The Best of Times
For John Hillner, the cover for Georges in La Cage aux Folles, the best of times is now.
Says the tall, trim, handsome actor, "Many people kept telling me sotto voce, 'Be on your game. Get ready.' But I didn't give that any credence, because rumors fly and go everywhere." Then, one Monday morning, Hillner read in the paper that Daniel Davis had been fired as Georges. Soon the calls came in from his agent, Flo Rothacker, and management: Robert Goulet would take over the part but not until April 15. Until then, Hillner would be Georges, the owner-manager of the club that stars his temperamental lover, Albin. For all of last week -- and until Goulet joins the troupe this weekend -- Hillner's name has been put above the title in the programs, show cards, and ABC ads.
Hillner has left his fourth floor dressing room for the star's, moved in his own furniture, and festooned the walls with lights. "You don't get this opportunity often," he says. "I understand that they have to put butts in the seats, and that Goulet will bring in the demographics to help the show. But I'm making my time in the lead as productive as I can. I need to get everybody here who can see me in a different light; let me show them that I'm a leading man on Broadway, that I can drive this train."
Management sure learned what he could do over Thanksgiving weekend, when the show was still in previews. Hillner was in the wings as the performance was progressing one night but noticed that Daniel Davis was sounding increasingly scratchy. "I wasn't just listening," says the tall, lean, handsome actor. "My ears were 10 yards big." That's because he was the cover for Georges (as well as for Francis, the masochistic stage manager, and the second cover for Dindon, the homophobic bureaucrat).
Davis was getting progressively raspier. "At that point," Hillner says, "I'd had no rehearsal, no choreography, I hadn't really even sung anything. But I thought, I'd better go upstairs and put in my contact lenses." He trudged up the four flights, feeling that he knew the first act, for he'd rehearsed a bit with fellow understudy/standby Bryan Batt. But he hadn't done any work on the second act. He returned to the wings, hoping that Davis could at least make it to intermission. "But right before the reprise of 'With Anne on My Arm,'" he recalls, "Danny said, 'Stop. I can't go on. I'm sorry. I have a virus. My understudy will be out in 10 minutes.' Steven Beckler, our stage manager, asked me, 'Are you ready?' and I said, 'Well, I won't know until I try.' "
Hillner was sent to wardrobe, where Nancy Schaefer quickly made alterations to his new costume. Suddenly, Harvey Fierstein -- the show's book writer, who'd been watching the preview -- was backstage, saying (and here Hillner does an excellent Fierstein imitation), " 'Darling, what can I do for you? I want to take care of you.' I said, 'I have to learn the choreography!' -- to which Harvey said, 'You've got 15 minutes.' "
While Fierstein went out onstage and took questions from the audience, choreographer Jerry Mitchell came backstage and taught Hillner the steps. "I was behind the curtain," says Hillner, "and I could see Harvey's shadow against it, while Jerry and Gary were teaching me what I'd have to do the moment I went out there. Finally, Harvey turned around and said, 'You ready? They're sick of me.' He introduced me and, boom, we went into the dance." Or so Hillner has been told: "I honestly don't remember any of it. All I remember is that, during intermission, I said to the Cagelles: 'Listen, push me around, because I don't know where I'm going.' "
Ah, the life of a cover! Says Hillner, "Performers on Broadway can get complacent by doing the same thing over and over again every day, but a cover can never be complacent. There's always a chance that, when you walk through the stage door, you'll be told you're going to do something different. That's when your energy has to change in a heartbeat. That chameleon-esque business appeals to me because I was trained in improv." (Hillner was in the New York company of that '70s improvisational staple The Proposition.)
Hillner learned in 1974 that life in the theater was unpredictable. Not unlike Ted Chapin's now-famous gofering on Follies, Hillner got a similar leave from Dennison University to intern on a great big Broadway show. It was Miss Moffat, the musical version of The Corn Is Green, which would return Bette Davis to the singin' and dancin' stage. "I became her private prompter," he says "I sat in the pit and had to prompt her three or four times a show." And how could he tell if she needed help" "She'd simply say 'What's my line?' I prompted her once when she didn't say that, and she said 'Never. Ever. Ever. Give. Me. A. Cue.' " (His Bette Davis imitation is as accomplished as his Harvey Fierstein.).
What was supposed to be a nine-month tour closed after 17 performances in Philadelphia. As if Hillner hadn't suffered enough, the college then got him a job with Odyssey, which would eventually be retitled Home, Sweet Homer and would turn out to be a one-performance Broadway debacle. "I saw what producers go through to get something produced," he says, his voice still tinged with awe. "God bless producers. It's so risky. Yes, it's rewarding at times -- but many times it isn't. So I never take a show for granted. Never!"
His first Broadway job was playing one of Vernon Gersh's alter egos in They're Playing Our Song and covering Tony Roberts, for whom he never went on. He had the same job(s) in the touring company with Victor Garber -- and never went on for him, either. Hillner also covered Garber in the 1982 Little Me revival. "I auditioned for it," he says. "They needed 10 people, 12 were called back, and I finished either 11th or 12th. But later, I got a call from the stage manager, who I knew from Miss Moffat. He said, 'I know you've got a new baby. You want a job? It's yours. But here's what it is: You have to cover Victor Garber and 13 other roles, too. And you have be an assistant stage manager.' They figured they could hire one guy and hope to get away with it. One night, they didn't; I had to do the 13-role bit and someone else was stage right on a headset."
Hillner had high hopes when he was tapped to originate the role of Lank in Crazy for You. He says, "I had three songs -- when we started. They were all cut before the opening. I sang in Mamma Mia! too, but all you could hear there was the amplified orchestra. That's why I'd like all the casting directors to come and see me play Georges. I've done John Adams -- with Gary Beach as Richard Henry Lee, by the way -- as well as Henry Higgins in Massachusetts and I Do! I Do! with Donna McKechnie in Queens, but I don't get to play the lead on Broadway. This is my opportunity to do that."
This time next week, he'll be Etienne again. Hillner shrugs. "It's all about work," he says. "I've got a job; a lot of my friends don't. I'm able to be flexible. You never have to apologize for being in a Broadway show, whether it's chorus or cover. I have health insurance, 401(k), and can put money away. That's a gift from God. Yes, soon I'll be back on the fourth floor, dwelling in obscurity. But doing Georges is not about this job, it's about what might be the next job. Let's get me on the list that gets me to the next level."