Hugh Jackman Is Back on Broadway in The Music Man, And Not a Moment Too Soon

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Most of the earth’s citizens know Hugh Jackman as a big-screen action hero and romantic leading man—a movie star like they used to make them. But as he confessed to the audience during his 2011 one-man show Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway, “I kind of like being onstage singing and dancing a little bit more.” Now, Jackman is once again back on Broadway, starring in a bliss-inducing revival of The Music Man, Meredith Willson’s wry and tuneful fable about a traveling flimflam man who meets his Waterloo and the love of his life in small-town Iowa.

As we slog through the winter of our discontent into year three of the pandemic, we need a little Hugh Jackman—not to mention his incandescent costar Sutton Foster—to banish our cares. And this gleamingly produced, unapologetically old-fashioned, feel-good musical comedy is just the ticket. It’s also a role that Jackman has wanted to play for years, and he describes the exhilaration of performing again for a live audience as “like being shot out of a cannon.”

An immediate smash when it opened on Broadway in 1957, The Music Man was a deliberate throwback to a vanished era. Set in 1912, with book, music, and lyrics by Willson, it was the author’s valentine to his home town of Mason City, Iowa (renamed River City in the show), and to the all-American music that he played as a young flutist in John Philip Sousa’s marching band. It follows the exploits of “Professor” Harold Hill (Jackman), a con man posing as a traveling salesman, who drops into town to sell the locals on the idea of a boys’ marching band—along with the necessary uniforms and instruments—by exploiting their optimism, vanity, ignorance, and fear (in this case of the corrupting influence of pool playing). The town’s sharp-tongued, resolutely single librarian and music teacher Marian (Foster) spurns Hill’s advances and sees through his ruse. But they end up falling for each other, and Hill gives up his swindling, vagabond ways to settle down with her and organize the boys into a real, if terrible, marching band.

Willson famously wrote more than 30 drafts of the show over eight years before The Music Man made it to Broadway. But, with such numbers as “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Ya Got Trouble,” and “Till There Was You,” the show won five Tony Awards, beating out West Side Story for best musical, and making its lead, Robert Preston, a star. Preston went on to reprise the role in a 1962 film version, and the show has since been revived with Dick Van Dyke and Craig Bierko, been turned into a TV movie with Matthew Broderick, and performed, with varying degrees of skill, at countless high schools across the country.

Jackman, when we speak, seems to have studied The Music Man with the exactitude of a Shakespearean scholar, and that may be because he made his stage debut in a production of the show at his all-boys high school in Sydney. (It was a chance, he says, to meet girls.) “I was Salesman Number 2,” Jackman tells me. After a pause, he adds, stoically, “David Anderson was Harold Hill.” I jokingly ask, “Yeah, but where is he now?” and Jackman tells me that he went on to become prime minister of Australia. For a second, largely thanks to his flawless deadpan and my hazy knowledge of Australian politics, I believe him. Whatever Jackman may have lacked vis-à-vis a young David Anderson, by the time he got cast in Trevor Nunn’s 1998 revival of Oklahoma! at London’s Royal National Theatre, he had clearly upped his game. With only leading roles in Melbourne productions of Beauty and the Beast and Sunset Boulevard under his belt, Jackman gave a star-making performance, establishing himself as a one-of-a-kind musical-­theater actor in the classical tradition, who nonetheless felt completely of the moment, with seemingly effortless charisma and a hint of mischief. As The Music Man’s choreographer, Warren Carlyle, recalls: “From the first minute of Oklahoma!, it was clear that he was born to be on the stage. He fills that space like nobody else.”

And yet, Jackman’s musical appearances on the boards have been limited—it turned out that his star quality translated to the screen (and the box office), as he has demonstrated in no uncertain terms, starting with his feral turn as Wolverine in 2000’s X-Men, and its various sequels. He won a 2003 Tony for his high-wattage portrayal of the Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz and cemented his reputation as the greatest song-and-dance man of his generation with his 2011 one-man show, which he revamped and took on a world tour in 2019. But otherwise, Jackman’s musical comedy career has been largely speculative: He’s been attached to various stage musical projects that never came to pass, notably one about the life of Houdini, and it’s seemed as though every announcement of a new production came with a not-so-veiled hint that Jackman would be its star. Through it all, people kept telling him that Harold Hill was the perfect role for him, and he kept brushing the idea aside. Then, one morning a few years ago, he says, “I woke up and was literally like, Why haven’t I done The Music Man? And so I rang my agent, and he’d just had a call that day about it. And so it sort of felt as if it were meant to be…. Now, I’m a little mad at myself for putting it off so long.”

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