Most actors struggle for years to land a role on Broadway, much less in a Steven Sondheim classic.
Plano native Hunter Ryan Herdlicka was cast as a principal in Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” before he even got an Equity (actors’ union) card.
“I had been in New York [City] a week,” Herdlicka said during a recent phone interview. “I was getting ready to do summer stock when I got the call from my agent.”
Herdlicka was bitten by the theater bug early.
“I started doing church plays when I was really, really, really little,” he said. “I was cast in a production of ‘The Trial of the Big Bad Wolf,’ at Plano’s Children’s Theater.”
Although his group didn’t have many rehearsals, Herdlicka remembers how he felt just before the curtain went up.
“Something just clicked,” he said. “That adrenaline, that heartbeat — what Judi Dench calls ‘her batteries.’”
It was then that Herdlicka knew what he wanted to do.
“I thought I was communing with a higher power,” he said. “From that moment on, I knew I was going to do this forever and ever and ever and ever.”
Herdlicka brings a “forever” brand of enthusiasm to everything he does. It’s hard to feel blue around him. The passion he has for his craft is infectious.
The 2005 Plano West High School graduate received a full scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa.
“I was really blessed,” he said. “The only way I was going to go to such a great school was if they provided the money.”
The young thespian’s schedule at Carnegie Mellon was rigorous, but he believes it prepared him for life on the Great White Way.
“It was 8 a.m. in the morning until midnight, Monday through Saturday, with very few breaks,” he explained. “It was like a 4-year Broadway boot camp.”
About two months before graduating from college, Herdlicka and his classmates performed a theater showcase for agents, producers and directors. He signed with an agent and landed a part in West Virginia’s Public Theater’s summer production of “My Fair Lady.”
“I had a sublet in Astoria, Queens,” he said with a laugh. “I had two weeks there before I was scheduled to go off and do a summer stock job.”
Then, came “the” call.
“My agent called and said I had an audition for [a revival of] ‘A Little Night Music,’” the actor said. “I went, ‘Oh, please. I’ll never get a Broadway show. I have no credits.’”
Herdlicka’s agent insisted the audition was for real, so he learned the required song and went to the audition. The next day, he got a call back (second audition). This time was different, however. This time he’d be singing for Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, winner of more Tony awards than any other composer, Academy Award winner, Grammy winner and Pulitzer Prize winner.
“My heart dropped,” the young actor said. “I had grown up worshipping Steven Sondheim.”
On the day of the big audition, Herdlicka found himself on the same elevator with his idol.
“I said, ‘I’m Hunter. I’m here to sing for you,” he explained.
Herdlicka sang and did a Shakespeare monologue for Sondheim and the show’s director.
“The weekend came,” said Herdlicka. “I watched the Tony Awards. I woke up the next morning with a phone call saying I have the role.”
Herdlicka starred as Henrick, the young, confused seminary student looking for the answers to life’s mysteries. Starring with him were Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury.
“With Catherine comes Michael Douglas and all of her friends, including Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell,” he said. “Every single person you can imagine comes to the show. I met Tony Bennett.”
While he was performing on Broadway, a concert agent approached him with the idea of a show at Feinstein’s at Lowe’s Regency Hotel.
“Michael Feinstein was the first person I ever saw in concert when I was in the third grade,” Herdlicka said. “I knew exactly what Feinstein’s was. I said, ‘Are you crazy? You don’t perform there until you’re a big deal.’”
Not only did he perform his cabaret show “I Like New York” at Feinstein’s — he was asked to come back for a second gig.
This time, Broadway diva Bernadette Peters was in the audience.
“Bernadette and Elaine Stritch were coming into ‘A Little Night Music’ to keep it open for another six months,” he explained. “Being able to stand up there [at Finestein’s] and tell stories about growing up and being in love with Bernadette Peters and then being able to tell her ‘Thank you’ was one of the best moments in my life.”
Life after Sondheim has proven to be a little challenging.
“It’s hard to work on other things when you’ve been given the opportunity to work with the man himself and sing this music that surpasses perfection. You get so spoiled.”
For the next month, however, Herdlicka will be performing the work of another master. He’s been cast as Ariel in William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at the Dallas Theater Center.
“With Sondheim and Shakespeare you can dig and dig and dig and dig and dig and never reach the bottom,” he explained. “You’re fully supported. When you walk on to that stage you know you have the support of these men because they’ve supplied you with everything you need.”
After his run in Dallas, Herdlicka will return to New York to work on “a brand new musical” he’s not allowed to talk about.
“I wish I could, but I signed over my life in a contract.”
Along with his work on Broadway, Herdlicka makes sure to carve out time to encourage other young actors.
“I try to talk to students and young kids,” he said. “I tell them about dedication and working hard, but I also tell them that you can’t let your dream go because someone else says, ‘I don’t think so. I don’t think that will ever happen to you. You should be a doctor.’ You should never let someone else’s fear about the future dry up their dreams.”
Herdlicka also hopes to hold onto his wide-eyed enthusiasm.
“My prayer every day is that I don’t want to be one of those people who don’t love this business. I want to stay humble. I want to always remember that little third grader who fell in love with ‘The Trial of the Big Bad Wolf.”
Dallas Theater Center presents “The Tempest” Sept. 9 through Oct. 9 at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theater, 2100 Ross Avenue, Dallas (in the performing arts district). Tickets are $15-$25. For more information visit www.dallastheatercenter.org
For more information on Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, visit his website at www.hunterryanherdlicka.com
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