This is what we’ve seen Christie Brinkley do: Look stunning as the face of CoverGirl cosmetics for a record-setting 25 years. Appear on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue three times in a row in the late 1970s and early 1980s, plus grace the covers of more than 500 other magazines during the course of her career.
This is what we haven’t seen Christie Brinkley do: Sing and dance.
All of which makes the former supermodel’s turn as Roxie Hart, the vampish Prohibition-era killer in the Kander and Ebb musical “Chicago,” something of a curiosity. At 58, the leggy blonde with the deep blue eyes and familiar smile has dabbled in many real-life roles (TV host, fragrance developer, animal-rights activist), but she admits that her arrival on the Broadway stage last year was something she never anticipated. She brings her interpretation of Roxie Hart to the Citi Wang Theatre Thursday through Nov. 4, starring opposite John O’Hurley as Billy Flynn.
“I had no idea if I could do this,” Brinkley said by phone from her home on Long Island. “My agent was going over offers with me, and he told me that ‘Chicago’ was inquiring about me for Velma or Roxie. I was definitely intrigued.”
Brinkley decided to audition — donning tights, a black turtleneck, and a pair of Louboutins. She started singing tunes from “West Side Story” until producers asked her to start reading and singing parts for “Chicago.”
Prior to “Chicago,” Brinkley confessed, most of her singing skills were developed at Christmas parties with Billy Joel, her husband from 1985 to 1994.
“We sat at the piano every year during that party. This continued long after our divorce,” Brinkley said. “After the Christmas carols we would start into Broadway standards and Beatles songs until the sun came up.”
She was not expecting much to come from the “Chicago” audition, preparing herself for what she thought was an inevitable “No, thank you.” Instead, she landed the part and performed it on Broadway for 11 weeks before hitting the stage in London.
Her only hesitation in taking the role was her ailing parents.
“When I was offered the part, I knew I had some very big decisions to make,” she said. “I needed to talk with my parents, because I was their primary caregiver. We had 24-hour nurses, but I’m the family that lives closest.”
Brinkley explained to them that she would be away because of the rigorous rehearsal schedule and the demands of performing the show. As she told them how the musical would change her life, her father, longtime television writer Don Brinkley, who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and scoliosis, and was breathing through a tube and unable to speak, began writing on a piece of paper. The message he wrote was “Take it!”
“He kept tapping his pen on the words,” Brinkley said, starting to cry at the memory. “I said, ‘But, Dad, do you really think that I can do that show? Do you think I have the ability in my singing and dancing to do this?’ And he just kept tapping the pen on the paper. I knew I had to do it.”
Over the summer, Brinkley’s parents died within two months of each other, sidelining her from the tour. This weekend she’s performing the show in Hartford, her first city since leaving the production earlier this year.
“I’ve been playing the music at home and brushing up on the part,” said Brinkley, who recently shot an episode of the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” where she’ll appear as the wife of Jerry Gergich (Jim O’Heir).
While Brinkley was an unknown commodity in “Chicago” until last year, her costar, Natick native O’Hurley, has been performing in it off and on for years. Best known for playing clothing catalog mogul J. Peterman on “Seinfeld” and hosting “Family Feud,” he estimates that he’s played the part of lawyer Billy Flynn more than 500 times.
“He’s an enormously complicated character if you take the time to pull him apart,” O’Hurley said on the phone from Los Angeles. “And I’ve had a long time to pull him apart. I mean that sincerely because I think he’s a bit of a psychological study. What I love is that he has to drive the show. I love that, and I love taking charge and feeling that it’s my energy that everybody else has to feed off of.”
O’Hurley said he had no hesitation performing alongside the less-experienced Brinkley, joking that he couldn’t get a date for his senior prom, and he now has Brinkley sitting on his lap every night for the number “We Both Reached for the Gun.” He also said Brinkley’s inexperience fits her rough-around-the-edges character.
“That’s how the role is constructed,” O’Hurley said. “It’s not about what she has. It’s about how badly she wants it. I think that’s where Christie has a lot of fun with the role because she knows that she doesn’t have to be the most polished, but she has to be the one who cares the most.”
After so many performances it seems likely that O’Hurley would have become a Billy Flynn zombie. But the actor with the highly recognizable voice said that each night he’s able to find a new surprise in the character or the show.
It’s also advantageous that O’Hurley sees “Chicago” as one of “the most brilliantly and cleverly designed musicals.”
“I thought I understood Billy Flynn when I started playing him in 2005,” O’Hurley said. “But he’s so much more different and complicated than I understood him to be. That’s what happens when you spend a lot of time with someone — fictional or real.”Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.