BWW Interview: MICHAEL BARRA (I) of A BRONX TALE
Connecticut has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to established actors who have homes here, so it means that much more to Connecticut theatre lovers when one of their own residents works his way through any of its many community theatres and then gets to Broadway. One such actor is Michael Barra (I), a native of Durham. He is featured in the critically acclaimed musical, A Bronx Tale, now playing at the Longacre Theatre co-directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks.
His first role was as "Wilbur" in Charlotte's Web while he was in first grade. Long before graduating from Coginchaug Regional High School and attending The Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, Michael was already acting professionally. At 10 he performed in Front Street, for the Historical Society of Cromwell. He worked with a director at Wesleyan and was a kid in a cast of adults. Martin Scorsese's daughter, Domenica, played his sister, and he recalls, "That's where I learned it was an actual career....That's the show that made me realize I wanted to be an actor." He continued to hone his skills in plays at school, camp, and community theatre. Not a bad professional start for someone who does not come from a traditional show business family. Michael says that he heard that his maternal grandfather dreamed of being an actor, but the Great Depression put the kibosh on that. Blessed with better times, and with strong determination and keen observation, he pursued a career as an actor. He got roles in Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors at The River Rep and Gary Sunshine's Sweetness at New York Stage and Film. He studied at the Acting Conservatory of SUNY Purchase. After college, he played "Sancho Panza" in the national tour of Man of La Mancha. He discovered trade papers such as Backstage and the local alternative weekly newspaper, Hartford Advocate, to look "for any opportunity," as other cast members were doing.
Michael got a voiceover agent first. He was "hanging out at a bar," he recalls, and a friend of his said, "You have a great voice, you should do voiceovers. I said I didn't know how to get into that world. That same friend introduced me to his agent." He didn't get signed right away, but he freelanced with the promise that the agent would still work on his behalf. He did numerous commercials, including one for Snickers, in which he played a shark who devoured people who had eaten candy bars. "The punch line was 'Oh, Steve was delicious.'" He did "a little work here and there," and got his foot in the door. About a month later, he called his friend and asked him if he could meet his manager because he needed someone to represent him for theatre, film and television. "He introduced me to Cyd LeVin & Associates who I am still with eight years later." Michael explains that he and his friend are two completely different types, so they wouldn't be competing at the same auditions.
Currently, Michael is playing JoJo in the Broadway show, A Bronx Tale, a role he originated in the Papermill Playhouse's production. "Papermill is awesome," he says, and "the people who work there are amazing." A Bronx Tale has "such good people behind it. It was like a family." He recalls that "the first audition was like a prescreen, [with] just a casting director. He had a monolog and 16 bars of a song to sing. "I made it past the prescreening, then four more rounds of auditions to get it for Papermill." The fifth audition was for the producers and a couple of the creative team, including Alan Menken and Chazz Palminteri. The last parts of the auditioning including harmonizing and dancing. In the harmonizing, he had to learn all four parts to the Frankie Valli song, "Let's Hang On." The performers would switch the parts they were singing just to see if they can hold their own part in the audition. About three or three and half weeks later, he got the part.
What was Michael's favorite role so far? "Probably my favorite role was "Edna" in Hairspray, he says "because...it's more of an acting challenge to play someone far away from myself." He was 26 when he played "Edna," who is in her late 40s and female. He admits, "I pulled inspiration from my mother" for the role. He adds, that the "whole experience when you play a really great role at a great theatre with a really great cast elevates the role." And "Edna" is a great role for any actor.
What roles would he still love to play? He would love to play Pumba in The Lion King, he says. "I'm just coming into the right age for meaty roles as a character actor." He also appreciates being able to originate a role, as he did with "JoJo" in A Bronx Tale. "I like the collaboration of theatre, especially A Bronx Tale. You have each other's back...the community that goes along with it. Even [in] film and TV, you get more [of] that."
Although Michael lives in New York now, his ties to his family and his love of Connecticut remain strong. His family and friends "chartered two buses to come down from Connecticut [with] more than 130 people to see A Bronx Tale. I love living in the big city but I'm grateful for the small-town upbringing.
Read more about Michael at www.michaelbarra.com and follow him @MichaelBarra.