Hugh Jackman’s persuasive. That’s his inexplicable secret. Obviously, it doesn’t hurt that he combines the qualities of a born song-and-dance man—oh, those lanky dancers’ legs, those soulful eyes, that alluringly sweet half-smile, the easy grace of those long arms, that infinitely flexible and energetic pelvis—with the screen-fostered aura of a Hollywood action hero. But that’s not the source of his 100 percent persuasiveness. Even the proud yet slightly abashed modesty with which he wears his Australian heritage is only an additional flavored topping on the showbiz super-sundae of his performance: He seems to enjoy implying, in his patter, that he’s merely an ordinary Aussie boy with exceptionally good luck. If he’s an ordinary Aussie boy, George M. Cohan was an Irish potato.
No, Jackman’s remarkable gift is some innate ability to carry conviction, no matter what material he performs or how lightly he treats it. He can dish a song like “Fever” by tossing in a jokey ad lib after the very first phrase, and still make the audience concentrate on the song. He can dice songs into small bits, or hash them into medleys that sound more like computer-generated random samplings, and still make you feel that you’re getting musical value—or at least, Hughsical value—for your money. He can be hokey, kitschy, trivially chitchatty, or nakedly manipulative, and still send a packed Broadway house home thinking they’ve had a great time and been in touch with greatness. The man who can plead the case of Australian aboriginals by bringing four of them on to accompany him in—wait for it—“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” must surely be able to get away with anything. If he ever thinks of running for office, the opposing party will be in real trouble.
The ultimate proof of Jackman’s persuasiveness is that his current Broadway show—called, naturally, Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway (Broadhurst Theatre)—would, if performed by anyone else, barely even exist. Despite the high-quality names of its designers—John Lee Beatty (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes), and Ken Billington (lights)—its visual elements are minimal and unremarkable. There are six backup singer-dancers, attractive and skillful young women, but nobody looks at anything except Hugh.
There’s a decent-sounding band, led by Patrick Vaccariello, but the arrangements they play, credited to a dozen hands, sound like they were made by a marching-band music librarian with a glue pot. The songs come, mostly, from a trunk full of tried-and-true items: a New York medley, a Peter Allen medley; a movie-musicals medley (mainly featuring songs from MGM films but inexplicably performed, for the most part, under a projection of the 20th Century Fox logo). The only mild surprises are an unfamiliar, intriguingly pensive Peter Allen song, “Tenterfield Saddler,” enshrined separately from the medley of Allen’s hits, and a fleeting phrase, in a manic string of songs about dance, from the World War II novelty “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry.”
If some improbable coincidence removed Hugh Jackman from this tenuously linked collection of old hats and put someone else in his place—insert the name of whatever living celebrity you choose—the likelihood of that unfortunate person holding the audience’s attention would be near zero. Nobody around has Jackman’s distinctive, mysterious ability to hold attention and to compel belief. Yes, he can sing and dance excellently; yes, he has style and flair; yes, he’s good-looking and sexy. And, yes, he understands thoroughly how to market these highly salable qualities to the max. But that isn’t the whole story, somehow. Some people just have that innate ability to make others pay attention and take heed. Whether they themselves believe what they’re saying or not hardly matters. In show business, such people are called stars.