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Theater | THEATER

Usher's Next Step

The R&B superstar slides into a new guise: The show-tune-belting, Fosse-dancing role of Billy Flynn in `Chicago.' It's no slam dunk.

August 20, 2006|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Usher's business ambitions take a backseat only to his goals as an entertainer. It has given him a slightly odd career portfolio -- in 2004 he launched the first celebrity debit card with MasterCard, for instance. He is part owner of an NBA team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. His resume also includes Coca-Cola jingles. Before "In the Mix," he already had film credits for roles in movies such as "The Faculty" and "She's All That," as well as a thick list of television appearances. After the stage run, he plans to hit the studio for a new album.

Since he started rehearsals for "Chicago" in late July, he's been living in an apartment in Times Square ("It's not easy to find, it's in a little pocket ... ") and he's stripped down his life considerably, more for reasons of focus than finance.

There's no entourage, no driver, and he has a Toyota Highlander in the city just in case he wants to bolt for a place where he can see tree lines like the ones back home in Atlanta. He has seen only one staging of "Chicago" -- that was weeks and weeks ago -- and he has not had time to drop in on any other productions in town. "You don't understand, this is all I do. This is all I can do. It's a lot of work. I don't go out really. I rehearse, I work out, I sleep."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 22, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
"Roxie Hart": A Sunday Calendar article about R&B singer Usher's Broadway debut in the musical "Chicago" incorrectly said that the Ginger Rogers movie "Roxie Hart" was made 20 years after the 1927 film version of "Chicago." It was made 15 years later.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 27, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
"Roxie Hart": An article last Sunday about R&B singer Usher's Broadway debut in the musical "Chicago" incorrectly said that the Ginger Rogers movie "Roxie Hart" was made 20 years after the 1927 film version of "Chicago." It was made 15 years later.

At the start of rehearsals, he got a bad head cold, and the fatigue made it worse. He worried about exactly what he had signed up for and he got a little jittery, like a kid in boot camp. But as the days went by, he worked on his lines and learned the steps.

The director even decided to add a new solo dance sequence in "Razzle Dazzle" to give Usher a comfortable spot to show off his smooth moves. "And I learned to tap dance," he said proudly. Who was his teacher? "Nah. I taught myself."

Usher is a quick study, and during rehearsal with Hyslop, the stage manager, the singer repeats back his instructions on how quickly to cross the stage during an argument with another character. "If you go fast, at the end when you turn back around you really do it with snap." The singer tries, and Hyslop nods in approval. "Perfect."

Usher prides himself on being a self-made man, but his sense of history also makes him seek out counsel and do research. When he decided to take the "Chicago" role, he bought a DVD on Fosse and picked up the phone and called his mentor with the most Broadway experience: Ben Vereen.

The two came together at a studio in New York and discussed the pros and cons of the move. They have known each other for years, since Usher was a teen dating the performer's daughter, Caron, and passed along a videotape of himself singing. "He reminds me of myself at that age," Vereen said. "I had so much energy I kept running into walls. He calls me 'Dad' because I'm a godfather to him, and I think he's absolutely wonderful."

Wonderful, yes, but not perfect; Vereen winced when asked about Usher's movie "In the Mix." "He stepped away," Vereen said of the young star's work in the film. "Now he's doing the right thing. You have to go to the boards," he said, referring to the theater-world term for the stage. "All of this, it's not about impressing the industry, it's not impressing the establishment. It's about the self and the mysteries of life through challenge."

For his part, Usher said the most important advice he got from the 60-year-old Tony winner was a bit Zen.

"He said to be. He said stop acting and just find a way to be natural in what you are doing and the way you react to things." Usher chuckled and fidgeted with his hat. "You think, making, what, three movies now, someone would have mentioned that before."

The weeks ahead should have more lessons for the young singer. He has been warned about the New York stage critics ("Who knows what those people think or why? Nobody, not even them," Weissler jokes), the grueling pace of the daily dancing life, the inevitability of an off night, etc.

He shrugged it all off, twirled his cane and smiled.

"You know, when you're on tour with a concert, you kind of call the shots yourself. You can show up late sometimes and you can kind of do your own thing up. Now, with this, that's not the case. In some ways, I don't know exactly what to expect. But I'm here for all of it, that's the challenge. If you don't challenge yourself, no one will."

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