We Got Bruce!

Mr. Vilanch’s Understudy Hired for “Hairspray”

June 15, 2003
Chicago Sun-Times
BY MISHA DAVENPORT STAFF REPORTER

Blake Hammond–currently starring as legendary New York theater critic Alexander Woollcott in Northlight Theatre’s musical “At Wit’s End”–has built his 17-year acting career on faith, persistence and the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time.

It’s been a long journey from growing up as the middle child of a Southern Baptist minister in Glen Rose, Texas (population: 2300), to playing Woollcott, one of the theater’s sharpest wits and, along with the likes of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, a resident of the famed “Vicious Circle” that held court at the Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s.

Suffice to say, there’s nothing like the Algon-quin in Hammond’s sleepy little hometown. It also lacks fast-food restaurants, museums or theaters and before Hammond, the town’s only claim to fame was the few dinosaur footprints in rock that make up the Dinosaur Valley State Park.

“A good time was getting into a car, driving around for four hours and getting drunk,” Hammond said.

His two brothers–one older, one younger–still live in Glen Rose, as do his parents. Had someone decided not to open a school of dance when Hammond was 14, he might still be there, too.

“I was very blessed to know at an early age what I love,” said Hammond, who turns 40 this month.

The fledgling dance school lasted a mere four years–enough time for him to develop a passion for theater and nurture it through various community theater productions.

“The film ‘Waiting for Guffman’ was my life,” he said. “We were doing ‘Hello, Dolly!,’ and the woman who owned the flower shop in town was cast as Dolly because she donated the flowers that were onstage,” Hammond added, laughing.

He attended the University of Texas in Austin, earning a degree in theater and then headed straight to New York to try his hand at acting. He immediately found work as a character actor.

“I worked quite a bit,” Hammond said. “I haven’t had to do anything but theater since I was 22. One thing seems to beget another.”

He moved to Chicago in 1989 and lived here for seven years. In that time, he racked up more than 30 theater credits at various houses around town, including the long-running “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat,” starring Donny Osmond.

“It was the first time that show had been done in the States,” Hammond said. “I was very glad I got to do it when the musical first came here.”

As fond as Hammond is of the Windy City, he recognizes the limitations here for an actor, and so in 1996 moved back to New York. In January 1997, he caught his big break in the Off-Broadway musical, “When Pigs Fly.”

“‘Pigs’ was a huge hit. And I went right from that into ‘On the Town’ on Broadway.”

An ensemble role in “Kiss Me Kate” led to another high profile role in the revival of “The Music Man”–playing the tenor in that show’s barbershop quartet. Hammond and his fellow singers were singled out in many reviews and performed on a slew of TV shows.

He auditioned for “Hairspray” next. The show was still being workshopped, with Rob Marshall–director of the film version of “Chicago”–still attached. Unfortunately, producers had another larger-than-life actor in mind for the role Hammond wanted–Edna Turnblad, one of the leads..

“[Marshall] was so complimentary. He told me they liked me, but Harvey Fierstein wanted to do it, and they’d keep me in mind.” (Fierstein won a Tony last week for his portrayal of Edna.)

If he was depressed about losing that role, it didn’t last long. He immediately landed the role of Pumbaa in Disney’s “The Lion King.”

“The show played Dallas for eight weeks,” Hammond said. “I got to stay with my parents, and all of my family got to see the show–which was great.”

The good fortune of being cast in the mammoth production was not without its drawbacks, however.

When it came around to finally casting the Broadway production of “Hairspray,” the casting director called up Hammond to offer him an ensemble role, plus the role of Fierstein’s understudy.

Unfortunately, Hammond had another year on his “Lion King” contract and had to decline.

Much to his surprise and delight, “Hairspray” came calling again. He was offered the same deal for the national touring company, and he accepted. This time, he will understudy for comedian and Hollywood speech writer Bruce Vilanch, who will play Edna in the tour.

“I was thrilled knowing it would work out,” he said.

Hammond has a month off after he completes his run at Northlight before he’s due into rehearsals for “Hairspray,” which kicks off in September in Baltimore. He hopes he has a chance to step into the lead role when the show rolls into Chicago later this year.

“God forbid anything should happen to Bruce, but I can’t help but think we’re going to be in Chicago during the holiday season,” he said. “If it’s not time off for family and friends, then surely there’ll be a speech he’ll have to write.”