THE LEADING MEN: Love Him Tender

News   THE LEADING MEN: Love Him Tender
In this month of April showers, here are three "Leading Men" who always brighten our days: Cheyenne Jackson (All Shook Up), Matthew Morrison (The Light in the Piazza) and John Fugelsang (The Duplex). Plus, we’ve got a sneak peek at The Producers movie and news about the first "Leading Men" concert.
Cheyenne Jackson
Cheyenne Jackson Photo by Ben Strothmann

Cheyenne Jackson gives a Tony-worthy tour de force as Chad, the hunky hunk of burning love, in All Shook Up at the Palace, and audiences can’t help fallin’ in love with him. In Joe DiPietro’s joyous jukebox musical of Elvis Presley hits, Jackson is a sexy 6-foot-3 specimen of flexing pecs, swiveling hips and scissoring legs. This roustabout rousts a sleepy town to life, and everyone’s soon swooning, especially Natalie (Jenn Gambatese), a female mechanic who disguises herself as a guy to get closer to Chad. Liz Smith raves, "A star is born. Jackson is the sexiest man to hit the boards since Hugh Jackman." Jackson says, "I’m flattered. I’ve always looked up to Jackman. Anyone who can play Peter Allen and Wolverine has a helluva range."

When we first interviewed him last summer, Jackson, 29, was one of the Altar Boyz. But his life got All Shook Up when this onetime Thoroughly Modern Millie understudy stepped into the blue suede shoes of Chad. Though his partner of five years and their dog, Zorra, help keep him grounded, fame has found the Newport, WA, actor, and "That’s All Right" with him.

Question: Last summer, you said, "I’d love to originate a role [on Broadway] . . . I know my day will come." Well, it’s here! How do you feel?
Cheyenne Jackson: Blessed. Thankful. Humble. Happy. I feel like everything I’ve done has been leading up to this. It’s a dream come true.

Q: What’s your earliest Elvis memory?
Jackson: I was seven, and my brother and I sang "Santa Bring My Baby Back (to Me)." My dad always loved it when I sang Elvis at talent shows. I’d do "Heartbreak Hotel" or my favorite Elvis tune, "Crying in the Chapel."

Q: Why do you love Elvis so much?
Jackson: If you watch Elvis, even up to his 1968 TV special, music is in every fiber of his being, and that’s so infectious. He did so many genres: rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country, rockabilly, gospel. And I love all those styles of music, and I like to think of myself as a pretty versatile performer. That’s why I identify with him. Q: When Priscilla Presley was on "Oprah," she called All Shook Up a "must-see." What was it like meeting her?
Jackson: It was daunting to know that the wife of the king of rock was in the audience, but she was fantastic. She told me, "I loved that you didn’t take yourself too seriously. You have a warmth in your performance that just leaps off the stage, but most importantly, I want to tell you that Elvis would be proud.’ I said: "Priscilla, if I get 100 bad reviews, it won’t matter because of what you said." It was awesome.

Q: What’s your favorite moment in the show?
Jackson: Well, my entrance, when I’m riding my motorcycle through the countryside, is pretty damn fun. David Rockwell’s scenery is great, and it’s the best entrance since Mama Rose’s "Sing out, Louise!" in Gypsy.

Q: You’re in 17 of the songs, but it’s still an ensemble show.
Jackson: Everyone in the cast is tremendous. Leah Hocking amazes me. Nikki James and Curtis Holbrook could not be cuter or sweeter. Mark Price cracks me up every night. It’s the easiest job in the world to fall in love with Jenn [Gambatese]. And Sharon [Wilkins] is such a pro, and Alix Korey is hilarious.

Q: What’s it like working with your director, Chris Ashley?
Jackson: Awesome. He’s not emotional or mushy, and I’m both of those things. But I trust him 100%. He knows what’s funny. Chris and the creative team also have allowed me to bring my strange sense of humor to Chad. One day in rehearsals, I did the line about how Chad always wins a lady with "strength, testosterone and all the things that make a man like me, a man like me" and then I flexed my chest muscles. It’s hereditary. All the men in my family can do it. And Chris said, "I love it!"

Q: When you got the role of Chad, you had to drop Altar Boyz, which you had worked on for a couple of years. How’s it feel?
Jackson: I just saw Altar Boyz, and it’s great. And bittersweet. It knew it’d be sad but exciting. But Scott Porter is even a little better than I was, and he dances much better. All five Altar Boyz are so amazing.

Q: One of the songs and themes in All Shook Up is "Follow Your Dream," and one of your dreams is that you and your partner would like to start a family someday. Why is fatherhood so important to you?

