The very out (and striking) Cheyenne Jackson—who has made a splash in everything from Broadway’s Xanadu to the TV show Ugly Betty to the film United 93 (in which he played gay rugby player Mark Bingham)—has teamed with musical legend Michael Feinstein to record The Power of Two. Based on the sold-out shows at Feinstein’s New York nightclub, the album (which will be available Tuesday, Nov. 3) features the twosome singing together and separately on such tunes as “Old Friend,” “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “Someone to Watch Over Me” and the title track, originally recorded by lesbian folk-rock duo Indigo Girls.
In a recent phone interview, Jackson discussed the musical collaboration, Feinstein’s Paul Lynde impressions and the emotional toll of filming United 93.
WCT: (Windy City Times) I have a confession to make, Cheyenne. I’m not a “musicals” person; I follow sports, love horror movies and listen to rock/rap/dance music. That being said, this CD actually won me over.
WCT: So how did this collaboration [between you and Michael Feinstein] come about?
CJ: Michael and I met about a year ago. I’d been a fan of his for a long time; I’ve seen his Sinatra project and his shows but we hadn’t met until he and I did this television special—a CBS Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. It was really cold, and we were hanging out in the warming tent before we went out to sing. We started chatting and realized we had a lot in common.
He and his partner, Terrence [Flannery], invited me to a dinner party at his house a little while after that. I was telling a story and I leaned back in my chair—and I ended up breaking the chair, [which was] a French 18th-century chair; I’m sure it cost more than my education. It was a very funny moment, and we bonded over me being a huge bull in a china shop. That evening, he played the piano and I started singing—and we thought, “Wow! We need to do something together.” We started doing an act; we wrote and produced it together, and it ended up being this great critical and box-office success. I [then] thought, “We put so much work, time and effort into this show—why don’t we record it?” And he was down with it; we recorded it about two months ago.
WCT: How’d you decide which songs to sing?
CJ: When we put this together, there wasn’t really a template. We thought that the best way to have this organically come about is to have us both bring songs to the table that we thought were appropriate. So we each brought a list of [possible] solos and duets—and, surprisingly, we picked many of the same songs.
Also, part of the challenge and fun of this was that I really wanted to stretch myself musically, and he wanted too, as well. I wanted to show him a different style of music and I wanted him to step outside of his comfort zone, and that’s when the title song came about. He’d heard of [Indigo Girls], but Michael Feinstein singing lesbian folk-rock is not what he’s known for. [Interviewer laughs.] He was scared by the idea—but he was also intrigued by it. I give him so much credit; he just jumped in and it ended up being our title song and the name of our show. I’m really, really happy with it.
WCT: Let me ask you this: Do you often read reviews?
CJ: It depends. For a Broadway show, I’ll read the reviews but not right away. And I only read the legitimate ones; I don’t read blogs [or] message boards—you can’t get wrapped up in that. You can read 10 wonderful things about yourself, but if you read two shitty things, those are the things that stick in your head. But as far as legitimate reviews of shows and CDs, absolutely. I think it’s a good way to gauge what people are liking and responding to.
WCT: I asked you that because I came across a review [of the CD] on Theatermania.com. One sentence reads,“Their duets are something special, not so much because of the material, but because these two singers blend into gorgeous harmonies.” What’s your reaction when you hear something like that?
CJ: My reaction is that I’m so glad that that is what is being perceived. We’re not doing any songs that haven’t been done before; on the contrary, a lot of these songs have been recorded hundreds of times. What we have to offer is our unique sensibility, our unique style—our voices. It just so happens that our voices are incredibly different but they blend incredibly well. My voice is much brighter and [Feinstein’s] is much darker, but when we harmonized we were blown away with the blend we had.
What people are responding to is the musicality; I love to hear stuff like that.
WCT: Was the CD meant as a political statement [with two gay men collaborating and harmonizing]?
CJ: It’s funny, because we didn’t set out for the show and subsequent CD to be political statements, but they certainly have. Both of us are really proud of who we are; both of us live our lives openly, and both of us have had partners for 10 years. (He’s actually married to Terrence; I’m going to wait until it’s legal in New York.) But being ourselves and living our lives is political in itself. Both of us are very active and very strong, politically. We didn’t set out to make the show political; it just kinda happened. In the reviews I’ve read, the song “We Kiss in a Shadow” from The King and I was thought of as a covert gay anthem; we decided that we wouldn’t put a spin on it at all, we won’t try to wink at it or anything—we’d just sing the words to each other and people can [interpret] it any way they want.
After the first run-through, Michael said, “Oh my God! Our show is so political.” But I said, “The best thing is that we’re not pounding [people] over the head with it.”
WCT: Speaking of political statements, what do you think of the recent National Equality March in Washington, D.C.?
