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!