GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Michael X. Martin of 'Ragtime'
A childhood in the dance studio, musical theater training at a conservatory, and then start hitting those open calls. That’s one path many follow into gypsy-dom. Michael X. Martin, who tallied enough Broadway chorus credits to earn the Gypsy Robe on Ragtime’s opening night, followed another. He didn’t take dancing or singing classes as a kid. He majored in English and performed only sporadically until senior year in college. And he came to New York in his mid 30s, a veteran actor of Shakespeare and other nonmusical classics.
His résumé since moving to NYC isn’t typically gypsy, either. In addition to ensemble tracks in Ragtime and six previous musicals—9 to 5, All Shook Up, Man of La Mancha, Oklahoma, Kiss Me, Kate and Les Misérables—his Broadway credits include featured roles in Curtains and 1776. He’s played principal roles off-Broadway and regionally, and even gotten to do some of musical theater’s most coveted leads, like Javert and Don Quixote, on Broadway as an understudy.
What has been typical in Martin’s career, for gypsies and all other performers, are the ups and downs. For Martin, 2009 started with ups: He’d just wrapped a run at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles of a brand-new musical, 9 to 5, that was slated for a spring debut on Broadway. The last new musical he’d done at the Ahmanson, Curtains, had also moved to Broadway and ran for nearly a year and a half—through June 2008—with Martin playing the part of Johnny the stage manager the whole time. But then came some downs. 9 to 5 didn’t impress critics and closed after just four months. In the fall, Martin was back on Broadway in the revival of Ragtime, which did impress critics—possibly more than the original 1998 production had. But it struggled from the start at the box office, and rumors quickly started swirling that it would shutter after the holidays. They, unfortunately, proved true, as Ragtime is scheduled to close this Sunday, Jan. 10, less than two months after opening.
Martin’s attitude toward the ups and downs of the business: “If you expect anything more than what is guaranteed you in the contract—for you to go, I think this is really going to be a big hit—you’re setting yourself up for a fall. As far as how long a show runs, that is anybody’s guess at anybody’s time.” The short lives of his most recent Broadway efforts have not marred his memories of them. He remembers 9 to 5 as “great fun... Dolly Parton was wonderful, and I really liked working with Joe Mantello.” And he recalls that “the audience, on a nightly basis, was going nuts for the show: standing, screaming. I’m not exaggerating: When those three women would come down [for the curtain call] every night, there would be a roar from the audience.
“Usually, shows with that kind of response run longer than four months,” he adds, “so that was a little baffling and disheartening.” As for Ragtime, in recent weeks it too has had “insane” audiences, according to Martin. “You just have to scratch your head: To do two in a row that would have that audience response and have them both close so quickly, you kind of feel like there’s no gravity. As I told my wife, there’s no one in the world more leery of a sure thing than me.” The only conclusion he can draw about Ragtime’s fate is “That’s just the nature of the business. The bottom line is, every night you’re still going out and doing your job and trying to make it all work.”
Martin’s roles in Ragtime include two historical figures, J.P. Morgan and Admiral Peary. Though he didn’t need to do any research since, he says, director Marcia Milgrom Dodge is “a research hound, [who] provides you with an unbelievable amount—volumes and volumes,” Martin found some additional information of his own online. He’d also read the E.L. Doctorow novel on which the show’s based (though he’d never seen the movie or any stage production of it). “There were some great scenes in the book that involved J.P. Morgan that you don’t see in the play; that’s research material right there, even though Doctorow may have taken some liberties,” says Martin, describing his process of re-creating someone from real life: “I don’t look anything like Morgan, so I thought, Okay, this is where I try to infuse the character with the same intentions he had. He’s the richest man in the world—you have to have a certain decisiveness about you, you’re used to getting your own way... The scene where there’s a hostage in his library and he has to wait outside until they coax Coalhouse Walker out. Well, he was probably a man who wasn’t used to waiting for anything, ever. Something like that can inform the character. Or you read that he had this huge red nose, and he would catch people looking at it and he would just glare back—I guess he had a glare that could melt steel. You might find places to slip that in, not that you want that to govern your whole performance.”