the brain. There’s the logical side and the creative side. If the body listens to the logical side, it says, “Abort. We are hurt. Let’s die and call it a day.” So you want to get the brain on the other side to listen so that it will get stronger and take over and wake up. I thought that was so fascinating. One day I was walking to the theater, not real happy to be putting on a horse head, and I saw this young man and his mother sitting at a hospital courtyard. He had some terminal disease and they both looked so sad. I wished I had the power to go and heal them and I just thought it was an awful feeling. That’s when I said, “I know what I’m going to write about.” While I was doing the show, even when I was on stage sometimes with my horse head on, I would write the script.
I read some of it to Carol Woods and she loved it. She said, “I used to work in a hospital.” She used to sing to people to try to heal them with her voice. I said to her, “You’re the one.”
NR: Is there music in the show?
JH: She sings in it. It’s not a musical. It’s a play with music. Ted Pappas was the director but he just became the Artistic Director of the Pittsburgh Public Theater so he’s out of town for a long time. I guess that means we have to find someone else.
NR: Are we ever going to see you on stage on Broadway again?
JH: I hope so.
NR: I know you’ve been doing a lot of regional stuff here and there.
JH: Yeah. I just did Molly Sweeney at Weston Playhouse in Vermont. I did Honk! at North Shore with Julia McKenzie directing. She’s a doll. I loved her. That was a lot of fun and I think my writing helped me there because one of the two characters I played didn’t translate into “American.” I really went out on a limb, and they all thought I was crazy, but then after I did it, they said, “That’s it.”
NR: Were you able to change lines?
JH: Not change lines, just change the intention and change the world of the person. We don’t have those kind of English rogue guys with the Cockney accent. I did it like a Southern, Kentucky kind of thing and that seemed to hit for them. That was wonderful and I think that should come in to New York. We had all the designers from London from the National Theater for the sets and the costumes.
NR: I don’t know if you have time to do a Broadway show.
JH: I hope I do. I still always want to keep performing. As long as I’m being creative ... There’s nothing that eats you up more than sitting at home waiting for someone to call. I think I’ve really tapped into something in myself and I have many friends that I’ve tried to inspire to write. If you can act, you can write. If you know how to act, you know how to create tension. That’s what good writing is. If you go there in your head, and let the characters talk ... . (laughs) and then you have to rewrite for the next twenty years.
With all of these projects taking off at the same time, I have a feeling it’s going to be a very long time before Jim is sitting at home waiting for someone to call. I wish him the best of luck and hope that I do get to see him on a Broadway stage again.