THE LEADING MEN: Broadway Is a Dream Come True — Again — for Hugh Jackman
By Brandon Voss
October 31, 2011
A candid chat with Hugh Jackman about his Back on Broadway concert, plus cell phones, ticket prices, shirtlessness, show tunes, The Boy From Oz and more.
Even "Saturday Night Live" has taken note of Hugh Jackman's extreme versatility: A recurring sketch jokes that Jackman is the world's most masculine and feminine man, but the reality is that his career has been remarkably diverse and universally appealing. Catapulted to international stardom as mutant superhero Wolverine in the "X-Men" franchise, the action star reconnected with his musical theatre roots and won a Tony Award for his 2003 Broadway debut as flamboyant entertainer Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz. Also seen on Broadway opposite Daniel Craig in A Steady Rain, the native Australian has returned to the stage — still hot from the robot-boxing blockbuster "Real Steel" — to sing his favorite songs in his solo act Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway, which opens Nov. 10 and ends its limited run Jan. 1 at the Broadhurst Theatre. Before he's off again to shoot the "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" sequel and play Jean Valjean in the film version of Les Misérables, the 43-year-old triple-threat and three-time Tony host talked to Playbill about his shamelessly self-indulgent homecoming.
A one-man musical spectacular is quite a leap from your most recent film, "Real Steel." How important is it for you to achieve that kind of balance in your career?
Honestly, it's basically been about avoiding unemployment. When I first graduated from drama school, my goal was to keep pushing open as many doors as possible, so that included all different types of film, musical theatre, and straight plays. I figured, well, I'm pretty good at quite a few things, so I'll keep on working at all of them. I also feel that it's good for actors to say "yes" and risk making fools out of themselves. Ultimately, that approach has been something that's defined me in this business.
Jackman in The Boy From Oz.
photo by Joan Marcus
Looking back, what impact did The Boy From Oz have on your career?
It was the turning point in my career, as far as I'm concerned. It's funny, because I was actually offered the role of Peter Allen back in 1996 when they did a workshop in Australia, but I turned it down — even though I knew it was going to be great — because I decided I was going to try to do more films. At that point I couldn't even get auditions for films because I was becoming so known for musicals, so I was trying to strategize. Then, after saying no to The Boy from Oz, I didn't work in film for the next two years. When I went to see the show I felt sick in the stomach, because it was exactly how I knew it would be: It was a brilliant show and one of the greatest parts I had ever seen, and I had turned it down because I was trying to plan things out. I got a call years later from Robert Fox, the producer, and he said, "Hey, Hugh, we were thinking —" I literally cut him off and said, "I'm in." I vowed never to disobey my heart again.
No more hesitations at that point?
A number of people thought I'd lost my mind and that it wasn't the smartest thing for me to do, but it was a no-brainer for me. I was so grateful to have a second chance at the role. We did not get great reviews when we opened, but I felt strongly about the show, I could feel we were connecting with the audience, and I knew the audience loved it. I carried with me the great feeling of knowing that, whatever happened with the show, I'd done the right thing. Then it turned around and became a big hit, I won the Tony Award, and it was probably the best year of my life. From that moment on, I've followed my gut.
After the success of The Boy From Oz, it's hard to believe that you haven't done another musical.
I'm also surprised it's been this long since I've done another musical. The Boy From Oz opened me up to a lot of film directors who saw me do that and nothing else, but I was also adamant about only doing a new musical after that. I'd only done revivals or taken over from someone who'd originated the part, so I wanted to be a part of something new. But as you and I know, that's difficult to find. Now, of course, I'm excited to be developing the musical Houdini, but this one-man show really came out of the frustration of not being able to find a new musical. I wanted to be back onstage and I couldn't wait any longer.
What appeals to you about the one-man show format?
When I go to the theatre, I love feeling like anything can happen, like it's a special night where things that happen won't happen any other night. So I like to mix it up, change songs around, go out in the audience, drag people up on stage, ad-lib, and just be loose. It's like we're in my living room, but there just happen to be 1,200 seats.
Sounds very Dame Edna.
Without the glasses and gladiolas. Hey, if I can be as quick and witty as Dame Edna, I'll take it.
One-man shows can also come off as self-indulgent.
Oh, the show's incredibly indulgent, which I love. It's like ultimate karaoke, except I have the best 18-piece orchestra doing every song that I love, and I don't give the mic to anybody else. It's very selfish.
Jackman in A Steady Rain.
photo by Joan Marcus
Your last Broadway show was A Steady Rain, a two-character drama with Daniel Craig. Did you go solo because he hogged the spotlight?
Hey, I invited him to come and be my understudy. I told him he could do all the matinees, but he wouldn't go for it.
How does it feel to be bringing this new show to Broadway?
Well, out of all the places in the world I've performed, my favorite is Broadway. There's something electric about it. The audiences are more intelligent, more enthusiastic, and it feels more like a conversation than anywhere else, which is a feeling I really love. I'm genuinely grateful for the opportunity, and I don't take it for granted at all. In fact, I just unearthed an Australian TV interview I did back in 1996 — I'd forgotten about it, but someone sent it to me — where I was walking around Times Square for some reason, saying something like, "I hope one day I can be here; it would be a dream come true," so Broadway's been a long time coming. Nothing compares to Broadway. The Broadway audiences expect excellence and they expect blood, which I agree with. You need to lay everything out there on the stage. Overall, I feel that the Broadway audience is on your side. They also want to have a great night, and if you don't give it to them, you're sure going to hear about it.