CJ: I thought it was great; I wish I could’ve gone. Listen: As frustrating as things can be—thinking “one step forward, two steps back”—the fact is that [equality] is on people’s consciousness now. People are talking about it in schools; my nephews and nieces, who are little kids, [are discussing it]. Marriage equality is not some pipe dream now; it’s feasible, and it will happen. We just have to go with it. I’m happy that people are talking about it. Things are changing, albeit slowly. We’re moving in the right direction.
WCT: Can you tell me about Michael’s Paul Lynde impressions?
CJ: [Laughs] Michael is actually an incredible mimic. What I love about him—and I wrote about [that impersonation] in the liner notes—is that Michael is not fussy, and I think that was my own preconceived notion of what he might be about. He’s far from that.
I was at a dinner party the other night, and he is totally comfortable in his skin. But, with the impression, it’d be a tense day in the studio and he’d say [imitating Lynde], “How we ever beat the Russians?” [Interviewer laughs.]
WCT: When did you know that you wanted to be in theater?
CJ: Well, I’m from a really small town in Idaho, and I didn’t know what Broadway was until I got my first cast album. I realized (at about 12 or 13) that Broadway was a job; I [originally] thought it was something people did for fun. I thought, “I’ll do that. It’s something I like to do and I’m good at it.” It was always in the back of my mind. I knew that singing and being a goofball would end up being my career in some capacity.
WCT: I want to ask you something I asked Jerry Mitchell a while back: What do you think of the school of thought that says there’s a lack of originality when it comes to Broadway productions?
CJ: Things go with the trends. I have a little bit of a bias in this because only because I was in Xanadu, although people said that Xanadu was the exception because it takes the movie and puts it on the theater. I think it’s really, really difficult for brand-new musicals to get produced. It’s an unknown commodity, and people don’t know what they’re dealing with—although it can be exciting when something like Next to Normal or In the Heights is produced. That being said, if you’re a Broadway producer and you have $20 million to put into a show, it makes sense to do something like The Addams Family or Spider-Man or something that has a built-in audience.
So I get both sides of the argument but it doesn’t have to be unoriginal; you can come at it from a different angle or cast it interestingly. There are steps we can take to not make things beige or boring.
WCT: For the local fans: Are you planning on coming to Chicago anytime soon?
CJ: Not that I know of. I’m contracted with Finian’s Rainbow, which opens [this] week for a year, so if all goes well I’ll be in New York until July 2010. Then, I have the CD coming out Nov. 3. I just got cast in [the TV show] 30 Rock; I film that in the morning and then go to the theater. All I ever wanted to do was be on a TV show and on Broadway; the fact that it’s happening simultaneously is definitely an embarrassment of riches. I’m very tired but I’ll be the last person to complain about it.
WCT: I have to ask what it was like to be on Ugly Betty.
CJ: It was great! They’re definitely a well-run machine over there. Michael Urie [who plays Marc] is a friend of mine, so it was fun. Becki Newton [who plays Amanda] is really hilarious and Vanessa Williams [Wilhelmina] is just delish. I would’ve liked to have done more, but I was happy with what I got.
Becki and Michael have such great chemistry. The best thing about the show is that it’s set in New York and employs a lot of theater actors.
WCT: How emotional was it filming United 93?
CJ: Very. You can imagine it, and then triple it. You can’t take on a project like that unless you’re willing to go there. The important part was casting; they found people who were willing to go to those deep, dark places. We filmed for a few months in London and we were in that plane for hours. It was incredibly intense, but the least we can do is honor them by giving everything we had. Paul Greengrass—the incredible, Oscar-nominated director—would say, “That was good, but I think you guys can go further. You owe it to the families, the people who were lost that day and yourselves.” It was a wonderful experience; I can’t believe that was my film debut.
WCT: I’d think that it’d be incredibly difficult not to take some of that home with you.
CJ: It was. Some people did a better job of compartmentalizing; I’m very visceral and emotional, and it affected me—down to the point where I now hate flying. I used to love flying. However, that’s a small price to pay.
WCT: In light of the collaboration with Michael, is there anyone you’d love to collaborate with in the future?
CJ: Hmmm ... that’s a good question. I have many peers in New York I’d love to [work with], and I have a couple ideas I’m working on. However, I’d love to work with [singer/Broadway legend] Barbara Cook. She’s so inspiring to so many people.
WCT: For some reason, Kristin Chenoweth’s name popped into my head.
CJ: Yeah. I know Kristin. We recently collaborated on a workshop. I think she’s incredibly smart—and she can get three legitimate laughs out of a regular punchline. I’d always do something with her. However, I’d also like to do something outside the box—something people wouldn’t expect, like this Michael Feinstein [collaboration]. I’m not looking to top myself, but if something comes along that I can produce and do, I’ll definitely do it.
For more on Cheyenne Jackson, see www.CheyenneJackson.com.