by Donalevan Maines
The first time we see dashing Tom Flynn in Wicked, he’s a resident of Oz singing “Good news! She’s dead! The Witch of the West is dead!”
A few scenes later, he’s Doctor Dillamond, a goat who’s the first to realize that “something baaaaaad” is happening at Shiz University, where he’s the school’s only animal professor. By then, he’s wearing a “brilliantly designed” latex mask that he says “is not uncomfortable at all.”
“I love the role,” says Flynn. “This is my favorite production, and my favorite part I’ve ever played. It’s completely gratifying. It keeps me interested night after night after night.”
I spoke with him recently by phone from his home in New York City, where he was between engagements in Louisville, Kentucky, and Dallas.
Flynn also portrayed gruff but dignified Doctor Dillamond when the national tour of the Grammy- and
Tony Award-winning musical played Houston in 2007. The Stephen Schwartz show tells L. Frank Baum’s classic story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the land’s witches, both good and baaaaaad, my little pretties.
After breaking box-office records and selling out in record time in 2005 and 2007, Wicked has returned to Houston this summer. Houston is where Flynn got his Actors’ Equity card, the result of his professional apprenticeship at the Alley Theatre in 1981–82. Among fellow actors in his class was James Belcher, now an “Alley Theatre Artist” who originated the role of Fritz Engelhardt in the Alley’s current “world premiere” of Kenneth Lin’s Intelligence-Slave on the Neuhaus Stage.
Flynn was born in Salt Lake City, but grew up “a Catholic conservative” in Newport Beach, California. “I tried to do sports, but in baseball they put me in the outfield, and when I would go to catch a ball, it would hit me in the head,” he says. “I suffered through high school, until I decided ‘This is stupid,’ so my junior year, I joined the choir.” Flynn says he’s never seen the TV show Glee but figures that it mirrors his experience.
At Occidental College in Los Angeles, Flynn earned a bachelor of arts degree in theater arts and rhetoric. While auditioning for graduate schools, he stumbled upon the Alley (“I don’t even know if I had heard of it,” he says). Like Doctor Dillamond, it didn’t take Flynn long to realize that the Alley’s offer of a professional apprentice program for actors was “a little misleading.”
“There were no classes, and it wasn’t a conservatory,” he explains. “As apprentices, we did grunt work. I signed up for the costume department because I thought it would be easy, but it ended up being the worst. I had to do the laundry.
“I lived in a horrible cockroach-infested studio apartment off Westheimer and Montrose,” he says. “In 2007, I drove around looking for it, trying to recapture those years. Driving by it, I thought, ‘I can’t believe I ever lived there.’” (Don’t give up on us, Tom. It’s probably a high-rise condo today. The Alley has been under new management since 1989. As for the cockroaches? I can’t say.)
Next, Flynn moved to New York City and “kicked around for two years,” mainly working in avant-garde, including La Mama Experimental Theatre Club (Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy began there) and PS 122 in the East Village.
“I really wasn’t making headway,” he says. “Nowadays, all [drama school graduates] get agents right off the bat. In the ’80s, that was unheard of.”
Flynn returned to southern California and honed his craft at South Coast Repertory, the Mark Taper Forum, and other prestigious theaters. His “big break” came in 1987 when he was cast in the L.A. production of Les Misérables.
However, the show that took him to Broadway was The Who’s Tommy, which premiered at La Jolla Playhouse in 1992. (It’s where William Finn and James Lapine are working on a musical version of the film Little Miss Sunshine, to open in February 2011).
“[Director] Des MacAnuff was kind enough to bring me along to New York,” says Flynn. Opening night on April 22, 1993, was “crazy,” he adds.
“It was not as huge a juggernaut as Wicked, and in Les Miz everybody dies, so people weren’t standing up and screaming at the end, the way they go crazy with Wicked,” says Flynn.
Also, there’s something empowering about employing Doctor Dillamond’s situation to warn audiences of all ages against intolerance, he concedes. “I try to bear in mind the depths of what he says about discrimination. And I feel that it’s the catalyst for Elphaba to begin her journey” toward defying gravity.
Having lived in Houston and performed here two years ago, Flynn is “prepared for the heat,” but plans to play golf once a week, perhaps “do some touristy things,” and enjoy relaxing at his hotel.
At 51, he’s not “dancing through life, mindless and careless,” as Fiyero sings in Wicked. When I spoke with him, he was reading Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told. He says his favorite TV-watching includes Fast Money on CNBC, Food Network, Home & Garden Television (HGTV), and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Broadway Across America presents Wicked through July 25 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Performances are Tuesday–Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.; and a special weekday matinee on Thursday, July 1, at 2 p.m. Tickets: broadwayacrossamerica.com/cities/houston.html.
Donalevan Maines wrote about the Tony Awards in the June issue of OutSmart magazine.