About halfway through the first act of the Tony-winning revival of Chicago, a bevy of glam chorines slink onto the stage chanting:
“We want Billy
Where is Billy?
Give us Billy
We want Billy
We’re all his
He’s our kind of a guy
And ooh what luck
‘Cause here he is.”
Within seconds, the announcer-touted “silver-tongued prince,” wearing an impeccable tux and air of entitlement, rises like a phoenix from somewhere below. And for theatregoers at Broadway’s Ambassador Theatre, this is where it gets really good, because the dapper dude spotlighted center stage playing man-about-town/lawyer-at-large Billy Flynn is a real-life Billy—singer/songwriter Billy Ray Cyrus making his premiere entrance on the Great White Way in true “life-imitates-art” fashion. (And it’s pretty much a given how much his fans in the audience appreciate the name overlap—especially during the “We want Billy” build up”!)
“I consider making my Broadway debut in Chicago to be an honor,” says Cyrus, whose last musical theatre outing was in 2005 playing Frank Butler in a Toronto production of Annie Get Your Gun. And while he enjoyed the experience, he realizes that the casting was predictable when compared to a role like Flynn, which he describes as “… a sophisticated, flamboyant, cocky lawyer who never loses a case. Going that far out of the wheelhouse is a good challenge for me as an actor.”
Cyrus’s involvement with Chicago began, as he tells it, with a simple invitation asking if he’d be interested in playing Flynn. “So I came to New York to see the show and I fell in love with it—the music, the play, the choreography, the whole cast,” he recalls.
“The music is feel-good music… sexy music…. And the play moves you because it runs the gamut of emotions while keeping humor as a central part of it,” he says.
More or less sold, he headed back to Los Angeles, where he rented the 2002 film version to check out Richard Gere’s take on the suave attorney who insists, “All I care about is love.”
“Gere was amazing, and from there on I tried to study every Billy I could,” says Cyrus, whose breakthrough came when he fell head over heels for James Naughton’s (Broadway’s original Flynn) performance. But regardless of how much the multi-platinum recording artist learned about playing Billy from his predecessors, he knew in the end that he’d be putting his own spin on the role. (For the record, Cyrus is the 43rd actor to play Billy Flynn since the revival began in 1996.)
To give you some idea of how Billy fits into Chicago’s overall storyline, here’s a quick synopsis: The plot grows out of the incarceration and trial of Roxie Hart, who has cuckolded her husband, offed her lover, and is totally focused on keeping paparazzi interest stoked. In the slammer, she falls under the greedy guidance of Matron “Mama” Morton, hires superstar shyster Flynn to defend her, and faces off with Velma Kelly, who up until Roxie showed up and stole her thunder, pretty much had the press in her pocket.
Not surprisingly, Cyrus is especially drawn to the show’s honky-tonk jazz score with instrumentals he says fit right in with country-music roots. “I come from Eastern Kentucky, where I grew up with stringed instruments,” he notes, citing the first time he heard the orchestra, with its bass, violin, and piano, “I felt the similarities to the music I’ve always loved.”
It didn’t hurt any that Cyrus, for the better half of the 1980s, was a house musician at a Huntington, Kentucky watering hole called the Ragtime Lounge. “So there’s an immediate comfort factor there—and the familiarity has helped me deal with the whole intimidation thing that comes with being on Broadway for the first time,” he says. “When I’m out there playing Billy Flynn, I want to feel like I’m at the Ragtime Lounge, just having a good time.”
Chicago is playing at the Ambassador Theatre, 219 W. 49th St. For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or click here.
Photos: Andrew Eccles.
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