THE LEADING MEN: Hugh and Me

News   THE LEADING MEN: Hugh and Me With Halloween approaching, October’s "Leading Men" — Jarrod Emick (The Boy From Oz), John Pizzarelli (Sinatra) and Welly Yang (The Wedding Banquet) — each have a bag of tricks, but they’re always a treat to behold.

Jarrod Emick.
Jarrod Emick. Photo by Ben Strothmann

HAVING AN ‘OZ’-SOME TIME
When Jarrod Emick starred as Joe Hardy, the straight and strapping all American ballplayer in Damn Yankees, he hit a home run, winning the 1994 Tony, Drama Desk and Theater World Awards. Now he’s playing for the other team, so to speak, as Peter Allen’s gay lover, Greg Connell, opposite Hugh Jackman, in The Boy From Oz, opening Oct. 16 at the Imperial. Jackman, who gives a Tony-worthy tour de force as the Aussie entertainer, raves, "Jarrod’s the best. He’s fantastic as Greg!"

Though best known for his musicals (The Rocky Horror Show and Miss Saigon), Emick is also a fan of Tennessee Williams and William Inge and has appeared regionally in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Picnic. On TV, he starred in the acclaimed 1996 TNT film "Andersonville," directed by the late John Frankenheimer.

Born in Fort Eustis, Va., the 6-foot actor grew up in Oral, S.D., where his father was a sheep farmer. The amiable Emick, 34, has a girlfriend, Mia Price ("She’s gorgeous and on tour with Thoroughly Modern Millie), and a six-year-old Rottweiler named Woo. He also loves to play guitar and is working on a country album.

Question: So what’s it like working with Hugh Jackman?
Jarrod Emick: Hugh is a gem. What a terrific talent. I’m a huge "X-Men" fan. He’s already given me a video game, "Wolverine’s Revenge." His son’s too young to play it. Gorgeous child. And his wife [Deborra-Lee] is the sweetest thing in the world. Hugh’s a great guy. I’d pay to watch him read the phone book.

Q: Most of our readers know about the legendary Peter Allen, so what can you tell us about your character, Greg Connell?
Emick: Greg was from Texas. He was a model, and he met Peter in the early seventies. Greg would design Peter’s sets and lights, and he was the one who got Peter started on wearing Hawaiian shirts. He wanted Peter to have a look. Peter was surrounded by yes men, but Greg wasn’t one of them. I think he was the love of Peter’s life, but Peter had a lot of love to give [to others]. I kind of equate him to Bill Clinton. He couldn’t help himself, but I don’t think Greg would’ve had it any other way. Q: In the show, Peter and Greg kiss. Ever kissed a guy onstage?
Emick: No. Hugh is the first. But we’re very comfortable with each other as friends. We really feel good about where the kiss is at. It’s poignant.

Q: There seems to be a double standard about same-sex kisses. When two women kiss, like Madonna and Britney Spears at the MTV Awards, it’s sexy.
Emick: But when two men kiss, people feel uncomfortable. Yeah, I have no idea what that’s about. In theatre, we’re used to guys being with guys.

Q: Let’s talk about Peter’s music. What made it so special?
Emick: He wrote from the heart. His songs are so rich and full. I really like "All the Lives of Me." And "I Honestly Love You," which I get to sing, is so beautiful. I’m not a fan of taking a bunch of music and turning it into a show. Some really crappy musicals have been made that way. But in The Boy From Oz, Martin Sherman, who wrote Bent, has come up with a fantastic book, and the music fits so well. Peter was writing about his own life. He shouldn’t have done Legs Diamond.

Q: Peter and Greg had AIDS. How is that treated in the show?
Emick: Greg tells Peter about it. Peter was very much in denial, not only about his own infection but Greg’s. And Greg was not having any of that. He didn’t want any B.S. When he passed away, it was a horrible time. Once Peter came to terms he was HIV, he thought he could lick it. He never told his mother.

Q: Have you heard from Greg’s mother?
Emick: I’m told she really wants to see the show. And she sounds like a doll. I’m not doing an impression of Greg, but I look forward to meeting her.

Q: Finally, there’s been a lot of talk about gays on Broadway and TV. Have you seen "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"? And would you welcome any advice?
Emick: I love that show! They have great taste, so I’d welcome anything they could do for me, especially fashion-wise. My girlfriend says when she first met me, I had this drawer full of white T-shirts and a drawer of black T-shirts and a drawer of jeans. But I clean up all right. I’d love to meet those guys. They look like a ton of fun.

For more info, visit www.theboyfromoz.com and www4.osk.3web.ne.jp/~babuly/.