How has the show evolved since your limited concert engagements in Toronto and San Francisco?
I don't want to give too much away, but we've certainly boosted the manpower. It's called a one-man show, but it's far from it; besides the 18-piece orchestra, I have a number of other performers up there with me. There's deliberately a relative simplicity to the structure, but what we have now really pops. There's a lot more pizzazz, and that's fitting for Broadway.
Speaking of pizzazz, do you revisit songs from The Boy From Oz?
Peter Allen actually makes a comeback, sequins and all, which I really enjoy.
You've also notably appeared in Sunset Boulevard, Beauty and the Beast and Oklahoma! in either Australia or the West End. Do you revisit songs from each of those musicals?
It's not a rule that I do something from everything I've done, but you might hear something from some of those shows. I do songs from other musicals I've been in, musicals I've always wanted to be in, some standards, some rock and roll, and a couple of medleys, including a big dance number that's my ode to Broadway. The show's eclectic, just like my musical tastes.
Jackman in Oklahoma!
Which part of the show do you look forward to the most?
That's impossible for me to answer, because I love everything. I have a rule: As each song starts, I need to feel like, Oh, my God, I can't wait to sing this and share this. If I didn't feel that, the song wouldn't make the show. In San Francisco, I started out feeling that way about some songs but didn't feel that way by the end, so I took them out and put something new in.
Which part of the show do you find most challenging?
Two songs are particularly challenging. One is the movie musical medley, which at seven and a half minutes is vocally and physically challenging. I think that's why I lose about three or four pounds a night, even though I've been eating like a madman. My suit got taken in three or four times in Toronto. I also sing "Soliloquy" from Carousel, which is one of the greatest musical theatre songs ever written, and it always requires you to be at your best as a singer and an actor.
Roles often require you to put on an English or American accent. Is it a relief to perform in your native Australian tongue?
Totally. Since I was young, I've always been comfortable on a stage. You might assume that means I'm a showoff, but I really don't feel like I am; I just feel at home onstage. So to actually be onstage as myself is really freeing, and hopefully in some ways it's more powerful. By the end of every night, I feel really intimate with the audience. I feel like I've shared things with them, and somehow they've shared things with me too.
photo by Joan Marcus
Playing yourself should also make it easier to reprimand audience members for ringing cell phones.
Oh, yes, and I'm sure that will happen. In fact, there will probably be people who deliberately leave their cell phones on just to see me snap. I don't know how many times I reprimanded people as Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz. I even answered phone calls and took messages for people. I want my show to feel loose and real, so if someone's talking in front of me or checking their Blackberry for the baseball score, yeah, I'm probably going to say something to them.
You famously chastised an audience member for a ringing phone during A Steady Rain. When you saw the viral video clip of your outburst, did you regret losing your cool?
It was the right thing to do in that situation. What happened on that particular night is that the phone rang once right through. That had happened a few times before, but at this point it rang at the most crucial, climactic point of the entire play. I was so worked up that I decided to just let it go, but whoever it was did the old thing where they kick it under the chair and pretend it's not them. When it rang again 30 seconds later, I could hear people going, "Turn it off!" Look, that show was 70 percent Daniel and me talking directly to the audience, and John Crowley, our director, told us to really connect with them. So at that point, I thought, well, if you're having a conversation with someone at a dinner party and their phone rang, you'd probably say, "Are you going to answer that or what?" So I'd absolutely do it again.
And the audience member who filmed that is really just as guilty.
Right! That's a good point. But there are probably loads of people in there with cameras, and it's just another one of those things.
The stage door scene after Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway will likely be even more insane than it was after A Steady Rain. Do you look forward to that particular fan interaction?
I really try not to take anything for granted. Sometimes I'm a little embarrassed at how much tickets cost, and if someone buys a ticket or two to a Broadway show, I'm aware that it's maybe a once- or twice-a-year situation for a lot of people. So if they're choosing to see you, the least you can do is greet those people at the stage door and sign an autograph. When I was in New York 15 years ago, I got a poster signed by Al Pacino when he did Hughie at Circle in the Square. I still have it in my home with a scribble that could be the letter Z, but I think it's meant to be an A. It meant a lot to me to get that from a hero of mine. But really, most people just want to say "thank you," and it's always nice to meet them. By the way, I always make sure that there are student rush tickets for every show I do, because if it wasn't for that when I was a student, I wouldn't have seen any theatre.
What etiquette should fans remember at the stage door?
No spitting if you didn't like the show. But seriously, the hard thing now is that everyone has a camera. I'll sign something for everybody, but — and I feel bad about this — I just can't take photos with everybody.
Finally — and I only ask on behalf of your straight female and gay male fans — do you remove your shirt during the show?
[Laughs.] You never know. But whatever happens, it will be tastefully done.