PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway — The Jackman Cometh, Again

By Harry Haun
November 11, 2011

Meet the first-nighters at the opening of Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway.



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Heeeeee's back, as advertised on the Broadhurst marquee — Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway. He's up and at 'em, up from Down Under, up close and personal.

It's this personal dimension that's most striking about the show he opened here Nov. 10 — a biography that jumps and gyrates all over the stage — and will continue to do so until Jan. 1, 2012. There may be 1,185 people sitting around you, but he gives the distinct impression of speaking only to you in a nest of eavesdroppers. He forces you to share because he shares, and who wants to be a Hugh hoarder?

This is pretty much by design, he told select press (three print, five television) when he joined them on stage after he had taken a shower and a breather. Looking relaxed like he was having a typical day in Dogpatch, he explained, "The hardest thing is what not to sing because, when you have a choice of doing whatever you want, there are so many things. For me, it was about it being personal so every song relates to something personal to me. I just want to share that and have a great time with the audience. I was inspired by a great Sinatra concert where he was with his family and friends and very loose. That's the kind of atmosphere I want to create."

Only friends seemed to have applied, in droves, helping the show earn over a million every week since he started previews. It has taken him only eight years, two Broadway shows and a few Tony-hosting gigs for him to reach Beloved level, but he's there, and his fans have been sure to follow as faithfully as day into night.

Why not open the show with the Oklahoma! opener, "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," and why not close his first act with Carousel's, "Soliloquy," Billy Bigelow's first stirrings of paternity? The first he did at the National in London; the second, one night only at Carnegie Hall — both Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, duly noted by Mary Rodgers Guettel. ("You think I didn't notice that?" she beamed on her way out of the theatre.)

In between, he passed — with high-flying colors! — "auditions" for other roles that he could convincingly be doing on Broadway: Guys and Dolls' Sky Masterson (in a cocked fedora, doing "Luck Be a Lady"), The Threepenny Opera's Macheath (swaggering out "Mack the Knife" with maximum cool) and his first high-school role, The Music Man's Harold Hill. For that, he reprised the "Rock Island" opening number that won him the part at age 14 when he played simultaneously all eight salesmen mimicking the sounds of a train in motion. He was asked after the show if one of the above — or, indeed, any established show (he and Kristin Chenoweth recently did a much-buzzed-about workshop of On the Twentieth Century) — would be something he'd like to revive on Broadway, and he said there was one: "I'd love to do Carousel, if I'm not too old. Am I too old?" Not from where I stood, I told the 43-year-old Aussie.

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Hugh Jackman
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"The next thing that I'll be doing here is an original, Houdini," he said. Aaron Sorkin, who won an Oscar for "The Social Network," is hammering out a script, and Stephen Schwartz will have a hand in the score (which hand, Jackman didn't specify). Jack O'Brien and David Rockwell, the musical's director and set designer, were among the show's first-nighters, and they were repeaters, having caught it in an earlier reincarnation this year.

A natural cheerleader, O'Brien trilled, "I had a good time before. I love him. I know him well. I can't remember what gilt-edged means, but that's the evening."

Only now, after some 20 films in a dozen years, is Jackman getting around to his first movie musical — the longtime-in-coming film version of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's international smash, Les Miserables.

Jackman will be playing Jean Valjean to Russell Crowe's Javert in a starry cast that includes Anne Hathaway as Fantine and Eddie Redmayne as Marius. Tom Hooper, the Oscar-winning director of "The King's Speech," expects to have the epic musical ready for release Dec. 7, 2012. "It's a dream to be in it," Jackman told reporters. "I chased it hard, and I'm thrilled to have gotten it, and I'm going to give it my best shot."

He announced the Les Miz news at the end of a delicious montage of movie musicals that allowed him to be both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. For the latter, he donned taps ("No Milli Vanilli tonight!") and went right into "Singin' in the Rain."

The 20th Century Fox logo and drumroll introduced the sequence — perhaps a bow to his publisher bud, Rupert Murdoch, whose wife, Wendi Deng, was in attendance with their children and admitting she was "very impressed" with the song Jackman sang — in Chinese! — in her movie, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan."


