STORY WRITTEN BY NEAL ZOREN
For Digital First Media
Sam Hartley must wonder why casting directors see an animal in him.
The first acting job he landed after leaving his native Lincoln, Nebraska for New York City was a The Wolf in “Into the Woods” for Red Mountain Theatre in Birmingham, Ala. Currently, he is touring the U.S. as The Beast in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which comes again to Philadelphia’s Academy of Music for eight performances from Feb. 16 to 21.
Coincidentally, Hartley was in Alabama, Huntsville this time, when we spoke by telephone about the work he’s done in furry costumes and the opportunity “Beauty and the Beast” provides him. He said being in the relatively warm South was a pleasant break from the “Arctic tundra” of “Beast’s” previous stops, Madison and Louisville.
“I’m 6’2”, and I have the build of an athlete,” Hartley says. “That has to be why I get these predatory roles. It can’t be my personality. I’m sweet.”
Hartley continues it is the transition from gruff to romantic that he enjoys most about playing The Beast.
“The spectrum I get to play is incredible. The Beast is described as a monster who is only concerned with himself and doesn’t mind separating a daughter from her aged father or holding Belle captive in his lair of a castle. That he finds his humanity by caring about Belle is a great challenge to show an audience in addition to being pretty cool.”
Although touring companies came to Lincoln, Hartley says he did not see the stage version of “Beauty and the Beast” until he was rehearsing it.
“Every kid who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s knew the animated movie. We had a DVD of it I watched all the time. Because I’ve always been a singer, I knew the entire score,
“Except I didn’t. When I received the script and the music, I realized there were seven new songs I didn’t know. One is the number that marks The Beast’s transition and shows how much warmth he feels towards Belle, “If I Cannot Love Her.” It’s so beautiful, and it makes such a dramatic and fitting finish for the first act. I am excited each time I perform it.
“I also like it’s a classic song for a baritone. It the days of Rodgers and Hammerstein, when the musical we know was being invented, they wrote all of their lead male roles for baritones. Today, everything is higher. Everything’s in the tenor register, so it’s wonderful for me to have this great role written in a key that is so compatible with my voice.”
His voice led Hartley to performing.
“As a boy in Lincoln, I did everything,” he says. “I played all of the sports. I took gymnastics. But everything included vocal lessons and Saturday acting classes as the community center. Sports and plays can both be dramatic, but I liked performing on a stage. I knew I loved singing and the collaboration of mounting a production and that I wanted to do it for a living.”
Hartley says he looked at colleges where he could study theater, but family ties and the cost of going to an out-of-state university kept him a Cornhusker in Nebraska.
“It turned out to be a valuable choice for me. I met the vocal coach, Alisa Belflower, who changed my life.
‘Remember what I said about everyone writing for tenors. I could put my voice in that range, but Ms. Belflower asked why I was doing it. She says I was forcing my tone to come through my nose. She showed me where and how to place a baritone note, and I found the voice that would carry me to a career. All of a sudden, I was singing opera, art songs, and operetta in foreign languages.”
Classical singing was not Hartley’s wish. He preferred to perform in musicals, and he did so at several theaters in Lincoln.
Then came time for him to make a decision. One June day, Hartley and a friend, Jaimie Pruden, made a pact to leave the coffee shop where they were sitting and buy a one-way ticket for New York. They bought the ticket for September, took the summer to prepare, told their parents just before they left, and did not look back.
He and Pruden arrives in Manhattan on a Sunday and began going to auditions that Monday. For the early months in New York, Hartley supported himself the same way he did in college, at a coffee shop, this one in Tribeca. By December, he scored his role in “Into the Woods.” Now he’s working for Disney, as is Pruden, who has a two-year contract to perform on a cruise line.
“Touring the country is great,” Hartley says. “How else would I ever see Hunstville? Boston was a favorite stop, so I’m really looking forward to the week in Philadelphia.”