Interview: Original Broadway Cast Member John Hillner Revisits FOOTLOOSE At Argyle Theatre

John returns to the role of Reverend Shaw after portraying the character in the original Broadway production at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

By: Aug. 05, 2022
Interview: Original Broadway Cast Member John Hillner Revisits FOOTLOOSE At Argyle Theatre

On any Sunday through August 28, Long Island audiences can catch Broadway's John Hillner in the Argyle Theatre production of the hit musical, Footloose!

Footloose tells the story of Ren, a big city teen who makes the move from Chicago to a small farming town called Beaumont. Ren is prepared for the inevitable adjustment period at his new high school, but he's not prepared for the rigorous local edicts, including a ban on dancing instituted by the local preacher, Reverend Shaw Moore, a community leader who is determined to exercise control over the town's youth.

A member of the original Broadway company of Footloose, John spent the better part of the show's run at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in the role of Coach Roger Dunbar and understudying the role of Reverend Shaw before taking over the part full-time in the final months of the show's run.

Now, 23 years after the show's closing, John returns to the role, bringing a whole new perspective and a slew of new experiences to the part. BroadwayWorld had the opportunity to sit down for a chat with John about this all-new production, his process, and what it means to revisit this complex antagonist.

A veteran actor of stage and screen, John's Broadway credits include Mamma Mia!, La Cage Aux Folles and The Graduate, as well as the national tour of Wicked. He has worked extensively on network television including appearances on The Good Wife, Elementary, Damages, Seinfeld, and Law & Order. In addition to his work on the small screen, John recently portrayed President George H. W. Bush in the Oscar-nominated film VICE.

See what John had to say in excerpts from our conversation!

This looks like a really terrific production. How has your experience been so far working with this company?

Yeah. It's really, really well done. We have a wonderful, set designer and choreographer. Our director, Evan Pappas, is amazingly well organized, but also the kind of man who has the ability to adjust on a heartbeat and he's really, really good at that...I haven't done any stage show in quite a long time because of COVID and everything else, and I'm loving it. I'm enjoying it so much.

Interview: Original Broadway Cast Member John Hillner Revisits FOOTLOOSE At Argyle Theatre

It's a wonderful cast. These young people are fresh out of school. They come from all kinds of different training around the country and they're really good. They pick up on stuff very quickly and they can change at the drop of a hat. They're inexhaustible. They're just crazy talented. Coming in as the elder statesman on the first day of rehearsal, I looked at these people, and I'm watching their work ethic, and I just thought, "I better up my game. I better up my game because these people are really on top of it." They're smart and they've got great voices and they can dance like crazy people.

In terms of process, what is yours? Especially in returning to a role, is there a muscle memory to fight against in terms of acting choices having done the role already?

I never come with a preconceived notion, even though I've done this before. I allow every moment to unfold in the rehearsal process and I don't prejudge. Every time is the first time,. That's how I do it every time I go out and do the show, and it's interesting to go at it with that kind of an open mind.

I've studied with a number of people, Michael Howard and most recently Greg Sims about the ability to listen and just let it rip and lay it out. I opened myself up to classes last year during the pandemic, I was doing Zoom classes with Greg Sims out on the West Coast. It was very interesting to open myself to vulnerability in a way that I hadn't in many years. It was fascinating to revisit my process and learn how to approach something from a very vulnerable and open area, and not just use my old techniques. I learned a different way of going about it, and I bring that to this.

How do you find your relationship to Shaw and your approach to the character have Interview: Original Broadway Cast Member John Hillner Revisits FOOTLOOSE At Argyle Theatre changed in the 23 years since you last played the role?

Revisiting it after 23 years is very interesting because my son was born literally the day we got back from Washington from a preview in 1998. What Footloose says, at least for my character, is that you have to listen. If you don't listen, you're doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past and you can't hold on to your prejudices so tight. I've learned that over 23 years, having gone through it with my son and encountering the exact same stuff that I encounter in Footloose. I didn't realize how much that experience was going to inform how I approach the role now. It really enriches the way I've approached it and it's a more fulfilling experience than it was so long ago. My life experience has changed and now it has a deeper meaning for me.

Do you find that you have more empathy for the character at this point in your life?

