“You gotta get a gimmick,” Stephen Sondheim advised struggling starlets in the deliriously crackpot number he wrote with Jule Styne for “Gypsy” that had one veteran stripper breaking out a trumpet. The song parodies its point, but the branding wisdom it offers entertainers is as relevant today as it was a half century ago.
Hugh Jackman, currently appearing in “Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway” at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York, has no problem separating himself from the pack. How many other movie star pinups are also giddy song-and-dance men? His new concert show is a glitzy advertorial for his career that combines action hero with ripped abs and what I’d affectionately call (draining the term of any homophobic taint) a show queen, a category that can no longer be limited to gay men.
This is a 21st century hybrid that, to my knowledge, has no precedent in the annals of showbiz. And it has made Jackman quite a wealthy man with a divergent fan base that includes preteen followers of the “X-Men” franchise as well as well-coiffed ladies of a certain age who know “Wolverine” only as some kind of louche rumor better left uninvestigated.
Jackman’s voice arrives on-stage before he does, the slightly twangy Australian tenor rolling out the plush red Rodgers & Hammerstein carpet with “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from “Oklahoma!” the show that put him on the international musical theater map when he starred in Trevor Nunn’s revival in London. Then he materializes in the spotlight, a slim fortysomething in a black suit, every lanky inch of him a movie star, every stubbly corner of his face a photo opportunity. Mr. Entertainer from Oz — his foreign passport apparently giving him more latitude than yesterday’s matinee idols to create himself in his own double image, one side stylishly rugged, the other irrepressibly fey.
Imagine Frank Sinatra singing “You Give Me Fever” without changing the gender of the person who’s spiking his temperature. Or picture Harry Connick Jr. breaking out into “One Night Only” from “Dreamgirls,” a number that sends Jackman into a kind of drag star revelry, albeit one that doesn’t require him to lose the pricey suit or forgo making puppy dog eyes at his backup singers, his “dreamgirls” for the night.
No luck? Well how about coming up with someone — anyone — with Jackman’s box office clout who would turn the late Peter Allen into his patron saint. Jackman, of course, won a Tony for playing Allen in “The Boy From Oz,” and the love affair with his countryman’s “Bi-Coastal” campiness continues in this show, which has him swiveling his hips like a human corkscrew and wearing a gold lamé get-up with a sparkly shirt tied at the navel for “I Go to Rio.” Brushing against a male audience member’s lap, he makes a Viagra joke, quipping that if the guy “still has that four hours later,” he should call a doctor.
This is not the boy next door, as Jackman himself gleefully declares. His patter, stockpiled with expressions of undying gratitude in that manner adopted by stars after they’ve hit the jackpot, grows more insouciant the more he lets his hair down. Jackman doesn’t need Allen to release his sequined imp, but it sure provides a sassy cover.
An affable bloke, Jackman makes friendly references to his wife and children, shares beefcake images that reveal why People magazine designated him the “Sexiest Man Alive” and pays homage to his homeland with a rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” in which he’s accompanied by Aboriginal musicians. His singing is good, his dancing is better and he’s at his best when he can flaunt his lighthearted versatility, as he does in a tribute to movie musicals that allows him to channel the dapper Gene Kelly and momentarily suppress Allen’s winking flamboyance.
He certainly has his share of groupies, a female contingent that appears as well-heeled as they are well-preserved. (An auction for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS after the performance fetched thousands of dollars for a couple of sweaty garments.)
Yet something’s missing. An earnest aftertaste lingered. My mother, a great lover of Vegas-style revues, summed up my confusion with her usual knack of prefacing a compliment with a question. “I can’t figure out who he is,” she said, “but no one works harder onstage.”
The show, amiable and breezy and as ephemeral as a smile, put me in mind of those variety show specials that were a staple of my ‘70s childhood. What’s different is that Jackman, while exploiting his Hollywood leading man glamour, feels absolutely no compulsion to live up to anyone’s masculine ideal. The outer package may say centerfold but the inner reality says glee club geek.
Like many stars of unusual magnitude, Jackman eludes capture. When Barbara Walters brought up rumors that he is gay, he told a joke about Allen coming out as a man from Oz and followed with an anecdote about his wife yelling out to gossiping strangers from a restroom stall that her husband’s on her team.
Still, it’s possible to say that had Judy Garland lived, she would have taken him under her wing and had Liza Minnelli been born a generation later she would have married him. Also, that ambiguity can enhance a star’s appeal, turning fans into protectors of their own fantasies.
Jackman refuses to let his movie star image get in the way of his fun. And the marketplace has rewarded his independence with weekly tickets sales that have been well over the million-dollar mark since the show began in late October.
It’s refreshing to see a performer applauded for slipping out of industry straitjackets. Yet the two sides of his stardom aren’t easy to reconcile. The novelty of his split persona is a lark, but a vagueness lies at the center.
For all Jackman’s friskiness, he’s guarded. (Even when he’s being slightly off-color, his act seems carefully orchestrated.) Unlike the most memorable theater talents, he doesn’t allow any glimpses of true vulnerability or out-of-control emotion. In truth, he’s never more inbounds than when he’s pretending to be stepping over the line. And his seductive power is as well-engineered and marketed as a luxurious car line.
The next night at Bar Centrale, a theater district hangout frequented by insiders, I was with some veteran watchers of the scene, men who know where the Broadway bodies are buried. I brought up my qualms about Jackman and the conversation unexpectedly turned to Michael Jackson and the pleasure of being tantalized while remaining safe. Jackman may not be a musical icon for the ages but his enormous stage popularity illustrates this equation better than any triple-threat working today. He is the Mr. Congeniality no one seems to mind not knowing.