As “Dad” in “Billy Elliot: The Musical” on Broadway, Greg Jbara is a bear of a man, a gruff miner who can’t understand what would make his son want to dance.
<img class=”alignright size-full wp-image-2848″ title=”jbara” src=”http://theater.lohudblogs.com/files/2009/11/jbara.jpg” alt=”jbara” width=”323″ height=”221″ />
Greg Jbara, the actor, understands the impulse to move, to dance, to sing. He has it and he builds on it, continuing rehearsals long after taking home the Tony Award last June for best performance by a featured actor in a musical.
Jbara brought that impulse — and that Tony award — with him to Scarsdale High School last week to meet with a group of students with whom he shares a life experience: Like the Tony-winner, the cast of Scarsdale’s upcoming “Beauty and the Beast” knows what it’s like to be directed by Adrienne Meyer.
Meyer taught a young Jbara at Wayne Memorial High School in Michigan in the ’70s and here she was, 30 years later, getting a visit from her Tony-winning former student.
For the better part of three hours, Jbara talked shop with the student actors, covering diverse topics.
• On auditions. (Always go in knowing every line, he told the students, because there will be other actors who will know every line.)
• On taking his wife up on the stage to accept his Tony. (“I had no agenda, other than honoring my wife, because I wouldn’t have seen her the rest of the night. So she went everywhere with me right after I won the award. I got to spend the night with her and share the experience with her.”)
• On being a New York actor with an L.A. family. (He relies heavily on his laptop — fitted with iChat and Skype — to read to his boys and watch them go to sleep each night.)
• On networking. (“The friends you make when you’re starting out are the people who are going to help you down the road.”)
• On his big break. (“Getting into Juilliard. I wouldn’t have had the courage to come to New York without it.”)
Jbara said that when he conducts master classes at programs like Scarsdale’s, he sees himself back in school in Michigan.
“I see how fortunate these kids are to have someone like Adrienne, creating this opportunity, because all over the place the arts are gone. The funding is gone. I feel so fortunate to have grown up in a time when people were having babies and people were willing to pay the taxes to support arts in the public schools. It doesn’t exist anymore.”
School sports are important, Jbara said, but so are other arts-related skills, such as being in the choir, the band or building sets for a play.
“I get excited when I see there are still places where kids can go to school and have life experiences in the arts and figure out who they are.
“When those programs don’t exist, I can’t imagine the missed opportunities for young people,” he said.
“Our men’s chorus had 65 members — and half of them were the football team,” he says. “There was a passion and appreciation for the arts.”
After chatting with the students, Jbara watched as Meyer put them through their paces, with musical numbers “Be Our Guest,” “Kill the Beast,” “If I Can’t Love Her,” “Home,” and the title song. The musical runs Nov. 20, 21 and 22.
The actor stood in the aisle, arms behind his back, taking it all in and applauding after each number.
When it was over, Jbara sounded impressed. And Meyer beamed.
“I can’t believe you guys still have three weeks,” he told the cast. “You are amazing singers. I’m blown away.”
He complimented them on their diction and offered a bit of staging advice, suggesting that actors face the audience even though they’re talking to someone else on stage.
“We know you’re talking to each other because you’re both up there,” he told them.
At Juilliard, when actors would visit to talk with classes, Jbara would ask them why they act.
Some would give high-falutin’ answers — to change the world or some such reason — but Kevin Kline’s answer was refreshingly honest, Jbara said.
“He said, ‘Come on, if I didn’t like the sound of applause and the fact that everybody’s looking at me, I don’t know that I’d be in this business,’” Jbara recalled with a laugh.
Jbara said he is looking forward to a three-month break from “Billy Elliot” when he can be an L.A. father again and reconnect with his family without an Internet connection as the conduit.
In February, he’ll be on the big screen, in the film “Remember Me,” in which he plays Lena Olin’s husband and Robert Pattinson’s stepfather. The film, he predicted, will mark the emergence of a new star, the child actress Ruby Jerins, whom he compared to a young Dakota Fanning.
Jbara told the students to appreciate their moment.
“After working in the business,” he told them, “I still miss the professionalism of our productions in high school.”
The students peppered Jbara with questions.
About smoking on stage: (He smokes herbal cigarettes and inhales only six times per performance.)
About working with the Billy Elliot boys: (“They constantly raise the bar — and we can’t swear backstage.”)
About preparing to audition: (“The work of acting is the job of auditioning.”)
About nerves: (“I’d only get nervous if I wasn’t prepared, so I made sure to be prepared.”)
“I feel lucky to have seen you,” Jbara told the clearly pleased teens. “I’m sad I won’t be able to see you guys do this because I’ll be doing my show.”
Yes, that show. With the man who comes to understand why a boy would feel the need to dance.
<strong>If you go
What:</strong> “Beauty and the Beast”
<strong>When:</strong> Nov. 20 and 21 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 22 at 2 p.m.
<strong>Where:</strong> Scarsdale High School, 1057 Post Road, Scarsdale.
<strong>Tickets:</strong> $20, $10 for students and seniors. Available from cast members or at the door.
Photo by Carucha Meuse/The Journal News: Broadway star Greg Jbara chats with the cast of “Beauty and the Beast” at Scarsdale High School. At Jbara’s right is Scarsdale teacher Adrienne Meyer, who taught Jbara in Michigan in the 1970’s.