Pittsburgh CLO's Hunter Ryan Herdlicka

June 22, 2018

           Despite his muscular build, he’s elegant in his movements, and he looks like he belongs at center stage. He’s in a blue t-shirt that matches his eyes and is on his lunch break from rehearsal for Pittsburgh CLO’s production of  Titanic.

           Today, a Tuesday, is the sixth day of an eight-day rehearsal process for  Titanic, Pittsburgh CLO’s second show of their summer stock season. Herdlicka has been in Pittsburgh since last Wednesday when he arrived from New York. He hadn’t had much time in New York, though, before leaving for Pittsburgh because he’d been down in Atlanta doing Leonard Bernstein’s operetta  Candide  with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Alliance Theater.  Candide  ran from May 9th – 20th and Herdlicka was in Pittsburgh on June 13th for  Titanic  rehearsals.

           In the Pittsburgh CLO’s conference room, he laughs and says, “Every single person I say I’m doing  Titanic the musical to asks, “Are you playing Jack?””

           For those who are not familiar with the musical  Titanic  and assume that it is simply a stage version of the 1997 James Cameron film, it’s not at all a stretch to assume that Herdlicka, with his blond hair, blue eyes, and charming smile, would be playing Jack Dawson, the iconic Leonardo DiCaprio character. Like DiCaprio’s Jack, Herdlicka is charismatic, good-looking, and eloquent. Herdlicka plays Charles Clarke, a second-class passenger who perished during the sinking.

           “We don’t know a lot about the specific person that I play other than he’s British. The most you can do is try to be authentic to what we do know: that he was a second-class passenger, and there was a huge difference in the first, second, and third-class passengers on  Titanic, and that he was British. In playing a real person, you’re going through his death every single night. It’s a challenge. We’re just in rehearsal, and everyone is crying already at the end of the day. It’s heartbreaking.”

           “It’s not the same as the movie,” Herdlicka continues. As he talks it’s clear that he has a passion for the story, the character he’s portraying, and the show overall. “It’s a historical piece about some of the actual people who were on the Titanic and what their brief time might have been like on the ship. It’s about how various people reacted and what happened as the ship began to sink. And I tell people it’s some of the most beautiful music you’ll ever hear. It’s a meld between opera and musical; it’s kind of an operetta where a lot of the show is sung, and if it’s not sung it’s underscored. It’s a beautiful complex piece of musical theater that you might never get to see again.”

           The musical  Titanic  has music and lyrics by Tony Award-winner Maury Yeston and a book by Oscar-winner Peter Stone. Despite some difficulties due to the size of the cast, orchestra, and set pieces, Titanic  swept the 1997 Tony Awards winning all five of the Tony Awards it was up for: Best Musical, Best Orchestrations, Best Scenic Design, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score. The show follows the ship’s voyage, beginning in Southampton, England, and ends mere hours after the sinking. The characters in the show are either real people who were on the RMS Titanic, like Herdlicka’s character Charles Clarke, or characters created by combining two or more real people, like Frederick Barrett the stoker who was created from two real-life stokers on board who were both named Frederick Barrett.

           The CLO’s set is a massive two-level set replicating the different decks on the ship. White metal railings line the upper deck and two staircases run from the floor of the stage up to the deck above. It is the physical representation of the rigid class differentiation that runs throughout the show. During the ship’s launching, all sung, the audience is introduced to the groups of characters: the officers, the crew, the 1st Class Passengers, the 2nd Class Passengers, and the 3rd Class Passengers.

           “I think one of the things that makes the musical  Titanic  so relevant today is the presentation of all of the different social classes of people that were on the ship: the working class, the middle class, the upper class,” says Herdlicka. “It’s really a beautiful and harrowing story that presents many of the ideas that we are still, surprisingly, struggling with today as a society.”

            For Herdlicka, being a part of the cast of  Titanic  is especially meaningful. He was first introduced to the show in 1997 when he saw the original Broadway cast perform five minutes of the opening of the show on the televised Tony Awards, the "most magnificent" thing he'd ever seen. The original Broadway cast starred Michael Cerveris as Andrews, the Titanic’s designer, John Cunningham as the ill-fated ship’s captain E. J. Smith, and David Garrison as J. Bruce Ismay, the director of White Star Lines, the company that owned the Titanic. The day after Herdlicka watched the cast perform on the Tonys he had his mom drive him to the local Barnes and Nobel to pick up the cast recording. It was after buying the cast album that he became “obsessed” with the show.

           “I have always known of  Titanic, but I never thought I would get to do it. The Broadway show was so troubled that I never thought that there’d be a revival, and it’s such a big, expensive show that it’s rarely done around the country. So, I just never imagined that it would be a show that I would get to be a part of. It’s so exciting that CLO is doing this with massive sets. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be doing a show like this.”

           The original Broadway production of  Titanic  had a cast of thirty-seven people, large set pieces to mimic the Titanic’s design, and a full orchestra. Because of the enormity and high cost of the production, it was difficult for regional theaters and even national tours to put the show on. Despite the difficulties that had been associated with producing Titanic, the show has had a successful life being translated into seven languages and the UK tour just kicked off recently. In 2012, however, Don Stephenson, the original cast member to play Charles Clarke, wrote an ensemble version of the show which is the version that the CLO is using.

           “People ask, ‘Does the ship sink?’” Herdlicka smirks at the thought of a giant Titanic replica sinking on the Benedum stage. “Well, yes, the ship sinks, but it is, of course, impossible to build a giant ship and sink it on the Benedum stage. So, there are certain technical and artistic things that we ask the audience to go with us on this journey.”

