Craig Urbani, left, and actor Atandwa Kani share the stage during the Naledi Awards at Gold Reef City in Johannesburg in this April 19 2016 file photo. Urbani, who will play the role of Billy Flynn in the hit musical Chicago, maintains a fierce workout schedule. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/FRENNIE SHIVAMBU
Craig Urbani, left, and actor Atandwa Kani share the stage during the Naledi Awards at Gold Reef City in Johannesburg in this April 19 2016 file photo. Urbani, who will play the role of Billy Flynn in the hit musical Chicago, maintains a fierce workout schedule. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/FRENNIE SHIVAMBU

When singer and actor Craig Urbani razzle-dazzles us in the return of the sexy and sophisticated musical Chicago, he’ll be reprising a role he first played 10 years ago.

With one major difference — this time he’ll be sober. A decade ago, when Urbani cruised around as the suave lawyer Billy Flynn, he was on a downward spiral of alcoholism that almost cost him his life, let alone his career. Now he’s a clean-living gym fanatic who looks fabulous at 48, if a little rugged around the edges, and his toned body is inspiring Chicago co-stars half his age.

“The truth is that I was in my late 30s and early 40s, I wasn’t looking good, I wasn’t sounding good, I wasn’t present enough and I wasn’t sober enough,” he says.

“Revisiting this role in this new frame of mind is a gift. I’m 10 years more mature, a lot more lucid, a lot more sober, a lot fitter and a lot more grounded.”

What fuelled the high-life was playing the title role in The Buddy Holly Story in SA, London and Australia. Every show was like a rock concert, with audiences dancing and the band on a high adjourning to the pub each night, sometimes until 2am.

“I did that show for a decade of my life, so for a long time I lived like a flipping rock star and I ain’t one. Mick Jagger I’m not. I started to look like a bloated Elvis,” he says.

But he doesn’t blame the industry for triggering his excessive drinking. The issue isn’t what’s in the glass, it’s why you drink it and what makes you keep going back for more, he says.

“I’ve lived a lot of my life in fear and I don’t know why. I used to think it’s because I’m a performer, but it’s not. I guarantee you that if I was a hairdresser I would have encountered the same problems in my life, so I don’t blame the entertainment industry. It was Craig problems.”

Temporary detoxes and half-hearted bids to limit his boozing failed, until his doctor warned him that he was literally drinking himself to death. He finally went teetotal five years ago with the help of Marius Swart, a counsellor working with the 12-Step Alcoholics Anonymous programme.

Urbani describes his new life as a rejuvenation, and he’s using his high profile and experience to help others. He’s not a counsellor, but he took a short course on how to help people with addictions, and when someone contacts him he can put them in touch with some of the best counsellors in the country.

He’s discovered that the problem is rampant.

“I know at least 15 or 20 people who are no longer with us and it’s very scary. I’ve got another friend posting things on Facebook saying he can’t anymore and he’s going to take himself out. It’s such a difficult balance with people who are battling with addiction or they’re depressed. You don’t want to pander or enable or mollycoddle people, but you have to listen and you have to see when someone needs help and enable that person to ask for it.”

After Urbani quit drinking he gained weight from eating sweets to satisfy a sugar craving. So he hired a personal trainer and now spends a gruelling 90 minutes in the gym every day. The result is a body that will make Billy Flynn a muscle-bound hunk of a lawyer when Chicago blasts into Cape Town and Johannesburg.

The SA crew has already wowed audiences on a 10-city tour of New Zealand and China, with Jonathan Roxmouth playing Flynn before Urbani takes over for the home run and a tour of Germany afterwards. The long Asian tour would have been too much time away from his 12-year-old daughter, Urbani says.

Chicago has been seen by more than 31-million people and is one of the hottest, sexiest musicals ever written, with cheeky lyrics by Fred Ebb, sensuous choreography by Bob Fosse, and a thrilling based-on-fact story of two women who kill their lovers under the influence of drink and jazz. The costumes are scantily suggestive, the characters are well-formed and the songs range from poignant solos to belters that have you singing on the way home.

“I think this is one of the most intelligent, sexy shows ever done on stage,” says Urbani.

“There’s nothing superfluous. Nothing extraneous. Every move, every line, every beat is there for a reason and it’s a slick, well-oiled machine. What makes it so sexy is the Fosse choreography, and the fact that you have the most beautiful women with the most beautiful bodies as well as boys who are fit and sexy. It’s a great crime musical and nothing is spoon-fed to the audience, things are hinted at, and it’s so cleverly put together.”

The role of Billy Flynn isn’t particularly demanding, he grins, because in between his three numbers he just cruises around in a tuxedo. But the fact that Urbani is still alive to play it at all is worth making a song and dance about.

  • Chicago runs at Artscape in Cape Town from March 15 to April 14, then Montecasino Teatro in Johannesburg from April 20 to May 26. Tickets at Computicket.