THE LEADING MEN: He’s Got “Game”

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: He’s Got “Game” Here’s three “Leading Men” who are still full of New Year’s cheer: Harry Connick Jr. (The Pajama Game), Brandon Victor Dixon (The Color Purple) and Christopher J. Hanke (In My Life).
Harry Connick, Jr.
Harry Connick, Jr.

WHEN HARRY MET BROADWAY
Harry Connick Jr., the sexy singer-songwriter from New Orleans, is all jazzed about making his Broadway acting debut. He’ll star as Sid, “quite a hunk of guy,” in the Roundabout revival of Richard Adler-Jerry Ross’ The Pajama Game. Currently in rehearsals, the Grammy winner is “Racing With the Clock”; it begins previews on Jan. 19 and opens Feb. 23. As the superintendent of the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory, he meets a beautiful Babe (played by Kelli O’Hara), but “Hey, There’s” a problem: She heads the union’s grievance committee and it’s holding out for a pay raise. Somehow, Sid and Babe will have to work together and settle their striking differences.

“Working with Harry’s a blast,” raves O’Hara, his leading lady. “He’s like a big, oversized kid. He’ll dance around and do impressions of Sylvester Stallone. And when he sings, you could listen to him all day. This score is perfect for him. He’s such a crooner. They’ve even put in some piano playing for him in ‘Hernando’s Hideaway.’”

Of course, Connick has scored on Broadway before — but as a composer, earning a Tony nomination for Thou Shalt Not. Best known for his cool contributions to movies like “When Harry Met Sally,” the one-time cabaret crooner has sold over 20 million albums. He also plays Leo in NBC’s “Will & Grace,” and he’ll co-star with Ashley Judd in William Friedkin’s upcoming screen adaptation of Bug.

When Katrina hammered his hometown of jazz and left nothing but blues in its wake last year, the 6-foot-2 star spearheaded “A Concert for Hurricane Relief” on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC. “New Orleans is my essence, my soul, my muse, and I can only dream that one day she will recapture her glory.” Otherwise, he says, “I’m at a really wonderful place in life. I’m married to my best friend and hero [Jill Goodacre], and my three daughters have given me a joy I’ve never had before.”

Connick, 38, offered the following insights into his career at a Jan. 7 “Times Talk,” moderated by Patricia Cohen, at the CUNY Graduate Center. Question: What made you want to do The Pajama Game?
Harry Connick Jr.: When I was in high school, I did [some] musicals and sorta fell in love with the process. It was pretty miraculous. But I didn’t have much involvement with theatre until Thou Shalt Not, and that was purely as a composer. Then this came through with Kathleen Marshall, who’s directing and choreographing it. Cast members started coming in, and the music’s just so beautiful, and it’s a great story. I once did the Tonys and everyone came out and sang ‘Oklahoma!,’ and John Raitt was just two feet away from me. At the time, I hadn’t even seen [the movie of] The Pajama Game, and he was such a nice man. I think about him a lot because he really put a stamp on the role. He’s one of the rare artists who performed it on Broadway and then did it on film. I wish he could’ve [lived to] see this.

Q: You’ve sung and acted a lot, but how’s the dancing going?
Connick: There’s a lot more dancing than I expected. It’s so freaky. Broadway performers are the most talented of all. The dancers are incredible singers. And all the singers dance. And they all act. For our first dance, they put Kelli and all of us into a big circle. I thought: “It’s gonna be alright. I’ll throw in some New Orleans [moves].” But it was a polka, and I’m thinking: “Don’t throw no polka at me.” I’m just a guy. I started hearing dance terms like “turned out,” and I had no idea what they were talking about. They better give me the white-trash version. Man, I bit off more than I can chew. But all the dancers have been so helpful and warm, and it’s really a lotta fun.

Q: How do you feel about Broadway music?
Connick: About 90% of the songs I played growing up were from Broadway. Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk — a lot of the stuff they played came from shows. Show tunes aren’t so far off from jazz tunes.

Q: What was it like seeing New Orleans after Katrina hit?
Connick: I was devastated and shocked. A big handsome man named Darrell Jones took me into the Convention Center. There were thousands of people, and they were black and white; it’s not the crap you heard on TV. I saw an old woman who had died in her wheelchair and was covered with a sheet. I saw babies with their eyes popping out of their heads. People with no water, food or medication. This is the greatest country in the world. This is the most unique city in America. What’s going on? I thought about starting a committee to rebuild New Orleans, but my dad told me: “You’re not that smart. Your sister is the one with the brains. You have no idea what you’re getting into.” So I’m gonna focus on the musicians. A lot of them left town, so we hope to bring them back. We’ll build villages that offer housing and start a school named after Ellis Marsalis that will [promote] traditional New Orleans jazz.

