THE LEADING MEN: Much Ado About Taboo

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: Much Ado About Taboo
Happy 2004! Here are three "Leading Men" who'll be spreading cheer throughout the year: Cary Shields (Taboo), Max von Essen (Broadway Spotlight) and Patrick Wilson ("The Phantom of the Opera" movie).
Cary Shields
Cary Shields Photo by Ben Strothmann

Judging by the tabloid press, you might think Rosie O'Donnell and Boy George represent everything Taboo. But at the heart of this flamboyantly bold musical about the London club scene in the 1980s, there's a sensational score and an incredible cast led by Euan Morton as the "Karma Chameleon" pop star. But he isn't the show's only dynamic discovery. There's Cary Shields, who plays Marcus, Boy George's bisexual boyfriend. When this sexy 5-foot-10 actor belts "I See Through You," he rocks the Plymouth with his raw power and passion ("It's a great song and I love singing it!").

Until Taboo, Shields was paying his rent, thanks to playing in Rent. He was Roger in the U.S. and Canadian tours, as well as Broadway (he's seen on the new poster). He had never acted until Rent and only got his big break after his mom wrote a letter to the show saying he'd be perfect and signed his name to it. Shields, then 23, was called in to audition and sealed the deal by singing "One Song Glory."

And the karma continues for this Toronto-born hunk, who's got a rock band called Poncho, and is writing a new musical, "Lucky," with Mark Jackson. It turns out that Shields, 29, is distantly related to Boy George, but they had never met until Taboo: "We're [something like] fourth cousins. It's been great working with him. When I was a kid, Boy George was such an idol, and he's a family hero."

Question: In Charles Busch's brand-new book for Taboo, your character, Marcus, is a composite of Boy George's boyfriends, right?
Cary Shields: Yeah, he's loosely based on John Moss, the drummer in [Boy George's band] Culture Club. He's kind of a user, but he's not a bad guy.

Q: When we first see Marcus, he's got a girl, but he's soon drawn to Boy George. To quote a lyric from Taboo, "Who can explain the attraction?"
Shields: He has an open heart. At the end of the day, I think Marcus is straight. Boy George is the first man he's loved. And he makes a beautiful woman as it is, so it's confusing for the poor boy. On top of that, Marcus is generous enough with his love to be swept off his feet by Boy George, who's this larger-than-life character. Q: What's it like working with Euan, who plays Boy George?
Shields: He's great. When I first heard him sing "Stranger in This World," he made me cry. His voice blows me away. We've become very good friends. He's so unbelievably supportive. When I get off-stage, he says, "Good job, great work" in his funny Scottish accent, which makes it all the more charming.

Q: You played Whizzer in Falsettos in Vancouver, so kissing a guy onstage [in Taboo] isn't a first time for you, is it?
Shields: No. It's nice. It's great. And Euan's a good kisser. I don't think it's very risqué anymore. People just get sucked into the love story.

Q: Some people believe we all have masculine and feminine sides and we land at different places on the spectrum of sexuality, and some people believe bisexuals are actually gay people in denial. What do you think Marcus believes?
Shields: He's a spectrum kind of guy, which is what I believe.

Q: Have you ever considered "experimenting" on the other side?
Shields: Sure, I experimented, but now I'm all straightened out. [Laughs.]

Q: Your bio refers to "my love, Tricia." Is she your girlfriend?
Shields: She was my girlfriend. We were together for four years. It's awful. I thought getting all these [Broadway] shows would straighten me out, but I just screwed up my personal life. But I still love her and maybe we'll get back together. We met during Rent. She was an actress; now she's a makeup artist.

Q: Back to Taboo: There's been a lot of drama onstage and off.
Shields: It's weird. Maybe something crappy went on at rehearsal and someone threw a fit, but that's the nature of working with actors and egos. It was shocking to see that on the front page of the New York Post. I can't believe that's news.

Q: So how do you enjoy working with Rosie?
Shields: She's amazing and very warm. She took me to dinner at Frankie & Johnnie's for steak. I was really intimidated by her and George and everyone else, but she made me feel comfortable. Rosie did that with a number of cast members, and it was very sweet. It seems so strange that she's had so many detractors. She's been so supportive of Broadway, and everybody should want her to succeed.

