Up from Down Under

Up from Down Under Hugh Jackman, one of Australia's hottest exports, is poised for Broadway stardom, playing another beloved countryman — Peter Allen — in The Boy From Oz

Tack a vowel onto pretentious Miss Piggy's "Moi Aussi" and who do you get? Hugh is who you get.

Very much the movie (X-)Man of the moment, Hugh Jackman is jumping into the Broadway picture with a big "me, too" gesture to portray fellow Aussie Peter Allen. The show, which began previews at the Imperial on Sept. 16, is called The Boy From Oz and is based on the life and music of the showman-songwriter who died in 1992, at age 48, of AIDS-related illnesses. "It's the first Australian musical to make it to Broadway," Hugh'll have you know, and, aside from not having to work awfully hard on a credible accent, he counts it "an honor and privilege" to play such a popular native son. "I think it's a hot, uplifting, satisfying show. It is so much fun, yet it has such pathos to it. And it's about a life that is totally worth celebrating. Peter was a very inspirational man."

Hugh caught the show back home Down Under. "I was approached about doing the role there, but, at the time, I wanted to move into film because I'd been doing a lot of musical theatre, and I didn't want to get cornered into that world, so I said no. Then, when I went to the show, I remember saying to myself, 'I think I made a mistake.'"

Some 20 numbers from The Peter Allen Songbook are sprinkled over his life — fittingly, in Hugh's view. "His music is incredibly autobiographical. The great thing about Peter is that — as great an entertainer as he was — his greatest legacy is songwriting. People come to the show knowing little of Peter and just go, 'He wrote that? And that? And that?'"

Martin Sherman, Tony-nominated for his play Bent, was brought in to brush up the Australian book. It's his first musical effort. "The content of what the show is trying to say about Peter is exactly the same," says Hugh. "The big difference is that, in Australia, Peter is an icon. You don't have to set up who he is, what he did. Everybody knows everything about him." Which can't be said of the fan base Hugh has developed via the two "X-Men" movies in which he plays Wolverine, a mutant with nine-inch retractable claws. They're in for a rude awakening if they come expecting slicing 'n' dicing. Instead they'll get high kicks 'n' twirls.

But that's the price of film fame, and Hugh has paid his musical-theatre dues — as Gaston in an Australian edition of Beauty and the Beast, Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard in Melbourne and an Olivier Award-nominated Curly in Oklahoma! at London's National Theatre.

How Curly led to Wolverine is still a mystery to Hugh. "I had the cowboy accent and the perm from Oklahoma!, but I went in anyway after my Wednesday matinee. They rang back and said, 'Terrific. Please come back, and can you kill the Southern accent?' Can you believe it? Me, mate, a Southern accent? I'd done Curly so long I couldn't shake it."

Another Rodgers-and-Hammerstein stalwart, Billy Bigelow, served to introduce Hugh to New York audiences in a Carnegie Hall concert reading of Carousel with Audra McDonald and the original Billy Bigelow, John Raitt. "My father flew in from Australia and brought his black tie. I told him I didn't think it was necessary. He said, 'My son is singing at Carnegie Hall. It's necessary.' I could see him clearly in the audience from the stage. Aside from the choir, he was the only black tie in the place."

Hugh tuxed up himself for his only other NYC stage appearance when, for a few hours on June 8, he hosted the Tony Awards show at Radio City Music Hall. The boy from Down Under seems to have started at the top.

"The Tony gig was a wonderful intro," the 34-year-old Aussie allows, "but now we have to focus on making sure that, if the salad has been good, the main course lives up to it."