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He's Not a Total Villain. Honest.

Date: Apr 28, 2015
Tom Hewitt plays a bad guy with a soft side in Doctor Zhivago


Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

When Tom Hewitt admonishes the adolescent daughter of his paramour to "Pull your stockings up, Lara; it's distracting," you learn everything you need to know about his character, Viktor Komarovsky. One quarter of Doctor Zhivago's central love square (the grown Lara ends up being the object of obsession for three men), Viktor is sleazy, manipulative, and tends to act in his own self-interest. And yet even he has his limits. And a heart.

"That little scene is one of my favorite things to do," says Hewitt, who first played the role at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse when the musical debuted back in 2006. "The first half hour of the show is all these little one- and two-line scenes. Michael [Weller, the book writer] has packed so much into that dialogue -- information, character, tone, period -- and he's made beautiful choices of very specific words. That's remarkable writing."

Based on the celebrated 1958 novel by Nobel laureate Boris Pasternak and David Lean's subsequent Oscar-nominated 1965 film, Doctor Zhivago is an epic romance set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution that recalls musicals like Les Miserables and Miss Saigon in theme and tone. It's undergone many revisions and even had a few out-of-country mountings over the past decade as Weller, composer Lucy Simon, and lyricists Michael Korie and Amy Powers readied it for Broadway.

But there was a time when Hewitt wasn't sure it would ever make it to New York. "I started to think it was kind of a longshot, however beautifully constructed," Hewitt admits. "So I put it out of my mind. Then I was having dinner with Des [McAnuff, the director] socially about a year ago and he said, 'It's coming in!' And I said, "Really?!" Then I Googled it and watched some of the Australian production and a version in Korea done all in Korean, which was magnificent, and I was really inspired."


Best known for his Tony-nominated turn as Frank 'N' Furter, the transsexual Transylvanian, in the 2000 Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show, Hewitt has spent much of his career playing complicated, commanding, yet semi-sympathetic bad guys: Billy Flynn in Chicago, the title role in Dracula, and Pontius Pilate in the recent Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, the latter two directed by Zhivago helmer McAnuff.

"At this point, there's a shorthand between us," Hewitt says. "I love being in a room with Des. He's always very positive and enthusiastic, and he has one of those personalities that can galvanize a room. However, he's also clear with what he wants. His ground rules are pretty strict, but once there's a mutual trust, he gives you the freedom to bring what you want to the stage. He also has a wonderful ability to find talented people. His team is always great."

Save for Hewitt and a few ensemble members, McAnuff's team for the Broadway incarnation of Zhivago is completely different than it was in La Jolla. "It's been like going into an entirely new production," Hewitt says. "We have a new cast, new designers. I particularly love Michael Scott-Mitchell's scenic design, it's so fun. It's an astonishing sensation to stand on that set with that severe rake -- I believe it's the most severe rake allowed by Equity -- though it is challenging to dance on."

The biggest change for Hewitt since La Jolla is that his role has been expanded. "Viktor is seen more during the show, and spoken of throughout," he explains. "The dynamic of my character is more interesting to play now." And though he's still technically one of the story's villains, his actions pale in comparison with the horrors of war. Viktor is an operator who is endlessly adaptable -- he goes from aristocrat to high-ranking government official -- but he uses his power and influence to save not only himself, but also those he cares for. "It's there in between the lines, his love for these people," Hewitt says. "He feels a responsibility to them."

Communicating Viktor's softer side isn't easy in such a plot-heavy and action-packed musical. But Hewitt relishes the challenge. "It's just one of the many difficulties of adapting a 500-plus-page Russian novel into a Broadway musical," he says. "Des says in a two-and-a-half hour musical, there's only 90 minutes of storytelling; the rest is dancing and singing and elongated vowels. So you have to figure out how to give a lot of character in a relatively short amount of time."


Raven Snook
is the associate editor of TDF Stages.

Top photo by Matthew Murphy. Second photo by Jason Bell.