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Broadway, 'Glee', and '30 Rock' star coming to the Cabaret at the Columbia Club

You’ve seen him on hit TV shows like “Glee”, “30 Rock”, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, “Law and Order” and many others, but Cheyenne Jackson, one of the entertainment world’s most prolific performers, is also a film star with 18 films to his credit, with four coming out in 2014. He’s also been in eight Broadway and three off-Broadway shows.

Cheyenne Jackson
Cheyenne Jackson
Karl Simone

But wait, there’s more. In addition, Jackson, the singer/songwriter, is a concert performer who has appeared with some of the finest orchestras in prestigious venues throughout the country and has been featured on 12 different albums, releasing his own, “I’m Blue, Skies”, in 2013. Two of Jackson’s concerts sold out, including The Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall twice, with his shows “The Power of Two” with Michael Feinstein and his solo show “Music of the Mad Men Era” with the New York Pops.

Now Indianapolis audiences will have a chance to see and hear Jackson, famed for his 4 ½ octave range and his vocal versatility, when he sings music from the ‘50s and ‘60s in “Cheyenne Jackson’s Cocktail Hour: Music of Mad Men Era” at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club on Monument Circle, Friday, July 11, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, July 12, at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Joining Jackson on piano will be his music director, Ben Toth.

Examiner.com chatted with Jackson by phone recently from his L.A. home about his upcoming Cabaret show. Jackson, who began his recovery from alcoholism in 2013, also talked openly about the impact his sobriety has had on his personal life and career. While he is in Indy, Jackson will be celebrating his 39th birthday which is Saturday.

Your most recent appearance in this area was when you performed with Michael Feinstein in the Palladium Grand Opening Concert, in Carmel, in 2011.

Yes, I love Michael. He is a dear, dear friend.

You first presented “Music of the Mad Men Era” at Carnegie Hall, also in 2011. Have you updated it for your Cabaret appearance?

“Mad Men” is definitely updated and changed because I have changed. The last couple of years have been difficult but there have also been a lot of wonderful changes in my life. The divorce (From Monte Lapka in 2013. He is now engaged to Jason Landau, owner of SLANT PROMOTIONS, a branding and marketing company.) and being sober are things I am fairly open about but I am not the same person I was a couple years ago. I have been growing and learning and the show definitely reflects that. I never shy away from opening up on stage.

I think the most important thing is that when you go see somebody perform, you seek to know them. We’ve all been to shows in which the performer basically does a recital. “In this show I did this song and in 1947, this song came about and blah, blah, blah.” It’s lovely and it sounds good but I could buy the CD. I want to know about you. I want to connect with you personally. You can’t hide behind a character. You are up there by yourself. I have found the best way to be is totally raw and honest. So yes, it is a totally different show.

How has your sobriety informed your art?

I can hardly put it into words. It is the best thing I have ever done for myself. It is the most important thing I have ever accomplished in my life. Everything is different. How I relate to my family, my friends, to the world, to music and to art. Everything is changed because I am so present. I am aware. I’m not fuzzy. I am not using alcohol to numb my fear whatever it may be. I am in it more. I am more aware of every note and every fear and it’s not always the best feeling.

When you first get sober you feel everything. But that’s part of being a human being. I was just scared of that for so long. Do I still get nervous before shows? Hell yes, and even more so. But in a way, less so, because I know I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to be myself. Over the years a lot of my fears and anxieties came out of my perfectionism. Trying to make sure that everything was technically perfect, that I said the right thing, that I looked perfect. Then I had these major disasters in my life and I just decided to just be me. I am just a person who is trying to get by and getting sober has changed everything. I also think I am a better actor. I have a lot of feelings now and I feel them.

Do you feel more authentic now?

You don’t realize prior how inauthentic so many people are and how inauthentic I was for so long. Once you start living a life of integrity you realize, “Oh My God who was I?” (laughs).

Obviously, you are open about being gay as well, right?

I definitely had family members and other folks that had a problem with it but me, personally? No. I have been out for 20 years. For me it’s not a big deal but yes, sometimes family members, people from the church or others over the years did feel that it was.

Let’s talk about your Cabaret show. What will it consist of?

It will be a mix of things from Mad Men and my most recent CD, “I’m Blue, Skies”. There will be a couple of songs from my first album, “The Power of Two”, a couple of cool new things that were just written and some great new arrangements. It’s definitely a fresh new show.

Do you prefer working in concert halls, small rooms or both?

