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Cheyenne Jackson On His New Cabaret Show, Husband & Life: 'It's So Lovely'

Cheyenne Jackson On His New Cabaret Show, Husband & Life: 'It's So Lovely'

Photo by Danielle Levitt for Out

Velvet-voiced Cheyenne Jackson is one of those performers who have an uncanny knack for elevating moods and quickening pulses. A Broadway leading man (Xanadu, Finian’s Ranbow), he’s also worked in movies (Love Is Strange, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks), and TV (Glee, 30-Rock). But it’s in a cabaret setting that he gets to drop the script and be himself, which is why I’m pinching myself to hear that Cheyenne is playing the Café Carlyle in New York City from January 13-24.

He’ll do so as a newly married man, having hitched up with Slant Promotions’ Jason Landau in September. (Jason’s Twitter tag is, “Building brands and marketing movies and TV by day…loving my husband and daughter Billie Jean by night.”) All of this good stuff merited a phone call, so I made the first move.

Michael Musto: Hi, Cheyenne. Will your Carlyle act consist of standards?

Cheyenne Jackson: There’ll definitely be some standards. I feel like I want to honor that world. There’ll also be some pop stuff I want to do. I’m doing a Lady Gaga song.

Ooh. Which one?

I want it to be a surprise.

“Lady is a Tramp”? I love what she’s doing with Tony Bennett.

Me too. And I’ll do a couple of originals, too.

This is your Carlyle debut, but you’ve done cabaret rooms before.

I’ve done Feinstein’s, Birdland, Hotel Nikko. The last year-and-a-half I’ve toured a lot. I like the whole idea that it’s you, not playing a character. You have to generate the evening with just you up there. Not “In this show, I sang this song” and “In that show, I sang that song.” That’s really boring to me. But bring your own stories and experiences. It’s like therapy for me.

Is your patter all pre-arranged?

I know what I want the evening to be about and what kind of experience I want to create. But I want to allow for the spirit to move me. That’s what I learned working with Michael Feinstein. Somebody drunk heckled him once and he handled it delicately and moved on. So you have to allow for the excitement of live performance.

At those prices, you’d think people would stay silent.

Well, sometimes it’s the alcohol talking.

You’ve worked with Australian singer/songwriter Sia. You were really on to her before the masses got wise.

We wrote maybe six songs together. I think I am doing one of those songs in the act. She’s nominated for four Grammies. And I’m nominated for Best Musical Theater Album for West Side Story.

Terrific. What’s more, you were recently in Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, based on the 2003 Broadway play. You played a dance instructor giving retired lady Gena Rowlands private lessons, leading to all kinds of banter and revelations. You stepped in after Sean Hayes dropped out?

His TV show got picked up and they needed a replacement quick, and they went to me. We shot the exteriors in Florida and the interiors in Budapest. When I think of a place doubling for Florida, I think Hungary. [laughs] The producers were Hungarian. It’s a very sweet movie and Gena Rowlands is amazing. She can’t give a false note. It’s invaluable to be able to spend time with an artist like that. And she’s hysterically funny. She’ll tell all the stories about her old costars.

I pray she writes a memoir someday. You also had a key role in Love is Strange, playing a gay cop who an older gay man [Alfred Molina] moves in with when he’s fired.

What’s so beautiful is it’s so small and you only have three weeks to create this, but John Lithgow and Alfred Molina were so delicious and generous. They had never worked together before, and they had to create a 40-year relationship in days. It was fantastic. We felt very close, the three of us.

You seem to be offered more varied roles these days than before.

It’s great that that’s happening—I think it’s come with age and experience.

You’re not just being treated as eye candy.

That’s definitely true. It was refreshingly different for me to be cast as a rapist opposite Patricia Arquette on CSI. Though I was talking to my mom and she said, “I like when you play nice guys.” [laughs]

Well, you are a nice guy, but in 2013, chatters on the gay gossip boards were going mad insisting you were having an early midlife crisis. You were divorcing your husband Monte Lapka, you shaved your head, and you were sporting tattoos. Was it just an evolution?

I got a divorce, and I got sober. I had a short haircut and there was like one picture where I had a mustache. That was coupled with the fact that I was in the middle of a divorce and I was getting sober—and it was too much for people’s heads. The last three years have been amazing. It was the next step in my life.

No regrets?

No, I have none.

The end of a long-term relationship has to take a toll on those involved. How did you get through it? With the help of friends?

Absolutely. Friends and family. You just do. It just happens, and you just get through.

Reading all that speculative chatter, you must have at least felt, “Well, I’m definitely a celebrity.”

