When Hugh Jackman made his Broadway debut in 2003 playing songwriter Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz, he was at the center of a big, splashy musical with over 25 performers and a full band in the pit. After more than 365 performances in New York’s 1,417-seat Imperial Theatre, Jackman won a Tony Award. This Friday night, April 29, director Michael A. Shepperd will open Celebration Theatre’s new production of The Boy From Oz at the Lex in Hollywood—only slightly smaller than the Imperial with 55 seats.
“It is not the Broadway production,” Shepperd says. “There’s no way in hell I can replicate what they did on Broadway. I saw it and thought it was great, but I thought a lot of the story was missed. When I picked up the script I went, ‘I don’t remember that. I didn’t remember this.’”
Shepperd says this script is just as important as Allen’s songs (which include “When Everything Old Is New Again,” “I Honestly Love You,” and “(Arthur’s Theme) Best That You Can Do.”) “Let’s face it, it’s a great jukebox musical with a great story about a man who lead this amazing life,” he says. “But when you break it down, it’s all about the love of his mother, the love of his first wife [Liza Minnelli], the love of his last partner [Gregory Connell], and his love of music. If you use those and tell that story, it can fit in any size space.”
Chuck Rowland, a gay-rights pioneer and co-founder of the Mattachine Society, founded Celebration Theatre in 1982. The company has since put on countless LGBTQ-themed productions. According to Shepperd, The Boy From Oz fits right in. “What other musical tackles the subject of AIDS and seeing [the main character’s] lover die?” he asks. “It’s a story about loss and a story of not being able to express your true feelings and emotions because you were raised by someone who said, ‘Don’t cry out loud, just hold it inside.’”
The ambition to tackle such a big show in a small space began as a conversation between Shepperd and Celebration Theatre co-director Michael Matthews. “We order our drinks and we sit down and have our drinking meeting,” Shepperd says. “At the end we have come up with this lavish season and all the stars that are going to do our shows. Wouldn’t it be funny if we got The Boy From Oz and Hugh Jackman came and did this in our theatre? Of course, I send over the letter with everything and I got the phone call four days later.” Alas, Jackman is not part of the deal. Actor Andrew Bongiorno will be playing Peter Allen in this production.
Over the past two years, Celebration Theatre has lost its space on Santa Monica Boulevard, tried a few other venues as their home, and have, at least for now, settled in at the Lex Theatre. When asked, Shepperd admits there are parallels between Peter Allen’s story and Celebration’s recent history.
“Look at the trajectory of Peter Allen’s career: he’s a lounge singer who, by happenstance, is discovered by Judy Garland,” he explains. “She takes him to New York, and he falls in love with this woman. His career is not dead, but it’s not really moving forward. It took this break-up for him to go, ‘Wait, I’m in the worst crisis in my life, and I’m just now finding my artistic soul, and I’m able to create some of the best music ever.’ Do I think that’s synonymous with Celebration and where we’re going? Yes. We were cruising along nicely, and then we hit a horrible speed bump. We were broken. We had to search frantically to pick up all the pieces, and there are still a few pieces missing. But we are able to superglue most of it back together. And now we are going to start producing and creating the best work we’ve ever done.”