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This is it: a 'Chicago' stint

Huey Lewis planned to keep going with his band the News, but the coveted Broadway role of Billy Flynn was completely unexpected.

November 25, 2005|Mark Kennedy | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Huey Lewis has the look of someone who has found a new drug.

The front man for Huey Lewis and the News is kind of freaked, kind of jazzed. It's the feeling you get when you realize you might be in a little over your head, but it feels good anyway.

"I pinch myself daily," says Lewis, whose band blazed up the charts in the 1980s with hits including "The Power of Love," "The Heart of Rock 'n' Roll" and "I Want a New Drug."

What has Lewis feeling this way is his latest, seemingly unlikely endeavor: the coveted role of sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn in "Chicago: The Musical," winner of multiple Tony Awards.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd end up on Broadway," he says over coffee at Bond 45, a Times Square restaurant near the show's Ambassador Theatre home.

"I never would have solicited it or even thought about it. I watched the movie 'Chicago' and really loved it but never for the life of me thought, 'Oh, man, I could do that role.' Never, ever."

Lewis, 55, follows in the footsteps of other entertainers who have played the role, including Jerry Orbach, Ben Vereen, George Hamilton, Wayne Brady, Patrick Swayze, Richard Gere, Alan Thicke and Taye Diggs.

"As I've said to the cast, 'I don't have to be the best, but I better not be the worst,' " Lewis says. Plus, he has a special understanding of the role: "I'm in the music business -- I know a lot of lawyers."

Bernard Dotson, the show's dance captain who trained Lewis, says he's been impressed by his student's zeal to master the Bob Fosse material without a Bob Fosse background.

"He's in it to win it," Dotson says. "He really wants to have a great time with it. He really respects the show a great deal, and he sees how hard everyone else is working. He wants to be a part of it."

Lewis became part of it when, earlier this year, producers asked him if he might be interested in going in. He begged off, conveniently citing a touring schedule to promote his band's 25th anniversary DVD.

"When they inquired, my initial impulse was, 'I can't do that. I'm not a legit guy. I don't have the chops for that,' " Lewis says. While visiting his son at New York University, he saw "Chicago" and changed his tune, agreeing to come in this month.

"I was knocked out by the show. I thought, 'I could almost do this.' Of course, what you begin to realize is how actually complicated it is.

"Musical theater is absolutely the jazz of show business. You have to sing, dance and act all at the same time. And it's live -- there's no messing around. That's very appealing to me. Difficult, scary, but stimulating."

For Lewis, the challenge has forced him to adjust. Being the lead singer of a band and being in a stage show might seem alike, but he says they aren't.

"In my role as Huey Lewis, if I want to sing a different note, I just go ahead and play it. If I want to move over here, I move.... If I want to talk to the crowd, I stop the band and talk to the crowd.

"Stylistically, it's also completely different singing. In rock 'n' roll, we don't hold the notes that long, and we don't have long note finishes. We fade out on a record or end abruptly. And all these songs have big finishes."

The acting is a different story. Lewis has been dabbling at it since 1985's "Back to the Future," in which he had a cameo role and performed the title song. In 1993, he was a member of the ensemble cast of the movie "Short Cuts."

He's also had parts in "Sphere," "Shadow of Doubt" and "Duets," in which he costarred with Gwyneth Paltrow. Their duet of "Cruisin' " reached No. 1 on Billboard's adult contemporary chart.

So what about the third leg of musical theater -- dancing? "My initial attempts are very amusing," he says with a smile.

Since the band's breakthrough album, "Sports," in 1983, Huey Lewis and the News have not only remained together but also expanded to a nine-man group that plays about 85 shows a year. The group also has slowly transformed itself into a rhythm-and-blues band.

"We didn't set ourselves up to be trendy because there was no trendy," he says. "The object of our band was a career. It wasn't a Grammy, money, women or platinum records -- those were never the object. The object was playing Peoria and having people show up."

Lewis says the band has actually grown into its material.

"In many ways, our stuff was old-fashioned even then," he says. "The songs we wrote in our 20s -- 'Stuck With You' or 'If This Is It' -- are more appropriate for a person of my age. I see it in the crowd when we play. They really relate to these songs."

Despite a few extra wrinkles, Lewis looks little changed from the band's heyday, back when even he admits he was "no spring chicken." He is dressed in a black suit over a black T-shirt, and his voice is craggy and smoky.

Now that the band has celebrated its quarter-century mark, Lewis is thinking about the first new album since 2001's "Plan B," a collection of songs that Rolling Stone magazine said "go down as easily as home-brew."

"We need to write and probably need to write another record, for some reason. Not because anybody needs to hear it -- they're happy to hear our songbook. But as a storyteller, you need a new story every so often."

Until then, he'll be hoofing on Broadway. But don't expect a lot of mugging to those in the seats who've come to see the guy who sings "Hip to Be Square" and "Doing It All for My Baby."

"My first inclination is not to please the audience, it's to please the cast. Seriously. Many of the cast members have been there for nine years," he says.

"I want to push this story along, and I want to be a good Billy Flynn for them. That's my first step. Then, at a certain point, I'll look for nuances in the character."

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