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A year ago, the critics drove a stake through Dance of the Vampires, starring Michael Crawford, but the show's red-blooded, romantic young hero, Max von Essen, has been working like a bat out of hell. The brilliant baritone starred in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Sacramento Music Circus, was Freddy in My Fair Lady at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, and played Jean Prouvaire during the closing months of Les Misérables on Broadway.

Now von Essen, 29, will be in the Broadway Spotlight on Jan. 5 and 19 at 8 PM and Feb. 1 at 7 PM at the Ars Nova Theater. To quote a song from Vampires, "there's never been a night like this" because he'll be making his cabaret debut. The Queens-born actor says, "I've been scared of cabaret because it's hard to do well. I don't want it to be cheesy. And I'm doing all these songs I've never sung, like ‘What Do I Need With Love' from Millie and ‘There's a Fine, Fine Line' from Avenue Q.' I'll also do part of ‘For Sarah'; it was the most beautiful song in [Vampires]."

Looking back on the $15 million-dollar misfire, von Essen says, "I knew the critics were gonna kill it, and the audiences were gonna have fun. But the buzz wasn't enough to keep a show of that magnitude and expense going. We had the highest weekly running cost of any show at that time; it was well over $600,000 a week."

What was it like working with Crawford? "I loved it. I grew up listening to Phantom, so he was a legend to me. But in person, he's such a goofball. In rehearsals, he had a lot of one-liners. I wish he had a better vehicle than Vampires because he really is funny. Michael was right about not recreating his Phantom role, which is what it was in Europe. But the show wasn't completely campy, and it wasn't completely serious. And poor [director] John Rando's mother died during previews. Unfortunately, things just fell apart, and it became a mess. They're lucky the cast was so strong. We just went out each night and did our best."

But if he's been first bitten by a vampire musical, the 5-foot-10 actor isn't twice shy. In November, he did a reading of Elton John and Bernie Taupin's new musical Vampire Lestat, based on Anne Rice's novels, starring James Barbour. It's bankrolled by Warner Brothers and hopes to reach Broadway by the end of 2004: "I play Nicholas, and he's very much like the Brad Pitt character in the ‘Interview With a Vampire' movie; he falls for a young man, and they're not lovers, but it's homoerotic and they share a bond." Ironically, it's an acting role that requires very little singing, but after the reading, "Elton came up to me and said, 'I definitely have to write you a song!'"

Though he has starred in Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway, toured as Mary Sunshine in Chicago and sung backup for Liza Minnelli ("She's incredible and so funny"), von Essen didn't always put stock in showbiz. The former economics major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill once thought he'd be an investment banker, but now he's a hot commodity and especially grateful after Sept. 11, 2001. His father is Thomas von Essen, who was the former and fearless New York City Fire Commissioner in charge during that tragedy. "It's so meaningful to be a New Yorker and to be his son, and have him see me in a Broadway show. It's still really difficult for my dad. He lost hundreds of his men and he knew so many of them, along with close family friends, like Father Mychal Judge. We're so appreciative of everything."

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Patrick Wilson's star has just hit new heavenly heights, thanks to his soaring performance in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" on HBO. Directed by Mike Nichols, the two-time Tony nominee of Oklahoma! and The Full Monty played Joe Pitt, a closeted gay Mormon lawyer, opposite Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. Besides his rave reviews, he got a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

We chatted briefly with Wilson after Seth Rudetsky interviewed him at his lively "Broadway Chatterbox" talk show at Don't Tell Mama. There, he revealed that though he's seen kissing Ben Shenkman in "Angels in America," the 30-year-old heartthrob said there was a scene of him "making out" with Pacino, but it got cut.

From "Angels in America," Wilson goes to an "angel of music." He's now in London, wrapping up his role as Raoul in Joel Schumacher's film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. Starring Gerald Butler as the masked man, it'll open next Christmas. Wilson says, "It's a big, ol' epic. In my last scene [with Gerald], we're gonna be on horseback and sword-fighting through the cemetery."

Plus, he plays Col. William Travis in "The Alamo," a blockbuster opening this spring with Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston and Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett. Asked if he's leaving Broadway for Hollywood, Wilson says, "I'd love to come back. I'll find something. I've never considered Broadway, or the movies, the pinnacle of my career. I want to do it all. Broadway isn't a steppingstone. That's horseshit. Do you know how many people want to be in this community? I'll never take it for granted."

