BWW Interviews: Q & A with BUYER & CELLAR'S Michael Urie
After a year in a hit run in New York, the award-winning Michael Urie has brought "Buyer & Cellar" (which tells the fictional story of an actor, Alex, who lands a gig working as a clerk in Barbra Streisand's basement mall) to Chicago as the first stop on its tour. Urie (whose credits include TV's "Ugly Betty" and Broadway's "How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying") spoke with BroadwayWorld about Barbra, Chicago audiences, and more:
What was your history with Barbra before you landed this role?
We dated in the 70s. Kidding. (Laughs) I was a fan of hers, but not a superfan. My mother is a big fan of hers and I learned about Barbra from my mom, if you can believe it. I have vivid memories of watching her '94 concert and listening to that concert album with my mom and my mom explaining why things were funny and why people loved her so much, and (that was her big comeback concert) why that was such a big deal. So I had a real appreciation and somewhat of a knowledge thanks to my mom. But, of course, once I was doing the play I got even deeper and further into it.
Have Chicago audiences been different than New York audiences? Are they reacting in different ways in different moments?
They have, yeah! I find the Chicago audiences - they're wonderful, first of all. They're also - I guess they're not as mean-spirited? (Laughs) There's a certain amount of snark in the play and New York audiences love it and eat it right up and pick up on it and Chicago audiences - a few of the snarkier jokes elicit laughter that turns into groans. You know, in a good way.
Was that weird the first time you got those different reactions?
I loved it! I thought it was great. I thought it was charming, actually. I find them to be charming.
The show is so conversational and when I saw it, it quickly felt like Alex was a friend of mine telling this story just to me. Do you find that audience members begin to react or talk back to you as if they are your friend?
It happens, it happens! Yes, occasionally they will talk back! Sometimes it's as simple as someone saying, "Yeah. Uh-huh. Ohhhhh," and sometimes it goes a little bit further. I once was in the middle of the more ridiculous sections of the play, with Barbra haggling over the price for her doll, and there's a certain point where a woman in the audience - this was in New York - a woman in the audience said, "You're kidding!" Out loud, everyone heard it. And, I immediately said, "I know, right?!" But, in hindsight, I wish I had said, "I am kidding, yes. This whole thing is a joke. It's a play, what you're watching, it's not real or based on anything real." (Laughs) But, yeah that happens from time to time, but I love it! I love it! I mean, I don't encourage it, but I love it! It always ends up being fun. If someone has a particularly silly laugh, I'll go nuts with them. Also, I don't know if you remember the Doris Roberts joke? I talk about how I was cast in a play with Doris Roberts, but that Doris Roberts ended up not doing it because she read the script. And, two times. This happened TWO separate times. I am doing the line, "But then Doris Roberts ended up not doing it because she -" and I pause for comic effect and, in the pause, two people, two separate performances, volunteered, "Died!" (Laughs) And, luckily, I was already opening my mouth and it didn't kill the moment entirely, but I just, you know...she is not dead! She is still alive!
What was the rehearsal process like preparing for a one-person show as opposed to preparing for a multiple-cast show?
Lonely! I was very lonely! It's hard to do. You know, in most rehearsals for theatre you have time offstage or you're not called every day or you're not called for the whole rehearsal process. But, this play I was there all day, every day, never had a break! And, it was hard, because there was no time to retain what you're learning. And, that's a big part of rehearsing a play: the retention. And, I didn't have any of that. Except my ten-minute Equity breaks. I would lay on the ground. I would not look at the script. I was far too tired to work on the script. Also, it had never been done before so we were figuring the play out and there were rewrites and there was a lot of trial and error, so it was challenging. And, luckily, the audience showed up and they laughed and it became a lot of fun and it made a lot of sense. But, I learned more in one night in front of an audience than four weeks in a rehearsal room. They tell you what's funny, they fill you in. They tell you what's working and what's not working.
Kind of going off of that, you're been doing this for over a year now, but when I saw you, it looked like you could have been telling the story for the first time. How do you keep it new for yourself while still staying true to the direction especially because you only have the audience to work off of?
Well, that's what keeps it fresh, actually, is working off of the audience. Because I have to go with whatever they're giving me and they're not the same. They're a different group of people every night, which is great. And, they are earnest. When you're working with other actors in a long run, you get tired of yourself, you get tired of them, they get tired of you, and you have to find ways of reinventing the experience of the play. But when you're all alone, I do get tired of myself, but I don't get tired of the audience because they're truly new every time. So, it's sort of like I get to play the show with a new costar every performance.
It's always Alex telling the stories and portraying the different characters, but you have found a way to perfect each person to be so distinctive and clear while still being the way that Alex would impersonate them. How did you achieve this and was this difficult?
Well, I have to credit the playwright, because he created that conceit that it's really one guy telling the story and then telling it well enough that he becomes other people. So, that became my goal. I was never forced to do an impression, obviously. I don't wear a putty nose or fake nails. Also, because it's not written like a sketch, it's written like a play, I was able to attack each character like I would if I was only playing one character. I really did the old character breakdown study for each part: what do other characters say about this character, what does this character say about him or herself? All that stuff was very helpful. And, also the scenes. What's great about the scenes is all the dialogue scenes are sort of conflict-ridden, so it's easier to jump from character to character when they're very different or their objectives are very different. And, that's where most of the comedy comes from is the situation. There are a lot of great, well-written jokes, and of course the characters are funny, but it's the situations that really bring the comedy.
In a couple of weeks you're going to be doing a reading of a play by the same playwright as "Buyer & Cellar" at About Face with your boyfriend. Can you tell me a bit about that?
It also started at the Rattlestick and also had a transfer to a commercial Off-Broadway run and I saw it when it was in New York several years ago. It's a wonderful play called 'The Last Sunday in June" that is about a group of friends who are in an apartment that overlooks Christopher Street on the day of the Gay Pride Parade. In New York, the Gay Pride Parade is always on the last Sunday in June, so that's where the title comes from. And, it's basically an ensemble dramedy about gay friends living in New York and I guess it takes place a few years ago - it's pre marriage equality. It's about where we are, what's happening, and at the center of the friends, the apartment is inhabited by this couple, which is played by me and Ryan. They're sort of figuring out what their relationship is. Where it's going and what they want. It's a very, very good play. Very funny, also quite moving. Like how John is in all of his plays; completely embodies these comic truths, these very funny plays that are also very truthful and heartwarming.
You've worn many hats in your career - you're an actor, director, you've produced things - what kind of projects are you looking forward to working on in the future?
I really wanna director more. Directing was probably my first dream and getting to do it was such an amazing, extremely gratifying experience and I'm dying to do it again.
Do you want to do stage or film?
Film. I'm too hammy to let someone else act in the play. (Laughs) I wouldn't be able to sit in the audience and watch! But, I love directing film. I actually think of directing film, because it's so much about pace and the tone and the timing, it's a lot like doing a one man show, I have to say. So, I really wanna do it again!
Catch Michael in "Buyer & Cellar," at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place (175 Chestnut St, Chicago), playing now through June 15th, 2014. Tickets can be purchased at www.BroadwayinChicago.com or by calling (800) 775-2000.
Photo Credit: Sandra Coudert