Q: What’s it been like playing Leo on “Will & Grace”?
Connick: Doing “Will & Grace” is like acting on steroids. It happens very fast. It’s been great. I signed to do four episodes and wound up doing 18 of them. Until I get the script, I never know what Leo is doing, like cheating on Grace. But some folks take it seriously. They’re at home in their underwear believing this and they come to my concert and say, “Hey, that sucked what you did to Grace!” I’ve got two more shows left, so I’m hoping they get us back together or at least hook me up with Jack.

Q: Doing TV and theatre are so different. Are you worried about what it takes to do The Pajama Game eight times a week?
Connick: Maybe in three weeks I’ll be pulling my hair out, but so far I’d say this is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I get to sing, I get to dance, and I get to act with all this immense talent. I’m anticipating a really good run.

For info, visit www.hconnickjr.com and www.roundabouttheatre.org.

HIS BROADWAY BOW DESERVES A ‘PURPLE’ HEART
After The Color Purple opened Dec. 1 at the Broadway Theatre, its star-studded audience painted the town red and shouted its approval until it was blue in the face. Brandon Victor Dixon, who charmingly plays Harpo, recalls the hue and cry: “Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and Robert De Niro were all in the audience, and during Act II, I started screaming backstage. I also saw Spike Lee and Tina Turner. And at the curtain call, I got to bring [producer] Oprah Winfrey and [author] Alice Walker onstage. Omigod! I’m so full of joy that I get to share this piece and do what I love for a living. I’m blessed to be in such an incredible cast, and I thank the Lord.”

Based on Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Steven Spielberg’s multi-Oscar-nominated movie, The Color Purple is the inspiring story of Celie (played by LaChanze), a poor black woman who triumphs over tragedy and an abusive husband (Kingsley Leggs). Along the way, she befriends Sofia (Felicia P. Fields), a dynamic and defiant woman who won’t be beaten by life or anything else, and Harpo, her sensitive, good-hearted hubby. Dixon, a sunny 6-foot actor from Gaithersburg, MD, says, “As Alice Walker put it, ‘Harpo is the new man. Just run with that.’ And Felicia and I have such a rapport. She’s truly a gift from God. She’s so warm and open. When we do our number, ‘Any Little Thing,’ we’ll play little tricks. She’ll get a little undressed or she’ll undress me. In Atlanta, we went too far once or twice.” Fields adds, “I had four Harpos before Brandon, and he’s my baby. We’ve got chemistry and we click offstage and on. And any man who can lift me like [Brandon] is alright with me!”

As for Winfrey, Dixon raves, “Oprah’s such a wonderful spirit; she’s been given a lot of gifts in her life and she gives them back. The energy in our show is so high, and the voices and songs [by Brenda Russell, Alice Willis and Stephen Bray] catch people.” But what really excites him is being on his first original cast album, and Angel Records will release it on Jan. 24: “I spent summers in my room, listening to cast albums, like Les Misérables, every night. I knew it backwards and forwards. I want to be the first black Jean Valjean. I got to meet Colm Wilkinson once, and I was ecstatic.”

The Jamaican actor, 24, got his big break right out of Columbia University when he was cast as Simba in the national company of The Lion King. Asked if he had a role model, Dixon says, “My hero is Michael Jackson. Was and continues to be. He’s amazing. When I was growing up, it was the time of ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad.’ I’d come home from school and put on the vinyls. I’d put on a white V-neck T-shirt and roll back the carpet and dance for hours. I’d moonwalk and do the spins. To this day, I can do a mean Michael Jackson. He’s the consummate performer. He knew his craft and did it better than anyone else. That’s greatness. Whatever I do, I wanna be great.”

For info, visit www.brandonvictordixon.com and www.colorpurple.com.

HE’S HAD THE TIME OF HIS ‘LIFE’
Critics might’ve called Joe Brooks’ In My Life a giant lemon of a musical, but if you think that left its gifted young star, Christopher J. Hanke, with a sour outlook, you’re 100% wrong. He’s still juiced: “J.T. was a great character to play. And as an actor, it was pretty friggin’ exciting to make my Broadway debut in a starring role [as a songwriter] with Tourette’s syndrome. It was meaty and challenging, and Joe’s music was beautiful. Even if we had closed on opening night, I would’ve been proud.”

In fact, it opened Oct. 20 and closed Dec. 11 at the Music Box. Created by the Oscar-winning tunesmith of “You Light Up My Life,” it was about J.T. and Jenny (Jessica Boevers), and how a high-flying angel (David Turner) was trying to turn their love story into an opera (“There’s a little rumor, someone’s got a tumor”). But if “Life” turns on a dime, Hanke and his troupe sang their hearts out as if they were in a million-dollar hit. The golden-voiced, 6-foot actor says, “Joe chose an amazing cast, and we gave his work color and depth and truth. I couldn’t have done it without Jessica. She’s a star, and she’s got dynamite energy.” Boevers adds, “Christopher’s a brilliant actor and a beautiful soul. I’ve never had such great chemistry with another leading man.”

