Making his New York stage debut in the Williams bio-musical is the affable Jason Petty, whose performance in the show has earned him nominations for both a Lucille Lortel Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award. I recently got to chat with Jason in his dressing room at the theater.
THEATERMANIA: How did you get involved with the show?
JASON PETTY: It all started back in 1996. The Ryman Auditorium, which is the home of the Grand Ole Opry, decided to renovate and become a theatrical showplace. They approached me about doing a Hank Williams show because I had been doing a show in the Opryland Theme Park called Country Music USA, impersonating several different country stars. I did a reading for some executives. After it was over, they said, "That's great. Do you want the job?"
TM: And you've been doing it ever since?
JP: We did Lost Highway [at the Ryman] in '96-'97. Then we did a tour. Randal Myler, who's the director now, was an advisor in Nashville. After the tour, he called me to do another show of his, Appalachian Strings, in Cincinnati. From there, he and I came up with the idea to rework this show and try to get it to New York. Randal is an associate director over at the Cleveland Playhouse, so that seemed like a good place to get the show up on its feet. We did it there last August, September, and October. Dave Fishelson, from the Manhattan Ensemble Theater here in New York, saw it and had us bring it there. Some heavyweight producers came to see it, loved it -- and here we are at the Little Shubert!
TM: Had you done any acting before this?
JP: I'd done some acting in Nashville. Nashville is not a big acting town, but it's a huge singing town. Singing puts food on the table. I started singing in the church choir.
TM: Where were you born?
JP: Born and raised in Tennessee, a little town called Manchester. I attended elementary and high school there. I have three brothers -- two older, one younger. Summers were spent with my grandparents, who owned a 200-acre farm in Hickman County.
TM: You're playing a very heavy drinker. Do you enjoy a drink offstage?
JP: I don't drink anymore. It got to be sort of a problem. When you portray Hank Williams, it's tough not to fall into having some of the same demons. In Nashville, there are a lot of people still around who knew Hank or have hero worship of him, so they get excited when you bring his music back to life; they all wanted to buy "Hank" a drink, and I sort of let 'em. It came to a point where I had to quit.
TM: Has the show changed much since Nashville?
JP: The version we did at the Ryman had more music and was more sanitized; there was a lot less cursing, a little less drinking because the Ryman appeals more to tourists, a family-friendly crowd. Now, the show is more theatrical.
TM: I understand that you did a lot of research.
JP: I still do research! I got to talk to people who knew Hank and they seemed to open up more to me than they would to a writer, because I'm portraying him. Hank was a closed-off person who let his emotions come through in his music. It's tough to come to conclusions as to why Hank drank; it could have been the chronic pain from his back problems [a form of spina bifuda]. Growing up, he couldn't play sports because of his back problems. There was a lot of loneliness. Some people think that he had a heart attack the month before he died, but he never sought any treatment. He was only 29 when he died, but in pictures he looked 49 or 59. A lot of things aren't mentioned in our show. It's not mentioned that his wife, Audrey, was married when they met or that, in the summer of '52, Hank got Bobbie Jett pregnant. We don't mention their daughter, [singer] Jett Williams. We don't mention that Hank married Billie Jean on three different occasions during October-November '52. They sold tickets to the weddings! Audrey and Mama Lily [Hank's mother] hated each other, but they teamed up to get Billie Jean out of the way after Hank died so they could split the money. We don't mention that Audrey died in the 1970s, a worse alcoholic than Hank ever was. She ended up destitute. Her big thing was getting Hank Jr. dressed up like his daddy.
TM: How accurate was the 1964 movie biography Your Cheatin' Heart, with George Hamilton as Hank?
JP: Incredibly inaccurate! Audrey was the advisor. Billie Jean brought a lawsuit and got them to stop showing the movie! The estate is now divided three ways: Billie Jean gets a third, Jett Williams a third, and Hank Jr. a third. Two different publishing companies own the rights to the music. It's still a big pie, to this very day. It keeps people from having to work for a living. They live off Hank's music.
TM: How did you start acting?
JP: I was working for Pfizer Chemicals right out of college and doing very well. I was living in Franklin, Tennessee, just south of Nashville, and I had a client who was involved in community theater. Two days before the opening of a show, one of the leads dropped out. The client asked, "Do you sing?" I played the Minstrel in Once Upon a Mattress. A little while later, they asked me to do another show, and one thing led to another. I've written my own tribute show, Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes, which we've done in casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas and on a bus-and-truck tour. Hank keeps me pretty busy; I've been Hank longer than Hank was Hank! He was only in the spotlight for five years but I've been doing this for six.
TM: What was your biggest challenge in playing Hank?
JP: I've gone through a series of challenges. The show is emotionally exhausting; it was tough, early on, to separate myself from it. The other tough thing is keeping my voice strong. I have to limit myself to seven shows a week, with only one two-show day, because it's an impersonated voice and it doesn't sit naturally. If I overdo it, I wear out my vocal cords. One of these days, Hank Williams is going to come to an end for me; I need to branch out. But, right now, I couldn't ask for a better situation to be in. This cast works so well together. Margaret Bowman [who plays Mama] and I have been together since the Ryman; she's like my surrogate mother, and I think that shows onstage. I didn't know a boy could be so happy. Every night, when I hear that entrance music, I'm ready to go!