Jackson: I’ve always seen myself as a dad. Growing up, I was the only boy baby-sitter around. I love kids. If I weren’t an actor, I’d be a music teacher. I’ve taught Sunday school and children’s choir in my church. It’d be wonderful to have a biological kid, but logistically, it’d be rough. But there are so many fantastic kids who need homes. I don’t know how it will happen, but it will. Definitely.

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Matthew Morrison, who starred as Link, the 5-foot-11 heartthrob of Hairspray, really is one of "the nicest kids in town." Blessed with a boyish innocence and a beautiful voice, the radiant actor is shining once more — this time in Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’ The Light in the Piazza, opening April 18 at the Vivian Beaumont. Based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer, it’s the story of Margaret (Victoria Clark), an American matron, and her pretty daughter, Clara (Kelli O’Hara), vacationing in Italy in 1953; there, they meet Fabrizio (Morrison), an Italian who falls madly for Clara, despite Margaret’s misgivings. Piazza was made into a 1962 MGM movie that starred Olivia DeHavilland, Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton.

Morrison, 26, who’s from Fort Ord, CA, says, "It’s a story about the rush of first love, and Fabrizio’s kind of a player, but he wants a true connection with someone. And he sees that innocence and naivete in Clara. Italian women are so straightforward, but Clara’s from another world literally. Fabrizio’s been a real challenge. I’m Scottish and Irish, and I don’t speak Italian, so I’ve had a lot to learn."

Guettel’s lovely and lyrical songs also presented a score of challenges: "I’m a fan of Adam’s. The music to Piazza is kind of classical with a lot of pop undertones. I’ve never been trained, but I think Adam likes what I bring to it. My first song ['Il Mondo Era Vuoto'] is an Italian aria. It’s about how I realize how much I’ve been missing in the world, now that I’ve seen Clara. It reminds me of ‘Maria’ from West Side Story. I also sing ‘Love to Me,’ one of the most beautiful songs ever. I’ve grown so much as a singer and an actor just by watching everyone in this awesome cast."

But Fabrizio’s character has a wild side, and so does Morrison. Marc Shaiman, the Tony-winning composer of Hairspray, says, "Matt’s so talented and f***ing good-looking, and he’s got this boy-next-door persona, but he’s a real Jekyll & Hyde." At the post-Tony party for Hairspray at the Coral Room, he dropped his trousers and jumped into a giant aquarium. Morrison says, "I made my tighty-whiteys into a thong and pressed my butt cheeks against the glass." Shaiman adds, "I think Matt saw a pretty girl [playing a mermaid], and being one of the last heterosexual leading men on Broadway, jumped right in. Matt knows how to enjoy himself." (And when it comes to pretty girls, Morrison says he’s dating Amanda Freed, an Olympic softball player. "Her world is so interesting, and she’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.")

So has he got any news about the movie version of Hairspray? "I’ve heard the rumor about John Travolta playing Edna Turnblad and it’d be interesting, but I want Harvey [Fierstein] to do it; he’s the man — or woman — for the job. They might see me for Link, but they’d probably go for Justin Timberlake."

Meantime, Morrison is thrilled that the 2004 TV version of Once Upon a Mattress, in which he plays Sir Harry, will air in December. "I loved working with Carol Burnett [who plays Queen Aggravain]. The cast would get together and watch her old [TV] shows, and she’d give us the inside dish. It was a trip. Carol’s tied to Piazza in a weird way because Mary Rodgers [who wrote the score to Mattress] is Adam’s mom, so I’m sure she’s gonna see the show. I’ve been so lucky. Link was a dream role, and now I’ve got another one: Fabrizio."

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Because of his good looks and appealing personality, John Fugelsang literally has been offered a host of opportunities on TV: From 1997-2000, he and Daisy Fuentes hosted "America’s Funniest Home Videos." He has hosted VH1’s live "Town Hall" meetings with Paul McCartney and Garth Brooks, and recently co-hosted CNBC’s "McEnroe" talk show. He’s also guested on Bill Maher’s "Politically Incorrect" 25 times, using his rapier wit to cross swords with the Rev. Jerry Falwell and David Duke.

But this month, the brilliant actor-writer-comic returns to the legendary Duplex, where he got his big break. In 1993, Fugelsang did his hip and hilarious one-man show, "Junk Male," which earned him rave reviews, a MAC Award and a deal with William Morris. This 6-foot-1 NYU grad, who hails from Long Island ("I was so white, I got beat up by albinos"), had audiences roaring with his riotous rants about rap and Michael Bolton music videos; ironically, this landed him a job as a veejay at VH1.

