Thursday, April 22, 2010
Q: Tell me about the character you're playing in How to Succeed...
Smitty - tough cookie with a heart of gold - my favorite kind of musical comedy character.
Q: You were great in the shortened version of Promises, Promises two years ago in the S.T.A.G.E. benefit honoring Burt Bacharach. Talk a little about S.T.A.G.E.
Something magical happens at S.T.A.G.E. Each year a very generous,talented group of actors come together to raise money for aids. David (Galligan)works selflessly for the cause, he's absolutely brilliant, his humor is infectious, and he inspires. Thusly the productions are infused with a lot of passion and heart.
Q: David Galligan has talked about possibly doing an abridged version of Funny Girl with you at S.T.A.G.E. Tell me about that.
That is a dream of mine to do Funny Girl with Galligan.
Q: What have you been up to recently and what's next after How to Succeed...?
I just finished filming Den Brother for Disney, which will be released in 2011. This summer I am playing Mama Rose in Gypsy at North Shore.
Q: You're a busy gal! Who are your favorite performers?
Judy Garland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elaine Stritch. They all share gut wrenching honesty, pathos, vulnerability and they step out of their vanity and allow themselves to be unattractive - incredibly brave.
Q: Do you enjoy working in musical comedy the most?
I do. I love working in film and television, but there's always a part of me that's waiting for the song - it feels as if there's something missing.
Q: What is your favorite role?
Mama Rose. I did the production last year with Marcia Milgrim Dodge ( an incredibly inspired director) - there's a strength, a rage, a broken quality to her that is very fulfilling to perform.
Q: You also have some exciting news to share, correct?
My debut solo album East Of Midnight will be available on itunes in May.
Vicki Lewis is a stellar character actress/comedienne. Don't miss her in How to Succeed in Business... for Reprise Theatre Company opening May 11 at the Freud.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
singer Michele Lee will appear in S.T.A.G.E. benefit's Original Cast on May 1 at the Luckman Theatre. Star of stage, screen and TV, Lee starred on Broadway with Robert Morse in How to Succeed in Businees Without Really Trying (1961-65) and then repeated the role of Rosemary on film in 1967, Bravo Giovanni in 1962, Seesaw in 1973, winning a Drama Desk Award as Best Actress and a Tony nomination as Best Actress in a Musical and in Charles Busch's comedy The Tale of the Allergist's Wife (2000-2002), receiving a Tony nomination as Best Featured Actress in a Play.
On the big screen she is best remembered for Disney's The Love Bug in 1968 and for playing Ben Stiller's mother in Along Came Polly in 2004...and on TV for 14 consecutive seasons in all 344 episodes as everyone's favorite neighbor Karen MacKenzie on the longest running prime-time soap in TV history Knots Landing (1979-1993). In our chat, Lee talks fondly about Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and Seesaw and other theatrical loves.
Q: You deserved a Tony Award for Seesaw! You were wonderful in it.
I so appreciate that. There's that old saying that You don't appreciate what you've got until you don't have it. It was one of the most glorious times I've ever had playing a character. There were changes going on with the show...and I remember so fondly Michael Bennett, who left us much too early (writer, director, choreographer).
Q: Tell me about the "Finale: I'm Way Ahead" from Seesaw, which you're doing for S.T.A.G.E.'s Original Cast. It's a lot like "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy, don't you think?
It really is! Well...Seesaw was in trouble in the last months before we opened. Michael Bennett, Tommy Tune and I came into it, just a few weeks before the Broadway opening. Michael had a vision that was new. As I was memorizing lines, they were being thrown out or rewritten. And the music...this was Dorothy Field's (lyrics) last show...most of the songs stayed. At one point Neil Simon was "doctoring" the show. His scenes were mind-boggling funny. Michael and I ...I know this sounds braggadocio, but that's the way it was...would stay up until 3 in the morning during previews, editing the show. We were trying to get it down to an acceptable size, because it was so long. The music...I think is one of the best scores ever...the cd is one of the best produced cast albums. Anyway, the finale "I'm Way Ahead" didn't have enough emotional balance or what they thought it needed for a curtain. It needed an embellishment, so Cy Coleman (music) wrote ..."Rose's Turn" (she laughs) At rehearsal, on this very old out of tune piano Cy Coleman played me the new finale. And...we opened the next night. I might do it for the S.T.A.G.E. benefit...I do have, now on cds...I recorded it originally on my old recorder in 1973...Cy Coleman teaching me the Seesaw finale with Dorothy Fields in the background shouting "Stop already!" That's the true story of the "Seesaw Finale". That time was the most, most fun!