Yeah. I think so. Having the experience of family life, I've had my daughter who's 40, I have a stepson who's 30 and I have my youngest son who is 23 going on 24. There are times when I have been pretty stubborn in my life. I'm a pretty regimented guy. I know the right way to do things. There is a right way to do things, but now I know that it's not the only way. The right way doesn't necessarily mean it's the only way and it's not necessarily the best way. My right way is not somebody else's right way. Another thing is that I listen to my kids a lot more. I may not agree, but I'm going to listen to what they have to say because they're the future leaders of the world. I don't want discourage them from being able to make their own choices and so I'm going to listen. So what I do is I engage conversations as much as I can with my kids because they're all different generations.

Shaw really isn't your typical antagonist. He's quite sympathetic as far as characters go.

Well, there's a lot of layers there. He's torn between his faith in God and being led by God, and he relies on his religion and his faith to bring him through. He feels a great responsibility to guide the whole town and his family, and he holds onto this with a very, very tight grip. He is a very complicated man in the fact that he puts the weight of the world on himself. Then there's this kid who comes in from Chicago and presents a huge threat to his world of control. He's a very controlling man, and what I've learned in this incarnation is that this is a man who doesn't listen a whole lot. He doesn't listen to his wife.

Interview: Original Broadway Cast Member John Hillner Revisits FOOTLOOSE At Argyle Theatre

He doesn't listen to his daughter. He asks God for advice, but he constantly asks the Lord, "What can I do? And how can I say the right words?" But he doesn't listen to his family, and what he doesn't listen to is what is going on in the immediacy. He's so caught in the past that he doesn't have a grasp of the present.

He comes around in the end, which I think is actually a very, very poignant part of this particular version. He is directly confronted by the rabble rouser, Ren, and we have a conversation at the end of the play, which is very different from what happened during the Broadway production. The Broadway production had Shaw having a soliloquy at the end where he comes to the realization that he's been holding onto the past for way too long. He had it in a big song called, "I Confess." Many, many years ago, they cut it and they rewrote the end of the play, and I think this is a better way of doing it. Now there's a scene between Ren and Shaw, where they come together on an equal basis, and Shaw comes to his realization after listening to this young man. He listens to a stranger. He listens to this boy that he has been bucking up against all this time. He opens up his heart in the last scene, and he unloads his burden, and he becomes a man of God and a man of heart. It's a very, very good ending and a very different ending.

I also think there's something timely about this idea of his stepping back and having the humility to listen to a young person, specifically.

Exactly. It's not a long scene, but it's a scene that is, I think, one of the best written in the show. It's a good ending for both of them. And then the finale is really fun to do, too, because I finally get to dance. [laughs]

Footloose began performances on July 14 and celebrated its opening night on July 16 and will run through August 28, 2022.

The cast includes Peyton S. Cassity as Ren (Regional: Addams Family), Tia Karaplis as Ariel (Regional: Babes In Arms), John Hillner* as Reverend Shaw (Broadway: Footloose, Mamma Mia!), Michelle Mallardi* as Vi Shaw (Broadway: Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Les Miserable), Carrie Michelle Baker as Ethel, Tray Wright as Willard (Regional: Grease), Lilliannie Arie Urgent as Rusty, Quincy Lawson as Urleen (Regional: A Chorus Line), Liat Shuflita as Wendy Jo (Regional: Babes In Arms), Max Kuenzer as Chuck (Regional: The Mystery of Edwin Drood), Jay Mauro (Regional: Pippin), Tyrell Ruffin (Regional: The Wiz), Jojo Minasi (Regional: Mamma Mia!), Arturo Hernandez (Regional: Spring Awakening), Molly Model (Argyle Theater's Elf), Christina Emily Jackson (National Tour: Shrek, The Sound of Music), Nicole Weitzman (Regional: Once Upon A Mattress), Mikey Marmann (Argyle Theatre's The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Melissa Goldberg and Drew Reese.

The creative team includes Set Design by Steven Velasquez, Lighting Design by Eric Norbury, Costume Design by Peter Fogel, Sound Design by Scott Stauffer, Prop Master Zach Marlin. Production Stage Manager is Emily Todt* with Assistant Stage Manager Shari Freeda, Covid Safety Manager Dailee Morrone, Production Assistant Perseis Grant, Production Manager/Technical Director is Michael Kauffman, the Production Coordinator is Alison Savino and the Casting Director is Michael Cassara, CSA.


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