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The Battle of the Matinee Idols

Harry Connick, Jr. (Photo: Palma Kolansky)

There aren’t many “matinee idols” left in the theater, so it’s quite a happy coincidence that two of the few performers who undeniably fit that description — Hugh Jackman and Harry Connick, Jr. — have come back to Broadway at the same time, in two different shows. Let the Battle of the Box Office begin!

Actually, that battle may already have been won: Tickets sales for Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway were through the roof from Day One, and whatever seats weren’t already sold are sure to go fast now that the show has opened to love-letter reviews. Sales aren’t quite so brisk for Connick’s show, a revisal of the 1965 Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever — but then again, the show doesn’t open till December 11.

Details of this revisal are intriguing: In the original version, Daisy Gamble, a young woman with E.S.P. and other special powers, goes to psychiatrist Mark Bruckner for help in kicking her smoking habit. The doctor soon discovers that she is the reincarnation of an 18th-century British woman named Melinda Wells — a woman with whom he falls in love. In the new version, the doctor’s patient is a gay man named Davey Gamble (David Turner), the reincarnation of a WW-II era jazz singer named Melinda (Jessie Mueller). The plot thickens when Bruckner (Connick) becomes enamored of Melinda, much to the consternation of Davey, who has a crush on the doc.

In contrast, Jackman’s current vehicle isn’t a revival, a revisal, or a new play or musical; it’s a concert show that he has previously performed to acclaim in San Francisco and Toronto, featuring spiffy song and dance turns, numbers from both Oklahoma! and The Boy from Oz (shows in which Jackman respectively starred at London’s Royal National Theatre and on Broadway), and a unique version of “Over the Rainbow” — a phrase that, from all reports, well describes audience reaction to his talent, looks, and sex appeal. One of the highlights of the show is the challenging “Soliloquy” from Carousel; Jackman played Billy Bigelow in a concert performance of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical at Carnegie Hall some years ago, and there has been talk of him headlining a remake of the movie, though that project remains in limbo.

It’s interesting to compare the trajectories of Jackman and Connick’s careers. Though the former is best known as a bona-fide movie star, especially as Wolverine in the X-Men films, he’s a stage veteran who’s been charming live audiences for years — first in his native Australia, then in London and New York. Curly in Oklahoma! was his breakout role, and although he didn’t get to recreate that performance when the show transferred to Broadway (because of film commitments), he made a triumphant Broadway debut in 2003 in The Boy From Oz. Then, in 2009, he and co-star Daniel Craig created a sensation when they appeared together in a play called A Steady Rain. Connick, for his part, was a child prodigy pianist well before his talent as a crooner came to the fore. He exploded into the public consciousness with his smooth-as-velvet renditions of Great American Songbook standards on the soundtrack of When Harry Met Sally. Since then, he has starred or been featured in several major films, and his Broadway credits have ranged from his own concert shows in 1990 and 2010 to his appearance as Sid “Hey There” Sorokin in the 2006 revival of The Pajama Game.

Whatever the differences in their paths to stardom, both Connick and Jackman have long since “arrived,” and their return to Broadway is cause for celebration.