Billy Hartung enters with a cowboy hat and enough energy to fuel a Downtown block, leaving no doubt he’s ready to cut loose.
The Seton-La Salle High and Point Park grad originated the role of spurned boyfriend Chuck Cranston when “Footloose” danced onto Broadway in 1998. Now, at age 43, he‘s back in his boots for Pittsburgh CLO, playing band leader Cowboy Bob. It’s a relatively small role, and that suits Mr. Hartung just fine. He wasn‘t sure he wanted to be involved at all.
It took a little persuasion by director and friend Barry Ivan to lure him back. The dedicated father of five had taken a step back from performing and once he had signed, there came an unexpected bonus -- his daughter Elizabeth, 14, who was born while dad was hoofing in “Footloose” on Broadway, was among the youngsters hired for the CLO production.
“When you look at the journey, I’m doing the show with my daughter. What a gift for me!” he said. “She laughs that she‘s been singing [”Footloose“ songs] in the back of the car, and now she’s singing it on stage.”
It’s been a rare sight to find Mr. Hartung on stage for a musical in recent years. He chose a different life after finding Broadway success, moving back to Pittsburgh from New York and buying the house he grew up in with wife Sharon. He has performed occasional roles far (as a dancer in the 2002 movie “Chicago”) and near home (City Theatre‘s premiere of the musical “Hearts Are Wild” in 2006, for example) but these days he‘s mostly behind the scenes as creative director of the Center for Theater Arts in Mt. Lebanon -- where he directed a high school production of “Footloose” -- and he also travels with his band, the Hooligan Brothers, for weekend gigs.
“My wife, Sharon, and I knew we wanted a big family. I’m one of seven, and she‘s one of six,” he said. That’s a lot of family members to fill Benedum Center seats this week.
“We need two Ducky buses to fit them all,” he said.
Back in the 1990s, when he was a high-energy 25, Mr. Hartung was living another dream. He was working on two Broadway premieres -- “Footloose” and “Side Show,” his New York debut as Roustabout -- and was one of five male dancers for “Minnelli on Minnelli,” Liza’s tribute to her father at the Palace Theatre. All of it happened as his first child, Elizabeth, was about to be born. In fact, she took her first bow from the stage of the Palace with Liza with a “z.”
“I never missed a show due to illness or injury, which was unheard of, but I had one window, and it was to do a show with Liza Minnelli. ... My wife was eight months pregnant. Liza‘s like, ’I‘d like you to be in my show ... and we’ll hire someone to cover you in case the baby comes. So I was rehearsing ‘Footloose’ during the day and working with Liza at night, and then we have the baby opening night.”
The run of “Footloose” was 2 1/2 years that resulted in friendships that increased his already long holiday card list and continue to this day. “Anika Noni Rose came in to play Rusty, Christian Borle, Tom Plotkin ... it was really fun to be someone who knew the model but got to try it with all these different people. And most importantly, I got to open it when there was the question of whether it would work and take it to closing night [after 709 performances] when you could put it away and say, ‘What a gift.’ ”
Also in that original cast was three-time Tony nominee Dee Hoty, who reprises her role as Vi Moore for Pittsburgh CLO. Patrick Cassidy leads the cast as the Rev. Shaw Moore. Their roles as grieving parents were played by Dianne Wiest and John Lithgow in the movie version.
Mr. Hartung was with the process of bringing the movie that screams 1980s -- with hit songs such as “Let’s Hear It For the Boy,” “Almost Paradise,” “Holding Out For a Hero” and the title song -- every step of the way to Broadway. He began with a concert production in Connecticut, in which he played the Kevin Bacon role of the rebellious Ren, before screenplay writer and lyricist Dean Pitchford stepped in to make a go of the show on Broadway.
He was one of the few who made the leap to New York when he auditioned for several of the male roles before being cast as Chuck. He brought a likability to the role that wasn‘t as evident on screen. He walked in knowing the character from head to toe.
“When I played Chuck Cranston, I always thought he was misunderstood. He’s not a bad guy. He probably worked in a gas station and he had a shirt with his name on it, so I would wear clothes like that and rehearse in my boots and my jeans because it was the workshop before we knew it was bound for another life,” Mr. Hartung recalled.
“They got so used to seeing me in those clothes that when the costume designer showed up and we went to the out-of-town tryout in D.C., the director was like, ’I can’t see him. … Tell Billy to give the costume designer his clothes and tell him to make the clothes that way.’ So they took a $12 Old Navy shirt and made me two of them for $800 because the material had to be what they could wash every day for eight shows a week. So at the end of the show, they gave me all those clothes they made of clothes I already owned.”
He says this with his black leather cowboy hat on the table beside him. It‘s his own, decided on because a hat not only has to suit its wearer but also not fly off during a big dance number. Gone are the days when he was running between rehearsals for “Footloose” and “Side Show” and preparing to go onstage with Liza Minnelli.
It’s a sure sign he‘s ready to cut loose again, this time with the appropriately titled song “Still Rockin’.”