Hugh Sheridan: ‘I was overwhelmed with grief – I couldn’t believe that people could turn so quickly’

After a public brawl over his casting in a queer musical, then coming out as non-binary and bisexual, Sheridan has had a tough few years in the spotlight. He talks about what happened and starring in tick, tick… Boom!

It was Bertrand Russell who diagnosed the world’s problem, that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves and wise people are so full of doubts. Actors somehow have to be both simultaneously: foster an unwavering self-belief while nurturing a tremulous self-doubt. Topple too far into the former and you’ll become incapable of the sensitivity and compassion that allow actors to inhabit another persona; let the latter take over and you’ll be incapable of performing at all.

It’s a tightrope Hugh Sheridan had to navigate long before he agreed to take on the role of Jonathan Larson in Larson’s autobiographical musical, tick, tick… Boom! Pulled into an ugly public brawl over his casting in the queer punk rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch in 2020, Sheridan has wrestled with uncertainty and determination ever since.

“It was a shitty year,” Sheridan says, during a break in rehearsals. “At the time, I was overwhelmed with grief and sadness. I just couldn’t believe that people could turn so quickly. And I didn’t really do anything other than accept a job.”

The controversy centred on Sheridan’s casting as Hedwig, a character who is coerced into a sex-change operation as part of a plan to escape East Berlin. Some considered Hedwig to be a trans character and were angered that Sheridan got the job at the expense of a trans actor; thousands signed a petition to have him removed from the role.

John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, the musical’s creators, came to Sheridan’s defence, saying the role was never intended to represent trans people “because Hedwig does not freely choose a trans life … the role does not have to be played by a trans actor” – though they were “so pleased” trans and non-binary people saw themselves in it.

But Sheridan was dumped by the production at the request of activists – some from the LGBTQ+ community, some who were straight and cisgender. Later attempts by the producers to recast the role were unsuccessful, so they asked Sheridan back. Initially, Sheridan said yes, then decided it would be detrimental to his mental health.

“At the end of the day, Hedwig was cancelled. No one saw it, no one got to do it. We all lost our jobs,” Sheridan says.

Hugh Sheridan.
‘No one saw it, no one got to do it. We all lost our jobs’ … Hugh Sheridan. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

There is an embittering irony in the saga, as Sheridan was in the process of coming out as both bisexual and non-binary at the time the casting was announced (Sheridan happily uses both male and they/them pronouns). For an actor whose public persona had been built around the robustly heterosexual character he played on TV’s Packed to the Rafters, it felt like he was being turned on by his own people, “which was really annoying, because I’d not really hidden anything, I’d just not talked about it because I’d enjoyed my privacy”.

What happened to Sheridan echoes the more recent experience of Heartstopper’s teenage star Kit Connor, who was bullied into coming out as bisexual by the very fans who had made the LGBTQ+ show a runaway success. What happened to Sheridan also poses a thorny question on the public’s right to know an actor’s sexual and gender identity – in the quest to level an undeniably discriminatory playing field, are we in danger of persecuting people for the very attributes we are fighting to legitimise?

Sheridan’s response in the intervening years has been to simply “push on”. He mounted a Neil Diamond tribute show, Solitary Man, and an extremely personal solo show called Hughman, the title of which could be read as a rejoinder to labels and sexual categories. But it is this new role, as the doomed figure of Jonathan Larson, the creator of hit Broadway musical Rent who sadly died of an aortic dissection days before the show’s premiere, that has truly invigorated Sheridan’s love of the craft.

“Doing this show feels like destiny,” Sheridan enthuses. “I feel like he is right there in the corner of my periphery.”

Tick, tick… Boom! was written in 1990 for Larson to perform as a musical monologue, but it was posthumously expanded into the three-actor piece Sheridan stars in now. The show details the excruciating precariousness and intermittent joys of creative endeavour, and deals with that perennial question all artists face: how long should I persevere? Should I pack it in or die trying?

“How weird and fortuitous that the show is called tick, tick… Boom! He wrote the opening monologue five years before he died, saying ‘I just feel that something is about to happen, and I’m going to die having achieved nothing’,” Sheridan says. “And sadly, when he did die, he would have felt exactly that. He didn’t have a car, he didn’t have life insurance.” That is the poignant tragedy sitting just outside the frame of this work, the show’s meta-theatrical dramatic irony writ large.

It is also a necessary tonic to the gut-busting self-adoration Larson displays throughout. Tick, tick… Boom! often feels like a one-man cheer squad for the self, all the other characters merely foils to the composer’s world-altering genius. The character seems totally lacking in self-doubt, even when played by an actor of fine sensibility like Andrew Garfield, who portrays Larson in the film adaptation.

But Sheridan does see insecurity and self-laceration in Larson – mixed in with professional grit, and a great respect for the towering icons of musical theatre who came before. These include Stephen Sondheim, who appears as a character in tick, tick… Boom!, and who was a major source of inspiration for Larson – as a mentor – and Sheridan both.

“I met Sondheim when I was playing in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He came out and I got to sing for him,” Sheridan says. “But years before that I chased him out of a theatre in New York, at Gypsy.” He tells an endearing story of fandom and the awkwardness of meeting one’s idol: “He was just really confused, and I could see him thinking, ‘kid, just get away!’” It’s the kind of chutzpah you could easily imagine Larson himself displaying.

Perhaps this is why Sheridan feels so at home in the role – leaning on Larson’s self-belief to help shake off the doubts after public disappointment and rejection.

“We walked the same streets and were friends with the same people,” Sheridan says. “[In playing him] my overwhelming instinct is just to relax, and let him come to me.”

  • tick, tick… Boom! is on at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne 1-12 February, then at QPAC in Brisbane 1-5 March and at Lyric Theatre in Sydney 20-26 April


Tim Byrne

The GuardianTramp

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