NEW YORK — "Look what the cat dragged in!"
Usher walks onstage, ready to start rehearsal at New York's Ambassador Theater for one of his biggest numbers in "Chicago." For the past few weeks, the R&B singer has been living, eating and breathing Broadway, getting ready for his big debut Tuesday as the slick, seductive defense attorney Billy Flynn — a role Richard Gere brought to the big screen four years ago. And as Usher's routine for "Razzle Dazzle" demonstrates, Billy is more of the mindset that the best defense is a little showmanship: "Give 'em an act with lots of flash in it/ And the reaction will be passionate ... How can they see with sequins in their eyes?"
"He's such a difficult character to hold on to, you basically want to get in and stick with it," Usher explained. "So on a day-to-day basis, I've changed the way I talk, I've changed the way I walk, I've changed the way I deal with things, using a little method [acting]. The hardest part for me is that I'm from the South, so a lot of the time, I may slur certain terms. Billy Flynn doesn't do that. So I have to take that on, and I take that seriously. I want to be the best lawyer ever, the best criminal lawyer in Chicago in that time period."
That means even when Usher's technically not on, he's on, oozing charm to spare. While the dance captains block out his placement onstage — he has mostly rehearsed in a separate dance studio down the street — he's practicing his snaps and his smiles, twirling a cane and flipping his bowler hat so smoothly you believe Flynn's promise that he can flip the legal system just as easily. When Usher speaks his lines to Bianca Marroquin, a fellow newcomer who is joining the cast as murderess Roxie Hart, it almost feels like he's reassuring Bianca more than Roxie that she's in good hands — he's that suave with his delivery: "You've got nothing to worry about," he tells her. "It's all a circus, kid. A three-ring circus. These trials — the whole world — all show business. But kid, you're working with a star, the biggest!"
Indeed, it takes someone as used to being in the spotlight as Usher to become Billy, to temper the cynicism of the show's outlook with enough charm so you love him and hate him at the same time. After all, he has to treat the jury like an audience, and the audience like a jury — so he has to win and lose all at once. "Each and every one of us enjoy the big get-over, the big court cases where the bad guy wins or the bad girl gets off," Usher said. "This is a real authentic play from the beginning. Other productions have big set changes, several wardrobe changes, several characters. This is not like other shows. This is classic, pared down. It's a story about real life."
Usher's other main numbers — "All I Care About" and "We Both Reached for the Gun" — allow him to show how he manipulates clients and what they get in return. Usher sings "All I Care About" (which is love, of course, never mind his pricey retainer fee) with a swirl of feather-swishing women in a Busby Berkeley sequence, but his movements are so slight, it's hard to see the work he's put into them. It's more obvious in "Razzle Dazzle," which he's put his own signature stamp on, hanging his hat in a tribute to late, great choreographer Bob Fosse.
"I've been a fan of Fosse from the beginning," Usher said, "so when there was a chance to do his physical moves, I jumped at it. I didn't want to change or compromise the integrity of his original choreography, but this is my own interpretation of what Billy Flynn is. Richard Gere had his way of doing it on film, and this is my opportunity to do it my own way. And the beautiful thing about Broadway is, I found out that every actor does that."
So in "Razzle Dazzle," Usher takes a dance break, "just real quick." While most of the choreographic style of "Chicago" (staged in this revival "in the style of Bob Fosse" by Fosse protégé Ann Reinking) is based on the body turning in on itself, Usher's articulated movements give a whole new understanding to how Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and even Usher himself owe a debt to Fosse for their pop dance routines. Usher's performance is so smooth, it's hard to believe that it needs any more work, but dance captain Gregory Butler pushes him even harder: "That won't do. Go back. Glide, step, step, glide, then turn right away and step around. There you go. Just make sure wherever you end up, you're back at center." "It's supposed to look like I'm working," Usher laughed, dabbing the sweat off his face.
And he has been working. In addition to the past few weeks of rehearsal with the dance captains and show company, Usher has also been prepping for his Broadway debut with his godfather Ben Vereen, who played Billy Flynn in the Las Vegas production of "Chicago." And to make sure he gets to rehearsal easily, Usher got a theater-district apartment in New York for his six-week run (slated to last August 22-October 1), and has disavowed taking in the sights while he's in town so that he can save his energy for the show.
"Broadway is no joke," Usher said. "I'm getting up early every day at 8 a.m., and I usually wake up after 12. I can't say I've ever held a schedule like that in my life! It takes a lot to give 120 percent of yourself and do it again and again, for eight shows a week. It's one of the most challenging things you can do. There's no such thing as a retake. 'Cut! Curtain!' Nah, you're still there, and they're still watching you."
With the pressure on as opening night approaches, Usher's not sweating anymore. "I hope you guys are ready for this. I'm going to shock you."