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Chasing a Dream

Saturday, November 21, 1998

Chasing a dream 11/20/98 By Lisa Kovarik Special to The Telegram—Vancouver

On the other side of the world, two Japanese girlfriends log onto a Web site devoted to a Canadian musician. They become smitten and follow his career closely, even flying to see him perform in Ottawa and Vancouver. At both stops they lavish bouquets of roses on him.

Then, on their last night in town, the object of their affection presents them with autographed posters. They shrink back, sobbing uncontrollably. Once unrolled, their gifts reveal a moody, soft focus black-and-white of none other than Newfoundland’s Chad Richardson.

The 28-year-old musician/actor’s intuitive rendition of Mark Cohen in the Tony Award-winning musical Rent has turned heads in Canada and abroad. In fact, he has been offered a position with the Broadway company of the same musical. At the artsy, leopard print-upholstered Nederlander Theatre, he’ll be on call to understudy either filmmaker Mark, or the eternally pouty guitar plucker, Roger. When out of the hotseat, he’ll be Steve, an ensemble character whose vocal strength and tenderness is featured in an Act I solo.

All this, and a thriving music career to consider. How does he do it?

Richardson narrows in on returning home, on his hopes for the future, and on valuable lessons of the past year.

Craved own music

His performance for the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra’s annual fund-raiser in St. John’s last month was a revelation. “Soul-shaking” is how Richardson describes how it was to have 60 symphony musicians backing two of his songs. Ironically, the true therapeutic benefit of that appearance only surfaced when he returned to Vancouver for his two final shows of Rent.

“The NSO gig made me recognize how much I craved my own music,” says Richardson, “It really gave me the courage and self- confidence that a year of the same work had drained. I was terrified, but when I walked out to face the crowd at home, that feeling dissolved. I opened my eyes to all the possibilities. I was able to return and finish the last two shows with a real sense of accomplishment and closure.”

Richardson sees trips home as preventive medicine. As long as he can see family and friends two or three times a year, he believes he can make it through just about anything show business throws his way.

Yet, he displays a keen sensitivity, even slight defensiveness, toward others’ opinion of his link to Newfoundland.

“My biggest fear,” he admits, “is that I’ll be accused of leaving the province and never looking back. I don’t want to be forgotten.”

Opening act

Chances of forgetting about him are slim to nil as the offers pour in steadily. After his year with the Canadian cast ended on Nov. 1, Richardson remained in Vancouver so that he could be a presenter at the West Coast Music Awards on Nov. 8. The next two months mean some much needed rest, but not before Richardson gears up to open for Neil Finn (formerly of Australian bands Split Enz and Crowded House) in Toronto later this month.

That appearance will be the culmination of many years’ scheming to meet the man that, oceans away, had a boy from Conception Bay sending out demo tapes and fantasizing about rock star glory. Richardson can only laugh now as he remembers his burning desire to sing backup for Neil Finn when he was 16, but that kind of fierce drive and patience separated the garage band slackers from the true achievers early.

“All I could think about was, ‘How can I get to him, what can I do to make it happen?’ ” he says. And now that it is happening, and New York looms large, the musician finds himself several steps ahead of his wildest dreams.

Nevertheless, he doesn’t stop aspiring to larger goals, like that of joining the Sony Work Group label based out of Los Angeles. Nor does he lose focus on his desire to have Finn (also on that label) produce the next record. He emphasizes that he’s between labels, but is thrilled that Sony Records of Canada has taken an initiative to introduce Finn to Richardson’s work.

“I feel that I’ll be signed again soon,” he says, “This CD is more singer/songwriter-oriented than any of my other material. Fall Apart, which I performed with the symphony, has been generating a lot of talk. And there will be six or seven more songs that are even better than that.”

Protecting integrity

Despite being considered for commercials, a series with Disney, and numerous dramatic roles over the year, he has turned these down in order to protect his own credibility and integrity.

“I don’t need to make millions, but I do need to be very selective, and I won’t do anything that makes me come across as a goof-bag. I have enough of the spotlight, and I’m just beginning to acknowledge that I might be good at acting.”

With a nomination for Toronto theatre’s Dora Mavor Moore Award, he knew that his commitment to Rent elicited the respect of the acting community too. But that distinction didn’t wipe away nights of doubt and soul-searching about his private musical odyssey. If anything, it made the worry more acute.

“Insecurity,” says Richardson, “defines me more than anything in a business where self-esteem is kicked around daily.”

Along the way there were lessons learned. He swiftly concluded that the acting world doesn’t encourage the same camaraderie that the music community does.

“Everyone is after the same roles,” he explains, “and that leads to a great deal of bitterness.”

Unlike actors who have competition drilled into their brains, musicians create and perform their own art, so they aren’t fighting over the same breaks.

Portraying an angst-ridden filmmaker made Richardson feel that he was actually melding with the character, that life was imitating art a little too closely. With a fresh perspective, he’s just starting to regain his personality.

“When you play a geek for three hours, every night of the week, you begin to feel like an asexual being. I’m starting to remember who I am as a person.”

Richardson is currently enjoying two promising careers, rather than one struggling career funded by waitering. And the elemental reason for his blockbuster year is that he seems to live the mantra, “Everything I am is related to Newfoundland and to being a musician.”

His idea of perfect happiness?

“To overcome all the boundaries I thought success would take away.”

Lisa Kovarik is a freelance writer in Vancouver.