Nicky Henson
Nicky Henson
Right now, Nicky Henson's at the Atkinson, portraying the cool vice-chancellor in Jumpers. It's a tough role in an equally tough play, but Henson maneuvers it well, which should surprise none who know his background. After all, he's had roles in Waiting for Godot, She Stoops to Conquer, Measure for Measure, Oedipus Rex, Romeo and Juliet, and The Maids -- none of them theatrical lightweights.

But if one digs a little deeper into Henson's bio, one finds that the British actor started out in musicals, including one of my all-time favorites, Passion Flower Hotel. "Don't look for that one to be revived," he cautioned me when I met him in his dressing room last month. I nodded in agreement. The 1965 tuner, based on Rosalind Erskine's 1962 novel, tells of a group of British schoolgirls who decide to make a few extra bucks by selling their bodies to British schoolboys. The story is handled as innocently as possible but, when all is said and done, a brothel by any other name is still a brothel.

But what a wonderful score John Barry wrote with Trevor Peacock! Barry, who was just coming off his mega-hit with the theme to the James Bond Goldfinger, put that same sound into his music for the show. No other score quite sounds like it, and you won't get a sense of it from the one song that many know from Barbra Streisand's People album: "How Much of the Dream Comes True."

Henson can be heard on the especially Bondian-sounding song, "What a Question," in which he gets to sing the title a good dozen times or more. "The show had a good cast, great writers, and lots of money behind it," Henson told me. "Jeremy Clyde, then popular as half of Chad and Jeremy, was one of the boys, and two of the girls were Jane Birkin, now a big film star in France, and Pauline Collins (later Shirley Valentine). But the theater was always empty. They kept it on for six months, though, because Warner Bros. had bought the film rights, and if they could run that long, they'd get a hundred thousand pounds. It was produced by Gene Gutowski, who later made Roman Polanski movies." (There's a joke in there, but I'm sure not going to make it.)

Henson had already made a musical name for himself playing Mordred in the original London production of Camelot with Laurence Harvey, but he was still a teen when Passion Flower was being readied, so he now admits his youthful theatrical inexperience made him think it was going to be a big hit. So three years later, when he appeared in his next London musical, he wasn't nearly as enthusiastic about its prospects. "We were in such a terrible state during rehearsals," he says. "The director, who'd also written it, was thrown out of the theater by the producers. So four days before it opened, I rang my agent and said 'We won't open.' He came to see it, and said, 'Yes, I'll start looking for something for you first thing tomorrow.' But we did open, and afterwards, many of us from the cast went to a club called the Pickwick Club that was owned by John Barry and Wolf Mankowitz" (the bookwriter on Passion Flower Hotel; could they have bought the place with their share of that hundred--thousand pounds?). "We all put our week's wages in the middle of the table, and said to the headwaiter, 'Bring the champagne until that runs out.' Then someone went out and bought the paper, and we saw a rave review."

It wouldn't be the only one. Canterbury Tales went on to run 2,080 peformances, and still ranks as one of the West End's longest-running attractions. "I think that some of its success is because we could talk dirty because it was Chaucer. There was still at that time the Lord Chamberlain who had great sway over censorship issues. I mean, my opening number was 'I Have a Noble Cock.'" Perhaps it was this song that set the tone for Henson's getting cast as the title character in the musical movie The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones. "That movie was so cheap they decided to do all the bed scenes in one day, so all they did was change the sheets and the bedspread. So in one day, I went to bed with Georgia Brown, Joan Collins, and Geraldine McEwen." (Henson doesn't say how he prepared for the role.)

Henson signed a year's contract with Canterbury Tales, but wound up staying longer. "For I got a movie called Crooks and Coronets with Telly Savalas and Edith Evans. I got permission to shoot during the day, but then the picture needed me on Wednesdays, too, when I had matinees. The producers told me that every Wednesday I took off would add a month to my contract. The picture needed me for six Wednesdays, so I had to stay with Canterbury Tales for 18 months."

Then, in 1970, Henson took a new turn with his career, one that had led him to the Atkinson. Noted director Frank Dunlop, associated with the Old Vic, wanted to start the Young Vic -- in which actors 25 and under would do the classics. He called Henson and invited him to be a part of it. How he knew the young actor is a story in itself. "Back in 1963, I went to my first-ever audition for a revue called All Square at the Queen's Theatre," Henson says. "I sang a song, started a monologue -- but halfway through, I lost my nerve, and ran offstage and out the door. Soon I realized that someone had been chasing me. 'Get back in there,' the man said. 'You've got the job.'" That was Frank Dunlop, and while one could infer that he was the director of the show, that wasn't the case at all. "He was there to talk about another show, and he said to director 'Hire him. He's a natural,'" Henson recalls.

Melvyn Bragg
Melvyn Bragg
So Henson was off and running in his new classical career -- but he was in another London musical in 1976 -- Mardi Gras. "I played a guy who came to New Orleans to play guitar. The show was by Melvyn Bragg -- now Sir Melvyn Bragg, best known as the writer and host of The South Bank Show. But this show I think he wrote on the back of an envelope during his lunch breaks from his job at the BBC." (Bragg redeemed himself musical nine years later, when he adapted his novel The Hired Man into what would become one of the best British cult musicals -- right up there with Passion Flower Hotel). "But Melvin never puts Mardi Gras on any of his c.v.'s," Henson said with a smile.

He comes from British theatrical royalty, for his father, Leslie Henson, was a big music hall star. "He did Funny Face with Adele Astaire, and was fond of saying that Adele was so flat-chested, but because she was such a big star, women all over London made their busts disappear." And while that story does suggest that father and son had a lovely bond, there is another aside to their relationship. "I'll tell you right now," he says, "if he hadn't died when I was young, I would have never dared to go into this business. He only saw me on stage once, when I played Rumplestiltskin at school. Afterwards, he gave me such savage notes that I couldn't do it again. I wouldn't have dared."

There was another time when he was afraid to perform -- after his bout with cancer some years back. "I went into the hospital for a half-hour's worth of exploratory surgery and came out five hours later without half my stomach and a third of my colon. But that was it; no chemo needed. I opened Jumpers in London and got terrible stage fright -- and I found that you don't necessarily get frightened when the worst of cancer is hitting you, but often some time later. It took seven sessions with a therapist to get over it, but I'm back." As anyone who visits Jumpers will attest.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]