I didn’t read all that when it was happening. I had friends who’d give me the gist. I got out of the habit of reading about myself several years ago, when I was in a Broadway show. I realized, “This is not doing any good.” It was a good habit to not read all the comments—and then everyone’s head exploded because I had a mustache!

Congrats on your marriage to Jason, by the way.

Thanks. Married life is just so lovely.  

What does he bring into your life?

Jason is so authentically himself in every situation in life. He challenges me to embrace the things in myself that I used to be self-conscious about and to celebrate them.   

One more thing: You were fun as the spurned lover in the HBO movie about Liberace, Behind the Candeladra. But there were rumors that you had more to do in the original cut, which was supposedly more explicit.

No, originally I actually had fewer scenes, but Steven Soderbergh kept adding more stuff. Like that cheating scene. He said, “I’m gonna put the camera on you and whatever you’re hearing, just react to it.”

You’re the only one on earth who was in Behind The Candelabra and the last episode of Smash on the same night.

That can go on my epitaph. [laughs]

>>>CLICK FOR PATRICK STEWART’S LATEST BISEXUAL TREK

Match Patrick Stewart

PATRICK STEWART’S LATEST TREK INVOLVES BISEXUALITY

Gay sex, homophobia, and issues of responsibility come up in Match, Stephen Belber’s adaptation of his own 2004 play. It’s about a married couple who go from Seattle to New York to interview a bisexual dance instructor/choreographer for a dissertation, though it turns out they have other motives up their sleeve as they pester the guy for details of his love life back in the 1960s.

On Broadway, the resulting work featured a rivetingly over-the-top performance by Frank Langella as Tobi, the flamboyant dance expert who’s not so adept at his own life moves. The movie becomes a showcase for Ian McKellen’s best friend Patrick Stewart in the same role, and Stewart is entertaining as he relates that he slept with everything in sight back in the day (“God, I used to love to perform cunnilingus!”) and touching as he finds himself cornered by a couple driven to extreme measures to get their information. (“It’s rare that I get to eat prune pastries with someone who helped orally violate me just a short time earlier, but such is the diversity of life.”)

Matthew Lillard plays the phobic cop filled with rage about unanswered questions, while Carla Gugino is his yearning and repressed wife who sees the good in Tobi. They’re fine, but it’s a bit creaky to base a drama on revelations from almost 50 years ago, as well as on Tobi’s awkward shifts from gregariously inappropriate to caring and full of advice. Still, Stewart’s Tobi is a welcome addition to filmdom’s colorful array of artistic mentor characters—and he’s nowhere near as nuts as J.K. Simmons in Whiplash, lol.

By the way, have you noticed the way pro-gay themes have subtly infiltrated family films? The Boxtrolls turned out to be about biases that develop against creatures who live on the edge on society, and how they’re misunderstood and demonized by the narrow minded. And Paddington serves the message that it doesn’t matter what any creature happens to be; if they’re loved and return the favor, they are family. And by the way, both films heavily feature a man in full drag!

GHOSTQ
GHOSTS IN THE MACHINE

Assuming the metaphorical shrouds of specters and apparitions, four performers are starring in Ghost Quartet, a hypnotic song cycle at NYC’s McKittrick Hotel (the avant garde complex where Sleep No More has tourists lining up for a silent, interactive leap into Shakespeare’s bad luck play). In Ghost Quartet, the emphasis is on life, afterlife, after parties, and the enduring allure of Thelonious Monk. Positioned around the living room-style space are two silver-throated women wielding various exotic instruments (Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell), a harmonizing guy with a cello (Brent Arnold), and a robust ringleader at a piano (Dave Malloy, who wrote the songs, as he also did for last year’s environmental hit Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812).

Their diverse numbers are beautifully performed turns which delight in the glory of storytelling and in the head spinning possibilities inherent in being dead. Just when you think some humor is called for, it arrives in a song about wanting to be a ghost—not a spook (“ ‘cause that word’s a little racist”) or a mummy (“I admit it, I’m an ageist”). It’s accompanied by the shaking of maracas and tambourines on the part of the audience, who also get to pass around booze bottles at another point, I guess to further their voyage into the netherworld. Less mirthful is the long sequence done in total darkness—except for the occasional blurry flickering of images—and the result is appropriately unsettling and pretty near traumatizing, though as you adapt to the lack of light, you realize you could survive as a ghost yourself. By the end, you’re convinced this show has quite an afterlife ahead of it. No one yelled “boo,” that’s for sure. (And Stephen Sondheim was there on opening night, since the show’s creators cite Into The Woods as an inspiration. I can report that he wasn’t singing “Agony” when it was over.)

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