After a move to New York— and a few really strange singing classes—Hugh Jackman has morphed into showman (and Minnelli ex) Peter Allen.
‘I have to bring out the showman in me.” Hugh Jackman, the dashing object of New York’s latest collective crush, is speaking of his current challenge: making his Broadway debut in The Boy From Oz (previews start September 16), a musical about his hero and fellow Australian Peter Allen—the consummate performer best-known for songs like “I Go to Rio,” over-the-top stage shows, and his brief marriage to Liza Minnelli (Judy fixed them up). Allen died of aids in 1992 at the age of 48 but remains an icon in Australia and a beloved of the New York theater world.
Although this will be Jackman’s first show on the Great White Way, he’s already a Broadway darling, thanks to his charming turn as host of this year’s Tony Awards at Radio City. “It felt like a party for me,” he says. He was even given Peter Allen’s old dressing room (although he spent most of his backstage time next door having “a good natter and a chat” with Billy Joel).
Jackman is keeping his place in Melbourne for vacations, but he’s ecstatic about his recent move to New York with his wife, the Australian actress-filmmaker Deborra-Lee Furness, and their 3-year-old son, Oscar Maximillian. Jackman is particularly relieved to finally be settled here, since Furness has always called the city her home, even though she lived here for just five years quite some time ago.
Perhaps the only thing Jackman has found New York lacking in is reverence for Allen, who is practically a saint Down Under: “His songs are like our national anthems. If you ask an Australian his favorite songs, three of their top five will be Peter Allen songs. He was someone who loved life and lived every moment to the full and laughed and was tough as well, and Australians loved him. Even if they were homophobic, they loved Peter.”
Jackman has been so intimidated by the thought of living up to this legacy that he’s been going above and beyond to prepare for the part. When he was in Prague recently, filming Van Helsing, the new monster movie from Mummy writer-director Stephen Sommers, which comes out next May, Jackman sought out the renowned opera singer Ivan Kusjner for lessons. “I went in and sang for him, and he didn’t smile, and at the end of the first hour he said, ‘Yes, you can come back next week.’ I realized I was being auditioned.” Jackman’s weeks of training with the vocal master were no less stressful. One day, when he asked Kusjner about proper breathing, the burly teacher suddenly took his shirt off. “And he said, ‘Put your hands on my belly!’ It was an experience, that’s for sure.” It was also, in an odd sort of way, preparation for the intimate moments he shares onstage with much- envied actor Jarrod Emick, who plays Allen’s longtime boyfriend, Greg.
Jackman will be using the breathing techniques Kusjner imparted to sell the hell out of Allen’s songs, particularly his favorite, “Tenterfield Saddler,” which he calls “as close to an autobiography as you can get in song.” And with Allen’s reputation for pulling every theatrical trick in the book (up to and including livestock onstage), Oz promises to be a tour de force of acrobatic piano playing, high kicks, and showgirls.
“No camels,” says Jackman of the desert creature Allen once brought to Radio City, “but there’s a lot of Hawaiian shirts and maracas, I’ll tell you that.” Ada Calhoun
Details: The Boy From Oz, Imperial (October 16).
Hairspray’s Kerry Butler leaves behind integrationist Penny Pingleton to become Little Shop’s sexy ditz.
As Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton, in Hairspray, Kerry Butler got to sing, dance, go to jail, and fall in love. It’s hard to walk away from a role like that in the hottest show on Broadway, but Butler had a, well, killer reason: the chance to be the star of what may well be this year’s breakout hit: Little Shop of Horrors. The classic musical about skid-row florist Seymour (Hunter Foster of Urinetown) and the Faustian pact he makes with a bloodthirsty plant in order to win Audrey (Butler) is considered by many to be a bulletproof audience pleaser. (Not that getting the show to take root has been easy. An earlier incarnation had well-publicized troubles in out-of-town tryouts and was scrapped until Tony-winning director Jerry Zaks stepped in to rework and recast it.)
Butler’s basically playing Audrey as an older version of Penny. “The two roles have a surprising amount in common,” she says—both have single mothers, for example. “I just have to cross the street and be a few years older, with more life experience, and talk in a Brooklyn accent.”
That should be no trouble for Butler, who grew up in Bensonhurst. “I’ve been trying all my life to get rid of my Brooklyn accent,” she says, “and now I have to remember what it sounded like!” A.C.
