TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Sean Hayes, who played Jack in "Will & Grace," is making his Broadway debut in the revival of "Promises, Promises," which opened this week. The show has songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who we'll talk with next week. Two of the songs from the show became hits, the title song, "Promises, Promises," and "I'll Never Fall In Love Again."

The show premiered in 1968 and is based on the movie "The Apartment." In the revival, Sean Hayes plays Chuck Baxter, an employee in an insurance company stuck in a low-level job. He has something his boss wants, an apartment in Manhattan, an apartment the boss can use to cheat on his wife with his girlfriend. So Baxter gives his key to the boss in return for the promise of a promotion. The revival also stars Kristin Chenoweth.

Sean Hayes got his start starring in the independent film "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss," which led to the role that made him famous on "Will & Grace" as the very extroverted, gay friend Jack. Let's start with a recording from the revival of "Promises, Promises," featuring Sean Hayes singing the title song.

(Soundbite of song, "Promises, Promises")

Mr. SEAN HAYES (Actor): (As Chuck Baxter) (Singing) Promises, promises, I'm all through with promises, promises now. I don't know how I got the nerve to walk out. If I shout, remember I feel free. Now I can look at myself and be proud. I'm laughing out loud.

Oh, promises, promises, this is where those promises, promises end. I won't pretend that what was wrong can be right. Every night I sleep now, no more lies. Things that I promised myself fell apart, but I found my heart.

Oh, promises, their kind of promises take all the joy from life. Oh, promises, those kind of promises can just destroy your life. Oh, promises, promises, my kind of promises can lead to joy and hope and love, yes, love.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Sean Hayes, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really enjoyed your performance in "Promises, Promises."

Mr. HAYES: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Now, I know you performed in the Encore's production of "Damn Yankees," but that wasn't officially Broadway. This is your official Broadway debut. So, you know, I've heard you sing comedically as Jack in "Will & Grace," but here you're singing for real and singing well for real. Did you sing much before this?

Mr. HAYES: No, actually, I think that's one of the reasons I did this, as well as 50 other reasons, most of which shall remain in my head. But one of the reasons was to challenge myself and see if I could really conquer this kind of thing that I've always been toying with, this singing thing...

And I don't by any means don't pretend to be a singer or label myself a singer. I'm definitely an actor first, but it's fun to kind of, you know, push your boundaries and see if you can do things that have scared you a little bit your whole life.

GROSS: So if singing scares you a little bit, and you're out on a Broadway stage singing, that's got to be scary with a capital S.

Mr. HAYES: Yeah, that's what life's about, though, isn't it? Isn't it about getting out of your comfort zone and getting off the couch and challenging yourself and forcing yourself to do things you wouldn't other do, otherwise what are you living for?

GROSS: Comfort.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: Well, actually, I'm realizing that now. Comfort never sounded so great.

GROSS: Now, Burt Bacharach, I think ,is a real stickler for precision in his orchestras and in his singers. Did he come in and do any of the coaching? I think he was very active in the original production.

Mr. HAYES: He is. Burt, unfortunately, I don't know too much about that. Burt was unfortunately not available because he had some medical issues, I presume with his back and his spine. So the first time he saw the show was opening night, last Sunday. And it was a pleasure to finally meet him, and he was, you know, overjoyed, which was a great relief, you know.

GROSS: Now, did you know some of the more famous songs from the show like "Promises, Promises," "I'll Never Fall In Love Again," "Knowing When to Leave," and two other Bacharach-David songs were added to this production, "I Say A Little Prayer" and "A House is Not a Home." How familiar were you with those songs?

Mr. HAYES: Well, I knew "Promises," and I knew "Never Fall In Love Again," only from the radio, from being a kid; and of course, that "House is Not a Home" and "Say A Little Prayer." I was unfamiliar with the rest, and to be quite honest, the very, very first listen to those songs for me was the cast - the original cast recording.

And a lot of them you don't walk away humming, but if you listen to it even a second time, let alone 100 times like I have, they really do grow on you, and you kind of gain a certain affection for them, and you realize why the show was a hit back in the '60s, you know.

There's a couple songs that you don't, you know, go to the urinal during intermission and hum...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: But they really do stick with you.

GROSS: Now, you do have a music background. You studied music. You studied piano. You studied conducting, I think.

Mr. HAYES: In college, I did.

GROSS: In college, you played a lot of Mozart. Why classical music?

Mr. HAYES: I think that's just what came more natural to me. As a kid, that's what I started on, and you know, we were talking about comfort zones earlier. I think that's where my comfort zone was.

I tried I was pushed to try to do jazz and other kinds of styles of piano, and I just didn't really get it. It just didn't really click. It didn't come as easy to me as the classical did. Plus, probably the fear of improvising on piano, and you know, with classical music, the notes are the notes.

You either hit them, or you don't, and they're right there on the page for you to learn, whereas jazz, it's just here's a chord, or here's kind of an idea, now go. And I never really learned that technique nor really had the desire to. I don't know why, probably because I was afraid of the improvisation.

GROSS: So why did you change from music to acting?

