“It was a kind of miracle that I got into the musical theatre”, commented the actor Hugh Jackman, remembering the beginning of his career in 1995. “I had just graduated and my agent told me that they couldn’t find anyone to play Gastón in the Australian production of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, so i went and tried it. I got the part, but my contract included singing lessons once a week. From the beginning I felt like an outsider.”
The Australian, who is now nominated for his third Tony Award for his portrayal of con artist Harold Hill in the new version of “The Music Man”recounted how his return to the stage has been in his first Broadway musical since 2003. (Though he hasn’t been a total unknown; he starred in “A Steady Rain” in 2009 and “The River” in 2014.) Over an afternoon hour at a Midtown hotel, Jackman came across as a curious performer who leads with the assertion; his is a captivating charm sculpted from thoughtfulness and trust.
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Despite his long list of credits and accolades, the 53-year-old Jackman seems as eager to please as he is to launch into the next adventure. She has an inquisitive mind, something I experienced firsthand when she audited a graduate Film History course at Columbia University that I also attended in the spring 2020 semester. Her friend Annette Insdorf taught the course. , and when the pandemic suspended in-person classes, Jackman continued to attend the four-hour seminars via Zoom.
“I have a rudimentary understanding of cinema. I used to ask directors to mention me five movies you should see before you die, and almost all of them I had never seen,” he assured. “I asked Annette for help and she told me to just join her class.”
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At the time, he was promoting the HBO movie “Bad Education”in which he played a real-life former school superintendent who pleaded guilty to stealing two million dollars from his district, and began early rehearsals for “Music Man” with future co-star Sutton Foster.
These are edited snippets of our conversation.
Q: You play flamboyant hustlers in both “The Music Man” and “Bad Education.” Did you draw on one of those roles to play the other?
A: I am very intrigued by the collective fascination with con men and fraudsters, and there is some overlap with PT Barnum (whom you played in the movie “The Greatest Showman”). I’m still not entirely sure where he’s coming from, but I think he’s very much rooted in a very American individualistic philosophy of not doing what you’re told to do.
Q: You have lived in the United States for almost twenty years. Do you consider yourself American?
A: I am Australian. However, I believe that the United States is an extraordinary place: there are very few places so generous in spirit.
Q: Do you think it’s that generosity that draws Americans to scammers?
A: It goes back to that sense of individualism, and the ultimate expression of that is the hustler, who goes against everything and changes the rules of the hierarchy. Australia has a bit of that, but we saw during the pandemic that Australians play by the rules. There’s a collective way of thinking, “We really should be doing such a thing,” and people align with that mindset. And as we saw here, instead, people don’t stick to acceptable behavior.
Q: So your attraction to these characters is pure escapism?
A: What I love about acting is exploring the aspects of people who choose to live in a way opposite to how we were raised, and can’t believe that everyone around them follows the rules. So it’s not escapism; it’s fun to analyze something that I would not allow or would not like to do in life. I’m glad they’re not all Harold Hill, but it’s a lot of fun to play someone as arrogant as possible for two and a half hours. Self-loathing gets boring after a while.
Q: How does the role feel after a six-month run of the play?
A: For me, this great show with a cast of 47 artists continues to grow. I’m in a lead role, but it doesn’t feel as exhausting as I’ve experienced (in other works) in the past. I think it’s the way they built these old shows. I’m on stage a lot and I carry the baton a lot, but it’s different: I continue at the beginning, I sing the first number and I go to change costumes. I’m not a smoker, but it feels like a smoke break, which I’m pretty sure is what a lot of them were doing back then.
There are some days when I get tired, but when I get to the third scene I think: “Wow. I’m back.” There’s something about this show that lifts me up with an energy I didn’t think I had. And when you work with Sutton…
Q: Has she taught you anything about endurance? She is a star who puts momentum into work.
A: She is wonderful. Indeed, I have to use my best tools. Asking me to tap dance alongside Sutton Foster is like asking me to play Novak Djokovic on the court. Rehearsals with her were fun, but it was a little daunting spending a year and a half working on it and then seeing those kids come in and learn it in three hours.
Q: You’ve never worked with so many kids on stage, let alone in a show with 21 Broadway debuts. Do you behave like a father with them?
A: It’s gotten a bit like that, particularly with the youngsters. I guess some of them see me as Wolverines (the superhero he plays in the “X-Men” movie series), so he comes across as a bit fatherly. I think, particularly with the kids on their first show, I want them to stay kids and not lose that joy. I protect them.
Q: Did you feel the danger of losing your own joy during your ascent?
A: There were times when I was making the first “X-Men,” my first big American movie, when I felt pretty lonely. I was mainly coming from the theater, and you could get that feeling of “Hmm, it’s a bad taste in the mouth”. I don’t know exactly when things changed, but when the studio said they liked what I was doing, I could feel everyone flocking to me. It saddened me. I realized that cinema was more individual, less of a group. The theater thrives and has to have a whole feeling, or it dies. There’s just no way to get through rehearsals, or eight shows a week, unless you support each other.
So ever since that first movie, I’ve been pretty proactive in trying to create an open and supportive atmosphere. I want to make sure that even under the pressure of a professional situation, these kids stay kids.
Q: You said you were hesitant to do “The Music Man” because you wanted to wait to find an original piece. What changed?
A: Every time I went to the theater at school, I wanted to see something new. I wasn’t someone who was into musical theater desperate to see this version of it, I just wanted to see something great that would move me, and more often than not, it was the new plays that had that effect on me.
When I found myself in a position where people were asking me what I wanted to do, I wanted to use that capital for something new. I tried to get some things going that didn’t happen: a “Houdini” musical, some “Big Fish” workshops, and I learned how difficult it all was. Then “Showman” was eight years in the making, and that’s when it hit me: okay, “The Music Man” is a great show. It’s beautifully written, beautifully structured, and I knew I had to do it. I’d still love to do something original on stage.
Q: And make a new version from scratch? A gender swap in the style of “Hello, Dolly!” maybe?
A: I think it would be fun, I’m totally up for it. Sutton and I joked about doing an April Fools’ Day prank and swapping roles. I certainly know their songs; I listen to them every night. But my soprano voice is not that good.