Cheyenne Jackson: A New Year’s celebration with a classic overachiever
By Peter Marks,
NEW YORK — On a Wednesday in mid-November, Cheyenne Jackson woke up knowing he was one of the stars of a Broadway show. Twenty-four hours later, he knew he wasn’t.
Them’s the breaks in showbiz. Ah, well. C’est la vie. Or, as Jackson tweeted to 77,000 followers on the day that the mostly unpleasant reviews of “The Performers” came out: “OB-LA-DI, OB-LA-DA.” That also happened to be the day the producers announced that “The Performers” would be closing that very weekend, making the potty-mouthed comedy — a “perky account of innocents in porn land” according to the New York Times — a true Broadway bomb.
But when you’re Cheyenne Jackson (who got much better notices than the playwright did), life most certainly does go on — and goes on pretty darn well. Have you seen him on TV or onstage lately? No? What, are you glued exclusively to C-SPAN? There he is on “30 Rock” playing Danny Baker, the handsome crooner and Liz Lemon hireling-with-benefits. Or maybe you caught the 37-year-old native of northern Idaho on Season 2 of “Glee” as Dustin Goolsby, the devilishly competitive coach of Vocal Adrenaline. Or as a guest dishing about the Real Housewives on “Watch What Happens Live!,” Andy Cohen’s catty late-night cocktail klatch on Bravo.
He’s done a considerable amount of Broadway (and off-Broadway): “Altar Boyz,” “All Shook Up,” “Xanadu,” “Finian’s Rainbow.” Next year, he pops up on the big screen as Liberace’s boy toy pool boy in “Behind the Candelabra,” a biopic directed by Steven Soderbergh, featuring Michael Douglas as the flamboyant pianist and Matt Damon as his longtime lover. And if this doesn’t provide you a clear enough portrait of Jackson’s entertainment-world hegemony, perhaps you’ll want to sample the forthcoming (and aptly titled) “Drive,” his album of original songs.
Or: You could join him in Washington on New Year’s Eve, where he’s commandeered the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for “Cheyenne Jackson . . . Music of the Mad Men Era,” a facsimile of the concert of pop songs and standards he performed a year ago at — wait for it — Carnegie Hall. (The National Symphony Orchestra Nina Arianda, a Tony winner last season for “Venus in Fur,” will be along, too.)
If it’s still premature to pin down precisely how far along the path to widespread acclaim Jackson might travel, we know for certain that he’s got farther to go. Sitting caddy-corner from him in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, one perceives the self-confidence, the sense of a guy who’s had his fair share of career advancement and positive reinforcement. And who’s hungry for more. “You think you reach a modicum of success,” he is musing, over a plate of greens. “Alec Baldwin said to me, ‘We all have to wait in line. It’s just for some of us, the lines are shorter.’ ”
Jackson is so easy to talk to that you hardly notice the way he slips into what might politely be called celebrity referencing, as he did with Baldwin, the comic behemoth of the soon-to-conclude “30 Rock.” He mentions over the course of a meal acquaintances with pianist Michael Feinstein and jazz singer Sia, newsman Anderson Cooper, TV star Matthew Morrison and actress Laura Benanti, and just as you think of making note of the pattern, he self-effacingly acknowledges a penchant for name-dropping.
It all must feel pretty remarkable, though, given the late start he made in a business in which it’s not unheard of to be washed up at 25. Jackson didn’t arrive in New York until he was 27. Before that he had a whole other life, selling advertising in Seattle, where he lived with his partner, Monte Lapka, a physicist. They married last year and now reside in Chelsea. Possessed of a naturally fine voice — he was in the choir in high school but had had no formal vocal training — he gravitated to regional theater and got to understudy musical-theater actor Marc Kudisch in a production of “The Prince and the Pauper” in Minneapolis.
Kudisch told Jackson he’d help him with contacts if he ever wanted to try New York. A short time after the events of 9/11, he decided to stop contemplating the career change, and attempt it. “I had no fear,” Jackson says. “I was like ‘Here I am: Take me or leave me. I’m really good.’ ”
This is a winning strategy only if you a) really are really good and b) look like Cheyenne Jackson. For instance: Tina Fey, creator and star of “30 Rock,” went to see “Xanadu,” a well-received Broadway spoof of a seriously bad Olivia Newton-John movie, in which Jackson portrayed a dimwitted beach bum who falls for a Greek goddess. During the backstage greeting ritual afterward, Fey wanted to say hello. “She came up to me and said, ‘Why don’t you come up to my office? I want to gauge your interest.’ ”
“ ‘Gauge my interest?’ ” Jackson recalls, laughing. It’s the kind of break that doesn’t happen to mere mortals. Then again, every actor learns that there is no such thing as a magic touch. “I’ve booked seven pilots in seven years,” Jackson says, noting that not one of these tryout television programs have been picked up by the networks.
Broadway is nothing like a sure thing, either. Jackson was still in early psychological bounce-back mode when he sat down for this conversation shortly after “The Performers” shuttered, which occurred just four days after it opened. “It was the funniest script I read in years,” he says, in a tone conveying both acceptance and bewilderment. “It hurts for sure. You can’t help but feel bad about it. It was arguably the best work I’ve ever done.”
So much for that. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da. No one should worry for Cheyenne Jackson. That very day, he was waiting for a call about a part in another film. And just as lunch was concluding, his cell phone rang . . .
New Year’s Eve at the Kennedy Center:
Cheyenne Jackson . . .
Music of the Mad Men Era
Dec. 31 at 8:30 p.m., Kennedy Center. Tickets, $55-$150. Visit the Kennedy Center or call 202-467-4600.