Of the few people in the world who can say they’ve led both box-office-toppling action films and award-winning works of musical theatre, Hugh Jackman is probably one of the most nonchalant about his accomplishments. The actor, who turned 50 this year, just announced a global arena tour off of the success of his latest film, The Greatest Showman, but admits he is still “a little nervous” about such a big live production — which will be all but a one-man world show.
Ahead of the tour — which begins next summer and has tickets going on sale this Friday — Jackman sat down with Rolling Stone to chat about what audiences can expect to see on stage, as well as his inspiration for the show, his favorite modern performers (Eminem and Janelle Monáe among them) and his still-lingering surprise about how a musical about a circus impresario became one of the most successful projects of his career.
Tell us about the genesis of this solo arena tour. Where did the idea come from?
In 2003, I was going on Broadway and the producer said, ‘You’re crazy not to have an album.’ So I found myself in a recording studio with some amazing people, but I was in the studio because someone said I should do an album, not because I had anything to say — so it was terrible. I hated it. I begged them and said, “Sorry guys, I’m just going to stop. I’m going to put together a show and I’m going to perform it, and on the back of that I’ll see if I want to do an album.” That’s when I had the first idea of putting it together. It was 2011 when I first did [a solo show] on Broadway, and this show is an evolution of that. The material keeps on changing and it keeps evolving. I’ve turned 50; there’s more stories to pull from. But it’s a work in progress.
The spotlight will be entirely on you. How are you preparing?
I’ve got to tell you, I’m never happier than when I’m rehearsing or workshopping or when I’m doing the show. So basically between now and the show, this is all I’m doing. I push myself — I try to do things I don’t think I can do. And I sing and dance every day, and that allows me to sort of relax when I’m up there.
Is there one thing you’re particularly excited about for the show?
I’m really excited about songs from The Greatest Showman, because I know a lot of people connected to that film. When we were getting the film up, we did workshops with 60 or 70 people in the room, so I know these songs work theatrically. But it’s not ‘The Greatest Showman Live.’ We’re going to sing probably four or five songs from that, and it’s the same with Les Mis. Also, I just feel I have in the last few years developed a slightly different perspective on life, and I’m really excited to share that.
“I think I used to be more obsessed with perfection — and a little constrained by the idea of making everything perfect. I’ve kind of let go of that”
How do you mean?
I think I used to be more obsessed with perfection — and a little constrained by the idea of making everything perfect. I’ve kind of let go of that and I’m having a lot more fun, I think. On stage, you have to connect to every single person there; I just want people to feel like they saw something on that night that could only happen in there, and that it’s not a cookie-cutter performance, and that there’s something fresh. I can break off, start talking, ad-lib, tell different stories. I might talk about my day, I might sing a song I’ve never sung before.
What are you most apprehensive about?
If I hadn’t done arenas before, I wouldn’t believe you could feel intimacy and create a show that is theatrical in arenas; my show’s very eclectic and I do some Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, some more upscale numbers. But a little part of me still can’t believe I’m announcing an arena show. So until tickets are sold, I’ll probably be a little nervous.
What do you expect the audience to be like?
I think it’s going to be a real mixed bag.
You’ll have your Greatest Showman family enthusiasts, and then your Wolverine-obsessed teen boys.
Well I don’t know how many Wolverine fans will turn up, but I hope they do! And I do tell a few stories about Wolverine; I’m going to share some things people don’t know about it. But I am sharing every part of my life. There’s no Wolverine kick line, let’s be clear. I’m amazed at how eclectic the following I have is. The Greatest Showman has surprised me, because I get a lot of young kids now. I look forward to creating a show that somehow connects with everybody.
Did you expect The Greatest Showman to —
No, nobody expected it! There was one person to believe that [it’d get so big], and that was the director Michael Gracey. Seven or eight years ago he said, ‘I’m telling you, we’re going to make a movie where people are going to see you in a way they’ve never seen before, it’ll be the top movie replayed every Christmas.’ I wanted to believe him, but I had doubts.
When the movie opened, I think it was at the time the second-worst wide release of all time. I remember the New York Times did a story later saying, ‘Clearly you all disagree with our review. Tell us why.’ They said they’d never had so many people write in. The people who loved it, loved it. I’ve never been stopped on the street so much in my life.
What do people say when they stop you?
‘I’ve seen it 12 times.’ A lot of people cry. Someone who really touched me was Pink. When I saw her backstage, she grabbed me by the shoulders and said ‘This movie meant so much.’ The movie is about accepting yourself, dreaming big and going through life with a sense of wonder and magic and gratitude. I think that’s something that hit the zeitgeist. It hit a certain vein. Now people are going to sing-alongs and the movie has never even gone off cinemas, I think still playing on 66 screens last week. The story itself is about a man who believed in something no one else believed in, so it’s kind of incredible how art has imitated life.
Do you have a good track record of predicting how big a film is going to be?
No. No one, including me, expected the first X-Men to do what it did.
The Greatest Showman is a little similar to The Prestige, in that it simmered into a cult phenomenon.
Yeah, The Prestige — at the time, I was like, wow, I’m so proud to be a part of this film and Nolan has done an amazing job and there’s Bowie and and Michael Caine — but a movie called The Illusionist had come out a few months before, so… But now that’s another one. I get stopped for that movie a lot. People say ‘I loved you in that movie, I’ve watched it five times.’ They go back to it again and again because there are so many Easter eggs. So, we don’t know.
Performers always say that you can get off stage and go, ‘That was terrible,’ and the director will come up to you and tell you that was your best one. And you go, ‘What!’ That’s the confounding thing about this job. There are some times you think that felt great, you leave auditions feeling like you got that one, and they’re like, ‘No thanks.’ But I suppose that’s what keeps us coming back for more.
Let’s talk about the music itself, for your show. Now that it’s been a year since the film came out, you’ve had time to sit with the music. Will you be changing any of the songs? Updating them?
That’s a really good question. We’re just working on that right now. For some of the duets, we’re thinking of bigger dance numbers, or doing something different with the orchestrations. Because now, we are singing a bunch of songs from The Greatest Showman because that’s a part of my life, but it’s not ‘The Greatest Showman Live,’ I’m not coming out in a red coat and a hat and all of that. But I understand people want to hear those songs and I can’t wait to give it to them. Keala [Settle] is going to come out and sing a bunch of the shows with me, but she can’t do all of them because she’s in such high demand, which I’m thrilled about. But she’ll do some, and I’ll let people know closer to the time.
What about songs from Les Mis? Will they have a twist? What are you envisioning?
We’ll certainly be doing some kind of medley for Les Mis. I also want to get some guests in. I haven’t even asked them yet, but I’d love to get someone like Phillip Quast to come and do something. I think there’s ways to do some of those songs in a way — I don’t know if I want to re-orchestrate because the orchestrations are so beautiful, but maybe give them to people in a way they haven’t heard before.
And you’ll have a full orchestra behind you on stage.
It’s a full orchestra. Right now we’re discussing whether it’s 26 or 34 people. That’s going to come down to probably someone saying, ‘Dude, you can’t afford that!’ But I love being with live musicians and I love being with full orchestra.
Who are the musicians and performers today who inspire you the most? Who’s the most interesting artist to you?
Enimem and Jay-Z are amazing. Both have very different energy. Beyoncé. Timberlake is one of the great live performers. I saw Michael Jackson. Colin Hay, who used to be the lead singer of Men at Work — if you ever want a masterclass about how to keep an audience in the palm of your hand, he’s incredible. Sometimes he’ll stop halfway through a song and break into a story. I think Janelle Monáe is astonishing. I just saw her recently perform. Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga. I get inspiration from so many performances.
Is there other music for you on the horizon, in this show or otherwise?
I really want to do some original music for this show. I’m hoping to have written something that I can perform. I really want to write with Justin [Paul] and Benj [Pasek], who did The Greatest Showman and Dear Evan Hanson, the musical — I love Dear Evan Hanson and I would love to do a song from that as well — and I’m literally doing all those workshops now, deciding what all the material is going to be.