Of the decade’s five jukebox musicals hits, this one probably has the most substance as a show, and you could make a serious case that it’s the best of the five: at any rate, it is far more substantial and powerful than the critics, who largely write it off as a piece of fluffy entertainment, seem to have realized.
Granted, the show does have one drawback, a fairly large one for a musical: the songs. Actually, to be completely fair to the score, it does contain a few good things. The show’s subject, singer-songwriter Peter Allen, had his moments as a melodist, and “Quiet, Please, There’s a Lady On Stage”, “Everything Old Is New Again”, “Don’t Cry Out Loud”, and “Once Before I Go” are all strong.
But there’s quite a bit of weak material here—saccharine ballads like “I Honestly Love You”, forgettable up-tunes like “Bi-Coastal”, and some especially weak material imported from Allen’s legendary Broadway flop Legs Diamond—and the one good thing about a jukebox musical is _supposed_ to be that you’re guaranteed a pretty consistent score. If a jukebox show _can’t_ pull together a full score of good songs, it says something pretty negative about its subject.
However, Allan also had one equally significant _strength_ as a subject for a musical biography: he had a genuinely fascinating life, full of drama and personal tragedy and with close personal associations with fascinating and important people like Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, and he was present during some important times for cultural history.
When it played Broadway, the show had a huge asset in Hugh Jackman, who gave such a magnetic star performance that many people came away remembering nothing else. That’s a shame, because the book is surprisingly strong. It employed the format of allowing Jackman to talk directly to the audience, as Allen did in his cabaret act and Legs Diamond, and even allowed for some improvised chatter with audience members in the early scenes, but by the time the show really got underway, the monologues were clearly scripted.
The show only got more interesting as it progressed, traveling from what appeared to be a frothy musical comedy into darker and more tragic territory as Jackman-as-Allen talked about historical riots for gay rights, divorced wife Liza Minnelli, and became involved with the love of his life, only to see him slowly succumb to AIDS. As Allen slowly died of AIDS himself, the show spiraled into a string of intense ballads, pulling off the final coup-de-grace of not revealing Allen’s father’s suicide until almost the final scene. While the show did close with a production number to the up-tempo “I Go To Rio”, the real climax came earlier, as Jackman sang “Once Before I Go” to his younger self.
The supporting cast was almost as superb as Jackman, with Isabel Keating and Stephanie J. Block giving impressive, if not always perfect, impressions of Garland and Minnelli, and Jarrod Emock making the treacly “I Honestly Love You” sound genuinely affecting. In the key scene featuring the suicide, Beth Fowler as Allen’s mother offered a superb rendering of “Don’t Cry Out Loud”.
Everything about this show was seemingly perfect…except the music. But since all that’s left now is the cast album, which doesn’t offer the book or the full impact of Jackman’s performance, future generations seem destined to accept the conventional wisdom that this kaleidoscopic emotional masterpiece was merely a piece of splashy star-vehicle fluff.