After watching his hometown be ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr. — who’s currently starring in the Broadway revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever — is helping storm victims see the light.Merging Cary Grant good looks, Frank Sinatra–like pipes, A-list acting chops and New Orleans swagger, 44-year-old Harry Connick Jr. is one of entertainment’s few genuine Renaissance men — and a good guy to boot. Last month, Connick returned to Broadway to headline a big-ticket revival of the musical comedy On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. But closest to his heart is the life support that he’s offered to the Big Easy — working with Habitat for Humanity to provide homes for hurricane-affected artists via his Musicians’ Village project and encouraging youngsters to pursue music with the just-opened Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a community arts haven and the centerpiece of the Village. He talked to American Way about the passion project as well as returning to Broadway.
American Way: Tell me about the difference between doing a live concert, which is very spontaneous, and a Broadway musical, like On a Clear Day, which is tightly choreographed.
Harry Connick Jr.: A live show is freedom. I don’t plan set lists. I don’t plan what I’m going to say. I don’t even plan tempos, really. We go out there and have a new night every night. Broadway, down to the minute, everything’s exactly the same. What changes is within the boundaries of the show — the room you find for interpretation.
AW: Talk about being raised in a musical household.
HC: We had a piano in the house, and from the time I could walk, I was always tinkering on it and singing. There was plenty of “Chopsticks,” I’ve gotta be honest, but playing music was just something I was always doing — like some kids play with a ball or a tennis racket or something.
AW: New Orleans is a good place to be that kind of kid.
HC: Yeah, I’d walk out the door and there’d be somebody great to play with. The effort and enthusiasm of young musicians in New Orleans is really encouraged, and I got raised right.
AW: Now you’re helping to raise the next generation right, despite Mother Nature’s violent protests.
HC: Branford Marsalis and I visited some of the Katrina evacuees about a week after the storm. We wanted to help, and we finally figured it out: There needed to be a place where these musicians who’d lost everything could live and a place where they could play. With Habitat for Humanity, we built as many homes as we could, with a community center in the middle of it where everybody could get together and play and learn and teach and record.
AW: Feels like home, right?
HC: It’s the old guard and the new boys getting down together. Some of the guys who live in the Village, they’re in their 90s. They played with Duke Ellington, man. They’re teaching the kids, like I got taught. Post-Katrina, there’s been a lot of uncertainty about where traditional music was going to go, and we wanted to make sure it always had a home.
AW: Whether it’s opening a music center and providing housing for musicians in New Orleans, making feel-good albums or acting in films or on Broadway, it seems like your reason for being is to convey a simple message: Everything is going to be OK.
HC: Well, yeah. I mean, everybody’s got problems, man, and things they struggle with. A friend of mine, this great singer, her voice mail says, “This is Kim. Remember, it’s your choice to have a great day.” It’s pretty simple advice, but in a sense, life really is all about the choices we make. You can get sunk and stay sunk, or you can get sunk and enjoy the swim. There’s always something to get you through the dark. For me, this is a really good time in my life. A really good time.