Few would argue that Cheyenne Jackson was destined for the stage. The openly gay 38-year-old actor, singer and songwriter’s first leading role on The Great White Way in All Shook Up earned him a 2005 award for Outstanding Broadway Debut. Since then, he has cemented his theater-star status with acclaimed stage performances (Finian’s Rainbow, 8, Xanadu) while also making a name for himself on the small screen (30 Rock, Glee, Behind the Candelabra) and in film (United 93, The Green). For his latest project, Music of the Mad Men Era, he’ll be singing standards from the ’50s and ’60s—with contemporary tracks thrown in for good measure—at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on April 26.
Growing up in a small, rural town in northern Idaho with a population of 1,200, the one constant in Cheyenne’s home was a steady stream of music. His mother had a beautiful voice of her own and would play her favorites all the time—Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Elvis. There are even tapes of her teaching him how to sing harmony when he was only 3 or 4 years old.
Cheyenne sang in his local choir until he was 15, but it wasn’t until he took part in a performance of Bye Bye Birdie in high school that he became attached to the stage.
“It’s very cliché, but I did my first line, it got a laugh and it was like slipping into a warm pool full of puppies. It was so delicious. I thought, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do,’” he tells us via phone right before taking the stage to perform in The Most Happy Fella in NYC, a show that ran for five nights at New York City Center.
“Music was always a part of who I was—a part of my makeup. And to this day, I fill my days with it. The styles I like are constantly evolving and changing.”
Cheyenne has always been drawn to songs of the ’50s and ’60s. “They’re just so absolutely timeless,” he says. “That’s why we all watch The Wizard of Oz every year and it’s still exciting—because it still resonates.” In fact, people have always told Cheyenne that, vocally speaking, he was born in the wrong era. Music of the Mad Men Era, which Cheyenne put together himself, is sure to showcase his natural strengths.
“About two and a half years ago, I developed a great friendship and rapport with Michael Feinstein,” Cheyenne says. “He became my mentor and friend and showed me the ropes of doing concerts and one-man shows. I put together this show because I wanted to create something that was unique to my style and something I could make my own. The music of the Mad Men era really has a pretty broad spectrum of what you could put under that umbrella.”
L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall audience won’t be the first to witness Cheyenne’s throwback show. Music of the Mad Men Era sold out Carnegie Hall back in late 2011, and sold out The Kennedy Center on New Year’s Eve 2012. Both shows met with rave reviews from critics, The New York Daily News commenting, “Cheyenne Jackson has got it all, and he showed it all—the voice, the moves, the quirky self-effacing humor. He gleamed like Don Draper’s Brylcreemed hair.”
Bringing the show to Los Angeles was a natural next step, seeing as how Cheyenne is now an Angeleno. “I moved out to L.A. about 10 months ago,” he says, “and I thought, ‘Let’s do it out here.’”
Along with classics such as “Bésame Mucho” and “I Who Have Nothing,” Cheyenne, musical director Ben Toth and their 13-piece band will be throwing out some unexpected tunes from the likes of Amy Winehouse and Joni Mitchell. Plus, you can expect performances from special guests Jane Lynch (who Cheyenne became friends with on the set of Glee) and Rebecca Romjin.
“I love Jane,” he says. “She’s hysterical. She rarely sings on Glee, but she’s very musical. We definitely clicked. For a special occasion one time, she bought me a tool belt, which could not be more cliché and more perfect. I actually use it all the time. And Rebecca also has a secret voice that not a lot of people have heard. I require all of my guests to be women over six feet tall, apparently.”
Cheyenne continues to make a name for himself on the silver screen, with no less than seven films seeing release this year, including Love Is Strange with Marisa Tomei, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina. Following a couple trying years in the press surrounding his personal life, Cheyenne is happy to be focusing on work—and plenty of it. The CliffsNotes version reads thus: He went through a divorce, moved from New York to L.A., got engaged and is newly sober. The press had a field day with it all—particularly with a certain lurid video—something Cheyenne was not at all ready for.
“I don’t think you can ever really prepare yourself for that,” he says. “All you can do is deal with it. I always live by the adage ‘Your opinion of me is none of my business.’ That’s how I’ve looked at the whole situation the last couple of years. The hardest thing about getting bad press or people writing things that are not true is you can’t do anything to rectify it. You can scream from the mountaintops that it’s not true, but it doesn’t matter. The people it hurts are your family. But all that stuff is in the past, and it’s part of the deal. It taught me some lessons and gave me a fraction of what it’s like for those folks whose every move is on the cover of a magazine. It’s not so fun, but it’s life.”
What Cheyenne currently enjoys are the seemingly simple aspects that living in L.A. affords—a car, a driveway to park it in, a house with a washer and dryer. “These are the things you can’t have in New York unless you’re a gazillionaire.” But the main reason he moved out here is to be close to his family. It’s the first time his mother,
father, brother and sister have all been in the same state. They’ll all be in attendance at the Music of the Mad Men Era show, which Cheyenne admits will make the experience both exciting and scary.
“What I love about concerts is that you don’t have to be strapped to a character,” he says. “As much as I love being an actor, I love to just be my weird self up there singing songs, telling stories and sharing my heart and my music my way. I’m always yapping up there. Sometimes it gets a little stand-up-y. I can’t help it. I’m really free, and I love to be spontaneous. If someone shouts out something from the audience, you better believe I’m going to shout back. There are no rules.”
A PREVIEW OF CHEYENNE'S SETLIST FOR MUSIC OF THE MAD MEN ERA:
This Dean Martin track is classic, cool and always in style.
“You Know I’m No Good”
I’m a big Amy Winehouse fan. This song has a sexy, edgy melody. It’s new but fits within this milieu perfectly.
“A Case of You”
This Joni Mitchell track is introspective, with a highly personal arrangement by the impeccable Diana Krall.
“Red Wine (is Good for My Heart)”
This one’s an original by me.
Music of the Mad Men Era takes place April 26 at Walt Disney Concert Hall.