A newsmaker you should know: Broadway performer Hartung happy directing here

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Billy Hartung's more than 1,000 performances on the Broadway stage included being an original cast member of "Footloose" from 1998 to 2000.

It was just as thrilling a decade later, he said, when he directed the musical at the Center for Theater Arts in Mt. Lebanon, where his showbiz dreams took flight more than 30 years ago.

"I got to do it on Broadway and then I got to share it, encouraging kids to reach for their own stars," the actor/singer/dancer said of his favorite role to date -- the center's executive director.

He is especially keen on its next production: "Prom Night -- An Evening with the Stars," which will be performed Friday night at the center. During the performance, the public is encouraged to dance with the special needs youths and adults.

"We feel the community we are serving is our stars and it is an underserved community," he said of the center's Special Actors program, which the event benefits.

Mr. Hartung grew up in Mt. Lebanon as one of seven children in a musical family: His father, Robert, is an accordion player, and his mother, Mary Elizabeth, is a singer.

Their son's artistic flair was evident early on.

"My mother always said when she was a kid and danced on the table, she was told to get down. But when [her son] was a kid and dancing on the table, she looked into that," Billy Hartung said of his enrollment at age 8 in the center for weekly acting classes.

After seeing the musical film "Grease," he began slicking his hair back like John Travolta's character, Danny Zuko, and dreaming of a career as a song-and-dance man.

"I thought it was so cool that people could just start singing," he said.

By middle and high school, he was taking voice, dance and acting classes three days a week. He also performed in the Seton-LaSalle High School musicals.

After graduation, he enrolled at Point Park University for musical theater, taking part in about 18 shows in four years.

While still a student, he auditioned for the locally shot action film, "Striking Distance," landing the role of a hoodlum teenager who was cited for speeding by a river rescue squad officer played by Bruce Willis.

"I was on the set very early and had a great time with [Willis]. He gave me some tips on camera lenses. A cool guy," Mr. Hartung recalled.

Over the next 10 years, he performed in a variety of productions, including in the original cast of "Minnelli on Minnelli: at the Palace."

"There is no one like her," Mr. Hartung said of Liza Minnelli.

"When I auditioned and told her my wife [Sharon] and I were having a baby, she said she would hire someone to cover for me in case I had to leave," he said.

Daughter Elizabeth was born on opening night.

"Liza talked about her every night on the show, calling her Liza Lou instead of Elizabeth Louise,'' he said.

After completing work in Toronto as a dancer in 2001 in the film "Chicago," he and his wife discussed their next move.

The question, he said, was: "Are we going to maintain our lives in New York or get back and raise our family near family?"

They opted to rent his boyhood home in the South Hills for a year to see whether he could earn a living here.

Regardless of his address, Mr. Hartung remained in demand, dancing at the nationally televised 25th Anniversary of the Kennedy Center Honors and at the 75th Annual Academy Awards during which "Chicago" won as Best Picture.

In 2006, he was named executive director of the Center for Theater Arts, which offers musical theater classes for special needs and non-special needs children and adults.

The goal for all students is that in addition to enjoying singing, dancing and acting, they develop communication and presentation skills while enhancing their self-confidence and self-esteem.

For Mr. Hartung, the position also means regularly spending time with his wife and five children.

He continues to perform professionally and just finished a commercial for the state lottery.

Locally, he said his creative focus is all about the students, the arts and his own backyard.

"If there is a way to prove the arts enhances the community, I invite anyone to spend a day at the center," he said.

"Prom Night -- An Evening with the Stars" will be held from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church, 123 Gilkeson Road, Mt. Lebanon. Tickets: $20. Details: 412-563-5080 or www.centerfortheaterarts.org.


Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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