Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

The Music, man


Cheyenne Jackson to perform at Feinstein's

Cheyenne Jackson
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With a career spanning Broadway, television, film and concerts, actor-singer-composer Cheyenne Jackson and I mostly discussed his music, specifically his own, some of which he'll be performing at Feinstein's at the Nikko, January 10 and 11.

Bay Area fans may know the openly gay performer from his recent visits as a grand marshall at last year's LGBT Pride events, and his performance as Tony in the San Francisco Symphony's concert version of West Side Story.

TV viewers should know him for his role as Mark Bingham in the 9/11 drama United 93, as Danny Baker, the hapless Canadian cast member of TGIF on the comedy show 30 Rock, as the show choir nemesis Dustin Goolsby on Glee, and in the brief yet pivotal role as Liberace's outgoing "protégée" in the Emmy-winning HBO film Behind the Candelabra.

Those lucky enough to have visited New York City may have seen Jackson in any number of Broadway hit musicals, including Xanadu, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Altar Boyz, Aida, Damn Yankees, Finian's Rainbow and many other dramas and Off-Broadway shows. And let's not forget his two sold-out concert nights at Carnegie Hall with singer-pianist Michael Feinstein.

Which brings us back to the music. Although his acclaimed 2011 solo concert, Music of the Mad Men Era, focused on the hits of a bygone era, Jackson's concert this weekend is different.

"It's a totally new show, kind of an amalgam of new songs from my album, with some new covers and a few brand new songs," said Jackson in a phone interview. "This is definitely a different show than I've ever done before. I won't be wearing a tux."

Jackson's recent album, I'm Blue, Skies, includes songs about love and heartache, some of which is reflected in his own life. The 38-year-old singer's private life took on a public aspect in several ways last year, among them his divorce from a 13-year relationship with physicist Monte Lapka, and a new romance with actor Jason Landau.

"It was the worst year and the best year of my life, and I had to deal with that," said Jackson. "My singing is kind of my public therapy."

Among the songs that Jackson hinted that he'll perform at his Feinstein's concert are those which he co-wrote with long-time musical director Ben Toth, including "Don't Wanna Know," "She's Pretty, She Lies," and the album's title song, "I'm Blue, Skies."

Check out Jackson's official website and YouTube channel, and you'll discover some cinematic gems with the accompanying music videos, each with their own different style, from "Don't Wanna Know" and its gay romance dancing-in-the-streets Bjork homage, to the haunting "Don't Look at Me."

And although the retro-styled black and white "Before You" has a definite Halloween setting, Jackson said it was not inspired by the recent airing of the awkwardly funny TV revamp of The Munsters special (actually the show's pilot, which did not become a series). Jackson co-starred as a hapless scout leader.

"The music video had already been shot that before I worked on that show," said Jackson of the monster-filled coincidence. Yet like his diverse acting range, even in his music videos, like his comic roles, he's able to balance the sincere with the corny and comic.

Cheyenne Jackson in Xanadu

"The bottom line is, you have to believe in your character," he said, "whether it be something totally camp, or a completely dramatic scene where you've been told that your mother died. With Xanadu and 30 Rock, I've definitely played parts where I'm not the brightest bulb. But what you have to find is that they don't know that they're stupid. If you wink at it, there is a way to embrace the audience and embrace it without making fun of it. I don't want to play a cartoon. I worked really hard at making seemingly what could be a two-dimensional character into someone who actually lives."

Or lives again, as Jackson did as Rocky in the recent Fifth Avenue Theatre production of The Rocky Horror Show in Seattle. But what would seem to be a perfect role for the multi-talent wasn't well received by some.

"That was after Thoroughly Modern Millie," said Jackson. "I had done the show for a year, and was tired of Broadway. My friends warned me, 'You don't leave a hit show!' But I've lived in Seattle, and it sounded like a lot of fun."


Family Ties

The over-the-top transgender alien musical may be one show Jackson's family passed on seeing, despite their proximity. Born in Idaho, Jackson, the third of four kids, was named after the 1950s Clint Walker TV show Cheyenne by his parents, Evangelical Christians who raised their family in the small town of Newport, Washington. After coming out at age 19, Jackson's parents were understandably upset.

