Broadway stars might be thought of as extinct creatures from a bygone era of entertainment. But reports of this species being wiped out are greatly exaggerated.
At the moment on Broadway, two nuclear-powered performers with avid theatrical followings are beaming bright in classic American musicals. One can set off an earthquake in ticket sales even in the midst of a pandemic; the other can go viral by giving a tour of her basement, snatching a cellphone out of the hands of an audience member or simply being the subject of a hilarious send-up.
Hugh Jackman stars in “The Music Man” at the Winter Garden Theatre in a production built entirely around his overpowering charisma and box-office muscle. His co-star, two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster, is prominently featured on the marquee. But when Jackman appears on Broadway, he is the sun around which all other celestial bodies revolve.
Patti LuPone isn’t the lead in the new revival of “Company” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Katrina Lenk plays Bobbie in the gender-swapped version of this Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, directed by Marianne Elliott. But there’s no confusion about who the audience is there to see. Even when LuPone is just shimmying along with the ensemble, her magnetism is as incontrovertible as a natural law.
Jackman, a movie idol and showman who came into international prominence playing Curly in Trevor Nunn’s Royal National Theatre production of “Oklahoma!,” and LuPone, a Juilliard-trained actor whose Broadway coronation dates back to her Tony-winning tour de force in “Evita,” have traveled different paths to stardom. Jackman is a global brand; LuPone is more of an artisanal specialty. But when they make their stage entrances, the applause is similarly thunderous.
The relationship an audience has to a Broadway star is all the more intense for being in-person. Knowing a body in space, the parabolas of certain gestures, the side angles of expressions, the timbre of a wisecrack, the mood of a certain strut lend an illusion of kinship. What is shared is not blood but theatrical time, a meaningful measurement of life.
I’ve been lucky enough to have seen LuPone in a number of landmark musicals (“Gypsy,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Anything Goes”), and was champing at the bit to catch her in “Company.” The adventurous production was of course a major draw. But I was dying to see what she’d do with Joanne, the role originated by Elaine Stritch, who long owned the character’s acidulous second-act number, “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
Jackman may not have the Broadway longevity of LuPone, but he’s too much of an insider to be treated as a Hollywood carpetbagger. The Australian superstar, world-famous for playing Wolverine in the “X-Men” franchise, won a Tony for playing Peter Allen in “The Boy From Oz,” received a special Tony for his contributions to the Broadway community and picked up an Emmy Award for hosting the Tonys, a service he’s performed with aplomb on several occasions.
Broadway star power of Jackman’s or LuPone’s magnitude can’t be hidden under a bushel. But deploying it in the service of something greater than a star vehicle can be tricky when theater customers are clamoring for a fix of their idol.
Jerry Zaks’ determinedly sunny production of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” is content to serve as an assignation between a megastar and his legion of fans. Orchestra seats, which sell for upwards of $600, might as well be marketed as honeymoon suites for this Broadway tryst.
Jackman plays Harold Hill, the con man who hoodwinks the good citizens of River City, Iowa, into believing that he can transform their untrained youngsters into a professional-grade marching band. “Professor” Hill peddles a crackpot theory claiming practice is no longer required for mastering a musical instrument.
Before he’s exposed as a fraud, he plans to be on a train to his next destination with the fees for uniforms and lessons safely in his possession. Suspicious, morally upright and conspicuously single Marian (a strangely muted Foster) sees through his charlatanism, but she is moved by the warmth of his act and the positive effect it has on her community.
In an era when a snake-oil salesman can become president, “The Music Man” seems ripe for deconstruction. But this production is too eager to please to bother with the dark shadow of Donald Trump.
The impetus seems to be to celebrate being back in the theater. Zaks, who scored a huge success with the mood-elevating 2017 revival of “Hello, Dolly!” starring Bette Midler, indulges the sentimental heart of “The Music Man” by allowing Jackman to turn Harold Hill into a completely dashing, utterly lovable, versatilely entertaining crook.
Throwing off sparks like a Roman candle, Jackman turns the character into a romantic hero who just needs the love of a good woman to set him on the straight and narrow. It’s not an especially incisive interpretation — there’s little chance of restless Harold settling for good in River City — but it allows a born charmer to run through his rakish repertoire.
