Known for his many stage roles—both plays and musicals—as well as his role on the modern classic sitcom Frasier, Edward Hibbert stars in The Sound of Music as Max Detweiler, the lovable and somewhat mysterious impresario who wants to make stars out of the von Trapp Family Singers. While on a break from the busy rehearsal schedule, Edward chatted in his dressing room at Lyric about the creative process, his family's connection to Julie Andrews, and where he and co-star Billy Zane go when they hit the town.
Can you give us some insight into the rehearsal process? Just judging from the overview director Marc Bruni gave on the first day of rehearsal, this is a massive undertaking.
It's epic. I think all musicals separate the men from the boys, in terms of scheduling. On top of which, you have these wonderful children and because of the child labor rules they can only work limited hours. So the navigation of working out this mammoth show is quite an undertaking. It requires a lot of disciplined, focused organization, which Marc Bruni certainly knows how to do. He's so smart and thorough about the characters, their interconnection, the dynamics of the show. We're in very good hands.
How are you approaching the character of Max?
He's rather neglected in the movie! He has a much better part in the show. I find him a fascinating character. He's got the lion's share of some very witty lines that permeate through the show. It's also quite a complex role because—although he's referred to as "lovable Uncle Max" and he is indeed highly responsible for entering them into the festival—there's an ambivalence about him politically. Is he a Nazi sympathizer? Who is he really? I think it's left to the actor to decide. There are quite a lot of levels to him. And two rather nice songs with the lovely Elizabeth Futral.
Do you have a favorite song or moment in the show?
I think it has a wonderful score. I do think that both the songs that Max have, one is a duet with Elsa and the other is a trio with Captain von Trapp and Elsa, they are both extremely smart, melodic songs not in the movie and therefore not familiar to a lot of audiences. I'm very fond of both of them. They are both Cole Porter-type songs in the middle of all of this sweet, melodic music. They are quite smart and sophisticated.
Is it true that your father starred in a musical with a teenaged Julie Andrews—and that it was her Broadway debut?
He did! I thank him and the show, The Boy Friend by Sandy Wilson, for giving me my American birthright. My mother came over and joined my father in New York and happily the show was a hit, and so I was born in New York.
Many people know you well from Frasier, as the always-hilarious Gil Chesterton. How did that experience come about as someone known for stage acting? Had you done a lot of television before?
I had in England and then not much in America. It was really a play I did, a rather wonderful play by Paul Rudnik (a very funny writer) called Jeffrey, which took me to Los Angeles and that acted as a very good showcase for me. Out of that, I started to get television work and one of the things was a guest spot on Frasier. It was written originally as a one-time guest shot. It was an episode called "Frasier Crane's Day Off" in season 1, in which Frasier gets the flu and this persnickety restaurant critic takes his time slot. I guess they all liked it a lot because suddenly it went from being a one off to being a heavily recurring character, which was very lovely for me.
If you had to pick a favorite episode or moment from Frasier, what would it be?
I think probably the one where we do the radio play. That is classic, it really is. It's hard to pick because the problem is that I watch it with incredulity now—we all look so young, of course—as it's shown perennially on a nightly basis. It also saddens me because it is material that is so brilliant and stunningly clever. I don't think there's anything on television that comes near it now. To me, it was the end of an era when Frasier folded up shop.
Can you give a Gil Chesterton-esque review of a restaurant here in Chicago?
I've had a lot of time enjoying the restaurants in Chicago. I'd better watch it or my clothes aren't going to fit for the show! I was taken by Billy Zane to RL, the Ralph Lauren restaurant, which has the most delightful staff, beautiful dining room, and fantastic food. Second to that, I went two nights running I loved it so much, to Gilt Bar. It has a downstairs room and is really lovely.
Of your many theater roles and experiences you have had in your career, what has been your favorite so far?
I did my first-ever cabaret show, that was very thrilling, terrifying and thrilling. I plan to do that some more. You get a great sense of freedom because it's just you and a rather wonderful pianist. I've been very lucky. I did two original Broadway musicals back-to-back: The Drowsy Chaperone and then Curtains with my old pal David Hyde Pierce. It was the happiest company I've ever worked with; we were all so, so in love with each other.
I loved playing Oscar Wilde in a play called Gross Indecency. It was thrilling to speak his words every night—and exhausting too. I think what I'd like next is a new play. I'm short of those. I love revivals, and I love doing Oscar Wilde or Bernard Shaw or Noël Coward. But something new would be wonderful, and there are so many new good playwrights around writing good plays.
What do you like to do when you're here in town? Do you have any favorite attractions you're checking out?
I haven't had a moment! We're rehearsing this huge, epic musical! I plan to go to the Art Institute of Chicago. I plan to go see some theater. Once we're into the run, of course, I shall play tourist.
Finally, let's take the Sound of Music character quiz and see if you're really a Max!
That's cute! I'm an Elsa. It's too funny. Shall we tell Elizabeth?
- Edward Hibbert (credit Joan Marcus)