I first met Hugh Ritchie at Ryerson this winter, where we worked together on an adaptation of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit. At one point in the show he was all pastoral Americana, singing a down-home “Little Brown Jug”, even though he did a star turn as the felonious Montague Tigg; it’s hard to believe the same person could play both parts.
Ritchie is an actor, singer and musician originally from Brookville, Ontario, a year away from obtaining his BFA in acting from the Ryerson Theatre School, and one of the co-founders of Wolf Manor Presents. I’m excited that Ritchie will be taking on the pivotal role of the Balladeer in Stageworks production of Sondheim’s Assassins, to open July 17. And in August Ritchie will go on to the debut of a new musical And Now, The End in Summerworks.
On the occasion of the opening of Assassins I ask Ritchie ten questions: five about himself and five more about taking on the role of the Balladeer.
1-Are you more like your father or your mother?
I think I’m a pretty decent mix of both! I certainly have inherited my father’s sense of humour and patience, and my mother’s knack for critical thinking and attention to detail. And I think that this business requires the ability to do exactly those things: to be patient, to analyze material contextually, emotionally, logically, to not overlook the details, and above all to learn how to have a good time! Even during the most frustrating parts of the process.
2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being an actor?
The worst thing about being an actor is the times when you aren’t working. I feel very fortunate that I have a full summer of projects because I know that it’s difficult to line things up. And it’s heartbreaking to skip auditions for projects you’d love to do, but you know you can’t because the rehearsals or shows conflict with prior commitments. The best thing is the feeling you get when you can finally sense that the whole cast is on the same page, that everyone’s gelled with each other’s rhythms and you know that you have a ‘real show’. It’s always rewarding to perform for an audience, but I think the real magic happens in the rehearsal room, when you can witness your fellow cast members make discoveries and conquer the material. That’s exciting.
3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?
Frank Sinatra always relaxes me during stressful times. Juggling multiple projects often means 12 hour days of rehearsal, and you have to find your way to unwind at the end of the day. I’m a big fan of British actors, because most of them have had some stage experience and it shows. I find consistently that the screen actors I like have had careers on the stage at some point. Old Hollywood films are terrific too, since most of them WERE plays, so it’s the next best thing to going to the theatre. The best research for acting one can do in my opinion is to watch other actors.
4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I gave up the piano when I was 11 or 12, and I wish I hadn’t. At least I can still read music no problem, but the dexterity in my hands is pretty much gone. I need to take it up again. I’d love to be able to play duets with my sister. She kept it up all these years, and she’s terrific.
5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
Well… That’s hard, because when I’m bored I’ll go over and reread whatever script I’m currently working on. So in a way, that’s still working. I like to reach the point when I’ve fallen in love with the show I’m working on. Perhaps it’s good to step away from the material for a while, but I feel it’s more worthwhile if I’ve become emotionally invested in the story, that I feel the NEED to tell the story to an audience. So in a way, it’s an all consuming job for me.
Five more concerning portraying The Balladeer in Stageworks production of Assassins.
1-Please tell us more about how you understand The Balladeer, how you relate to him, and how this casting is right.
I love The Balladeer because he’s very much a metaphorical representation of the American Dream. The assassins in the show all struggle with their understandings of what the country APPEARS to be vs what it OUGHT to be. The Balladeer serves as a narrator figure, he guides the audience through each assassin’s story, and these are DARK stories. But The Balladeer is so antithetical to the chaos he describes, he’s always beaming and singing his heart out. It’s like he’s taken these horrifying moments of history and shaped them into moral nursery rhymes to teach future generations how ‘every now and then a madman’s bound to come along’. Since it’s an all singing part, it’s the hardest musical theatre I’ve ever done. Add to that the fact that it’s Sondheim, the King of Difficult Music! But since he’s this nameless, ambiguous storyteller, he’s incredibly fascinating to play. The trick is to keep searching for WHY he has to tell these stories, and WHY he tells them the way he does.
As far as if it’s right casting, I think the directors sensed my natural cheery disposition and have exploited it!
2-Do you have a favourite moment in Assassins?
My favourite moment is right near the end. There’s an incredibly haunting song called ‘Something Just Broke’, performed by the wonderful ensemble we have for this show. Since the show is all about hearing the perspectives of each assassin, this song finally addresses what everyone else in the world felt when they heard that the President was killed. It’s a beautiful song that perfectly illustrates that sense of dumbfounded horror one experiences. Now, I wasn’t around for any assassination, the best thing I can relate to was when I heard about 9/11. It’s a scary time that you never forget, and it’s brilliant that it is finally expressed right at the end of the show. It leaves you frozen in your seat.
3- Talk for a moment about the uneasy mix of politics & music in Sondheim’s Assassins, possibly the most political musical ever written. How do you and this production respond to such a work?
Being a Canadian company working on this, there’s no feeling of possibly offending anyone, which is a nice sense of freedom. In a way, this show seems to poke fun at these brutal moments in history, and sometimes the funniest stuff to make fun of is the serious stuff. I like that the play is only one act, it doesn’t give the audience a chance to take a break. From the start, the directors really wanted to capture the feeling that everyone is getting a peek into the lives of these people, so I love that all the assassins are onstage in the background throughout the whole show, watching the action onstage. It’s both a salute to and a send up of Americana, what it means to ‘be American’. I don’t think we have the same sense of unconditional national pride in Canada, so it’s been fascinating to explore how important it is to these characters that ‘the country is not what it was’ and ‘everybody’s got the right to be happy’.
It helps that the music is so much fun. Part of the reason why the show works is because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s possibly my favourite cast I’ve ever worked with, and it’s great to have such fun people tackling such deep material. And it’s rewarding to feel that we’ve taken these dark figures of history and shown their human sides. When it comes down to it, they’re just regular people who did extraordinary things.
4- Please put your feelings about theatre & the next generation of young artists into context for us, especially with respect to Stageworks & their mission.
I feel as if theatre isn’t as important to the majority of kids my age. They’d rather spend the same amount of money to go see explosions from Hollywood. I love the movies too, but live theatre continues to be the most exciting thing in my life, both to see it and do it. It’s very moving to witness people tell stories right before your eyes, it’s courageous and inspiring. It’s the oldest form of storytelling. The theatre community is intimate, but it’s also constantly inviting new people into it. I commend Stageworks for giving kids like me a shot to work with the amazing talent they’ve collected. While theatre school has been very enlightening, the best way to learn to do theatre well is to just do it, and to always treat it as a learning experience. If it scares you, you should do it. Otherwise, someone else will.
5- Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
If it weren’t for Kim Belvedere and Darryn De Souza, I wouldn’t be here. They founded Milton Youth Theatre Productions back in my hometown, and they introduced me to this crazy world, and I am forever grateful. And Laurie Graham, my high school drama teacher, who taught me how to work as a part of a team. After all, all we really got in this field is each other.