The production swoons over Jackman — and with good reason. The words “fighting trim” don’t do justice to his level of fitness. The lines on his face may be slightly more pronounced, but they appear to be (along with the rest of him) sculpted by Michelangelo. Dressed as a drum major in gleaming white for the finale, Jackman could outshine a fairy-tale prince.
His nasal-sounding baritone may be the only mortal thing about him. But even when his voice starts to fray, he looks like he could tap dance all night. No one can say he doesn’t earn his adoration. After an exhausting performance, he expended a few thousand more calories raising money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Still, I was one of the few who didn’t come expressly for “The Hugh Jackman Show.” “The Music Man” has never been among my favorite American musicals, but I was curious to see what could be done with this old chestnut at a moment when scam artists are threatening to take over the world.
A generous performer, Jackman clearly has as much affection for his fellow ensemble members as he has for his audience. But if everyone in the production were to shine as brightly as he does, the lights in the theater would go out.
Marian is the opposite of a showboat, but Foster dims her radiance more than is necessary. If she doesn’t seem ideally cast, it’s perhaps because the musical numbers call for a soprano of higher range than she can accommodate.
“Till There Was You,” the song Marian sings after succumbing (despite her better judgment) to Harold’s seductive spell, is still lovely. But Foster’s psychology is murky. The only epiphany is that Jackman is irresistible.
Marian, dear, get in line.
Elliott’s production of “Company” is a far more rigorous reconsideration. The revival doesn’t center around LuPone, though she becomes its nexus for the simple reason of her virtuosity.
Her LuPone-ness is no more erasable than Jackman’s Jackman-ness. If anything, she has grown more comfortable in her Broadway divinity. But her reverence for Sondheim amplifies her talents. She makes herself larger by submitting to a musical vision larger than herself.
There’s been some debate about the effectiveness of turning Bobby, the show’s marriage-averse 35-year-old male protagonist, into Bobbie, a 35-year-old woman who’s just as much a commitment-phobe. I’m not sure that casting alone can accomplish such a significant shift without more extensive rewriting.
Heresy though it may be to say, “Company” could use an adaptation. Bobby/Bobbie remains a question mark, and Lenk’s permanent sphinx-like smile only makes the character more frustratingly vague. Furth’s book is lumpy, and once again I found myself at a revival of “Company” wishing we could fast-forward to the unfailingly brilliant musical numbers.
This 1970 show belongs to the period in which it emerged, but Elliott’s reworking exists in a temporal limbo. Gay marriage is the law of the land and Bobbie swipes through photos on her phone, but NYC bachelorhood still seems redolent of smoky singles bars and divorce carries the heavy stigma of yesteryear.
When the cast is in full musical swing, however, all these niggling issues fall by the wayside. Actors and audience comfortably convene in the theatrical present.
LuPone has two big numbers, both of which anatomize the ambivalence of married life: “The Little Things You Do Together” in the first act and “The Ladies Who Lunch” in the second. She also motors around with the chorus of Bobbie’s advice-giving friends, becoming one with the music and a generational bridge that leads directly to Sondheim.
For “The Ladies Who Lunch,” LuPone sits on a barstool in a white fur coat with a drink in her hand and wicked mischief in her eyes. Her defiant stillness exerts a gravitational force. Never has anyone delivered cynicism with such sedentary dazzle. But more than that, she clarifies the intention of the song. Joanne doesn’t want her unmarried friend to sacrifice the lonely freedom of singledom for the double-edged sword of marriage.
LuPone’s rendition of the song eclipses the finale that follows. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who wished that “Being Alive” would be reassigned to Joanne, so that we could find out what LuPone would do with this Sondheim anthem on the agonizing necessity of human connection. But that would go counter to the spirit of a Broadway luminary who is at heart an ensemble trouper dedicated to artistic growth.
With his prodigious gifts, Jackman deserves a production that will challenge rather than indulge him. No one at “The Music Man” could feel cheated by his dynamic performance. But Broadway stardom of his caliber is too precious to fritter away on a star turn.