Details: Little Shop of Horrors, Virginia Theatre (October 2).
Just how hot is the Classical Theater of Harlem? It persuaded Broadway star André De Shields to step off the Great White Way.
What’s a big Broadway star like André De Shields, known for his charismatic musical-theater performances, doing in a tiny Off Broadway theater playing a drunk? Well, for one thing, he wanted to work with the Classical Theater of Harlem, a company that has the youngest, most diverse audiences in town, takes nontraditional casting to a new level, and is putting on rarely performed but remarkably powerful work, like last season’s hit revival of Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show. It was also hard for him to turn down the theater’s co-founders—Alfred Preisser and Christopher McElroen—who De Shields says “slathered me with flattery and danced around me like I was a cobra in a basket.”
De Shields appeared in the original companies of shows like The Wiz, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and The Full Monty, but he says he’s always longed to play a monstre sacré like Makak, the lead role in Derek Walcott’s magical- realist drama Dream on Monkey Mountain, which he takes on starting October 1.
Makak, says Preisser, is “a very poor person, a nobody who sells charcoal in a market and gets drunk on the proceeds.” But one day, he dreams he is a messiah, and in his dream, he travels back to Africa and puts the entire world on trial for what it’s done to him. Written in 1967, Dream on Monkey Mountain has everything to do, De Shields says, with the black diaspora and the idea that, even now, African-Americans remain “strangers in a strange land.” The questions central to the play are, he says, “ ‘Why was I born?’ ‘Where did I come from?’ ‘Where am I going?’ and ‘Why do I suffer?’ ” All of which De Shields says any black actor working in the theater asks himself daily.
“In the corporate world, they talk about the glass ceiling,” says De Shields, “but in the theatrical world, that ceiling is made of concrete.” A.C.
Details: Dream on Monkey Mountain, Classical Theater of Harlem (October 2).
The inimitable Tovah Feldshuh on the role of her life: Golda Meir.
Tovah Feldshuh has played Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Vreeland, Sarah Bernhardt, and Katharine Hepburn, along with three queens of Henry VIII, but she says the role of Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony, which starts previews October 3, is the greatest role of her career: “It’s as if my whole life as an actress and as a mother, and as a wife, and as a human being, or, as we would say, a mensch, has led to this moment. From Golda Meir, I’m learning true humility . . . I’m just one speck of dust in one speck of dust next to the Gourmet Garage and across from the Japanese supermarket down in Soho, and now that little speck of dust is moving to the smallest stage on Broadway flanked by The Producers and Sardi’s and I couldn’t be happier—as an American, as a New Yorker, as a Jew. I’m just a happy girl. I have found shalom. Before it means peace, it means integrity . . . I am at one.” A.C.
Details: Golda’s Balcony, Helen Hayes (opens October 15).
Best of The Rest
The Retreat From Moscow John Lithgow, Eileen Atkins, and Ben Chaplin star in William Nicholson’s play about a marriage that ends abruptly, devastating the couple’s son. In previews starting October 2 for an October 23 opening. (Booth Theatre; 212-239-6200.)
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill star in Richard Alfieri’s new comedy about a Florida retiree and her gruff New York dance instructor. In previews starting October 7 for an October 29 opening. (Belasco Theatre; 212-239-6200.)
Wicked Political parody of The Wizard of Oz, told from the point of view of the Wicked Witch (played by Idina Menzel; Kristin Chenoweth is Glinda). Joel Grey also stars. In previews starting October 7 for an October 30 opening. (Gershwin Theatre; 212-307-4100.)
The Long Christmas Ride Home The Vineyard struck gold with puppets last season (Avenue Q), so why not try to repeat the trick? How I Learned to Drive’s Paula Vogel uses Basil Twist puppets in her new play. In previews starting October 9. (Vineyard Theatre; 212-353-0303.)
Rounding Third John Rando directs Richard Dresser’s new play about two very different coaches trying to run the same Little League team. In previews starting September 16 for an October 7 opening. (John Houseman; 212-239-6200.)
Strictly Academic A. R. Gurney’s new comedy tells the story of a theater’s sadistic artistic director and her unorthodox method of ensuring return crowds. In previews starting October 8 for an October 21 opening. (Primary Stages; 212-333-4052.)