What's remarkable about Richard's appearance in the show is that he has had nearly five years to perfect his roles. As far back as 1995, an early production was staged in Wichita, far from the prying eyes of New York critics. Although other jobs came and went (including the Sunset Boulevard tour with Petula Clark that Theater League brought to the Music Hall last year), Jane Eyre kept plugging along. It played Toronto and La Jolla, California, and is now in its final previews at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York City. Richard says all the signs point to a long, healthy run.
"I don't know if preview audiences are kinder, but people have been blown away by its simplicity. Standing ovations became the norm, and New York magazine reported that standing room (was) already being used," he says. "It feels good, but there is still much to refine."
Richard says a typical preview day includes "four to five hours of rehearsal and eight shows a week. The rehearsals are very productive, with a new piece of music added or technical and blocking changes." Early versions of the show were "all musicalized, but now it's a book musical. I think we've added a lot more depth."
The romance of Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester, which hinges on a tragic secret, is portrayed by actors Marla Schaffel and James Barbour. Schaffel was with the show in Wichita, and she and Richard are the only remaining cast members from that production, which was performed in a high school auditorium. The fact that Richard is still with the show half a decade later is not something he easily shrugs off.
"There were lots of times I knew Jane could stop for me. Because that was a reality for other actors," he says. "I had to just let go and say, 'If it will happen, it will.' I kept focused and loved doing it, and if it was to all end, I would have said, 'This has been great.'
"I think why I'm still with it is that I was always available and did good work. And unlike Marla, who is the core of the show, I never had to carry all of the focus."
Richard switches to the big leagues in very fine company, working with Tony Award winners such as set designer John Napier, lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and author/co-director John Caird. Although the show has escaped the needling press received by another new musical, Seussical -- weekly reports pinpoint troubling developments in that show's turbulent trek to Broadway -- Jane Eyre's previews have not been silky smooth. The first three were canceled, and when audiences finally were let in on November 9, the production had to extend intermission to 40 minutes while technical snafus were addressed. Then on November 17, an expansive article in The New York Times crowed about the show's impressive design, saying it had "diaphanous grace." Technical considerations, however, have delayed the show's opening, originally scheduled for December 3 and now postponed at least a week.
"It took two-and-a-half weeks to get through to the end," Richard says. "And during the first preview, John Caird asked audience members if he could 'crave your indulgence.' It's been very labor-intensive. (What has helped) take the pressure off is when (Caird) says he wants to ban neuroses from the theater. 'No neuroses. Just get through it.'"
Richard plays three roles in the show: Brocklehurst, the stern schoolmaster; a vicar at the wedding; and a member of the aristocracy who looks upon Jane as a social climber. At a preview performance last week, Richard seemed to have a delightful time as the relentlessly mean Brocklehurst, and his snobby aristocrat inadvertently lifted Jane to a new level of confidence. If his role in the male ensemble whittled down in favor of the female chorus, he was nevertheless on stage during a substantial portion of the show. And near the top of the second act, Richard rides the turntable front and center with a four-bar solo that can be heard on the original cast CD, released November 21.
Asked if there is enough at stake to give him fretful sleep, Richard says, "I'm sometimes overwhelmed. Every once in a while I'm backstage reading in the Playbill who has played at this theater and I get goose-pimply. But I have to just go out there and do my job."