Chicago—the six-time Tony winner and the longest-running American musical in Broadway history—has a new hit in its playbook. After leaving behind a legendary NFL career, Tennessee Titan running back and Heisman Trophy winner, Eddie George is now tackling the leading role of Billy Flynn.
This isn’t George’s first time seeing his name in lights. Before hitting Broadway, he starred in The Whipping Man, God’s Trombones and played Othello and Julius Caesar at the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. Here, George reveals challenges he faced, how his football training prepared him for a leading role and his desire to rap on the big stage.
What made you want to pursue a career in theater?
When I stopped playing football 10 years ago, I was in search for what was next. I went through my depression from leaving the game and really just trying to find my next purpose in life. Business was intriguing to me and I still do that. I love doing it, but it was an element of being an entertainer that I enjoyed and the theater really stood out to me because I was able to find my voice. I love the theater because there is nothing like getting that live interaction from an audience. When the stakes are high, it takes a great deal of concentration and focus to be totally present in the moment. You can’t think ahead or you’ll get caught up in the magnitude of the play or the size of the role.
What initially interested you in this role as Billy Flynn?
Last year around this time, I was doing a play in Nashville called The Whipping Man. I was invited to come watch the travel show and was asked to see Chicago. I never saw the movie and I never saw the play so I was really captivated by it and inspired. I said, “One day, I would love to play the role of Billy Flynn.”
Do you see any of your own personality in the character?
Of course! He’s a charmer. He’s definitely a ladies’ man. He’s a businessman, something that I know of. He’s all about making the dollar, closing the deals and being really comfortable with who he is.
Were there any challenges that you faced when playing him?
Oh, singing! I never sang outside the walls of my home. Over the last year, I really focused on having a strong singing voice. I met with a voice coach in Nashville and worked with her excessively. We’ve been working with these songs and it’s been working out so far.
How did you prepare for the show?
From the time of my audition to even today, I would work extensively on my vocals—two to three times a week. I would work with my acting coach twice a week. The movement work twice a week, dance and so forth. And that’s been the past couple of months so it was like my own mini-training that I would have for myself if I speak in football terms.
What was your first day of rehearsal like?
When I first met with the entire ensemble it was on a day where Walter, the director, came in. He was giving notes on different performances. It’s like ‘Oh man these girls are brilliant on stage and he’s drilling them about the performance!’ They were just spot-on with everything, very nuanced. I remember thinking, ‘Dang, I am just starting to get off the book. How am I going to get to that level of professionalism?’ He said, “We aren’t going to ask you to do much today. We are going to break you in easy. We’ll have fun. Just relax. And just go with it.” We had a five-minute break and then he said we are going to start from the top of the show with Eddie coming in with the ensemble. And then, I did my whole first act. Once I was in it, I just committed to it and trusted the work I did up until that point. I wasn’t worried about making a mistake or anything like that. I was just trying to tell the story in an honest way. That’s what I hung my hat on.
How do feel your NFL career prepared you for a life in theatre?
The work ethic, no question. When I played the game, I was always doing something different, something that cross-trained me to become a better football player. If I had a great off-season, I knew I would have a great year because of the training that I had done. Even in acting, I am going to work and continue to work hard and efficiently. I am looking at various things for inspiration.
Do you have a favorite play that you would love to be part of?
Fences. Denzel Washington was in it with Viola Davis a couple of years back. I definitely want to do another Shakespearean play, whether it’s in New York or Shakespeare in the Park. Also, Hamilton is intriguing. I love the storytelling and of course the rapping and singing is pretty dope. I’ve always wanted to be a rapper. I can’t rhyme, but if given the opportunity I would love to give it a try.