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Arts & Life

Don Richard's String Of Broadway Credits Began In Kansas City Theaters

For a solid 10 years, actor Don Richard performed on nearly every Kansas City stage. A production of the musical Jane Eyre that began in Wichita, Kansas, eventually landed in New York City on Broadway, where he often appears today. He's currently back in town for Musical Theater Heritage's production of Urinetown: The Musical. 

As part of the monthly series Actors Off Script, Richard, who's now based in Chicago, talks about his journey from modest parts in local theaters to the Broadway stage.

You're back in Kansas City where you cut your teeth as an actor, it's fair to say. What does that feel like to be back?

"It's always glorious to be back in the city. I love it so much. I remember days when you were making maybe $50 or $75 a week at the Unicorn for non-Equity, putting every penny you had to make sure that rent was covered, living in Midtown, and loving the people you're working with. It was a beautiful, beautiful ten years I spent here."

Had you been considering a move for awhile or waiting for that golden ring?

"No. I wasn't one of those, I don't think. I think I had dreams when I was a kid, looking at Broadway albums and putting my head against the speaker and listening to those and just imagining what those theaters are like. "

What marks your return is Urinetown, a show that you were in on Broadway that is sometimes tricky to describe. I'm going to let you give it a shot.

"It's an examination of some tough themes like a water shortage, bad environmental problems, and a dystopian future world and we decide to tell the story of these horrible times, this tragic time, in the form of a musical. It becomes so very fun, so very funny, because you're telling it in that form."

I'm always wondering if people hear 'You're in town' — three words. This show is one word, Urinetown. Do you want to say anything about how the town's residents have to pony up 'the price you pay to pee'?

"It's a true fable about how the corporate structures of the world control so much of what we do and do they have the individual's needs at heart or is it the good of the corporation? There is a water shortage and you have to actually pay to pee. It's so funny. 'Did you say "You're in town?" 'Oh, Urinetown.'"

You understudied several roles in your two and a half years with the show in New York. Anything you can say about that experience?

"One night I was going on as Lockstock (the part I'm playing in Kansas City). Shirley MacLaine was in the audience and I was collecting for Broadway Cares (with) my bucket, so she said, 'Nice show. Let me go back and see John Cullum. Take me back'.

"So I walked back with her, dropped her off at his floor. As I'm coming down with my stuff, she's standing on a landing with John, talking, and she sees me coming down, and she says, 'From one old understudy to another, you were terrific.'"

You kind of welled up when you told that story and I'm wondering if that has to do with the nature of being an understudy and being backstage an hour before and you're not sure if you're going on or you are and when you do, you're scared to death. And if you do it well, there's such a sense of accomplishment. Is that what that's about?

"It is — the amount of pressure an understudy is under. It's one of those unsung ... and all those understudies who never go on, who work their tails off watching in rehearsal. I've done it so many times now and it's one of the toughest things about the business."

The most recent time I saw you on Broadway was in the revival of Side Show, about a troupe of circus freaks in the 1930s. And when I saw you after the show, you were confident it would be around awhile. But, alas, it closed not long after that. How tough is that when a show closes that you love so much?

"It's a blow. And it was so strange to walk onto the stage and hear those producers start with that speech, saying 'This is something we always hate to say to our actors. Something we hope will never have to happen until its truly time.' Luckily we had at that point another five weeks. We played the heck out of it. So yeah, it was a tough blow."

You did Wicked on the road for seven years. Unlike Side Show, it's a mammoth, never-going-to-die hit musical. But like Side Show, it's about people coming to terms with being different from other people. Any thoughts on being a part of a show that is so beloved and turning whole generations on to theater?

"I think that's the biggest reward of the piece — the audience response and people who are touched by it and moved by it in a very, very profound way and especially at a young age. You see little kids talking about it and they're getting it. 'I know I'm different, and I enjoy my differences.' That's really one of the greatest joys of doing that show."

"Urinetown: The Musical" with Don Richard runs November 5 - 22, Musical Theater Heritage at Crown Center, 2450 Grand Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri. 816-221-6987. 

The Actors Off-Script series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Steve Walker is a freelance arts reporter and film critic at KCUR 89.3. He can be reached at sewalker@ku.edu

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