How's this for encouragement? As a young man living on Catalina Island, California, Gregory Harrison made his musical-theater debut as El Gallo in an improvised production of The Fantasticks at a local restaurant. One night Jason Robards, who was filming a movie on the island, came in for a drink and got trapped watching the show. "After a couple hours and a lot of drinks," Harrison recalls, "he came backstage to tell me he thought I was terrific and could make an actor." That was all Harrison needed to hear.
Since that time, the actor has spent most of his career on television, starring in series like the long-running Trapper John, M.D., and in more TV movies than anyone outside his own family could possibly remember. When TV movies became an endangered species, Harrison finally returned to musicals.
Seven years ago, he made his Broadway debut in the short-lived but intriguing Steel Pier, the final original show by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Steel Pier puts Harrison in a unique position to star in the current national tour of Kander and Ebb's Chicago, which opens yet another engagement at the Fox Theatre (527 North Grand Boulevard) on Tuesday, November 9, and plays through Sunday, November 21: Harrison is the only person in the company who actually worked with the show's composers.
"Fred, God bless him [Ebb died two months ago], was a live wire -- a funny, funny man, very sensitive, high-strung, brilliant wit," Harrison says. "John Kander, on the other hand, is the mildest-mannered, most normal person you could ever meet. I found it fascinating that although they were great friends, they often didn't see each other for long periods. Even when they were working together, John would be in upstate New York writing the music, and Fred would send him faxes with lyric ideas."
Harrison next appeared on Broadway when he starred in the eagerly awaited revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies. What was it like to work with theater's most celebrated icon? "It's always a shock when you discover that an icon is just a human being," Harrison replies. "I shared a dressing room with Treat Williams. Stephen would come in at half-hour and want to chat and tell jokes. Really, he'd distract us from getting focused for the show. Here he is, the Shakespeare of American musical theater, and he was like a little boy who just wanted us to pay attention to him."
Now Harrison is bringing razzle-dazzle to Chicago. As attorney Billy Flynn, he presides over a sensational murder trial. At eight years and counting, Chicago is Broadway's longest-running musical revival. Why? Because in America, Harrison suggests, the play's material strikes a nerve: "People will do anything for five minutes of fame. This country will glorify the most despicable people," he laments. "It's a sad situation, but it's much truer today than when Kander and Ebb wrote Chicago in 1975. It's even truer now than when the revival opened in 1996. It gets truer with every passing day, so the satire in the musical becomes more and more effective."