A FRANK DISCUSSION ABOUT ‘SINATRA’
To quote the swinging jingle he sings on the TV commercial for Foxwoods Casino, "Life is good, life is sweet" for John Pizzarelli. The gifted, good looking guitarist-singer from Paterson, N.J., has released over 25 albums and received raves for his jazz trio (with Martin Pizzarelli and Ray Kennedy). He literally makes beautiful music with his wife, Broadway star Jessica Molaskey, when they write songs, and he’s got two remarkably musical kids, Johnny, 12, and Madeleine, 5. And from Oct. 10-19, Pizzarelli will bring his pizzazz to Radio City Music Hall, starring in Sinatra: His Voice. His World. His Way with a 40-piece orchestra and the Rockettes. It’ll be directed by Tony winner Des McAnuff (Big River) and choreographed by Casey Nicholow.

Pizzarelli, who’s so sunny that you could get a tan by standing next to him, says, "Our show will tell Sinatra’s story, and Radio City is the perfect place for it. You’ll hear Sinatra sing again, and he’ll be seen on these giant screens that fly in and out. I’m the narrator, but I’ll also sing and play in the band. I do "Come Fly With Me" with Sinatra, and I even perform with the Rockettes. It’s gonna be one wild multimedia ride."

Thanks to high-tech wizardry, the 6-foot Broadway pro (Dream) also will appear with Sinatra at a bar during "One for My Baby." However, it won’t be the first time this multi-MAC Award winner has shared the stage with Ol’ Blue Eyes. In 1993, he opened for Sinatra in Germany and America. After one concert, Pizzarelli recalls, "We shook hands, and he joked, ‘Eat something, you look bad.’ We’d also watch Sinatra in the wings, waiting to go on. He’d be snapping his fingers, tapping his toes. Then he’d walk onstage and say, ‘Weren’t those guys great?’ It was fun touring with him."

Asked what made Sinatra stand out, Pizzarelli says, "He had a sense of theatre about songs. It was the way he set up tunes, especially the saloon songs. I saw him in Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey in 1987 and he really got to me. It was 17,000 people, all that music and just him standing by himself. That night was unbelievable!"

Meantime, the 43-year-old jazz star swings back into action with his sensational trio Oct. 29-Nov. 1 at Birdland. Plus, he’s helping his wife work on a solo cabaret act. By the way, Molaskey has her own TV commercial, and the proud hubby boasts, "Jessie’s wonderful in it. She sings ‘Do You Know the Way to Use eBay?’ and she’s lifted up by John Selya [from Movin’ Out]. My wife says, ‘[Selya’s] fingerprints are on my rear.’" Within earshot, Molaskey wisecracks, "And I hope they never go away!"

For more info, visit www.johnpizzarelli.com and www.radiocity.com.

WELLY THE ‘WEDDING’ PLANNER
At 16, Welly Yang’s first professional acting job was Ito, the Japanese houseboy in Mame, in which Miss Dennis crows, "Life is a banquet!" Nowadays, his life truly is a banquet: The Wedding Banquet. As the artistic director of Second Generation, which produces Asian American shows, Yang has turned Ang Lee’s 1993 movie into a new musical. The Village Theatre is presenting its U.S. premiere now through Oct. 26 in Issaquah, Wash., and Oct. 31-Nov. 16 in Everett, Wash.

What’s more, this Broadway actor and impresario stars in the tuneful adaptation. He plays Wai Tung, a gay Taiwanese-American who marries a Chinese girl (Dina Lynne Morishita) to please his parents, even though he really loves his Caucasian boyfriend (Tyley Ross). Yang’s thrilling tenor especially soars on "This Is True," Wai Tung’s compelling coming-out song ("I love who I love, I live how I live").

The Wedding Banquet features book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Woody Pak, his collaborators on the 1999 Asian-American rock musical Making Tracks. Now directed by John Tillinger, this project began about five years ago. Yang, who was born in Brooklyn to Taiwanese parents, says, "I loved Ang Lee’s movie. It’s got conflict, humor and sex — everything we need in a great musical." But the 5-foot-8 producer realized that "we needed to open up the film and make the story sing. Now we have a gospel tune and a tai chi number, and the ending comes full circle. But we’ve stayed true to the spirit of the movie: A family is where love is." Wai Tung isn’t the first gay character that Yang has played. He was a wonderful Whizzer if ever there was in the National Asian American Theatre Company’s 1998 revival of Falsettoland. Yang, who’s dating Morishita, his show’s lovely leading lady, says he believes in his musical’s message: "Whether you’re gay or straight, love is love."

