Vlad to be of service to Transylvania
It’s gloomy and gray, and the rain is coming down in sheets. An ominous crash of low-rumbling thunder resounds outside. An even more ominous crash of indeterminate origin resounds within the Belasco Theater, where technical rehearsals for “Dracula, the Musical” are underway.
The atmosphere on this mid-July day is grim and gothic, in keeping with the 1897 Bram Stoker novel on which the musical is based. Even the theater is perfectly cast: It’s a somewhat creepy place, where ghosts of outsized spectacles past lurk amid the dark woodwork, Tiffany light fixtures and strange paintings.
None of this disturbs the bloodsucker himself, who is tucked away in his lair, also known as Dressing Room 1. Tom Hewitt plays the toothsome Count, and when you’ve bitten as many necks as he has, a little doom and gloom around the tomb is all in a day’s work.
Composed by Frank Wildhorn, with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, “Dracula, the Musical” will open Thursday at the Belasco, directed by Des McAnuff.
The show premiered to mixed reviews in 2001 at La Jolla Playhouse, where McAnuff is artistic director. At the time, plans were announced to bring it to the Broadway Theatre that spring. However, those plans were scrapped, and the intervening years have been used to revamp it.
Perhaps because of the long wait for Dracula’s return, Hewitt isn’t yet making himself fully at home in his Belasco dressing room. “We really haven’t settled in,” he says, by way of explaining the absence of personal belongings or even much sign of occupancy. There’s a baroque but beat-up mirror on the wall, a single flying harness hanging on a rack, and a lonely Vlad the Impaler doll on the dressing table.
“Maybe there’s a little superstition in that regard,” he continues. “You might get all settled, and of course karmically that means we’ll close. A lot of people feel superstitious about moving into a dressing room too soon.”
Just how long a life -- or “Life After Life,” as the Act 1 finale calls it -- “Dracula” will enjoy is, of course, yet to be determined. But there is no such uncertainty about Hewitt’s stature as one of Broadway’s lights.
This tall man from Montana is known for his stint as the villainous Scar in “The Lion King” and for his Tony-nominated turn as Frank N. Furter, the “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania” in “The Rocky Horror Show.” Most recently, he played Officer Lockstock in the national tour of “Urinetown.”
“Musicals are a relatively new thing for me,” Hewitt says. “I didn’t do many until 1998, when I was in ‘The Lion King.’ I’ve always felt that I could sing pretty well for an actor, but I never ever considered myself a Broadway singer.”
Call it Transylvanian typecasting, but Hewitt seems to have cornered the market on larger-than-life nasties.
“I’m 6 feet 3 inches tall; I’m classically trained. I’ve played a lot of kings and royalty and mythological characters,” he explains. “Apparently, if there’s a monster in a musical, I get the call. That seems to be my niche at present.”
Naturalism? No, thanks
Stoker based his novel on vampire legends and Central European tales of the “nosferatu,” or undead. Dracula, a mysterious and supernaturally seductive count from Transylvania, must suck the blood of innocent victims to sustain himself. The book is written largely in the form of journal entries by the main characters, including Jonathan Harker, a young man who comes to Castle Dracula; Mina, Harker’s fiancee, whom Dracula desires; Lucy, one of his victims; and various other people who seek to stop the Count.
It’s a story that requires a very strong leading persona -- and a perfect fit for Hewitt’s particular combination of charisma and theatricality. “He’s contributed a vast amount,” says McAnuff. “He’s very charismatic and very sexy. Once in a while, an actor comes along that really inspires you. I would do almost anything with this actor. He’s one of the main reasons for all of us -- producers, creators -- continuing with this project.”
“I don’t have a lot of interest in naturalistic roles,” says the actor, looking decidedly unflashy in a pale red shirt and shorts. “I used to say that I’m a character actress trapped in a leading man’s body. I have always been drawn to the outsider. So I’m delighted, after a string of romantic leading men, to be able to move into the Scar-Frank N. Furter-Dracula stuff.”
As he sits in his dressing room discussing the Count, Hewitt’s conversation is punctuated by the stage manager’s voice crackling over an intercom.
“OK, folks, we’ve got to move the coffins offstage. Please be aware. Objects will be moving.”
“Dracula” has been not only retooled but redesigned since its premiere, with a new set by Heidi Ettinger. It was an elaborate spectacle in La Jolla, but now it’s even more elaborate and spectacular, with lots of flying objects and people. Consequently, the designers and production team are trying to get a step ahead in their work, before the actors arrive for the day’s rehearsals.
“Standing by, please. We’re going to attempt this transition, which is: coffins going offstage, sun roof opening, carriage coming up.”
At 46 and visibly comfortable in his own skin, Hewitt thrives amid this process. He graciously apologizes for the aural intrusion, even though it’s obviously beyond his control.
“Last scene in Castle Dracula” -- this time it’s McAnuff’s voice coming over the speakers -- “on the Dracula theme park trail.”
Hewitt trained at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee -- in a professional theater training program now based at the University of Delaware. But he wasn’t aiming for the musical stage.
“My school focused a lot on the classics, and I also worked with a Japanese avant-garde theater company,” the Suzuki Company of Toga. Hewitt was, in fact, one of the first Americans to work with Suzuki, spending summers “in this little mountain village in the Japanese alps, living in 200-year-old houses and fishing with our hands. It was an outrageous adventure.”
‘A great deal of heart’
Following school, Hewitt soon began working in regional theaters. But it took years of establishing himself in classical and contemporary dramas, at such respected venues as Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., before he found himself where he never expected to be: singing on Broadway.
“I was always waiting for something like Scar in ‘The Lion King,’ where the musicality is not the most important thing, the character is the most important thing,” he says of the role he had for two years. “I knew that I couldn’t do a musical until the acting was more important than the singing.”
Hewitt made an even bigger splash as the cross-dressing Frank N. Furter in the 2000 revival of “The Rocky Horror Show.”
And while that show was running, he auditioned for “Dracula, the Musical.”
“I had seen him in ‘Rocky Horror’ and was very impressed, but it’s a very different role,” McAnuff recalls. “Tom brings a sense of scale to a performance, while at the same time maintaining a sense of truth. You want it to be utterly believable, and yet it has to be majestic and at times even gargantuan, and he really manages to do that. Also, he has a great deal of heart. He’s not afraid of opening himself up emotionally.”
Musically, “Dracula” would prove a bigger challenge than any of Hewitt’s previous roles. But because the score was still being shaped, the creators were able to tailor it to his abilities.
“They were wonderfully generous to me in La Jolla,” he says. “They lowered keys for me and were very forgiving for my lack of musicality.”
“Dracula” has had several readings since La Jolla and the show has changed by as much as 40%, according to both Hewitt and McAnuff.
One major change is that Hewitt, who always carried the show, has been given an even greater role.
“Dracula has more music and more passionate music,” he says. “I think that’s the biggest change for me. He’s more present in the show.”
He has not only more music but more difficult music.
“Frank has bumped it up, given me some more challenges,” Hewitt says. “He’s raised some keys, written bigger power ballad stuff for me.
“I really have to step up to the plate singing-wise in this role like I never have before. And I can’t tell you how satisfying that is. It’s been so much fun to have some aspect of performing that I could work on and get better at in my middle age.”