Harry Connick Jr. is stinking up Broadway and he knows it.
The singer, actor and musician has just cracked open a plastic container with his lunch and the powerful scent of salmon envelops him and a good-sized chunk of the empty seats around him in the St. James Theatre.
"This smells so bad, sorry," he says, digging in nonetheless with a rascal's grin. "I hate to eat in front of you, man. It smells disgusting."
Connick needs plenty of lean protein these days as he prepares to lead a reworked revival of "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" to its Broadway opening, a task that's taking a lot out of the Grammy- and Emmy Award-winner.
"Man, this is so different. It's by far the most intricate character I've had to play. Definitely the most emotionally demanding thing I've ever had to do on stage," he says in his slow New Orleans drawl.
The production takes a gender-bending twist to a musical with songs by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner that made its debut on Broadway in 1965 and was adapted into a 1970 film starring Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand.
In the original, a widowed psychologist hypnotizes a young woman to help her quit smoking but discovers that his patient in a previous life was a 1940s jazz singer — and promptly falls in love with the long-gone woman. In the update, the psychologist falls in love with the jazz singer while treating a gay man.
"It's an impossible love triangle. This young kid is gay, I'm straight, I'm attracted to her, she's in a different time, so we can't really be together," he says. "He can't be with me. I can't be with him."
Connick, who has recorded 24 albums and regularly tours with his blend of cool jazz, honky-tonk and big band standards, was well aware of the show's biggest songs — including "Come Back to Me," "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" and the haunting title tune — but wasn't a fan of the movie.
"It didn't make any sense," he says flatly.
So he was delighted when he read how the story had been reworked by Michael Mayer, the director of "Spring Awakening" and "American Idiot," and Peter Parnell, who supplied new book material. He calls Mayer brilliant and — in an even thicker Nor'Leans drawl — a "mamba jamba."
"For all intents and purposes, this is a new show. I mean, it's completely redone, reconceptualized," says Connick, 44. "It's kind of brilliant the way they did it. It makes it work. It gives it legs."
The rest of the cast includes David Turner, Jessie Mueller, Kerry O'Malley and Drew Gehling, but Connick is clearly the big draw. It's his name and face on the marquee of the St. James Theatre, but he shrugs off the suggestion that he's carrying the show.
"I never thought of myself as having pressure. I'm out there giving it all I have but I've never really cared about anything other than the performance itself. This sounds crazy, but I've never really cared about the reviews. There's only a few people that I really care what they think," he says. "I mean, you can't please everybody so you're crazy if you're going to start chasing rainbows."
Mueller, who is making her Broadway debut as Connick's love interest, says she was a fan of his music before she joined the production and has now watched as he steps into the role of leading man.
"He is one of the most positive, confident and humble people I've ever had the pleasure to meet," she wrote in an email. "It's a unique combination. People are going to come see this show because they love him, and they're going to get to see a side of him they've never seen before."
Connick is no stranger to Broadway, having starred in "The Pajama Game" in 2006, written music for the 2001 show "Thou Shalt Not," twice performed concert shows and picked up two Tony Award nominations. He says he keeps returning because of the collaborative, intense nature of Broadway.
"I respect these people, in a sense, more than anybody else in show business because of what they bring to the table. The people on this stage? They are freaky talented. They can do everything. And they're very unsung, especially the people in the ensemble," he says.
Connick, whose 20 films include the recent "Dolphin Tale" alongside Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, says his career as an actor and singer hasn't been mapped out. He chooses projects that appeal to him.
"It's all about 'what's out there that's really cool?' It might be a record. It might be a movie or a play," he says. "I like this process a lot. It's different than anything, man. I mean, this world is unique."
He likes the world so much that he's writing a children's musical, "The Happy Elf." The project started from a song on a Christmas album and has morphed into an animated special and a book. It's about an elf named Eubie who tries to convert a town of mean-spirited sad-sacks.
"Who knows?" Connick asks, "Maybe eventually it'll be a thing that can be performed in children's theaters."
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