'The Boy from Oz' celebrates Peter Allen

New Broadway musical renews interest in performer's work

Sunday, October 19, 2003

— It seems to have been Peter Allen's fate to be overshadowed by other stars.

When he died in 1992 -- by which time he had scored an Academy Award, recorded 10 albums and starred on Broadway -- Allen was still identified in obituaries as the man who had been discovered by Judy Garland and was the first husband of her daughter, Liza Minnelli.

His songs, too, were hits mostly for other performers: Melissa Manchester with "Don't Cry Out Loud," Olivia Newton-John with "I Honestly Love You." Even "The Boy From Oz," the new Broadway musical about him that has renewed interest in his work, is causing a stir mostly because of the actor playing Allen: Hugh Jackman.

"Peter was never a name," says Carole Bayer Sager, a frequent songwriting collaborator of Allen's. "He didn't have a No. 1 record of his own, and people in the Midwest didn't know him. He was kind of a cult figure."

At its peak, though, Allen's cult was huge, at least in New York City. He sold out Radio City Music Hall so often in the early 1980s that he was named the concert hall's official personality. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch once called Allen his favorite entertainer.

His performances were distinguished by visual extravagance and Allen's seemingly unflagging energy. At one of his Radio City concerts, he came on stage astride a camel, flanked by a battalion of Rockettes. His costumes were similarly outrageous: all gold lame, sequins and gaping collars.

"He was very savvy about what his audience wanted to see -- great costumes, great pacing," says Ann-Margret, a friend of Allen's who still closes her cabaret shows with a song he wrote for her, "Once Before I Go."

But in contrast to his outgoing performance style, friends remember Allen as an intensely private man who shared little about his personal life even with those close to him.

Few friends knew he had HIV, for example, until his final days. And he rarely spoke about his childhood, which had been shaded by his father's suicide when Allen was 13.

Keep feelings inside

"He just kept everything inside," says Ann-Margret. His personal philosophy, she says, was, "Don't show anyone you're crying, and if you're hurting, don't show anyone."

He expressed those feelings in song with "Don't Cry Out Loud," which he wrote with Sager and recorded for a solo album in 1979. Manchester's version hit in 1978.


AP Photo

HUGH JACKMAN, LEFT CENTER, as Peter Allen and Mitchel David Federan as Young Peter appear in a dance number with company members of the new Broadway musical "The Boy From Oz." Allen sold out Radio City Music Hall in the early 1980s. HUGH JACKMAN, LEFT CENTER, as Peter Allen and Mitchel David Federan as Young Peter appear in a dance number with company members of the new Broadway musical "The Boy From Oz." Allen sold out Radio City Music Hall in the early 1980s.

"I wasn't writing that song thinking it was about Peter, but in retrospect, it does echo his personality," Sager says. "He didn't believe in crying on anyone's shoulder."

Allen had wanted to be a performer since his childhood in rural Australia. Born Peter Woolnough in 1944, he was performing in bars by the time he was 12, playing piano and mimicking the rock 'n' roll moves of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

In the 1960s, he partnered with another local boy -- Chris Bell -- to form an act called the Allen Brothers. The act was managed by Bell's father, who booked them on concert tours of Australia and Asia.

Garland caught the Allen Brothers in 1964 in Hong Kong, where she was also performing. The Associated Press reported then that an enraptured Garland could be heard yelling, "Marvelous!" as she watched the show, and afterward introduced herself to Bell and Allen.

She took the two under her wing, becoming their manager and booking them as the opening act for later concerts she gave in Britain and the United States.

"Peter hit all those places that touched her," says cabaret singer Julie Wilson, who knew Allen and Garland through a vocal coach the three shared (Wilson also starred in Allen's 1988 Broadway flop, "Legs Diamond"). "He had the heart, the energy -- the same magical things she had."

Garland also introduced Allen to her daughter, Minnelli. The two married in 1967, although by then Allen had already begun to have affairs with men. One such tryst, recounted in "The Boy From Oz," apparently got the Allen Brothers fired from a gig in Australia in the early 1960s.

"I do believe that Peter did love Liza and there was a relationship there," says Sager. "I don't know how long it stayed sexual, but I don't believe it was a set-up marriage from day one."

'Tough relationship'

He and Minnelli separated in 1970. In the same year, he cut off his professional relationship with Bell to pursue a solo career, writing songs with Sager, lyricist Dean Pitchford and others.

"I watched him evolve as a performer. He was shy at the beginning, but then all the sudden his shoulder was leaning in, then one leg would go up on the piano. By the time he hit Radio City, he was on top of the piano," Sager says with a laugh.

In 1972, Allen began a long-term relationship with Gregory Connell, a model from Texas who was six years his junior. Connell eventually became Allen's lighting director and stage manager. Their relationship was close but limited by Allen's professional commitments and outside affairs, friends say.