In August, The Wedding Banquet made its world premiere in Lee’s homeland, Taiwan. Yang says, "You could hear the audience gasp when me and Tyley kissed." It then played Singapore. To avoid an R rating from local censors, the show ended with a baby christening, instead of the gay wedding it currently has, and deleted a romantic kiss between the male leads. "Even so, we were a hit," he says. "We sold 25,000 tickets in Singapore and another 10,000 in Taiwan." From there, it went to Washington, and now some producers are scouting it in hopes of bringing it to New York.

If his plate weren’t full enough, Yang leaves The Wedding Banquet on Oct. 16 (Michael K. Lee takes over the role) and returns to the Big Apple to do The Karaoke Show. Based on Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, it’s from the creators of The Donkey Show. It’ll run Saturdays at the Supper Club, starting Oct. 25. Yang says, "I play Anthony, this womanizer, and I rap to Nelly. It’s very funny." Plus, he’ll produce Second Generation’s Concert of Excellence on Dec. 1 at Lincoln Center, where 30 Broadway stars will honor Ismail Merchant, Jadin Wong and Lisa Ling.

Yang, 30, enjoys being an actor and an activist. When he was 20 and played Thuy, the villainous Viet in Miss Saigon, the understudy role of Chris, the leading Caucasian hero, opened up. He asked to audition for it, but the producers never saw him. "Everyone thought I was cuckoo. Now, wait a minute. Caucasians have played Asians for centuries. Suddenly, an Asian wants to play a white role, and I’m crazy? That’s why I founded Second Generation. For so long, our stories have been told from the Western point of view. Now it’s our turn to create roles that define Asian America."

For more info, visit www.2g.org.

ANOTHER WONDER FROM DOWN UNDER
Hugh Jackman isn’t the only awesome Aussie who’s just made his musical debut in New York. Now there’s Simon Gleeson. With his movie-star looks and rich, powerful pipes, the 26-year-old actor stole the show at Get Here, a Sept. 20 concert of Australian talent at the York Theatre. This pure and passionate tenor was simply exciting singing Sondheim’s "Marry Me a Little." In Australia, he just finished playing Sky in Mamma Mia!, but the sky’s the limit for a performer with his style and star quality. With any luck, Gleeson will be back in the Big Apple soon.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There’s so much to see in New York: Matt Bogart, one of Broadway’s best baritones, will share the stage with cabaret cutie KT Sullivan at The Siegels’ CD Picks of the Month concert on Oct. 5 at 7 PM at Dillon’s, 254 W. 54th St.; (212) 307-9797. The Civil War veteran will sing "Her Face" and "Being Alive" from his swell CD, "Simple Song," but Bogart hopes to include "Field of Angels," an exciting song from Camille Claudel, the new Nan Knighton-Frank Wildhorn musical. The show’s free with no cover or minimum — what a bargain!

Tom Postilio, one of the sterling young stars of Our Sinatra, will croon Ol’ Blue Eyes’ tunes, joined by a ten-piece orchestra, Oct. 3, 10 and 31 at the Rainbow Room at 30 Rockefeller Plaza; (212) 632-5100. Postilio says he once had a Frank encounter in 1991: "I was performing in the lounge of the Sands and Sinatra came by and said, "Kid — keep singin’ good songs, not the crap they call music today!"

Gregory Moore salutes Sinatra, as well as Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and many more in Croon, Oct. 2-Nov. 2 at the Firebird Café, 363 W. 46th St.; (212) 586-0244. The classically trained baritone will be joined by Lana Rein, the café’s popular parlor pianist. . . . Britain’s baby-faced Jamie Cullum, who’s been dubbed "a Sinatra in sneakers" and named the BBC’s "Best New Jazz Star," makes his New York debut now through Oct. 18 at the Algonquin, 59 W. 44th St.; (212) 840- 6800. . . . Steve Ross celebrates his love affair with My Manhattan Oct. 15-Jan. 3 at the Stanhope Park Hyatt, 995 Fifth Ave.; (212) 650-4737.

Finally, another terrific tradition of New York nightlife returns to Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St.: the Cabaret Convention (Oct. 20-26), which will include a cavalcade of crooners: from Tom Andersen and Brent Barrett to Billy Stritch and Tommy Tune. Visit www.mabelmercer.org or call (212) 997-6661.

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.

(l-r) John Pizzarelli, Welly Yang, Simon Gleeson.
(l-r) John Pizzarelli, Welly Yang, Simon Gleeson. Photo by Ben Strothmann and Wayman Wong