This Isn't the Oz That Was
Martin Sherman talks about rewriting The Boy From Oz for Broadway.
Now, Allen's life and music are being celebrated in The Boy From Oz, a new musical that opens at the Imperial Theatre on October 16. Allen is portrayed by a fellow Australian, Hugh Jackman, who achieved box-office stardom in the X-Men movies. "Peter Allen was a very special person," says the show's librettist, Martin Sherman. "Usually when you start working on a project like this you begin to hear stories...but no one has anything bad to say about him. Everybody who encountered him adored him. He didn't have the greatest voice, but he had that dynamic quality, his secret weapon." Jackman, for his part, has remarked that "Peter's whole essence was very joyous. He was fearless, outrageous, and childlike, and he definitely lived life to the full."
The first incarnation of the show was a homegrown Australian version that premiered in Sydney in March 1998. Jackman had been tapped for the lead role at the time but chose instead to pursue his career elsewhere; he went on to play Curly in the Royal National Theater production of Oklahoma! in London and then embarked on his immensely successful film career. When the opportunity came around again, the actor leapt at the second chance to play what he has described as the polar opposite of Wolverine, the mutant action hero of X-Men: Peter Allen was known for his outlandish costumes, his acrobatics on the piano, and his flamboyant performance style.
The original book for the show was written by Australian playwright/screenwriter Nick Enright, who succumbed to cancer earlier this year. When Enright declined the opportunity to work on the Broadway version, the producers invited Sherman to help revise the show for American audiences. "I've always wanted to do a musical," says the American born, London-based writer, best known for the searing Holocaust drama Bent. From that play through Some Sunny Day -- a recent effort, yet to be seen in America, that embraces gay romance, wartime intrigue, and paranormal phenomena -- Sherman's work has not been easy to categorize. You could say that he writes frequently funny plays about life and death issues. "I think the only things that are funny are difficult things," he acknowledges. This would seem to be an outlook that Sherman, who also wrote the screenplay for Alive and Kicking (about a HIV positive dancer), shares with the title character of The Boy From Oz: Ever ready with a quip, Peter Allen always presented an upbeat and entertaining face to his audiences despite the hardships of his life.
"The challenge of the show was to take songs that are already written by a person who is no longer alive and can't rewrite them, and make them seem as if they were written for exactly the moment in the show in which they appear," says Sherman. It helped that Allen poured a lot of his emotional autobiography into his songs -- even though, on first hearing, they passed for easy-listening, top 40 hits.
The conceit of Sherman's libretto is that we're at a Peter Allen concert during which the performer recounts the story of his life. "When I saw him in concert, I remember thinking, 'These songs sound like they belong in the theater,'" says Sherman. Spinning a musical out of an existing collection of songs is not at all unusual these days: Mamma Mia! took the approach of brazenly allowing the audience into the joke of how and where the songs were placed. The Boy From Oz goes in the opposite direction, creating the illusion that Allen wrote the songs to punctuate his life story. Popular hits recorded by the likes of Melissa Manchester ("Don't Cry Out Loud"), Olivia Newton John ("I Honestly Love You"), Ann-Margret ("Once Before I Go"), and Frank Sinatra ("You and Me") reveal unexpectedly deep emotional layers in this new context. As it turns out, so do the songs that Allen wrote for his own disastrous Broadway musical; four terrific numbers from Legs Diamond are heard in The Boy From Oz, among them "When I Get My Name in Lights" and "All I Wanted Was the Dream."
"A lot of my friends were involved with Legs Diamond," Sherman reports. In fact, the show was directed by Robert Allan Ackerman, who had also directed Sherman's own Tony Award-winning Bent on Broadway and would direct the London premiere of Sherman's next play, A Madhouse in Goa, a few months after Legs concluded its short run. Harvey Fierstein, with the successes of Torch Song Trilogy and La Cage Aux Folles under his belt, was recruited to doctor the Legs Diamond book. "The team was extraordinarily talented," Sherman continues, "but the show was misguided because the whole concept was flawed. The idea of Peter Allen playing a cold-blooded, womanizing gangster was all his. Nobody could get around that central problem."
The Boy From Oz demonstrates that Allen should have written a musical about himself; there was certainly enough material for a powerful show. "He was a larger-than-life figure," notes Sherman. From Tenterfield, a small town in the Australian outback, the star-struck Allen made his way to Sydney and then Hong Kong, where he was discovered by none other than Judy Garland. He arrived in New York, married Judy's daughter Liza and, after years of struggle, hit it big in the late 1970s, winning an Oscar for co-writing the theme song for the movie Arthur and playing several sold-out engagements at Radio City Music Hall.
Sherman, whose previous characters include Isadora Duncan (When She Danced), Maria Callas (in the recent Zeffirelli movie Callas Forever), and the indomitable survivor played by Olympia Dukakis in his last Broadway show, Rose, describes Judy Garland as a "gift for a writer. She was a wonderful character to write for all the obvious reasons; her life had so much drama and she would turn on a dime. And she also had an incredible sense of humor. One of the great attractions between Peter Allen and Judy Garland was that they were both funny."
Of course, both Garland and Minnelli have been fodder for drag impersonators over the past two decades. Sherman stresses that the portrayals of the legendary mother and daughter in The Boy From Oz are in no way camp impressions. This is helped by the fact that the two actresses playing the roles are barely known to New York audiences: Isabel Keating (Garland) performed on Broadway last season as an understudy in Enchanted April, while Stephanie J. Block (Minnelli) has worked mostly out in the West Coast. "It's great that they don't bring any baggage with them," says Sherman. "When they come on stage, they're Judy and Liza. They are not associated with anything else."
The part of Minnelli, who discovered that Allen was gay only after their marriage, is considerably larger than it was in the Australian incarnation of the show. "We are dealing with a Liza that is somewhat different from the Liza people are aware of now," notes Sherman. "She was a very young and vulnerable girl at the time. In a way, she was placed in an unfair situation because [Peter] wasn't being honest with her. She was very caring when he was ill. She came back and got him to go out and she took care of him."
As the concert-within-the-musical progresses, Allen reveals his life in ways that the performer himself never quite chose in public. The ballad "Love Don't Need a Reason" is sung at a key moment in a moving scene with Allen's longtime lover Gregg Connell (played by Jarrod Emick), who also died of AIDS. In real life, Allen mastered the art of hiding in plain sight: He dressed and behaved outrageously in his shows and dropped huge hints about his sexuality but in such a way that his female fans were never alienated.
"Peter was very, very open but he didn't say it," says Sherman. "He sort of went towards the border but he didn't cross it. I think, if he had lived for another 10 years, he would have. He was a product of the times." To illustrate his point, Sherman recalls his own first interview with The New York Times, after he had broken through as a writer with Bent: "The reporter phoned me before the interview was published and wanted to know if I really wanted to say that I was gay. I said, 'Yes, absolutely.' But he phoned me three times to make sure because he was very solicitous of my well being. That was 1979." Around the same time, Allen released an album that popularized a new euphemism for being "that way": Bi-Coastal.
After opening in Sydney, The Boy From Oz enjoyed record-breaking runs in several other Australian cities. Down Under, it was received as a very Australian story about a local lad who made it big in the world. Now, the show has become something different. "It is most definitely a New York story," says Sherman. "It's about a boy who comes to New York from another place and finds fame and fortune."