Q: Tell me about Mame that you did at the Hollywood Bowl a couple of years back.
I had to learn the whole show in a 10-day rehearsal period. We had our dress rehearsal in the morning, opened that night...and closed that night. It's like...what the hell did I do? It was such a task. I had so many costume changes. We did hair changes; I might have had 4 wigs. To do the show right, you need more time. It's such a Herculean feat, that you better do it more than one night. Now they do 3 shows over a weekend, but then it was only one night. You know what I love...I always like to bite off a little more than I can chew, to prove to yourself that you can do it.
Q: You were terrific as that Auntie Mame type character in Charles Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. Have you done any other plays recently?
A couple months back I did Nora Ephron's, with her sister Delia, Love, Loss and What I Wore, which was a huge hit. It's 5 women, a little reminiscent of that other women's...female part of the body (she teases) ... (The Vagina Monologues). I do whatever I can in New York until I get a musical.
Q: You deserve to get one! You're still in great voice.
Thank you. I don't know how, but I've managed to keep it in pretty good shape. I have my one-woman show and I do concerts at performing arts centers. People like Michael Feinstein, who sing every night practically, get to the point that they don't have to vocalize, because it's always there, as the muscles are toned, but when you sing more sporadically, like Seesaw to the Hollywood Bowl (she laughs), you have to warm up a little bit. Now, it's OK, because I sing more often.
Q: Who's your favorite Broadway performer?
There are so many incredible people. But, when you think of an Angela Lansbury... I just saw her in A Little Night Music. I must say if there's anybody, who year after year just...if there's any such thing as getting better...she fits so gracefully into the new kind of roles that she can play, with such a gusto and a love. You can see the love that she has for what she does, in everything she does. And she's at a point in time where she just has to stick her head out of the curtain, and the audience goes crazy.
Q: What's one of your favorite new shows on Broadway?
There are so many wows. I'll tell you what blew me away, the new production of South Pacific. It's a couple of years old now, but what blew me away was...you think you know the musicals that have been around for so many years. To make it work for today, they have to have a gimmick (she laughs and sings) "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" (from Gypsy)...and often it doesn't work. South Pacific is one of the best musicals ever, but it doesn't make it if you don't have the right eye, the right director. But this new production is superb in every detail. I cried as an audience member, because we can all identify with it.
Q: What's your favorite musical of all time?
Gypsy. I think it's one of the best musicals ever written, ever, ever. It's like Medea. No matter what, you can always relate to the mother and the child, the parent and child struggle. Even though all of us don't have the same kind of dysfunctional relationship, you see the underpinnings of this character Rose to such a degree. Gypsy was the first Broadway musical I ever saw. With Ethel Merman. I was sitting in the orchestra with my mother. My parents were New Yorkers. I was born in Los Angeles. I was already doing little theatre. I was coming to New York, and my mother said "Wait until you see the theatre in New York!" For me, at that point, New York was tall buildings. Then when I listened to that overture and saw the curtains parting and the stage, it was like "Oh, this is New York. Now I get it!"
Then years later when I saw Tyne Daly do Gypsy... she's such an exquisite actress that when she did "Rose's Turn", I wept. I felt her pain. This musical will be forever. It doesn't matter about the time. It could have been in the 1600s, the 1700s or 20...whatever we're going to end up being...
Q: You should do Gypsy here in LA.
Oh, God, you get to a place..there have been so many productions of it...but I should do it for me. It's one of those roles I'd kill for! (she laughs)
Q: Let's talk a little bit about Knots (Landing). I got so caught up in that show, because I felt like you were all a part of my family.
