Taste of ‘Chicago’
Jerry Springer brings an aura of authenticity to the role of Billy Flynn in the hit musical.
By Naila Francis
In many ways, Jerry Springer couldn’t be more perfect for the role.
The tabloid talk-show host, who played Billy Flynn in a West End production of “Chicago” earlier this year, will reprise the role of the slick “Razzle Dazzle” attorney when a national tour of the iconic musical makes its first stop at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia tonight.
“Billy Flynn is a flamboyant Chicago attorney and obviously I’ve been in Chicago with my TV show,” says Springer, also a former attorney, who after 18 years of having his show broadcast from the city’s NBC Tower recently moved taping to Stamford, Conn., for its 19th season.
“I’m not personally flamboyant, but the show is over the top, so I can get the character and get what it is to be in front of a jury and do what you can to represent the client. Obviously, there are ethical boundaries that Billy Flynn crosses that most of us wouldn’t, but I get the role.”
Yet despite his show-biz persona and background in both law and politics, there also are reasons that make his selection a dubious choice — and even he acknowledges them.
Though the producers for the West End production contacted his agent after seeing him perform on the third season of “Dancing With the Stars” — where despite placing fifth, Springer remained a favorite with viewers — the London native wasn’t too confident about hoofing it onstage, especially given the rigors of his televised dancing debut.
“That was painful,” he says of his popularity on the reality contest. “I kept saying every week, ‘Stop calling. I’ve had enough. It hurts.’ “
Springer had been offered the role of Billy Flynn once before but turned it down because of a previous commitment to host “America’s Got Talent,” a duty he has since relinquished to Nick Cannon though he will emcee a live version of the show at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas this fall.
“I was asked again for this year, and finally, my family talked me into it,” he says, of stepping up to play the flashy lawyer, whose penchant for the lurid details of his clients’ lives rivals that of his namesake show.
“They said, ‘You’re 65 — when are you ever going to get a chance to be in a musical on London’s West End? It doesn’t get any bigger than that.’ So I thought, ‘You know, it’s a challenge. I’ll give it a shot.’ “
There was one other detail to consider, however — one that even the producers overlooked. It was only after they offered him the role that he was invited for an audition to see if he could sing.
“I knew I could carry a tune but that’s in the shower and I don’t think they’re going to permit water on the stage,” says Springer. “To sing when there’s no water coming down on you is going to be a stretch for me.”
Fortunately, he learned that he wouldn’t be thrown onstage without some coaching — “They work with you and I actually hit the notes,” he says — and his six-week performance at the Cambridge Theatre in London earned favorable reviews.
But not even the recording of a country music CD, “Dr. Talk,” in 1995, an admitted spoof, prepared him for the intensity of singing in live theater.
“When you’re in the studio, you get a whole bunch of takes. There’s a whole bunch of equipment to make you sound good. Even when you sing with a band, when you’re with a country band or a rock ‘n’ roll band, you’re just wailing away and people are singing along,” he says. “When you’re on the Broadway stage, the whole focus is just on what you’re saying in the song. There’s nothing else going on but people listening to you. There’s so much more pressure.”
Similarly incomparable are his previous acting gigs, including starring in the films “Ringmaster,” a fictionalized account of his television talk show, and “Citizen Verdict,” as well as a brief Broadway turn as the Narrator in a revival of “The Rocky Horror Show.”
“I’m used to being onstage, I’ve done that my whole life. Every job I’ve had has been a public job, whether I was a news anchor or a lawyer or on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ so I don’t get nervous about that,” says Springer. “But when you’re on (a theater) stage, you have to get it right. You have to be so focused and paying attention not just to your line but to what the person on stage with you is saying or doing. If they get a line wrong, you can’t just say your line because it won’t make any sense.
“The focus is nowhere near where it is in film or television. It’s much more intense.”
His talk show may be a bawdy sideshow of brawling guests and garish dysfunction, but it has trained him to listen well — and that, he believes, has been of great value in his musical debut.
“All I do is listen to what people are saying in their stories on television or whatever,” he says. “I really do learn how to listen to people and respond to them and that just comes naturally. I’m not the kind of comedian that goes out and tells jokes. All the comedy that comes out of my mouth comes from me responding to what other people are saying. I’ve had no acting training, just listening training.”
Audiences have been kind to him, both in London and in New York, and so in addition to the thrill of appearing in a smash Kander and Ebb / Bob Fosse creation — “Chicago” is Broadway’s longest-running musical revival — Springer also is enjoying a different kind of interaction with those who come out to see the show.
“It’s fun. I enjoy people,” he says, “and you really get the feeling when people come to the show, they want me to succeed at it. It’s like they’re rooting for me. At the end of the first song, they’re cheering for me. It’s not like they haven’t heard the song before. It’s like, ‘Omigod, he really hit the notes.’
“All of this is way out of whatever was anticipated for me. No one in my family or childhood ever said, ‘Gerald is going to be onstage one day.’ I was trained to be a lawyer. … I grew up in New York. My mom took me to see a few plays when I was 7, 8 years old. I don’t remember ever leaving a play and saying, ‘Gee, someday I’m going to do that,’ or ‘One day, I want to be an actor.’
“I can’t explain it, how I got here. I know I’m lucky and I’m very grateful.”
His career has spanned multiple incarnations and opportunities, from his stint as a political campaign aide to Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968 to a gig hosting a variety show in South Africa on subscription channel M-Net, the proceeds of which were all donated to AIDS charities. He’s been the mayor of Cincinnati and an Emmy-winning news anchor, a morning radio talk show host and the master of ceremonies for the Miss World Pageant. While he once had ambitions of a larger political scope, he’s since scaled them back, though he remains busy giving speeches and raising money for various events and causes across the country.
“As I’m getting older, I think less and less about running (for office) now just because whatever position I ran for, it would take so long to have seniority and have influence … so I’m thinking maybe that’s for the younger guys,” says Springer.
The one thing he’s not ready to abandon is “The Jerry Springer Show.”
“It’s crazy to give it up. It’s only two days a week, it’s got a great fan base, it’s easy to do, it’s a lot of fun to do and it commits me to do all these other things,” he says. “It’s almost irresponsible to say, ‘Oh, no, I’m not going to do it anymore.’ Why not go to the bank and burn all your money?”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer