Can Hugh Jackman Be the Savior Broadway Needs Him to Be?
His turn in "The Music Man" was a guaranteed smash. Now it’s a post-pandemic lifeline.
On September 17, all 41 of the theaters that make up Broadway were dark, just as they had been for the past six months during the pandemic. That’s roughly $900 million in ticket sales down the drain, not to mention the thousands of jobs, with no end to the bleeding in sight. The Broadway League had hoped to open theaters at the start of 2021, but that was never realistic; they’ve since extended the closure until at least May 30, and most experts don’t see the Theater District coming alive until at least the fall.
That Thursday in September was also the day that The Music Man, a Broadway revival of the classic musical, hung its gleaming new marquee over the Winter Garden Theatre. That includes a gargantuan billboard that looms over the block, stretching between Ellen’s Stardust Diner and a multi-story Applebee’s. Plastered right at the top, in bold blue letters above even the name of the show, is the name of its leading man: Hugh Jackman.
The show was originally scheduled to begin performances that month, so it may have been part of the original plan. On the other hand, the installation in the middle of a pandemic may have been an act of theatrical defiance, a manifestation of the industry’s rallying cry, “The show must go on!” But it seems to me that the signage, hoisted over desolate sidewalks in the heart of Manhattan, is more accurately a Bat Signal, calling the newly anointed savior of Broadway to save the day. (Or should we say Wolverine Signal?)
“Who better than Hugh Jackman to tell the world that we’re back in business?”
That’s Michael Riedel, whose Broadway column at the New York Post has enraptured and enraged theater lovers for decades. I like to think of him as a Sherlock Holmes or Artful Dodger of the Great White Way, someone who has eyes and ears everywhere (or, as they call them in his line of business, unnamed sources), so I dialed him up to get a sense of how bad the situation is on Broadway, and why the Australian movie star is the one who can lead them back.
First, a little groundwork for those who know Jackman mainly as a mutton-chopped superhero. His turn as Harold Hill in The Music Man (played by Robert Preston in the classic 1962 movie), alongside Broadway icon Sutton Foster, has been so highly anticipated that tickets went on sale in September 2019, a full year before previews were set to begin, and before the producers had even booked a theater. According to Riedel, the advance ticket sales were in ballpark of tens of millions of dollars.
“He is the biggest musical theater star on the planet right now, I would have to say,” Riedel acknowledges in no uncertain terms.
That may come as a surprise to some who think of him only as an A-list movie star whose film grosses can be measured in the hundreds of millions. But his theater chops go back to an iconic West End debut (London’s version of Broadway) in Oklahoma! in 1998 and miraculously winning a Tony Award for his Broadway debut in 2003’s The Boy from Oz even though the show itself was panned. These days, he’s the theatrical ambassador to Hollywood, keeping the live-action movie musical alive through classics like Les Misérables (for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination) and surprise new hits like The Greatest Showman.
“You just knew it was going to be one of those great Broadway opening nights,” Riedel says, describing the buzz around the show before the pandemic. “It would just catch the imagination of not only New York City, but also the country and beyond, because people want to see Hugh Jackman doing what he does best.”
But as the pandemic has held Broadway in its grip, with not even the minor summer respite that other industries received, opening nights like those are getting harder to remember. Some shows have been rescheduled, others, including Disney juggernaut Frozen, have announced they won’t be returning at all, and more are likely to follow. The cash cows and mainstays, like Hamilton and The Phantom of the Opera, have said they’re read to open whenever they’re given the green light, but Riedel doesn’t suspect those musicals will be the ones to revive Broadway.
“The first people to start going back to the theater are going to be New Yorkers,” he says, citing the forecasted slow return of tourism. “Are New Yorkers going to rush to see The Lion King? I think most New Yorkers have seen it. Are they going to rush to see The Book of Mormon? I think they’ve seen it. I actually think shows like Hugh Jackman in The Music Man or Patti LuPone in Company would be more enticing for New Yorkers, because that’s something new and different.”
Riedel intimately knows the storms Broadway has weathered, not just in his time reporting for the Post, but throughout history, having written about them in his critically acclaimed books Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway and the recent follow-up Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway, which ends by looking at the impact of September 11th.
“I thought a good subtitle for the book is ‘The Triumph of Broadway,’ because Broadway came back in a big way after what we thought was the existential crisis — 9/11,” he says. “Now, who knew we were going to face its real existential crisis? Being closed down for nine months, and probably not coming back until well into 2021.” Well, hopefully in 2021. The Music Man has essentially bet on another delay in Broadway’s reopening by slating its first preview for December 20, 2021 and opening night for February 10, 2022.
Even if it gets pushed back again, the dream team assembled for the show certainly won’t give up. Producer Scott Rudin, director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle, among others in the Music Man ensemble, all worked on a Hello, Dolly! revival in 2017 that starred Bette Midler, and they’re not stopping until they replicate that commercial and critical success on an even larger scale.
However, for some in the Broadway arena, this sort of no-expense-spared star vehicle had previously become a drag. Oh, another movie star coming to do a vanity project in a show that’s been done a million times? But in Hugh Jackman, we have that rare Hollywood leading man who takes his thespian duties seriously; as Riedel reported back in 2017, Jackman has long been searching for the perfect show to make his Broadway return, and after testing out new musicals and serious plays, he chose The Music Man — a show that marked his introduction to musical theater all the way back in high school, as he once told Jay Leno.
“I do know that, as they kept postponing and changing dates, he was essentially saying, ‘Look, when it can open, I will be there. I will rearrange whatever stuff I’ve got going — movies, TV shows.’” Riedel says. “He is a busy man, but he wants to be there when Broadway reopens.”
Besides the billboard over the Winter Garden, there have been other signs that Jackman is itching to get onstage. Co-star Sutton Foster, who will play Marian Paroo, told The New York Times in September that the two were set to run a two-week choreography rehearsal (Jackman is a New Yorker now, after all, so he’s around the city). And then in October, she posted a picture of them, masked up in a rehearsal room, on Instagram.
“If there’s anyone who can live up to the expectations, it’s Hugh Jackman,” promises Riedel. “His sense of the importance of Broadway to New York City will definitely be on his mind and in his heart when he opens the show. But you will never see that sense of purpose, because he wears it so lightly. I will be there for the first preview of the show, and I’ll be there for the opening night.”
Whether that happens a year from now, or well into 2022, you can bet Hugh Jackman will be there with a smile on his face and Broadway on his back. And whether or not the audiences previously considered themselves theater fans, Music Man fans or even a Hugh Jackman fans, they’ll no doubt find themselves standing on their feet.
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