I think the show as drama was so much more than just a soap. The first year we were on, we were self-contained stories. The second, they decided to make us continung stories. We had unbelievable competition on the other networks, but we became a hit. As soon as we became a hit, the other series started to have continuing story arcs as well.
Q: So, you were a great forerunner! Would you like to do another series, maybe a sitcom?
I would love to do a sitcom. But there are limits today due to reality shows, etc. But, yes, that's another something that would attract me.
Q: Is there anything that we've failed to talk about?
My sex life!
She emits a huge and deeply feisty laugh that is reminiscent of her Gittel Mosca character in Seesaw: funny, gutsy, down-to-earth, warm and lovable. What a doll!
Versatile Michele Lee is bound to be around for a long, long time to come onscreen or better still in a great big Broadway musical like Gypsy or something newly created just for her. She's one of a rare breed of performers that have earned their place at the top and deserve to remain there. Don't miss her in S.T.A.G.E.'s Original Cast for one night only on Saturday, May 1 at the Luckman Theatre, along with a bevy of other stars!
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Q: When and how did The Life and Times of A. Einstein begin?
It’s interesting…this show has had a couple of different versions. The first version was in the 80s as a four character piece. Einstein wasn’t a character in it. It was sort of this play within a play, a high concept idea I had. It was a great idea that didn’t fully work. Over the years people were always so interested in the secretary character…I would put it away, come back to it…it eventually evolved into the one character piece with the secretary. I was always interested in Einstein like a lot of folks- just fascinated by this iconic man and just that face alone…stops you.
Q: So, you were not a science major in college or someone with a tremendous scientific curiosity?
Not at all. When I think back on it, it was more of an unconscious attraction initially. But, after a lot of reading about him and his life, trying to understand his work, which I don’t really…only to a small degree, I think it was the man’s amazing courage to be able to think in a new way, think differently about some of the basic principles of science that he rejected in order to find the Theory of Relativity. It took enormous courage and belief in himself, the ability…the courage to not be afraid to go against the ingrained accepted theories of Newtonian physics…the Newtonian mechanical principles of nature. I think it was that courage to go his own way that I related to, there being a kind of maverick and not really caring what people thought. All of this was attracting me more than I knew.
Q: What is the secretary’s real name?
The real secretary’s name is Helen Dukas. I renamed her Ellen. I was thinking, What can I do theatrically on Einstein? What would be interesting? …Something that I would also like to perform in. I began reading different biographies, and the secretary was always mentioned. They didn’t go into her life at all… “and his stalwart secretary Helen Dukas…” She was 17 years old when she came to work for him and moved in with them. She wasn’t just someone who came to work every day. She became a part of the family and stayed there for the rest of her life into the 80s. Einstein died in the 50s, but she stayed in the house in Princeton, New Jersey and managed his estate until her own death. What an interesting character!
Q: But, in the books you read, they never gave you an idea about her character other than the fact that she was loyal?
No. I thought, if I’m going to make this about Einstein through the secretary, I have to imagine a life for this woman, her conflicts, and her own feelings and emotional life. That’s how the piece evolved.
Q: It had to be challenging, because you were starting from the ground up!
It was. I took the bare facts and extrapolated on them as a writer. I did my own ‘psychologizing’. She was a German Jewish woman. I wondered why she spoke English, because Einstein didn’t speak English when he came to this country. I imagined that she worked for a publisher who translated material…I just made that up. Not very long ago I found out that indeed she was a secretary for a publisher who printed in English.
Q: Quite an intelligent guess!
A little spooky moment! I really channeled that woman! I got a kick out of that. Einstein’s son who was a mechanical engineer and taught at UC Berkeley believed that they had an affair at one time. There is other material out now that is suggestive of that. Even before that I had suggested it in the piece, but I didn’t want to make that a major issue in the story.
Q: Tell us about the structure of the play.