I like it all but there are pluses and minuses to both. I just did Disney Hall here in L.A. It was my first big show out here. You can’t deny the grandness of that place, the acoustics, the sold out crowd of 3,000 people. It’s so exciting to experience the power of the space and all the people; however, when you’re on stage you can’t really see anybody. You can definitely feel the room. And sometimes when the lights settle I can see people but to connect with them you really have to get them and make them listen. In a small room, you can see everybody’s face. Everybody’s right up there and sometimes it’s actually scarier. I have talked to other singers who would agree. I sang a couple of songs at the Hollywood Bowl a few years ago. It is so massive. You are so removed from the audience. You don’t even think about singing in front of 30,000 people because they’re so far away. Whereas in a club when someone is one foot away, it’s a very intimate experience and I enjoy that. I like to be really close to everybody.

Are you spontaneous in your shows?

Yes, very spontaneous. For some reason there are a lot of people at my shows who shout out because I’ll ask a question and inevitably someone will answer back. One thing I learned from Michael Feinstein is to listen. Listen to your room and if people are really chatty and they want to talk, you have to engage them, but to a point. You don’t want them to control the proceeding. In fact, if there is a loud lady and she’s shouting “sing ‘You are my Sunshine”’, you have to acknowledge her request because everybody in the room heard it. If you ignore it, it becomes super weird and uncomfortable so you have to diffuse the situation and make sure you don’t embarrass her. But you also don’t want her to control things. It’s definitely a skill I learned from Michael. He’s a genius at it.

Since your parents are Baby boomers, did you grow up listening to their music?

I did. My mom was born in the ‘50s so I heard her stuff, which was Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and other stuff. My music teachers and everybody growing up would say I was born in the wrong time. Judy Collins, Roy Orbison, and, of course, Elvis were always played in our house too.

Shifting to your film career, when is “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks”, starring you and Gena Rowlands, coming out?

That’s a good question. I saw a screening of it a month ago. It’s not totally done. They still have post production to do on it. I don’t know when that is coming out or if they have distribution on it or if people are interested in it. I would certainly love it to come out in theaters so that people can see it

What was it like working with Rowlands? Are you a fan?

Wonderful. I am her super fan. You have to get over it quickly. You have to acknowledge it. In the film, we have a love/hate relationship (he plays a dance teacher hired to give private lessons to Rowland’s character, who is a retiree) and we have to have these long, drawn out arguments and fights and then make up. There’s lot of ground to cover and so if you are worshiping somebody you are not going to be able to do it. So on the first day of rehearsal, she and I were in the studio and I said “Miss Rowland,” and she said, “please call me Gena.” Then I said, “Gena, I love you, I worship you, I’ve seen everything you and John Cassavetes ever did, so I have to just get over this quickly so I can scream at you and call you a horrible cow in five minutes” (laughs). Of course, she was so gracious and so lovely. Everything was like an acting class. I looked at her and learned a lot about the stillness. I learned a lot about just letting the camera come to you. It was great. So yes, I hope it comes out because it was a great experience.

Have you had the same thing happen to you with a younger actor?

Yes. It’s starting to. I just finished an episode of “Royal Pains”, a USA Network show. I finished it yesterday in New York. One of the younger, he is like 22, actors in it was staring at me and looked like he wanted to say something. Finally, he said, “In my high school we did all the stuff you did on Broadway so I am just so excited to work with you.” It was so strange, and yes, the roles were reversed. He was looking up to me and it was nice. It was kind of like the passing of the torch.

What about “Love is Strange,” the film you did with John Lithgow, Alfred Molina and Marisa Tomei? When is it being released?

It has dstribution. It’s coming out August 14. We debuted at Sundance in January and it got rave reviews. The plot centers on John and Alfred’s characters, Ben and George, who are a married couple. After being together for almost 40 years, they get married in New York once it becomes legal. As a result, one of them loses his job and they are no longer able to afford their apartment. They don’t split up but they have to temporarily live in different places. So Alfred Molina’s character comes and lives with me and I play his roommate (a gay cop). It’s very funny and very lovely. Lithgow and Molina give performances that are just beyond heartbreaking. They are wonderful. After Sundance, we did Tribeca and then the L.A. Film Festival and Sony Picture Classics picked it up

Getting back to your Cabaret show, what can audiences expect?

They will definitely be entertained. That’s the most important thing. I also want everybody to find something out about themselves. And to see themselves in me through what I’ve gone through. It’s been pretty exciting doing shows sober. Not that I was ever drunk while performing previously. I mean performing as a sober person and sharing my story on stage. When I first got sober, my mom said, “Do you have to talk about sobriety in the show?” and I said, “Yes, I do. It’s part of who I am now.” I can't ’t be anything but authentic so I hope people see a little bit of themselves in me and that they are touched, that they are inspired but that that they are also entertained.

“Cheyenne Jackson’s Cocktail Hour: Music of the Mad Men Era” tickets are $45-$75 (*$12 food or beverage minimum). Call (317) 275 - 1169, or order online at www.TheCabaret.org.

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