Mr. HAYES: I think that was probably always my destiny, and I fought it because I grew up in a family of many brothers that won accolades for their sporting events and everything. And so I thought I was a little embarrassed to pursue acting at such a young age, and I thought it wasn't the macho thing to do. I'm being completely honest.

And so, but, so I always kind of had this passion for it, and I would always hang out in the theater as much as I could because those people made me laugh the most.

I mean, I used to watch "Saturday Night Live" as a kid, constantly, and go, God, they look like they're having so much fun. Why am I not doing that? And so I think when I got to college, as do a lot of people, you discover who you are and find yourself more than you did before. You go yeah, this feels right. This feels right to be amongst funny people and people who enjoy what they do.

So I kind of pursued both at the same time. I was pursuing music during the day, and at night I would go hang out with all the theater folks, watch shows and do improvisational groups and things like that. So I was on a two-way track.

GROSS: Now, once you decided to act, your first real role was in a film called "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss." This is an indie film with a lot of unknown people in it. Did you have any confidence that it would be good?

Mr. HAYES: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: You know, at the time, I wasn't working. I had just moved to Los Angeles, and because if you wanted to do TV or film, that's where you needed to be. And it was just, I literally just auditioned and got the job, like, two days later, and my agent was like, do you want to do this or not? It's no money, it's nothing, and I was like, I'm not doing anything else. And so I did it and then from that got "Will & Grace."

GROSS: So before we talk more about "Will & Grace," let me play a scene. One of the things about your character, Jack, is that he always wanted to have, you know, like a one-man show in which he'd sing, do a little dancing. And now that you've made your Broadway singing debut, I thought it would be fun to listen back to Jack singing. And he had this ambition to do, you know, the show "Jack 2000" and "Jack 2001." So here's a scene in which he's trying to cheer Grace, who's sick and in bed, he's trying to cheer her up by singing.

(Soundbite of television program, "Will & Grace")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: (As Jack McFarland) Anyway, I find that the one thing that really makes people smile is my music - or my oddly long tongue, your choice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DEBRA MESSING (Actor): (As Grace Adler) Music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: (As Jack) Because I finally figured out how to make "Jack 2001" different than "Jack 2000."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MESSING: (As Grace) You're going to get an audience?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: (As Jack) No. I'm going to sing a medley of songs with the word one in them. So let the healing begin. Hit it.

(Soundbite of snapping)

Mr. HAYES: (As Jack) (Singing) You're still the one I want to talk to in bed, hey, still the one that turns my head. You're still having fun, you're still the one singular sensation, every little step she takes. One thrilling combination, every move that she makes. One less bell to answer, one less egg to fry, one less man to pick up after. I should be happy, but all I do is cry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: (As Jack) Oh, Grace, you're crying. Is it because of my song? I can't believe I made you cry.

Ms. MESSING: (As Grace) It's okay.

Mr. HAYES: (As Jack) Okay, it's great. I did it. I finally moved someone to tears with my art.

GROSS: Sean Hayes in a scene from "Will & Grace." How was your character of Jack described in that first script, the one that you used to audition?

Mr. HAYES: Oh, gosh, I don't remember. But to me, you know, at the beginning of "Will & Grace," I played Jack as the funny next-door-neighbor type, as we've seen in the past, and I thought that was my role.

I didn't really play into the gay part as much, the stereotypical gay part. And I have to say the critics, for not being that educated about the gay lifestyle, I think, pegged Jack as the flamboyant, extremely gay character so because they didn't know what else to call him. Because if Will is seemingly straight-acting, oh, then Jack must be very feminine and very flamboyant. Whereas, I wasn't playing him as feminine, because I know a lot of gay guys who are extremely feminine, kind of like Carson Kressley-type from the, what is that, the "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," those snapping, kind of girly that to me was stereotypical gay, the very feminine gay guy.

But if you didn't label Jack as gay, he would've just been the funny next-door neighborhood who had a lot of energy, the way Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Marty Short, any of these guys did.

GROSS: So you changed your interpretation of the character as time went on?

Mr. HAYES: Definitely, 100 percent, because I wanted to explore the I wanted more distance between the types of gay characters between Jack and Will.

If you look at the first season, Jack's not the mannerisms and the the dialogue is more towards the stereotypical, flamboyant gay guy, but a lot of the mannerisms aren't. And then as time went on, I added more and more and more and more.

GROSS: Now, you've used the word stereotypical. Were you afraid that at some point you would be playing into a stereotype?

Mr. HAYES: At that point, I didn't really care. I knew what was funny and what was true to that character - the growth of Jack - to that character. And so what was true to the growth of that character was to play him that way. That was so well-written, you know, so well-written.

GROSS: My guest is Sean Hayes. He's starring in the Broadway revival of "Promises, Promises." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Sean Hayes, and he's now starring on Broadway in "Promises, Promises," a revival of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David musical from the late '60s. Right before "Promises, Promises" opened, you did an interview with The Advocate in which you acknowledged you were gay, whereas previously you declined to talk about that, saying that the less people knew about your personal life, the more open-minded they could be about each role that you played. And I was wondering, like, why now?

Mr. HAYES: So we wouldn't have to talk about it.