I was over in Pasadena at the second largest Einstein archives at Cal Tech. I came upon a little newspaper article, it was 1945…it said: Today is Albert Einstein’s birthday; he will be celebrating quietly with his friends; there will be no press conference…and I thought, “Oh! I like that, it’s his birthday and he has decided to give a press conference”…and that became the premise. He’s just arrived in the United States from Germany, he’s settling in Princeton, New Jersey; they’ve been here about a month and he’s in an interview. He was always hounded by the press. He was a huge celebrity. No other scientist ever captured the public imagination like he did. It’s an interview he’s granting to actually discuss matters in Europe: he would like our government to get more involved with helping Jews get assistance in getting out of Nazi Germany. Though the premise was really to say hello…and get the press off his back. He’s late in arriving, so the secretary is sort of filling in until he gets there. But…he never gets there. She fields questions, and it gets more complicated trying to explain his theories, and then in her own funny way she gets caught up in her own personal memories and frustrations of trying to run this household. Time changes during the piece and you go to two other press conferences. It goes through about 25 years, so it’s a little time travel piece in one act.
Q: Where did you do the original piece?
In 1982 or 83, in its four character state here at Theatre West. Then I rewrote it and it was done at Taper Too at the John Anson Ford Theatre. After that, I put it away for a long, long time. In the late 90s I revisited it…people were always saying “this is a wonderful idea, but what you’re trying to do just doesn’t quite work. The secretary is so compelling…why don’t you just stick with her?” So that’s what the work has been. In the last five years, I’ve been out on that booking circuit, at colleges and universities for one night or two night runs. I’ve done quite a few of those. I did put it on its feet, I think in 1999 at the Fremont Centre in Pasadena and it got a really good response. Then I put it away and five years later pulled it out again for rewrites. So, this new version will really be the first full run. It’s been a long process.
Q: Let’s talk about your other play about Isadora Duncan.
I was awfully young when I put that together. I saw the movie with Vanessa Redgrave; I was so inspired, I read the biography of Isadora. I wanted to take some of the writings from her autobiography and make a monologue out of it. I tried it out on workshop night at Theatre West and everyone said I should keep working on it. It worked into a 45-minute play that I put up for a couple of nights. I also tour with that. It’s a tough show to do, very physical. The last years of Isadora’s life were a real struggle, so it’s a challenge to play her.
Q: Your husband Paul Gersten is directing Einstein. Is this your first collaboration?
We’ve been working together the last seven years. Paul was a commercial food photographer for many years; now he’s teaching. He’s always directed theatre stuff, and it’s just been wonderful to do this together.
Q: Who is your favorite writer?
What jumps to mind right away is Samuel Beckett.
Q: Why? What makes him an inspiration?
I’ve always loved the absurdists. Many of my pieces tend to be absurd. I did a film with my son called Rope based on a short piece I wrote. It’s been out on the independent film circuit. It’s absurdist, very offbeat. I also love Chekhov, Anouilh, Pirandello. Sartre, No Exit. Since I was a young actress, I’ve always been attracted to the European writers and the more avant-garde stuff. I also love Christopher Durang, John Guare, Murray Schisgal.
Q: Do you have a preference for comedy or drama?
My sensibility is to find as much humor as possible. That’s my predilection. As an audience member, I love to laugh and to be moved. When you can do both, it’s really kind of wonderful. Einstein’s humor comes from the fact that Einstein was a very funny man. A real kibitzer, he loved a good joke. It’s very much in the spirit of him.
Q: In short, what do you want us to learn from The Life and Times of A. Einstein?
There was so much control over the Einstein image, kind of like over Tiger Woods currently. It’s now a known fact that Einstein was a womanizer. Who would have ever guessed? The secretary constantly shielded him and his personal life from the press. Her story is so impressive. She never married and took only one vacation during her whole lifetime. What devotion!
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A. EINSTEIN OPENS APRIL 10 AT THEATRE WEST
Written and performed by Kres Mersky. Directed by Paul Gersten. Produced by Jill Jones. Season producer: Jill Jones. Theatre West executive director: John Gallogly. Presented by Theatre West.
Theatre West is located at 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, in Los Angeles, CA 90068. This is in proximity to North Hollywood, Universal City and Studio City. There is FREE parking in a lot across the street.
The play runs April 10- May 16, 2010. Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m.
RESERVATIONS: (323) 851-7977.
ONLINE TICKETING: www.theatrewest.org