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A movie had a lot to do with him being on Broadway right now, he informed the audience: When "Wolverine 7" (he jests, but not much) was delayed a third time, he thought it time to work on a musical review of his life he'd been mulling for a while, so he spoke to Warren Carlyle about directing and choreographing the act.

"We started talking about the show in January," Carlyle recalled. "Then we did a production in San Francisco and another two weeks in Toronto, and now we're here. We did a lot of work on the show, moved things around, stuff like that, and we cut plenty — entire medleys. We probably cut 40 minutes of music and put in another 40. I mean, we've really been going at it. Hugh has been incredible throughout this whole process. There's just no one like him in the world."

Of course, Jackman pointed out, doing a musical on Broadway put him at cross purposes with the producers of his action-movie franchise, who always like him to bulk up for Wolverine, a hirsute hulk of a hunk with acute cutlery for fingernails — and the sheer effort he puts into the show causes the weight to melt away.

"There are three things that make you lose weight," he said, starting to enumerate with his fingers. "The first is diet, the second is exercise, the third is—um—uh—the third . . ." His face went into what could only be called a Rick Perry blank.

The governor's gaffe was the joke of the day, only hours old, and here it was in Jackman's show, raising suspicions that the easy banter that seems to come out of his mouth in the moment was the work of a comedy writer in the wings.

Kinda guilty as charged — but not completely, he confessed after the show: "A guy called John Mack has worked with me on the Oscars, the Tony Awards, anytime I get up there. He makes me funnier than I really am in life. He helps me out, but, at the same time, if it's a one-man show, I want the audience to feel they're had a couple of hours with me, so I had to knuckle down and do a bit of the writing myself."

Warren Carlyle and Angie Canuel
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The to-bulk-or-not-to-bulk debate dovetailed into a dancing-duel — "Gotta Dance," "I Won't Dance," "Shall We Dance," "Arthur Murray Taught Me To Dance," "Do I Hear a Waltz?" and so on. Jackman's method of overwhelming his audience is the medley montage, which was the centerpiece of a Tony show that he hosted. There is an exhilarating string of them. "L-O-V-E (L is the for way you look at me)" accompanies a movie montage of sultry eye-locks and such. New York, his new home, led into "I Happen To Like New York," "On Broadway," "Lullaby of Broadway." He doesn't pussyfoot about with his selections. They're crème de la crème.

Albert Poland, the longtime teen president of the Judy Garland fan club who grew up to general-manage Jackman's Broadway heart-winner, The Boy From Oz, has seen no difference in their primal showbiz skills to wear down and win over audiences. (On second thought, he quipped, "Hugh is taller.")

So it's not inappropriate that Jackman, who has set the gold standard for entertainer, should try on the signature song of the previous title-holder. When he sings "Over the Rainbow," it's part of the evening's most moving montage and reflects in his own roots — a heartfelt salute to his homeland and the Aborigines outback. He brought four of them to the stage (two bearing didgeridoos) to accompany him on the song.

"When I was about 20," he said, "I had a chance to live out there in Central Australia in an aboriginal community, so when I was trying to work out how to share how I felt about my country with everyone, I invited four aborigines to come and help me do that so they can play the didgeridoos, sing, talk and create this number."

All four — Clifton Bieundurry, Paul Book, Oliver Knight and Nathan Mundraby — mark their Broadway debuts, as do four of the six leggy backup singers.

James Lipton
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The rest of the "cast" is drawn, spur-of-the-moment style, from the audience whether they like it or not. On opening night, one elderly gentleman named Herb (pronounced "'erb") was caught napping on the aisle by Jackman and sentenced to the stage to lead the finger-snapping for "Fever." He proved remarkably adept at it and turned out to be the retired agent for Jackie Gleason and Bobby Darin.

"Every time I come to Broadway," Jackman later told the press, "it amazes me the energy you get from the audience. I just feel lucky every night when I come out on the stage. It's the greatest city in the world and the greatest place to be on stage.

"When you're in New York — they're all great characters — you never know what you're going to get. It keeps it fresh and alive for me and, I think, for everybody else. The thing that I love about the theatre is that feeling of 'I saw something that only happened that night,' and I wanted to be able to create that feeling in the show."

