The lights of Broadway will shine brighter next month with the star power of Forest Whitaker, who makes his Broadway debut in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie at the Booth Theatre February 8.
Michael Grandage, the award-winning British director and producer who won the Tony Award for his production of Red starring Alfred Molina, and who brought audiences Hamlet starring Jude Law, says Whitaker was the deciding factor when he was offered the opportunity to direct the one-act masterpiece by the great Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright. “My instinct was to work with somebody who is going to explode on the stage in an exciting and dynamic way. I knew his acting well from the screen, so I know he can definitely do that,” says the visionary director.
Over the past decades, Whitaker has delivered towering performances in film — as the musician Charlie Parker, his breakthrough role in Clint Eastwood’s 1988 biopic Bird; as the deranged Ugandan despot Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, a tour de force that won him the Academy Award and Golden Globe for best actor; and, more recently, as the African American head servant at the White House in Lee Daniels’s The Butler, in which he costarred with Oprah Winfrey.
“The one thing that is a common denominator with all his work as an actor is that he not only offers wonderful scale and size in his portrayals, but he also offers considerable detail and nuance,” notes Grandage. “I think his approach is perfect for O’Neill and perfect for the particular character he plays in Hughie. The themes of the play are as pertinent and as alive as they ever were. The play can reach out from the stage and touch people in quite a meaningful way, and I think Forest is definitely up to that journey.”
Hughie, which Eugene O’Neill wrote in 1942, takes place in a seedy midtown hotel in 1920s New York. Whitaker plays longtime resident Erie Smith, a small-time gambler and con man who has just returned from a five-day drunken bender. Erie regales the hapless hotel Night Clerk on duty (played by Tony Award winner Frank Wood) with nonstop grandiose tales about himself as he chases his American Dream.
Hughie first premiered on Broadway in 1964 and has since been revived twice to great acclaim. Whitaker will make his Broadway debut in this current revival, taking on the role for which the legendary Jason Robards received a Tony nomination in 1965 and the great Ben Gazzara another in 1975; the last embodied by Al Pacino in a sold-out run in 1996. Here’s what the Oscar-winning actor has to say about his upcoming first venture on the New York stage.
You started as a stage actor and a musician, but are best known for working in the movies. Can you tell us about how that came about?
As a child, I never expected to have a career in film. My first exposure to acting was on stage in high school, when I was cast in the school musicals. Those experiences led to my pursuing the arts in college. I started by studying music at Cal Poly Pomona, where the music speech coach asked me to audition for a production of Under Milk Wood. I was cast as the Narrator, which was my first speaking role, and that led to my being accepted into the USC acting conservatory alongside my voice scholarship to USC’s music conservatory. Soon after, I was cast in The Beggar’s Opera at the Orpheum Theatre. An agent saw me in that production and asked to represent me as an actor for film, which helped lead to my first film role: Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
What persuaded you to return to the stage? Has Broadway been a longtime aspiration?
The stage is where I began as an actor, and performing on Broadway has been a dream of mine for many years. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to fulfill it through Hughie. I’d been looking for the right play for years. When I read Hughie, which is written by one of the great American playwrights, and encountered the role of Erie Smith, I knew that I’d finally found a wonderful challenge, one with much to be discovered and which I’m looking forward to taking.
What attracted you to the role of Erie?
I view Erie as an everyman, chasing the pipe dream that O’Neill wrote about in so many of his plays. He’s described as a “teller of tales,” and I’m very drawn to one of the themes presented through his stories: How does someone create an identity or sense of self? Additionally, when isolated, how is someone able to feel fulfilled? Erie is confined by the ways in which others perceive him, including both Hughie and the new Night Clerk, who gradually comes to understand him throughout the play. Erie is a gambler, and his stories are full of destiny and chance. How are we defined by that uncertainty, versus what actually happens?
Are you excited about collaborating with multi–award winning director and producer Michael Grandage?
When I was searching for a director to work on this project, I heard absolutely amazing things about Michael. He started his career as an actor, so he has a unique understanding of character and is incredibly effective at communicating his thoughts and bringing the best possible performances out of his actors. We started to explore Hughie by lightly reading through the script together, and as we did, I saw his openness to finding new ideas, as well as the joy he takes in serving the text. I’m very excited to be collaborating with him on my Broadway debut.
I know you just finished filming both the next Star Wars film, and the remake of Roots. You are also a director and producer. What’s next for you after Hughie?
In addition to those projects, I recently filmed Story of Your Life alongside Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, and am also looking forward to producing several projects with my company, Significant Productions.
Finally, what is it you hope for most with this production of Hughie and your Broadway debut?
Theater can be incredibly magical, and I see the buildings themselves as being like cathedrals. The alchemy that exists when audiences enter and share their energies with one another as well as with those on stage is very powerful and unlike anything else I’ve experienced. I’m excited to learn from our audiences’ responses to the play, and hope they take this journey with us, finding their own individual understanding of identity and how we define ourselves. This isn’t as heavy as some of O’Neill’s other plays, so I also hope that audiences have an opportunity to laugh and have fun while gaining a deeper sense of themselves, each other, and the social connections we all make.