Q&A: Cheyenne Jackson Talks Sobriety and “The Most Happy Fella”

It’s been a few years since New York City has seen Cheyenne Jackson in a musical. The 38-year-old actor has been busy, filming pilots and appearing on television ("30 Rock," "Glee," HBO's "Behind the Candelabra,") and in too many movies to mention since 2010’s Broadway production of “Finian’s Rainbow.” He’s also been living in Los Angeles, focusing on his solo music career while planning a wedding with fiancé Jason Landau.

Lucky for us, Jackson and his booming, beautiful voice have returned, this time to New York City Center Encores! production of Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella.” Tony winner Casey Nicholas (“The Book of Mormon,” “Aladdin”) directs the limited engagement (April 2-6), which also stars NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live”-breakout Laura Benanti.

We sat down with Cheyenne Jackson to talk about the show, songwriting and what he’s learned about himself in sobriety.

NBC4NY: This is your third Encores! show, after 2008’s “Damn Yankees” and 2009’s “Finian's Rainbow.” What keeps you coming back?
CJ: I like to work quickly, so the pace of it I really love. The rehearsal process of any project can often feel so bogged down. But here, we have no other choice than to move on. Some of the people who haven’t done it before are scared because it’s just so quick. And I’m like, “People in the audience know that coming in -- just get on the ride and go.”

NBC4NY: It’s been awhile since we’ve seen “The Most Happy Fella” at New York City Center Encores!. They last did a production in 1959!
CJ: I tell people it’s the best musical that no one has ever seen. And we’re presenting such a faithful retelling with a glorious cast and a giant orchestra. But the show’s really about letting go of expectations. When love doesn’t look like you think it’s suppose to, sometimes that’s exactly what it’s suppose to be. And this isn’t the usual protagonist, antagonist, good guy, bad guy sort of show. It’s about everybody looking for something. It’s old fashioned but it’s relevant because it so beautifully defines the human experience.

NBC4NY: Were you familiar with the show before?
CJ: I did this show a long time ago, in Seattle. I played the same part but reading the script, I didn’t remember any of it. I was young -- I didn’t understand the character, and I couldn’t sing it like it needed to be sung. So I’ve been working really hard on what I call “my big boy voice,” so that I can be heard, I have stamina and I can stay within the confides of what the show is about and not pop-it-up. To honor this music, you can have your own flare, but it has to be within reason.

NBC4NY: You released your own album last year ("I'm Blue, Skies"). As you work on your next album, what’s it been like to write your own music?
CJ: Liberating. I started to write really when I was going through a lot of transitions in my life: getting sober, reexamining relationships. So much was changing and I needed an outlet. Music’s been the best way for me to describe myself. I learned to really stay true to what I’m feeling. I’m naturally theatrical so I like to write in minor for drama. Some songs are light and fluffy and some are big and bombastic. The thing that holds it all together is me -- my voice.

NBC4NY: You mentioned sobriety. How has it informed your work?
CJ: It’s informed my life. I was a high-functioning alcoholic. Practically nobody knew, not even my parents. I always showed up, I knew my lines, I looked okay. But I knew I had reached my highest level of potential with the way I was living. I wanted more and I wasn’t going to get to the next level until I got up before noon; until I got up without having my food on the floor so I wouldn’t have the spins. And now I am clear. I’m more open, I’m more free, I’m less scared, I’m less anxious.

NBC4NY: And you have five more hours in a day than you used to!
CJ: Exactly. Waking up at 6am and doing yoga or spinning, I’m training for a triathlon -- these are things I never thought I would do. I couldn’t believe people got up at 6am to walk their dogs. I was so naive and self-centered. I was in my own little actor land world where things were very myopic.

NBC4NY: Was it an issue of confidence?
CJ: Partly. I always felt like I was missing out. That’s why I drank and did drugs. I always felt like there was a party I hadn’t been to, or “Oh, where is everybody going now?” And finally I realized: I’ve been to every party, met everybody I wanted to meet and done everything I wanted to do. It’s time to just grow up and be accountable and have some integrity.

NBC4NY: Easier said then done.
CJ: Yeah, not easy. Especially in the gay community, where most of our interactions involve bars and parties. I thought, “Now my social life is over so what am I going to do?” But I realized, I’m going to be more fun because I’ll do the same stuff but I’ll remember it. And coming out again -- coming out as an alcoholic -- helped me. I have no secrets about it. No shame.

NBC4NY: You had a short-lived Broadway stint in the 2012 play, “The Performers.” When will we have you back again?
CJ: I'm looking for the right show. I want something new. People say what’s your dream role, and I say, “I don’t think it’s been written yet.” I want something that’s really catered to my sensibility.

NBC4NY: Maybe you’ll just have to write it yourself!
CJ: Funny enough, I’ve been writing a lot and really getting into the groove. I want to write a musical. And I have some ideas. So that’ll probably be in my future.

“The Most Happy Fella,” through April 6 at New York City Center on West 55th Street. Tickets start at $30, and can be purchased at the New York City Center Box Office (West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues), through CityTix, at (212) 581-1212, or online at NYCityCenter.org.

Contact Us