call it Gosford Park meets Light Up the Sky," says actor Edward Hibbert of Curtains, the whodunit wrapped in a musical theatre valentine currently running at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre. Hibbert's brilliantly waspish turn as Christopher Belling, described by the actor as "a mad tyrant of a director," would make one believe that the British actor has been knocking about the musical theatre stage his entire career. That's not the case, as it turns out. When Back Stage asked how he got into musicals, Hibbert responded, "I'm still asking myself that question." And yet, in a way, Hibbert was born to the musical theatre.
His father, Geoffrey, had an extensive career performing in Britain but came to New York City in the early 1950s to do the rollicking '20s musical The Boy Friend, which featured the then-unknown ingénue Julie Andrews. Hibbert was born during the run of the show, though he would return to Britain with his family and begin his acting career there. "We don't train in London as people do in America for musicals, per se," says Hibbert, though he recalls, "My father had a very strong musicality about him. I think that was inherently passed on to me." As Hibbert's mother was also in theatre, the family would often attend shows, particularly when Broadway musicals would play the West End. One of Hibbert's earliest memories is attending, as a young teenager, a production of Gypsy, starring Angela Lansbury—an evening he remembers as "an epiphany."
His career in Britain included a few musical revues, but it wasn't until he returned to New York, where by virtue of birth he had the right to work, that he began performing in musicals. Hibbert's first Broadway outing, billed as a play with music, was Alice in Wonderland, a short-lived production he remembers as being "beautiful and disastrous." He then stepped into Me and My Girl, starring Jim Dale, which he considers "the first real musical I did." Hibbert was not to do another until The Drowsy Chaperone opened at the Ahmanson in 2005; he's currently on a leave of absence from the show's New York run.
In the meantime, Hibbert had the good fortune to land the role of the interior designer, Sterling, in Paul Rudnick's popular gay comedy Jeffrey. Opening at the WPA Theatre in 1992, it moved on to a long run at the Minetta Lane Theatre and then came to L.A. and ran at the Westwood (now Geffen) Playhouse. Hibbert had never seriously considered coming to L.A; he felt it was "a city that specialized in youth, glamour, white teeth—not that my teeth aren't white. But I thought, 'This isn't going to be [a] land which will know what to do with me.'" He was, in a word, mistaken. Jeff Greenberg, who at the time was the casting director for Frasier, caught Jeffrey during its L.A. run and liked what he saw, plucking not only Hibbert from the cast to play food critic Gil Chesterton but also Harriet Harris (Frasier's agent, Bebe Glazer), Patrick Kerr (Trekkie geek Noel Shempsky), and Richard Poe (traffic reporter Chopper Dave). "If I never stand on another TV studio floor," says Hibbert, "I will feel incredibly privileged to have been a part of the Frasier family in a recurring role for all 11 seasons, because I was working with the cream of writing talent and one of the finest ensembles of actors on television."
Six years ago Hibbert got involved with Curtains in its earliest stages, when it meant simply standing at a lectern with a glass of water and reading. The actor says there's a huge difference between what it was and what it has become, though "it was always a murder mystery." Initially it was a Kander and Ebb musical with a book by Peter Stone, but in the course of getting the show up, first Stone and then Ebb died. "For a while," muses Hibbert, "I really thought it was going to be curtains for Curtains." Writer Rupert Holmes joined the team, reworking the book and adding additional lyrics, and the result is the sort of role actors dream of. "I've been very lucky to have both those men writing for me," says Hibbert. "Someone said to me, 'I don't think I've heard lines fall out of your mouth in this way since you played the interior designer in Jeffrey.'"
Hibbert plans to return to The Drowsy Chaperone after Curtains closes here, but when Curtains finds its New York home, he will step back into the role due to his long association with the production. Having appeared at the Ahmanson twice in the past year, Hibbert suggested to Michael Ritchie, artistic director of the Ahmanson's Center Theatre Group, that Ritchie never do a Broadway-bound musical without including Hibbert in the cast. "What am I now?" Hibbert asks rhetorically, accentuating with his distinctive laugh, "The Robert Goulet of Grand Avenue?"
"Curtains" currently plays at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7:30 p.m. (Dark Sun. 7 p.m. Aug. 27-Sep. 10. Added performances Thu. 2 p.m. Aug. 24- Sep. 7.) Through Sep. 10. (213) 628-2772.