On April 15 and 22 at 9:30 PM, Fugelsang, 35, does a new show that’s "a combination of standup and true stories. It’s the best writing I’ve ever done." Wonderfully told with an actor’s expertise and eye for detail and drama, his stories run the gamut: from the time he offered "hot, gay sex" to a Nazi klansman on TV, to the time he tried to smuggle pot past airport security. "It’s great being at the Duplex again, really having started in cabaret. There’s more talent in the audience for the MAC Awards than in all of Hollywood. I hate comedy clubs. Cabaret is ideal; I want to do something more personal."

Though Fugelsang still gets offers to host dating and reality shows, he sneers at being a "Tele-Prompter monkey": "When I did ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos,’ I was so embarrassed. I was introducing clips of cats falling off buildings, old people slipping on ice and children getting whacked in the crotch with whiffle bats. It’s not exactly the Ibsen festival of my dreams. But the paycheck was astounding."

Last year Fugelsang traded volleys with tennis star John McEnroe on CNBC, but the talk show wasn’t a match made in heaven: "John’s a very intense, charismatic, brilliant man. When we first met, he said he wanted to do a political-themed show with bands and comedians, too. Instead, the show wound up with a format that didn’t play to John’s strengths. Every single idea I had was rejected. This wasn’t the show I was hired to do. I felt like a moron. Everything I said that got a laugh or applause was deleted from the broadcast. Ratings were abysmal. I prayed to God and Satan for it to end."

Supporting him all the way has been his "incredible" wife, Charmien LaFramenta, a lovely fashion designer and writer. They live with three cats ("They’re constantly fighting; we live in cat Bosnia"). Most recently, this political junkie did a pilot for ABC News, but he’d love to do more acting and write a book. Fugelsang also hopes his Duplex show becomes a monthly gig. "Spalding Gray is a hero of mine, and if I can do anything like the type of one man theatre he did, that would be a career dream." For more information, visit

When I heard Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan’s amazing musical about Max Bialystock was gonna be made into a movie, I thought: "I wanna be in Producers" — and thanks to FoodChange, a charity that feeds hundreds of hungry New Yorkers, I was. For a contribution of $500 and more, about 200 civilians got to be extras (alongside SAG members), playing theatregoers at the Broadway opening of Springtime for Hitler. (I was comped as press.) So on March 14, I spent the day at the St. James Theatre as they filmed audience reaction shots of horror and hilarity as we listened to a recording of John Barrowman singing "Springtime for Hitler."

Brooks happily addressed the extras, who were gussied up in gowns and tuxedos: "The women look gorgeous. And the men . . . you look like waiters." Susan Stroman, the movie’s director, also thanked the extras and coached us on our standing ovation. She quipped, "That was too instantaneous. If I could only get those in real life." And her assistant director, Sam Hoffman, was a riot who kept everything light and bright. Though I spent 12 long hours at the St. James, I had a blast. Sadly, I doubt I was ever close enough to the camera to be seen. I was ready for my closeup, but no one else was. Still, I’m thrilled to be part of movie history, and I can’t wait to see it on the silver screen in December. Just think: "I’m gonna be in Producers. Sound the horn and beat the drum. I’m gonna be in Producers. Look out, Oscars, here I come!"

We’re proud to announce the first "The Leading Men" benefit concert, which will feature a dozen of the great guys of Broadway and cabaret that we’ve profiled, and it will be held Monday, May 30, at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette St. (212-539-8778). John Tartaglia, the Tony-nominated star of Avenue Q, will emcee and Seth Rudetsky, the Bistro Award-winning host of Seth’s Broadway Chatterbox, will be the musical director. So far, the illustrious lineup includes Tom Andersen, Scott Coulter, Tim Di Pasqua, Tom D’Angora, Brian and Ted Farley, Barrett Foa, Danny Gurwin, Cheyenne Jackson, Matthew Morrison, Jai Rodriguez and Christopher Sieber — with a couple of surprises. Alan Muraoka, who helmed Tartaglia’s terrific cabaret act, will direct. asked us to start "The Leading Men" column in January 2003, and we figure that by June, we’ll have featured 100 guys, so why not celebrate and raise more money for a great cause like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS? Tickets are $40. Hope to see you there. It should be hunks of fun!

Got comments or questions? E-mail me at

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.

Matthew Morrison (left) and John Fugelsang
Matthew Morrison (left) and John Fugelsang Photo by Ben Strothmann
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