"They are wonderful, smart and informed people," said Jackson. "One of my brothers is a pastor in San Bernadino, too. Religion was a huge part of my life and my youth. I was moved by it and found value in it."

Perhaps one of the connections they shared helped. Jackson's parents taught he and his siblings music, folk music in particular.

Cheyenne Jackson in The Rocky Horror Show

"My parents are great, but it did take a while for them to adjust," he said. "One's parents need to mourn the idea of what they think you're going to be. Once we took a little sabbatical from each other, we later reconnected, and now we're great. I'm going to be 39 this year, so it's been 20 years that I've been out. My boyfriend Jason came to my family's house this Christmas. They love Jason; my parents have come so far. I hear people say 'my parents will never understand.' Well, my parents didn't. When we were young, on top of our TV, there was a sign that read, 'What Would Jesus Watch?' So basically, if my parents can do it, anyone's can.

"For us as gay people, we've come out and we feel free from a burden," he added. "But what we're also doing is putting the burden on them; parents, family, to catch up and understand."

2013 saw a record 70-plus celebrities come out, from broadcast journalist Robin Roberts to athletes like diver Tom Daley, figure skater Brian Boitano, soccer star Robbie Roberts and NBA player Jason Collins. And while, for those in the know, some were among 'the worst kept secrets,' it's marked a cultural shift, one that Jackson preceded by never being in the closet during his career.

Named Out magazine's Entertainer of the Year in 2008, Jackson has been a strong supporter of same-sex marriage (he performed in 8, Lance Dustin Black's stage adaptation of the Proposition 8 trial transcripts), he's a spokesman for New York's LGBT teen-supportive Hetrick-Martin Institute, and he was named as an ambassador for the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

And yet, being pegged as "the gay actor" is, he said, "initially something I struggled with. I didn't want to be known only as being gay. But I feel that enough time has gone by where I feel like my work speaks for itself. I'm a professional, and I'm good at my job. I like to think that we've all moved on enough to where you can see the person that's best for the part. I understand my role with the community and the responsibility that comes with that. But I wont be defined by that."



Which brings us back again to Jackson's own music, and the diverse aspects of each song. "She's Pretty, She Lies" features Jackson arguing with a woman in what appears to be a romantic confrontation. But Jackson hints at more.

"What does that girl represent?" he asks. "There are so many different ways to interpret that, but notice that the video is filmed backwards."

And while convincingly 'playing straight,' one of his career-changing roles was as the openly gay Bay Area-raised Mark Bingham. A cofounder of the San Francisco Fog Rugby Club, Bingham's heroic efforts and death on United flight 93 on September 11, 2001 have become an iconic aspect of our collective need for gay-inclusive representation, even amid a national catastrophe.

Cheyenne Jackson as Mark Bingham
in United 93

Jackson said that he knew a little about Bingham from news reports, but when he got the role for the TV film, "I got familiar about him, quickly. All of us in the cast were given information on the people we were playing. I knew that his mother Alice Hoglan had become a public speaker. That movie changed my life. It's a huge responsibility to portray a real person, particularly for people in San Francisco. So many people want to talk about Mark."

Jackson mentioned one scene that was cut from the film's final edit where Bingham's boyfriend, who played himself, dropped Jackon-as-Bingham off at the airport. "He was recreating a real moment in his life," Jackson said with a tone of amazement. "It was quite cathartic, to pay homage and honor him."

Obviously, such acting is a departure from some of Jackson's stage performances, which include everything from roller-skating hunks (Xanadu) to porn actors (The Performers).

Jackson's upcoming projects include the release of the film Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks in which he costars with veteran actress Gena Rowlands. That's one of only six films he's in that will be released this year. And Bay Area fans can enjoy another Davies Hall concert when he returns in July.

At his more intimate show this weekend, fans can enjoy a focus on his own songwriting.

"Music is everything to me," said Jackson. "It's become such a passion of mine. I'm even writing songs for other artists. This is just the beginning of tapping into what I love."


Cheyenne Jackson performs Friday, January 10, 8pm and Saturday, January 11, 7pm. $50–$65. Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason Street. (866.) 663-1063. Restaurant Anzu will also offer Feinstein's at the Nikko guests a special three-course prix-fixe dinner ($45 per person) prior to all performances. Reservations: (415) 394-1100.

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