Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Abominable Showman, November 18, 2012

Mary Poppins musical co-star Ryan Hilliard comes to the Montreal stage after a storied journeyman career co-starring on stage and screen with the likes of Chita Rivera, Jack Nicholson and Bill Cosby
by Richard Burnett  
(Production photos by Jeremy Daniel)

Wisconson native Ryan Hilliard wanted to be a dentist when he grew up. But then when he grew up, he was really tall.

“I’m a rather large man, I’m very tall, so I’ve always been self-conscious about people looking at me,” Hilliard told me last week over the phone from the Tulsa Performing Arts Center in Oklahoma where he is co-starring in the national touring production of Mary Poppins.

“So, practically, I decided – as a defense mechanism – to make people laugh,” Hilliard says. “And that’s how my theatre career began.”

Hilliard arrives in Montreal this week with the Mary Poppins cast and crew for a run that begins at Place des Arts’ Salle Wilfred-Pelletier on November 21. 

Disney’s Mary Poppins musical, of course, tells the story of the Banks family who live in a big house in London on Cherry Lane; their children, Jane and Michael, are out of control and are in need of a new nanny. Enter Mary Poppins.

The musical features many of the original songs created for the Disney film (which starred Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke) as well as some new numbers, and focuses more on the family.

“With this production we move to a new city almost every week, so the work is difficult,” says the 67-year-old Hilliard, a grizzled showbiz journeyman who has appeared on stages around the world, on television and the silver screen. 

“Many people go through life miserable with what they do, so I’m very lucky to do what I do,” he says. “I just love the work. And the creative team behind Mary Poppins look at us as the best of all the Mary Poppins productions running right now.”

Indeed, the musical got rave reviews when it pitstopped in Toronto last November.

This also isn’t the first time Hillard has been on a long, grueling tour. Some years ago he toured with the Bill T. Jones Dance Company in the production Reading Mercy... 

“We toured Great Britain, Canada and the United States  with it,” Hilliard recalls. “I was younger and it was an exciting time of my life.”

As for 30 Rock, Hillaard says, “I got very lucky with that. I rented a car and drove [to the set] and worked with them for two days.”

If you’ve never seen Hilliard on the stage, then certainly you’ve seen him in the zillions of cameos he’s made on American network television over the last 35 years, from Kojak in 1977 to 30 Rock in 2012. “Filming Kojak was fun,” Hilliard says. “Telly Savalas always made me smile.”

As for 30 Rock, Hillaard says, “I got very lucky with that. I rented a car and drove [to the set] and worked with them for two days.”

You’ve also seen Hilliard on The Cosby Mysteries. “I actually auditioned for that and I think Cosby is one of the greats. I remember once I actually drove one of his Rolls Royces, picked him up at the airport! Cosby is a loving, brilliant man.”

Hilliard also goes back a long way with Hollywood director Mike Nichols. For Nichols’ 1986 film Heartburn (Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep topped an all-star cast that included Stockard Channing, Jeff Daniels, MiloŇ° Forman, Catherine O'Hara, Maureen Stapleton, Mercedes Ruehl and Kevin Spacey), Hilliard says, “I was just hired as an extra and Nora Ephron gave me a line and then suddenly I was a principal instead of an extra. People always think I’m part of the core ensemble piece, but I’m really not. But [over the years] I’ve done a lot of work for [director] Mike Nichols.”

The NYC-based  Hilliard (“I live two blocks from Times Square”) prefers the immediacy of working on the stage. Indeed, one of his favourite productions was co-starring with Broadway legend Chita in Anything Goes at The Paper Mill Playhouse for six weeks back in 2000.

“What a thrill that was! The woman is a consummate performer and she went through great difficulty after [her 1986] car accident and people thought she’d never walk again. I really enjoyed watching her work, and she also stood in the wings watching other people work. We were very tight. She was very gracious and her humour was never cruel.”

Now 67 years-old, what has Hilliard himself learnt after a lifetime in the showbiz trenches?

Hilliard doesn’t miss a beat. “What I’ve learnt  is that you always think your next job is going to be your last one,” he says. “And then the phone rings. Thank God.”

Mary Poppins at Salle Wilfred Pelletier at Montreal’s Place des Arts, from November 21 to 25. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, including one intermission. Click here for more details and tickets. 

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