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Congrats, too, to Justin Daniel. Since we profiled him last January, the bright and boyish actor-singer, 24, won a 2003 Back Stage Bistro Award for his cabaret debut at Don't Tell Mama. And now Daniel will make his network TV debut on NBC's "Ed," tentatively set to air Jan. 16. He'll play Gunter, a 17-year-old Finnish foreign-exchange student who stays with Dr. Burton (Josh Randall) and his wife, Nancy (Janamarie Hupp). At one point, Gunter and Nancy share their love of showtunes by bursting into "I Could've Danced All Night." Daniel says, "It's fully choreographed. They even brought in John Carrafa from Urinetown to stage it. I had such a great time!" For more information, visit VOCAL HEROES OF 2003
Thanks to everyone who e-mailed me their favorite "Leading Men" of Broadway, Off-Broadway and cabaret. Diane Pruitt, for instance, chose Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz and adds, "You can pick any song and it would be a contender, but THE amazing moment has to be ‘Once Before I Go.' Absolutely huge!" There were so many incredible candidates, but here are our picks in alphabetical order:

Antonio Banderas (Nine)
Matt Cavenaugh (Urban Cowboy)
Hugh Jackman (The Boy From Oz)
Noah Racey (Never Gonna Dance)
Daniel Reichard (Radiant Baby)
Seth Rudetsky (Rhapsody in Seth)
John Tartaglia (Avenue Q)

Kane Alexander, "Crying" (The Algonquin)
Tom Andersen, "Right Field" (Cabaret Convention)
Scott Coulter, "Walkin' After Midnight" (Mama Rose's)
Gavin Creel, Richard Kind, "You" (Bounce)
Brian D'Arcy James, "Every Single Day" (Harmony benefit)
Tim Di Pasqua, "One Thing" (The Duplex)
Jonathan Dokuchitz, "The Games I Play" (Falsettos)
Raul Esparza, "Petrified" (Taboo)
Ty Giordano, Dan Jenkins, Michael McElroy, "Muddy Water" (Big River)
Josh Groban, "Anthem" (Chess concert)
Adam Pascal, "Pity the Child" (Chess concert)
Cary Shields, "I See Through You" (Taboo)
Special mention: Tom D'Angora, "Somewhere That's Pink" (Mama's)

There's so much to see in New York: If you love John Bucchino's beautiful songs — and his champions include Stephen Schwartz and Adam Guettel — you'll be "Grateful" to see this composer kick off the "Queer Songbook" series on Jan. 18 at 7 PM at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, 208 W. 13th St. (212 620-7310). He'll also unveil his exquisite new CD, "On Richard Rodgers' Piano," and play a few of his "favorite things." His guest will be Lucas Steele, an All American Boy with an amazing voice.

Matt Zarley will celebrate his own pop songs from his dynamic "Debut" album on Jan. 19 at 7 PM at the King Kong Room, 240 W. 47th St. (212-921-1904). Though once named one of People magazine's top 50 bachelors, Zarley won't be doing the show single-handedly; he'll be joined by Jerry Dixon, Billy Porter and many more. … Bistro Award winner David Gurland re-releases his self-titled CD on Jan. 30 at 9:30 PM at Mama Rose's, 219 Second Ave. (212-533-0558). With every breath he takes, the sweet-sounding tenor will do terrific tunes by Sting, as well as Tom Andersen, Tim Di Pasqua, Billy Joel and Burt Bacharach.

When it comes to special events, don't miss Scott Siegel's "2004 Nightlife Awards Concert," a star-studded salute to New York cabaret, comedy and jazz, on Jan. 12 at 7 PM at Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St. (212 307-4100). Presenters and performers will include such great guys as Jim Caruso, Mark Nadler, Phillip Officer, Steve Ross, John Selya, Douglas Sills and Billy Stritch.

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.

Max von Essen (left), Justin Daniel and Patrick Wilson
Max von Essen (left), Justin Daniel and Patrick Wilson Photo by Ben Strothmann, Wayman Wong and Aubrey Reuben
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