So what was it like working with Brooks, the show’s writer and director? Hanke, 29, says, “Joe’s fantastic, and I’m not just bull******* because he hired me. He was so gracious in spending money to keep the show alive. He wasn’t arrogant or stubborn about his work. Jessica and I got to throw out ideas. He’s a quirky, odd, funny guy, just like the musical. I took a lot of Joe’s energy and put that into J.T.” As for the show’s bad buzz, the Baylor grad says, “It was my job to stay positive. Who wants a lead who doesn’t believe in his story? And I did. The previews were hard. I’d learn a new song and stress out about it, and then it’d get cut before that night. And I did read the reviews. I knew my work was good, but I wasn’t surprised. I wish we had done a cast album, but Joe’s a loyal guy; I wouldn’t be surprised if we record one someday.”

Born in Hot Springs, AR, Hanke was teased as a kid when “South Park” premiered. Why? Because he shared the same-sounding name as the show’s talking piece of poo, Mr. Hanky. Later, he got his own taste of Fame, starring as Nick Piazza Off-Broadway and on tour, and was nominated for Best Actor by the National Broadway Touring Awards. Last April, he received raves in The Golden Age.

In the end, Hanke says, “My journey’s been unique. I passed out discount flyers for The Full Monty at the Broadway on Broadway concert in 2001. My first big job was the national tour of The Full Monty. Last fall, I was back at Broadway on Broadway, but now I was starring in a Broadway show. As theatre dorky as that sounds, it was magical to me. We made a great go of In My Life, and I came away a better actor. I’ve even gotten several pilot auditions because of it.” And if he had to do it all over? “I wouldn’t change a thing. It was a beautiful experience.”

A MUSICAL ‘MOUNTAIN’ WITH ANTICIPATION
Last month, we asked: If “Brokeback Mountain,” the “gay cowboy movie,” became a Broadway musical, which two “Leading Men” ought to star in it? Well, we got a “Mountain” of E-mails and here’s a sampling. Perfectly Frank: “Matt Cavenaugh and Matthew Morrison, of course.” Joe Frazetta: “Christopher Sieber and Cheyenne Jackson.” Karen T.: “Will Chase and Christian Hoff.” Marty Silverberg: “Michael Arden with Steven Pasquale or Max von Essen.” Dave Adams: “Matt Cavenaugh and Cheyenne Jackson or Jarrod Emick and Adam Pascal.” Parker Scott: “Hugh Jackman and Sebastian LaCause or John Barrowman and Sean McDermott.” And Tom DiMaggio: “Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, natch!” By the way, Brokeback’s stars — Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger — can sing. If you rent “10 Things I Hate About You,” Ledger belts “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” — and this was long before Jersey Boys. Plus, Gyllenhaal says he and Ledger first became friends “out of jealousy” when they lost the lead role of “Moulin Rouge” to Ewan McGregor. . . . So what would “Brokeback! The Musical!” sound like? Recently, Nathan Lane did a delightful parody of the film on “David Letterman,” borrowing tunes from “Oklahoma!” (“There’s a couple of guys in the meadow, baring their thighs in the meadow”). With apologies to Rodgers & Hammerstein, here are three more songs they could’ve rustled up for our rodeo Romeos: “The Cowboy and the Cowman Should Be Friends,” “Many a New Gay Will Please My Eye” and “I’m Just a Guy Who Cain’t Say Whoa!” All kidding aside, go see “Brokeback’’; it’s a breathtaking, heartbreaking love story for everyone.

OUR VOCAL HEROES OF 2005
Among the many highlights from the great guys of Broadway and cabaret:

4 TERRIFIC TOUR DE FORCES
Cheyenne Jackson (All Shook Up)
Doug Kreeger (Yank!)
John Lloyd Young (Jersey Boys)
Perry Ojeda (Pride)

10 AMAZING MUSICAL MOMENTS
Barrett Foa, “Moving Too Fast” (The Duplex)
Euan Morton, “As Long As He Needs Me” (Town Hall)
John Hill, “Part of Your World” (Carolines)
John Tartaglia, “What I Did for Love” (Joe’s Pub)
Matthew Morrison, “Love to Me” (The Light in the Piazza)
Max von Essen, “Proud Lady” (The Baker’s Wife)
Norbert Leo Butz, “Great Big Stuff” (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels)
Spencer Day, “The American Dream” (The Cutting Room)
Steven Pasquale, Will Chase, “In Lily’s Eyes” (The Secret Garden)
Tom Andersen, “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” (The Encore)

As for our Leading Men AIDS concert at Joe’s Pub, John Hoglund of TheatreScene.net named it one of “The Top 10 Cabaret Acts of 2005.”

Got comments or questions? E-mail me at waymanwong@hotmail.com.

Until next month, let’s hear it for the “boys”!

Wayman Wong edits entertainment for The New York Daily News. He has been a movie and theater critic for The San Francisco Examiner, a writer for The Sondheim Review and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.

Brandon Victor Dixon and Christopher J. Hanke.
Brandon Victor Dixon and Christopher J. Hanke.