GROSS: And so here am I talking about it.

Mr. HAYES: Right.

GROSS: Is that your point?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: Yeah.

GROSS: Okay. So can I just ask you...?

Mr. HAYES: Because it's, you know, it's just there's nothing relevant about someone's sexuality to what they do for a living.

GROSS: But what's relevant to me is that you've, your first big roles both in "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss" and in "Will & Grace" were as gay characters. And I think probably for a lot of young gay people in particular, it's great to have gay characters on screen because, not until recently were there any, so...

Mr. HAYES: Yeah, well, Billy Crystal in the '70s on "Soap." I mean, there's tons, tons of examples. But yes, no, I think any positive that has come out from me playing gay characters in TV or film is amazing and a wonderful byproduct of, you know, what I've done. And if it's helped anybody, then my life is complete because that's a wonderful thing.

GROSS: One of the things that you did was a made-for-TV movie about Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. You played Jerry Lewis. Jeremy Northam played Dean Martin. And so you played Jerry Lewis, and you also did, like, Jerry Lewis bits in it. Did you meet Jerry Lewis while you were putting this together?

Mr. HAYES: I did not, on purpose. I didn't want to be influenced one way or the other. I just wanted to stay true to the great script that John Gray wrote and directed, amazing writer-director.

And John and I viewed countless hours of old "Colgate Hour" video from the '50s and a bunch of rare, you know, footage of Dean and Jerry working together. And then I would go home and literally stay up until two, three, four in the morning, you know, combining the Jerry Lewis bits while infiltrating some of my own kind of flair to the Jerry Lewis sensibility.

And some of those scenes we wrote I came up with the stuff entirely on my own with Jerry in mind, of how would Jerry do this with Jerry-isms but new bits. So that was fun, and I got a big round of applause from Jerry. He called me crying and saying he loved it and couldn't believe how true it was, and real, for him. So that was great. I loved that job.

GROSS: What did you most pick up on watching hours and hours and hours of Jerry Lewis?

Mr. HAYES: What did I most pick on? A very similar kind of sense of what I went through as playing Jack on "Will & Grace," which is how different the man was offstage than he was playing, as he called, the idiot. Jerry Lewis I don't know if a lot of people know this. Jerry Lewis referred to his on-camera persona, whether in movies or TV, as the idiot. And so the idiot couldn't be further from who Jerry Lewis was, and I kind of completely relate to that.

Whereas people recognize me as the idiot Jack, but I don't see myself as that. I know others do, but I don't. But that's what I picked up most upon.

GROSS: So why don't we hear a scene with you as Jerry Lewis from the Jerry Lewis that was made for TV, and in this scene, Dean Martin, played by Jeremy Northam, is doing his act at a club, and you kind of crash the act. You come in dressed as a waiter and with a tower of dishes on your arm that you keep dropping, and they come crashing to the floor as Dean Martin is doing his act. So here's the scene.

(Soundbite of television movie, "Martin and Lewis")

Mr. JEREMY NORTHAM (Actor): (As Dean Martin) (Singing) And when I look up at the stars and ask them all what's new, they join me in their answer, darling it's you...

Mr. HAYES: (As Jerry Lewis) Excuse me, pardon me, coming through, coming through.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NORTHAM: (As Martin) Hold it, hold it. What the hell do you think you're doing?

Mr. HAYES: (As Lewis) I'm very sorry, kind sir. I didn't mean to interrupt anything.

Mr. NORTHAM: (As Martin) Oh no, no, I was getting kind of tired of that song anyway.

Mr. HAYES: (As Lewis) So was the audience, but I didn't want to say nothing.

Mr. NORTHAM: (As Martin) Oh, a wise guy.

Mr. HAYES: (As Lewis) Go ahead, Mr. Singer. Make like I'm not even here. I'm not here.

Mr. NORTHAM: (As Martin) I wish you'd make like you weren't even here.

GROSS: That's a scene with Sean Hayes as Jerry Lewis and Jeremy Northam as Dean Martin.

Mr. HAYES: That brings back great memories.

GROSS: Does it?

Mr. HAYES: Yeah, it was really fun to do that.

GROSS: You know, I actually think maybe you didn't draw on what you learned from that just a little bit for your role in "Promises, Promises," just like, a little.

Mr. HAYES: Playing Jerry Lewis?

GROSS: Just a little bit of Jerry Lewis in there, yeah.

Mr. HAYES: Yeah, people have said that. It wasn't conscious, but if you picked up on that, maybe it was subconscious. But that's actually, I love that scene. That's a really funny story, true story about how they began working together was Jerry saw that Dean wasn't doing too well with the audience at that time and wanted to kind of amp it up a bit and get the audience going. So he came in with plates and just started dropping them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: I mean, the guy was fearless. I love that. And that's how that relationship started. It was a beautiful thing.

GROSS: Well, Sean Hayes, thanks so much for talking with us, and good luck with "Promises, Promises."

Mr. HAYES: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Sean Hayes is starring in the Broadway revival of "Promises, Promises." Next week, we'll talk with Burt Bacharach and Hal David about writing the songs for the show, songs like this one. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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