           Herdlicka grew up in Dallas, Texas going to see theater with his grandparents. He decided that being an actor was what he wanted to do with his life and began to train. He set his sights on Carnegie Mellon University’s Drama program and was accepted with a full scholarship. Just two weeks after graduating from CMU, Herdlicka was cast as Henrik Egerman in the 2009 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s  A Little Night Music. For the show, Herdlicka learned how to play the cello and worked with closely with composer Stephen Sondheim, and actresses Angela Landsbury, and Catherine Zeta-Jones who had been idols of his growing up. When Landsbury and Zeta-Jones left the show in December of 2009, the show closed for a few weeks while the cast went back into rehearsal with the two replacements, Broadway legends Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. After  A Little Night Music  closed Herdlicka went on to perform as Cliff Bradshaw in  Cabaret, Frederic in  Pirates of Penzance, Joseph in  Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and even Fyedka in Pittsburgh CLO’s 2012 production of  Fiddler on the Roof.

           Now, he’s excited to be back on the Benedum stage again. For a while, he’s been hoping to perform with the CLO again but there hadn’t been a role that was quite right.

           “I’m portraying this young man who is going to America with dreams to be married and dies on his way there. There’s something that you can’t quite get over. Just in our working of the scenes and our run throughs of Act II, you can’t quite comprehend this monstrosity where all these people died, and people went down with the ship and the band continuing to play. It’s really something that you can’t quite get over. It doesn’t ever become a mundane thing like making your breakfast and sometimes you get into a show where you get totally comfortable. I feel like if we were lucky enough to be able to do  Titanic  for six months or a year, I don’t feel like we would ever really grasp what the experience of this was like and what the gravity is like.”

           On the Wednesday run through, the cast’s outfits are strangely coordinated. They’re all dressed in hues of navy blue, grey, black, and maroon/royal purple and look like a family unit organized for a family portrait. By the five-minute call, they’ve all walked around and greeted each other, Luke Halferty and Quinn Patrick Shannon spotting me on the gallery above the rehearsal room with my camera and posing goofily for me. Herdlicka talks to Erika Strasburg who plays the fiancée of Herdlicka’s character, Charles Clarke. He glances up, catches my eye, smiles, and calls up a greeting. He’s stylishly dressed in a black v-neck long sleeved shirt, dark washed jeans, and black dress shoes. We exchange pleasantries over the balcony, I’m stationed on the gallery overlooking the rehearsal room, until he’s called away. Off to the side of the rehearsal room in what is considered off-stage Herdlicka’s castmate Chris Peluso dances a few steps on his own, longtime Pittsburgh CLO actor Joseph Domencic talks with other actors, and fellow Carnegie Mellon University alum and former castmate Bradley Dean comes over to talk to Herdlicka.

           This is the third time that Herdlicka will be working with Bradley Dean. They did  A Little Night Music  together on Broadway but hadn’t worked together for several years following. “We sort of played opposite each other in  Candide. He played the Governor and I was Maximillian a slave who was sold to him, so we worked very closely together. One day I asked him, ‘What are you doing next?’ and he said, ‘Titanic.’ ‘Really, where?’ ‘Pittsburgh CLO’ and I said, ‘Me too.’ I’m really hoping my next show is with Bradley Dean. He’s so talented and just a brilliant actor. He’s just an inspiring performer and is so good that it almost demands that you be just as good, if possible.”

           Herdlicka and Dean share a laugh before growing more serious and taking their places for the start of the show as the run-through begins. Dean, as Andrews, begins the show and one by one the Titanic’s crew members and passengers arrive at the ship for the launching. As the second-class passenger Charles Clarke, Herdlicka enters with his fiancée played by Strasburg, and they marvel at the size of the Titanic, “the ship of dreams.” Throughout the show, Herdlicka mingles with the second class and sings duets with his fiancée. During the “The Latest Rag,” he dances to   Kevin Massey’s   singing.

           “To be a boy who decides to sing and dance takes great courage,” Herdlicka says. “Wanting to sing and dance and act is not necessarily the common thing for young boys to do (the ‘norm’ being sports athletics etc.). It really takes bravery for a young boy to come out and say, ‘No, I don’t want to play football; I want to learn how to dance’ or ‘No, I don’t want to play baseball, I want to be a singer.’ At that point they are already breaking a social construct of what their particular gender is “supposed” to do, very much in the same way if a young girl said, ‘No, I don’t want to be a cheerleader, I want to play on the football team.’ To me, that is bravery. You are just setting yourself up for possible bullying and ridicule and saying ‘I don’t care. This is who I am.’”

           Growing up, Herdlicka dreamed of being on Broadway in the barest sense of the term. He would have been happy merely dancing in the background of a Broadway chorus. To have starred in a Broadway production at the age of twenty-three was far beyond his wildest dreams.

           “God has bigger dreams for us than we have for ourselves,” Herdlicka says. He nods and leans forward in his chair. “I firmly believe that. God always has bigger dreams for us than we have for ourselves.”

           It does indeed seem to have worked out, the serendipitous chance for Herdlicka to return to Pittsburgh, a city he loves, in a once-in-a-lifetime show that he has loved since childhood.

           Come and see the story of  Titanic  unfold on the Benedum Stage June 22-July 1. Tickets are available at   pittsburghclo.org.

           

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