Around the time of When Harry Met Sally, one of the newsweeklies anointed Harry Connick Jr. the new Sinatra. The publicist who sold that angle later confided to me that he often woke up a cold sweat, positive his ass was headed straight for hell. Now I’m hearing Jamie Cullum touted as the new Connick, which indicates today’s lower expectations. Unlike that annoying Brit, Connick has talent—more than he knows what to do with sometimes. As exasperating as he can be (all those gloppy orchestal albums and sticky attempts to go AOR), he’ll do something to remind me why I was once almost wild about Harry, and why I still am. Columbia allows him to release piano albums on other labels, and two fairly recent ones on Marsalis Music—Other Hours, featuring his quartet interpreting his score from a short-lived Broadway play; and Occasion, on which he holds his own against an inspired Branford Marsalis—reveal his surprising growth as a spiky, eclectic, Erroll Garner type. His duet with Wynton Marsalis on “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” was as moving a performance as I saw on television after Hurricane Katrina, and that includes even Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” and the Dixie Chicks’ “I Hope.” Since January, he’s been starring on Broadway in The Pajama Game, and even though his singing gets upstaged by the hairless chest and ridiculously overdeveloped lats and pecs he exposes to disbelieving gasps just before the final curtain, I’d say he’s finally found his niche.
Funny thing is, he sounds more like Capitol-era Sinatra on the show’s ballads that he did back when the connection was his primary selling point. You don’t mind—at least I didn’t on seeing a preview, and don’t now on hearing the cast album—because Connick is one of very few singers with enough cello in his larynx to come close. And given that 1954, the year of the show’s debut and the revival’s presumed setting, was also the year of Sinatra’s From Here to Eternity Oscar and first Nelson Riddle LPs—the final steps in his evolution from bobby-soxer idol to everyguy’s mobbed-up drinking buddy—Connick’s Sinatraisms seem like an actor’s conscious choice, a period detail in keeping with the knock on Joe McCarthy you can bet wasn’t in the original. Sinatra, in fact, was up for the male lead opposite Doris Day in the 1957 movie version; if he’d taken the role, there would have been no need to drop “A New Town Is a Blue Town,” an art song in disguise similar to “Only the Lonely” and others written for him by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen (though its inspiration was probably Frank Loesser’s “My Time of Day”). Connick delivers it beautifully, finding jazz shadings John Raitt missed in 1954.
Only Sinatra or a credible stand-in could reconcile the gender confusion in George Abbott and Richard Russell’s book and the Adler and Ross score. Sid Siorkin, Connick’s character, is offered up as ’50s beefcake, a factory boss willing to use physical intimidation to keep his assembly line rolling. Yet not only is his workforce largely female; the score assigns Babe, his union nemesis and love interest, the big production numbers, while he gets introspective ballads that let him pine—on “Hey There,” when he bickers and then harmonizes with his own prerecorded voice, it’s like he’s letting his feminine side lead a duet.
Barring an upset by the head mutant in the current Sweeney Todd, Connick will have been handed a Tony by the time you read this. I wasn’t even sure he’d get good reviews, and not just because his behind-the-beat phrasing is so unlike anything theater reviewers are used to. Especially in his love scenes with the pert Kelli O’Hara, he shows more intensity than a frothy musical comedy calls for; “he’s not supposed to look like he’s going to rape her,” my wife whispered just as I was musing about Stanley Kowalski. Ben Brantley lead his Times rave by saying how novel it was to sense genuine physical chemistry between the male and female leads in a Broadway musical—a discreet way of telling readers that here was one male lead who couldn’t possibly be anything but straight?
Gay sensibility plays as central a role in music theater as blackness does in jazz, except that whereas race often seems like all anyone in jazz ever talks about, issues of privacy render discussion of sexual identity as it pertains to the staging and enjoyment of Broadway spectacle taboo, at least in newspaper reviews. But it’s worth discussing in this context, because together with the ’80s AIDS epidemic and the imminent demise of the dowagers at Wednesday matinees, two generations of gay men who prefer dance clubs has sapped Broadway of both its creative juices and its former core audience. For some of us, the joy of a well-done revival is recalling a day when music theater was still a centerpiece of American popular culture. Ed Sullivan was a long time ago: The last regularly scheduled television show to present stars from classic Hollywood musicals and the latest Broadway hits was Fox News’s After Hours With Cal Thomas, hosted by the former communications director of the Moral Majority, who seemed clueless that fawning over Carol Channing made him look like a middle-aged mary. The musical has reached the same terminal stage as jazz, where I sometimes think the only young people interested are those hoping for a career in it.
But even if Connick is jumping from one sinking ship to another, I hope “Act 1,” Harry on Broadway’s subtitle, isn’t an idle promise. Broadway needs his star power, and he’s always needed a bigger stage. His ballads are the main reason for owning the Pajama Game disc; the rest of the score loses its charm without the choreography. The package includes a second CD of Connick and O’Hara doing songs from Connick’s Thou Shalt Not—smoky numbers better served as instrumentals on Other Hours, where you don’t have to get around lyrics like “I surrender to love, in which I fell.” Just say he’s a better composer than a songwriter. And the next best thing to Sinatra in The Pajama Game.