Costume designer William Ivey Long kept Jackman conservatively attired for most of the evening but was unsparing with the gold lame when the actor made his second-act entrance in a balcony box as Peter Allen, the Aussie songwriter who was Garland's son-in-law at the time of her death and who was given his full showbiz due in Jackman's Tony-winning performance. Allen songs bookend the second act, and the opening medley climaxes in a whirling frenzy with "I Go to Rio."

The number gets some glitzy curtain streamers from John Lee Beatty — a welcome change from the dowdy set of his other Broadway opening of the week, Venus in Fur. "I have a few other pieces flying in," he said, "but, with Hugh Jackman, what do you need? You don't need anything. You just keep out of his way."

The audience arrived thoroughly jazzed for what lay ahead, and all Jackman really had to do was preach to the converted. The uncharacteristically uncritical James Lipton of "Inside the Actors Studio" couldn't think of a role he would like to see Jackman play. "Anything," he said, "anything he wants to do. He's the best."

Hamish Bowles
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"I'd watch Hugh Jackman open his mail for two hours on stage," contended fashion consultant Clinton Kelly. "Anything that he's in, I'm going to go see."

Vogue's European Editor at Large Hamish Bowles seconded that: "I'm a great fan," he volunteered, uncoaxed. "I think he's the quintessential showman. He has such an extraordinary range. I mean, to go from The Boy From Oz to A Steady Rain — that's quite a Broadway feat. But I just think he has such enormous charisma and stage presence. He's a real born performer."

Donna Karan's ruling: "He's outrageous. He's beyond any woman's desire." As first-nighters go, there was an inordinate number from the fashion field — John Varvatos, Robert Verdi, Andre Leon Talley.

Kathy Griffin arrived at the theatre a tad overhyped and under-informed. "How could I not be looking forward to this? I'm very excited. I hear it's a nudie show so he will be topless and, maybe, bottomless — kind of like a one-man Oh! Calcutta! That's what I hear it is. I hope you haven't heard anything different. I was just talking to some guys in a bathhouse. I believe everything they tell me."

Shifting gears into "seriously, folks," Griffin came on with the real stuff: "Hugh Jackman really is kind of a one of a kind. He's a real live star. He's a real live movie star, a real live Broadway star, a television star — there's nothing he can't do."

Rachael Ray found Jackman to be the perfect guest for her television show. "We had him on just a couple of weeks ago," she said. "He's so charming, and the audience was just in stitches. He told us, when he was on the show, this show's going to be different every single night. I wish I could go every night so I could notice."

"Precious" director Lee Daniels was still lamenting a lost chance to work with him. "We were going to work together, but the movie fell apart. It was called 'Selma,' and he was going to play a sheriff," Daniels said. But the director was consoling himself with editing a movie he has just directed: "The Paper Boy" with Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron. Next for Daniels: a redoing of "Valley of the Dolls."

"Movies don't use Hugh to his potential," moaned New York Observer's Rex Reed, leaving the theatre with Marge Champion on his arm . "He needs to be on the stage. It's too bad the stage can't afford him because there's nobody in the theatre today like this. Wouldn't you love to see him do On a Clear Day You Can See Forever? Wouldn't you love to see him do The Music Man? Wouldn't you love — I mean, please! You can't be a movie star who makes a living in the theatre."

Also in attendance were Princess Lee Radziwill, Vogue high-priestess Anna Wintour, gossips Liz Smith and Cindy Adams (not together), Annie Golden, Evita choreographer Rob Ashford, Venus in Fur helmsman Walter Bobbie, Broadway's Mandy Patinkin and son, Anthony Edwards and daughter, soon-to-be-Kennedy Center-honored Barbara Cook and, from the back of house, smiling contentedly (as well he should), Shubert chairman, Philip J. Smith.

And let's not forget Nina Landau, who "came here from Scottsdale, Arizona, to celebrate my 65th birthday," she relayed cheerfully. "I've just finished a few health issues, and I'm celebrating life the best way I know how." She was with sister Beth and their 92-year-old "forever young" cousin, Faye Young.

View highlights from the show: