INTERVIEW: CHATTING WITH “RENAISSANCE” MAN CHEYENNE JACKSON

CHEYENNE JACKSON HAS FOUND HIS CALLING.

Cheyenne-Jackson-CD-Cover-RenaissanceThe 40-year-old Broadway veteran, best known for his originating roles in shows like Xanadu and All Shook Up, is returning to his musical roots. On his new album, Renaissance, Jackson masterfully channels the classic crooners, jazz artists, and rock-and-roll stars of the 1950s and 60s. Paying homage to the music he was raised on, he has put his own twist on the greatest hits of the era. With this record, Jackson has passionately revived the American songbook with his stunning range and signature, soulful baritone voice.

Taking a break from filming the upcoming sixth season of American Horror Story, Jackson chatted with me about his new album, returning to Broadway, his thoughts on this year’s Tony Awards, being gay in the entertainment industry, and more.

What does the album’s title, Renaissance, signify to you?

Funny, nobody’s asked me that! I’ve definitely gone through a renaissance, or a rebirth if you will, over the last 4 years. These songs in particular are ones that I’ve toured for a while now. Everything has kind of culminated in this group of songs that have meant so much to me. Plus, my music teachers always called me a “Renaissance man,” and I just liked the idea of doing something old but also something new.

The album is adapted and expanded from your tour, “Music of the Mad Men Era.” Why does music from this time period resonate with you and what made you decide to record your own album interpreting these classics?

Strangely, this is the music that I grew up listening to. I was a 12-year-old in rural Northern Idaho who listened to Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald. For some reason, that’s the type of music that I was drawn to. I loved the feel of it. I loved the sound of it and it just seemed very natural to me.

As I’ve gotten older and as I’ve sung a lot of different things in a lot of different styles and genres, if I really get quiet and listen to what I like to do the best and what moves me the most, it’s this style of music. It’s the American songbook and it’s jazz in particular.

So for the last few years, touring this kind of music in clubs and in big performing arts centers just made sense. It made sense to want to record these songs. Most of them are ones I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of times. But because they’re such great, classic songs, as you get older and have more experience, the songs themselves morph and change and take on deeper meanings. That’s kind of how it all happened.

This era had so many incredible songs to choose from. How did you curate which ones were included on the record?

It was a really natural process. Like I said, having done a lot of these songs for years and years, I definitely don’t sing them the same as I did 4 years ago. I love that idea that it’s ever changing and morphing and that it can mean one thing one day and something else the next. When it came time to choose, I definitely wanted to pick songs that meant the most to me, and that would work within this linear story I’m trying to tell on the album.

All but one of the songs are ones that I’ve performed in concert before. “A Song For You” is the only one that’s a brand new song for me, but everything else is something I’ve done many, many times. I just tried to pick the best versions because some of these songs on the album are just maybe piano and drums, but in concert I do them with a full orchestra. And vice versa. So I really wanted to focus it.

In addition to all of the covers, the album also includes an original song that you wrote, “Red Wine Is Good For My Heart.” What’s the story behind that song? What inspired you to write it?

Thank you for asking because that is a very personal song to me. My grandma died a few years back due to complications from alcoholism. And, you know, I am an alcoholic and I’ve been sober for 3 years. It’s a huge part of my story. I wrote this song at my friend Michael Feinstein’s house a few years back and I was kind of struggling with the bridge. He came downstairs and I was like, “Sit down and write this song with me!” So we finished it up.

My grandma’s favorite thing to say was, “Well red wine is good for my heart!” She clung to that, but it was ultimately the thing that killed her. I also just wanted to honor her life and her relationship with her man of 30 years. It’s a deeply personal issue for me as well, so I wanted to mark that in some way.

Do you do you plan on going back on the road with another tour to celebrate the album?

Yes! Right now, I’m shooting season 6 of American Horror Story – which I don’t think they’ve announced yet so you may be getting an exclusive there. But yeah, once we’re done shooting this season, then I’m going to have some time to tour a bit. But right now we’re in the thick of it.

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Speaking of American Horror Story, what can you tease about this new season and/or about your character?

Literally zero! Wild horses couldn’t drag it out of me. We are absolutely sworn to secrecy.

What’s your favorite part about working with Lady Gaga? I know she’s coming back for the new season as well.

I would say my favorite thing is her passion. She’s one of those people that is so passionate about whatever it happens to be at that moment – whether she’s talking about jazz or if she’s talking about a film she loves. While we were shooting last season, she was obsessed with the documentary series, The Jinx. She was obsessed with Robert Durst and that whole story.

It’s just fun to be around somebody who is so committed to whatever they’re doing. So many people have so many things going on and so they become a little bit scattered. The thing about her is that she’s always all in. That’s cool to be around. It’s inspiring.

Vocally, how does singing the style of music on Renaissance differ from when you’re singing musical theater or the type of pop found on your previous solo album? And moving forward, do you plan to continue releasing records that are more along these lines?

I do and here’s why. I’ve really been searching my heart and my soul over the last several years because I just wanted to find my sound. What is it and what do I want to do? So if I really clear away everything else and just get quiet and listen to what it is that moves me, all I have to do is look back to what it was as a kid – and that’s this style of music. It’s the American songbook. It’s great melodies. It’s jazz.

I think for a long time, I resisted it, because maybe I thought it was a little bit nerdy. I just wanted to be a cool, edgy singer/songwriter. And honestly, even though I can write pop music and I’m pretty good at it, it’s not the thing that I’m supposed to be doing. What I know now is that this is the music that I’m meant to be singing. It’s the most natural fit. My voice has always been really old-fashioned. As a 15-year-old kid, my high school choir teacher was like, “What is happening with you with sound?” I had an old-fashioned, jazzy type sound. The phrasing, the intonation and the vibrato – all of it just naturally lent itself towards that. And I fought it for years! I wanted to be George Michael! I wanted to really try. Even though I can sing that stuff and I love it, if I really get honest, this is the stuff that I love more than anything else. And I guess I’m kind of coming out.

Honestly, I was talking to my husband about this last year when I was planning this album, and I was like, “I guess I have to just accept and come out with the fact that this is what I do.” It was kind of a breakthrough for me. It’s freeing actually.

You’re really establishing your artistic identity.

Yeah, exactly! And it only took me to 40. Whatever.

Recently, you reunited with your former co-star Kerry Butler to sing “Suddenly” from Xanadu (in full-costume!) as part of a charity benefit performance. If you could revisit and revive any character in your career, whom would you want to play again?

Good question! Well being able to do a little bit from Xanadu again was definitely towards the top of the list. That show was so important to me and to my career. As for who I’d like to revive? Danny from 30 Rock was a very fun character. He was so in-your-face clueless about life. I think it would be a fun thing to see what he’s doing now. And to see if he’s mastered saying the word, “about.”

The last time that you and I chatted, you mentioned that you wanted to make your New York stage return with an original musical as opposed to a revival. Do you still feel that way? And do you have any idea when your fans might be able to expect to see you on Broadway again?

I do still feel that way, for sure! More than ever, actually. Given the last two years on Broadway, and especially this last year, there’s just been so much incredible new material. I’ve got to say, when I saw Hamilton, I had heard so much about it and it was so hyped up. With something like that, you think, “There’s no fucking way this is going to live up to what people are saying.” And happily, it just exploded my expectations and exploded my brain. It shows what the power of musical theater can actually do. So yeah, more than ever I definitely want it to be something new. I have had a couple of offers to come back in the last couple of years for certain revivals, and it just hasn’t been the right fit. It has to be something that I just immediately say, “Yes!”

So yeah, I really don’t know. I don’t have anything on the immediate horizon. There are talks about some things that are a couple of years out. But I definitely try to come back every 6 months or so and do something. For example, doing The Secret Garden in concert at Lincoln Center recently was really fun.

That was incredible, by the way. I had such a great time at the show.

Thank you! I did too. For Ramin (Karimloo) and I, it was such a highlight. And Sierra (Boggess)! You know, I love Broadway and I totally do want to come back. It just has to be the right thing.

You just wrapped filming the movie adaptation of Hello Again alongside the likes of Audra McDonald and Martha Plimpton. What was that process like and how do you think this film will stand out from other contemporary movie musicals?

Another good question! Honestly, I don’t know how it’s going to stack up. This is the first movie musical that I’ve done and it was challenging in that we sang live.

Oh wow!

Yeah! We had little inner-ear things and we were singing to just a piano track. So we’re doing the scenes and we’re actually literally doing the song in the moment live. Which was cool from an acting perspective, but it was definitely challenging. I don’t know how it’s going to come across. I think it’s going to be cool.

It’s very experimental in terms of the scope and it’s very sexy. I mean, that’s what the whole movie is about – each person’s sexual connection and then that person with the next person with the next person with the next person. I had a really good time. Audra and I both did things on camera that we’ve never done before! You’ll see when it comes out. But we definitely just had to kind of go, “Okay, are we doing this? All right lets do it! 1, 2, 3, Go for it!” But yeah, it was a really fun cast. Martha Plimpton is fabulous and really good people. I’m anxious to see it and to see how it all comes across.

As an out gay man in the industry, what were your thoughts on the recent controversial interview that The Real O’Neals star Noah Galvin gave to Vulture about the glass closet in Hollywood?

Listen, I mean, everybody has their own experiences. He’s clearly sorry about what he said and redacted it and has gotten in trouble. I think he probably just got a little excited and I don’t believe in judging.

First of all, I don’t believe in outing anybody. And when people do decide to come out, it’s nobody’s business how they do it. I’ve been out for a long time now and I’ve watched these guys come out younger and younger and it’s very cool. I actually just saw Colton Haynes a couple of days ago and we chatted about this. It’s a new world and the industry is changing, and I think it’s because of these new, younger actors. So we need to lift each other up. We need to support each other in however we choose to come out because we’re all together. We’re all on the same team. Tearing each other down and speaking ill of each other’s experiences is not going to help anybody. It’s not going to help the process. So I’m glad that Noah apologized and kind of took back what he said, because I thought it was really ill conceived.

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How do you plan on celebrating Pride this year?

Well, we just had Pride in LA. So we kind of bopped around a bit and then we went to my niece’s birthday party. Then, I’m singing for Pride in P-town on the 4th of July. I’m doing a big concert at Town Hall.

That’ll be fun!

Yeah! That’s always a very Pride-filled weekend.

What was your personal highlight from the Tony Awards this year? Were there any specific performances that really resonated with you?

Oh god, yes! Cynthia Erivo from The Color Purple. It was insane! Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see The Color Purple on stage. I’ve seen her perform “I’m Here” a couple of different times on talk shows and such, but holy crap! Insanity. Just insanity.

I thought the Tony’s this year were the best they’ve been in a decade. They were so exciting and there were so many good live performances. I also really loved Carmen Cusack’s number from Bright Star. I thought that was really strong. And I loved Jessie Mueller in Waitress. That was really, really powerful. So were so many of my friends, like the She Loves Me cast. And obviously Hamilton.

But the thing that pops into my mind immediately is Cynthia Erivo. That’s just how you do it. In fact, I watched that performance about 10 times. As soon as it was done, I just kept rewinding it and rewinding it and rewinding it.

I get to a point sometimes where I think I’ve got it figured out. I’m like, “Okay, I know how to interpret a song. I know how to really sing it from my gut. I know how to make these words my own.” And then you watch something like that and you realize, “Holy shit! I have so far to go. There’s so much more I could do!” That’s what I love about watching my peers. You can’t help but watch something like that and think, “Man! How does that happen?”

Thank you so much, Cheyenne! Is there anything else that you want to talk about that we didn’t discuss?

I think that’s good. This was really great! Thank you so much.

Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING HILLARY AND ‘CLINTON: THE MUSICAL’ WITH KERRY BUTLER

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Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign headquarters may be based in Brooklyn, but about 5.5 miles away, her iconic blue pantsuit is getting a lot of wear.

Now playing at New World Stages in Midtown Manhattan, Clinton: The Musical is a hilarious off-Broadway satire of the eight years that Bill Clinton served as President. Parodying everyone from Paula Jones to Al Gore to even Eleanor Roosevelt, this new show is a laugh-out-loud and over-the-top foray back into the 90’s when Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp were still BFFs and Hillary got her first taste of the White House.

Kerry ButlerFeaturing an excellent cast that includes Emmy Award-winning comedienne Judy Gold and an unforgettable star-making performance by Kevin Zak, Clinton: The Musical stars Kerry Butler as the future Madam President, Hillary Rodham Clinton. I chatted with the Tony nominee about her transformation into the First Lady, her real-life politics, how Hillary’s official campaign announcement has impacted the show, what she’s up to next, and much more.


ALEX: Part of what I think makes this show so brilliant is that it can easily appeal to those who both love and despise the Clintons.

KERRY: I agree!

Clinton: The MusicalIn their review of the show, The New York Times called your portrayal of Hillary, “peppy, very funny” and “whose ambitions are huge but whose capability is never in question.” Given that you’re playing an actual person within a highly satirized world, how did you find the balance between the absurdist comedy and staying true to who Hillary really is?

Well, Hillary is so normal that there isn’t really that much you can make fun of, and that was my challenge in the beginning. At first I thought maybe the Clintons are just grounded people with these zany, over the top people around them. People like Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr aren’t actually like how their characters are in the show – great liberties have been taken with those parts. I definitely did not want to do that with Hillary. But she is funny and sarcastic in the show, so I thought, “I have to bring it up a little bit” because it is a comedy.

When I was doing research on her, I was trying to figure out what I could click into. In the 90’s, she had a stronger Midwestern accent so I exaggerated that a little bit. She always had that really big smile. She’s a little bit stiff when she’s giving speeches and things like that. I watched videos of her dancing and I was like, “Oh, that’s really funny, I can totally play with that.”

Then what really clicked for me was I watched when the President was being inaugurated and I thought that she must be so happy at this moment. Before I watched that video, I had been playing it like she was so excited and over the moon happy with this big smile on her face. Then I watched the video of it and she was so intense and had this crazy look on her face. She wasn’t smiling and it just looked like she just had this drive underneath – almost as if she was trying to contain all the emotions she was feeling in that moment. So that’s when it clicked and I realized, “I need to exaggerate that” and “That’s what I need to do with her.”

At the same time, I love her. The more research I did on her, the more I fell in love with her, her politics and who I think she is. I do really think that she wants to make the world a better place so I was very careful and precious with her and was always very protective of her with the writers. We fought to make sure that her intelligence came across and to show that she was a partner with Bill in everything that he did. It was important to make her strong but still be able to poke fun a little bit. I don’t think she’s going to come see the show, but I feel like if she did, she wouldn’t be too upset with my portrayal of her. I hope.

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In the show, there are two actors who play the President. There’s William Jefferson, who’s the more grounded, public face of the administration, and there’s Billy, the carefree, sex-crazed, sax-playing fast food enthusiast – and Hillary is the only one who can see them both. What do you think the choice of having Bill Clinton be two separate characters accomplishes and how did that impact your approach to playing his wife?

It’s fun to actually see them fight with each other! And, you know, most people have two sides to their personality. I know I do! You’re different around different people. Paul Hodge, our writer, read in a lot of books that people constantly said that Bill has these completely split personalities. So I think that it was just something fun to add to the show – like a gimmick that clicked into the comedy and to make the story telling different.

As far as playing opposite the two of them, I just decided that she treats them like they’re two different people. One she has to mother and take care of, and the other one is an equal partner who she listens to and takes advice from and he takes advice from her. She loves both sides of him, and she loves the one that she has to mother because he’s like a little kid and he’s fun and he brings out the little kid in her, so they can have a good time together. But, at the same time, because of her strong desire for her career and her life that she’s kind of carved out, that’s the part of him that I think, initially at least in this play, she wishes would go away.

cast-sign-leftThe show takes a somewhat serious turn during “Enough,” the song Hillary sings after she finds out that the rumors of the Lewinsky affair are true. It’s a heartbreaking ballad that makes you really sympathize with her and that you as a performer really sing the shit out of. What’s your personal favorite song to perform in the show and which one do you find to be stuck in your head the most frequently?

The one that’s stuck in my head most frequently is “Monica’s Song” (“I’m fucking the fucking President!”). Obviously, that’s not actually my song but I think it’s the catchiest one in the show and it’s just so fun too. It’s funny because when I read the script, that’s the song that turned me off the most. When you read the script for the show, you’re like, “Oh, noooo.” I did it because initially Dan Knechtges, our director, was working on it and I trusted him and I thought, “Well, it’s just a reading, I’ll do it.” And then, I quickly learned that it’s just so much better on its feet than on the page. It’s much less insulting and much more fun, you know?

As far as my songs, I love singing “Enough” because I like the through line of the song and how it builds. And I definitely think it’s important to the story. It makes you see that Hillary does have a backbone and I love that you said that it makes you feel for her because that’s what I was hoping would happen. I also really like how another song that I sing, “Both Ways,” gets all fun and Celine Dion-like at the end. Just in terms of having fun with something, I really like that part. That’s kind of Hillary’s onereally silly moment in the show.

Looking at your resume, it seems as though you enjoy moving back and forth between big Broadway shows and smaller off-Broadway and regional venues. As an actress, what have you found to be the biggest differences and advantages of these larger vs more intimate productions?

Off the top of my head, you get paid a lot more money for the big shows. You can’t really make a living doing the Playwrights Horizons shows, but they’re very fulfilling. One of those shows I did, The Call, is one of the things I’m most proud of. It was about adoption, something that I did in my life, and something that I feel like I’m called to do and to tell people about. Sometimes you can do jobs just because it’s something like that, something that’s so personal to you.

With Broadway, you obviously reach a bigger audience. Those big Broadway shows tend to be like a high. I’ve missed doing musicals. Even though Clinton is only around 300 seats, it’s just fun to sing and dance and be silly. We feed off the audiences’ laughter. It’s exciting to be able to give that to them and then they give it back to us.

It’s interesting when you have a matinee crowd. Sometimes they’re older and they aren’t as responsive as the evening crowds, and that kind of unintentionally affects the show for everyone. I don’t think a lot of people realize that when they go to the theater they have a control over the experience as much as the performers do. You know what I mean? Because if you go into a show where you know it’s going to be silly and you know you’re going to have a good time, you can just let go and do it. Then it’s infectious for the whole audience and then that even is infectious for the actors on stage because they respond off of what you’re giving them. Actors definitely try to give the same performance every night, but you have this live audience and are fueled by their energy.

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You’ve played a whole slew of iconic women – Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Eponine in Les Miserables, Penny in Hairspray, Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, and Clio/Kira in Xanadu to name a few. What was something you discovered about yourself as an actress through playing Hillary that you never knew before?

Clinton: The MusicalIn terms of me being an actor, I was petrified to do this part. I did not think I could do it in any way. I thought Dan was crazy to ask me to do it. I consider myself an activist, but I’m not political. And I’m not composed like Hillary is. I’m much more giddy and over the top than she is. Plus, I’ve never played anybody who’s living before. That’s something that people on Saturday Night Livedo, that’s what impersonators do, that’s not what I do. So it’s been really exciting for me that I did it, even though I was scared to death. I guess now I have more confidence in myself since I was able to pull it off. People aren’t like, “Oh my God, what were they thinking casting her?” so that’s been very nice. It’s great to be able to tap into the strength that she has. It brought me strength to see through her strengths. There’s something exciting about doing things that you are petrified of and that you don’t think you’ll be able to do. And then to actually accomplish it feels really good.

That’s awesome! It’s definitely a great new way to challenge yourself. I read that you actually volunteered for Clinton’s 2008 campaign. How were you involved in that and is there anything you took away from those experiences that helped inform your depiction of Hillary?

I actually didn’t volunteer for her campaign specifically. I volunteered for the Democratic Party when she was in Senate, so I had to call up and ask people to give money to support her getting her seat in the Senate and things like that. But once I had kids, I could not volunteer anymore because it was too much to try to balance volunteering and being a mom and working. But it was really fun when I did it. I think Al Gore was running then, so I was volunteering for his campaign in a way too. It’s funny when you do that. I was just this young girl who didn’t really know that much about what she was saying, and when I’d call other Democrats up to ask them for money, they’d just start talking to you. Whereas if anybody calls me, I’m like, “Please put me on the do not call list!” People actually want to talk to you and think that you know what you’re talking about, as if I’m actually friends with Hillary and I know all the in-and-outs of her campaign and what she’s going to do. So it was fun.

That’s so funny. One of the many things I found to be hilarious in the show was Hillary’s obsession with Eleanor Roosevelt and her constant desire to quote her. Who are some of the women who you look up to and are inspired by?

Well, Mother Theresa. Now I really love Hillary Clinton. I’ve already started collecting quotes of hers. I love a writer named Madeleine L’Engle. She’s written a lot of children’s books. Her husband was an actor and so she had to raise her kids on a Broadway schedule and have this other lifestyle which I kind of have to do. Like I’m working all weekend so my husband takes the kids and stuff like that, so I really love her writing. It’s very spiritual and just how she was able to kind of manage being a working mom and everything is very inspiring to me.

Obviously, Hillary just officially announced her plans to run for President in 2016. With her headquarters based in NYC and given that she was recently seen attending Hamilton at The Public, what would it mean to you to have her attend this show?

I would just love to meet her. I actually reached out to her people and said, “I’m going to be doing a lot press. If you guys want to tell me something specific to say to people, I’m happy to because I would love to help out the campaign any way I can.” But I think they’re afraid of the show. Hopefully they’ll hear things like you saying that we’re not being negative towards Hillary. Hopefully that will change their perception of the show. But I think at first they were afraid of it and didn’t really want that kind of press.

news-monicaHow did you and the rest of the cast celebrate and/or react to her announcement?

Well, it was a really fun day because she announced right before our afternoon show started. And so in the cast we didn’t know and then we found out as soon as the show was over. Then we had another show that night and that was when the audience went crazy. The show opens with me saying, “I’m Hillary Rodham Clinton and I would like to tell you the story of my first Presidency.” They went crazy and then again at the end when I said, “Vote for me!” So since she’s announced, it’s been really, really fun because now it kind of seems like a place where Hillary supporters can go and be together. They love the parts when we talk about how she’s already the President or how she’s going to be the President. The audience goes much crazier than they did before. So that’s been really fun.

I’m sure! How often do you were a pantsuit when you’re not in character as Hillary?

I own one pantsuit that I only got from doing a soap opera. They actually wanted me to wear it for press and I was like, “I can’t! I have one pantsuit, I can’t keep wearing it for every press thing I do!”

Politics is often such a touchy subject for so many people. But when a farce like this comes along that can really make people laugh at it, what do you think is the greatest takeaway an audience member can have when leaving the theater?

That’s what I love about the show. I think it’s very even-handed. One thing you can takeaway is the circus of the press surrounding the Clinton era. It was so silly how crazy that was when there were so many other important things going on, like healthcare costs. Everybody was so concerned with Whitewater, which wasn’t even a real thing. Obviously the Monica Lewinsky scandal got completely blown out of proportion. Those were personal matters and Newt Gingrich was doing the same thing as Bill, like you saw in the show. So I would hope people would instead decide to work together and focus on the issues that matter. Nobody’s perfect.

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If you could star in the Broadway revival of any musical of your choosing, what would it be and why?

The first show I ever did was Blood Brothers and I was the understudy and I never got to go on for the part that I understudied. So if I’ve aged out of that part, Linda, I would want to play Mrs. Johnstone, the mother in the show. That’s one of my favorite shows and I’d love to be in it again.

Do you already know or have some ideas of what you’ll be doing next after Clinton: The Musical?

I don’t! I did Seth Rudetsky’s show Disaster! and that may be moving to Broadway so I may do that. I’m also doing a workshop of a musical based on the TV show Hazel. So you never know! That’s life as an actor!

 Originally published on PopBytes