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by Michael Portantiere

Michael McKean Hops Aboard The Band Wagon

  • Michael-McKean-2.jpgMichael McKean would have an honored place in entertainment history if only as co-creator and co-star of one of the funniest, most brilliant films ever made: This Is Spinal Tap. (If you haven't seen it, you may think I'm exaggerating; if you have seen it, you know I'm not.) But there's much, much more than that on Michael's resume, from his role of Lenny on the classic TV sitcom Laverne and Shirley to lots of theater: six Broadway shows, including two musicals, Hairspray and The Pajama Game, over the past 12 years. He's even writing a musical with his wife, Annette O'Toole.

    He's currently on view as Lester Martin in the City Center Encores! "special event" production of The Band Wagon (November 6-16), in the company of such notables as Brian Stokes Mitchell and Tracey Ullman. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, the show is based on the beloved M-G-M movie musical of the same title, with a book by Douglas Carter Beane adapted from the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and with music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Howard Dietz. Michael has been writing a highly recommended blog about the rehearsal process, so when I met him recently at City Center, we talked briefly about the show but also about several of his other projects and achievements.


    BROADWAYSTARS: Welcome back to musical theater! Aside from your involvement with The Band Wagon, according to Wikipedia, "McKean is apparently writing his own musical with O'Toole."

    MICHAEL McKEAN: Yes. O'Toole and I have been working on it kind of sporadically, because things keep coming up. But the last time we worked on it, we booted out about five characters -- we had so many -- and gave their songs to other characters. We're going off to Hawaii soon for 10 days, with all the kids. But the kids are grownups know, so we can say, "Go, explore, get lost," and we can do a little brainstorming there. It's a good show.

    STARS: Do you want to talk about it further?

    McKEAN: No, it's too early.

    STARS: I was so upset when I read about the accident you had a couple of years ago, because it sounded quite serious.

    McKEAN: Well -- it was one of those things where, if you come through it okay, then you have to look for the humor in it, or just the irony and strangeness. I have no cautionary tale. I can't say "Be careful when you cross the street," because I wasn't crossing the street, I was on the curb. One car hit another, and they kind of double-teamed me. But then the brilliant EMTs came and took me to St. Luke's, the hospital I'd been born in -- not only that, but the floor I'd been born on. That particular part of St. Luke's used to be the Manhattan Women's Hospital, and in those days, the maternity ward, where I was born, was on the fourth floor. And that's where I wound up after my accident. So when I looked out the window, that probably would have been my first ever look out a window.

    STARS: Amazing. As I said, the reports of the accident made it sound pretty bad.

    McKEAN: I broke my tibia in two places. I now have a metal rod in my leg. And the fibula snapped, but they don't fix those, because it's a bird bone and you don't need it anyway.

    STARS: It seemed like you bounced back very quickly.

    McKEAN: Yes. The next thing I did on the stage was The Exonerated, which my friend Bob Balaban asked me to do. One of the guys I was working with was an older actor who had had a broken hip that he was still kind of dealing with. I thought, "Well, I didn't have that problem." That's the thing; if you get hurt and you go to rehab, you're always going to meet people who are much worse off than you are, and you thank your lucky stars.

    STARS: I must tell you, I saw your Broadway debut in 1990, in Accomplice. Comedy/thriller by Rupert Holmes, co-starring Jason Alexander. Fifty-two performances.

    McKEAN: Yeah, that was a lot of fun. I'm sorry it didn't run a little longer. Rupert is still a pal of mine, and Jason. One problem was that the critics went out of the way to tip our hand that it was a play within the play. I thought, "How about not? Hate the play, the cast, the direction. Fine. But don't give away our main gag." That's just bullshit.

    STARS: Your theater work over the past few years has been very eclectic. You've done two musicals, and plays by Harold Pinter, Gore Vidal, Tracy Letts, Robert Schenkkan...

    McKEAN: You forgot Bill Shakespeare; I did Gloucester down at the Public, with Sam Waterston. I've been really lucky -- not just with the plays, but I've had an amazing stream of directors, too. I keep thinking, "What am I doing right?" You get the right director and, whatever else is going on, you know you're in good hands. One of the great things about the theater is that you get to tell the whole story in one sitting. When you're doing film or TV, it's piecemeal; you die on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday, you're back having breakfast with the Pope, or whatever. But in theater, it's your responsibility as an actor to get through the whole story and tell them what you need to tell them. And we're in 3-D. Every single play I've ever done has been in 3-D.

    STARS: Without glasses.

    McKEAN: Yes!

    STARS: Have you ever felt star struck by some of your colleagues?

    McKEAN: Not exactly star struck, but I've certainly worked with people whose work I've admired greatly, and they've all turned out to be so sharp and so smart. I can't think of any time when I've felt...

    STARS: Disappointed?

    McKEAN: Never. And some of them, I've become very close to.

    STARS: I'm looking forward to The Band Wagon. I'm curious as to how much of an adaptation it's going to be. All of the main characters' names are the same as in the film...

    McKEAN: Well, I'm not playing Oscar Levant, because Oscar Levant had that down. Roughly, the characters Lily and Lester are based on Comden and Green. I was always a big fan of theirs. My parents had the original cast album of A Party With Comden and Green; I played that so much, the LP was worn down. I'm not playing Adolph any more than Tracey is playing Betty, but it's still fun to inhabit them to some extent. The story is roughly the same as the movie. It's about the clash of different styles in working to put on a show, then deciding, "Hey, let's just do the show that people will like." It's not a deep message, but hopefully it's one that the audience will agree with. You know, "I'm glad you're doing this show instead of the musical version of Oedipus Rex."

    Published on Tuesday, November 4, 2014

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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