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An Interview with La Cage's Michael Benjamin Washington

Currently stealing the show every night in La Cage Aux Folles is Michael Benjamin Washington. The young star filled us in about cross-dressing on stage each night, his co-stars, and lots more…

Michael's journey with La Cage began a year ago, when Harvey Fierstein, and Jerry Herman saw his alter-ego Mahogany perform at the Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS Easter Bonnet Competition. "Harvey and Jerry Herman saw her perform, and began championing me, and decided to bring her, (and me of course) in for La Cage. The real magic was that I had been a reader for years for Jim Carnahan, who was our casting director. I'd read for him for years at my day job before I got Mamma Mia!, and he also had the idea for me for the role. It was just one of those things where all the stars were aligned, and the timing was right because I was in a Broadway show, and it was time to leave that one."

It took six auditions with director Jerry Zaks, but Michael got the part, and then he had to learn the show. "I didn't know La Cage before I went in for it, couldn't tell you the big song, anything. I certainly didn't know that there was a role in there for me so it was definitely just one of those happy accidents."

Michael naturally credits his drag alter-ego Mahogany for helping him get the part, so we went back in time to cover that character's roots. "It's been about two years now that I've been doing Mahogany, and it all came about while I was in Mamma Mia! About 6 months into that show's run, I got a little antsy, and thought how hard is it to get a character that's three-dimensional, with a beginning, and middle, and an end? I decided to put my time where my mouth was, and I wrote a character for myself that turned into a 2-act play. "

His first experience in drag however came prior to that experience in the Funny Girl benefit concert. "Seth Rudetsky was directing that, and a friend of mine had to drop out, so they asked me to cover for him, and to be 'the Summer Bride' and I said sure. After seeing me in drag, Jane Krakowski said to me – 'you should write a show, you should write a show'…so I wrote a show."

Describing Mahogany as a "charity girl," Michael's performed the character at Joe's Pub for a multitude of benefits for Broadway Cares, the Broadway Inspirational Voices, and other charity organizations. It's a role he'll revisit someday, but right now he says that La Cage is enough. "That's enough drag for me to deal with 8 times a week for now!"

La Cage opened in December of 2004, and a few months into the run, Michael can already describe the journey as being a great learning experience. "La Cage has been one of the greatest learning experiences simply for me, just putting a role like this together. It's very rare for anyone - male, female, black, white, old, young, veteran, newcomer, whoever to get a role like this. It's a supporting role that carries a lot of the comedy but the whole show's not on your back so it's kind of a very comfortable place to be in."

"I learned a great lesson in the theater that when you stop listening, people stop listening to you"

The greatest lesson that he's learned so far? To listen. "I've learned so much about what it really means to listen, and not just on stage, but offstage as well. I spend the whole show popping through doors at the speed of light, and changing clothes every other second, and you really learn to listen to a show 8 times a week, because without the quality of listening, I can't be funny. I learned that the hard way, by trying not to listen at one show. I tried to just click on the autopilot one day at a Wednesday matinee, where I wasn't feeling well, and the audience wasn't full. I did the anti-actor thing, and just went out there and did it, and it was one of the worst shows that I ever did in my life. It was horrifyingly bad, and I learned a great lesson in the theater that when you stop listening, people stop listening to you. That was a great, and important experience."

Another wonderful part of the show each night is being on stage with close friend Gavin Creel. "Gavin is one of my dearest friends, and I remember sitting with him on the roof of my East Side apartment seven years ago after a reading. We were both broke, eating beans out of can, and just talking about what if one day we were on Broadway. 'Oooh, ooh lala – Broadway!' Now, here we are taking our curtain call together on a Broadway stage! I'll never forget opening night when that happened, because it was a great, great, moment."

In additional to Gavin Creel, Michael considers himself lucky to be on stage every night with Gary Beach. "Gary is the gentleman that I want to grow up to be like. He's so seasoned, and so real, and just being able to work with him has been great. He's the real deal, and from that 'old school' but still has this energy about him, and I swear that he has more energy than a 22 year old that's fresh out of college. I always try to let that rub off on me, and learn to be nice to everyone, because he makes everybody feel like the most special person in the world including me."

With the glowing reports about Gary Beach, one had to ask the obligatory question about working with Daniel Davis. "He was very kind to me, and I can say that he was a fantastic acting partner on stage. The man is ridiculously talented, and I do owe him so much because during those five weeks in rehearsal, and previews, and through the first four months of the run, he was my scene partner for 94% of the show. Any character that I developed was with him, and I will always be greatly indebted to him for being very patient while I learned how to play this role."

Daniel Davis has of course been replaced in the show by Robert Goulet, who officially opens this weekend, putting Michael opposite a legend for that 94% of stage time. "I'm 25, and when you step on stage with a living legend, who has spent decades entertaining, and has maintained a career, it is very leveling. Onstage and off, he's just a funny man, and to be in the position that he is, to have two weeks to learn this role is tough. I just marvel at him, and the fact that he can still 'bring it' like that. I'm having a great time with him, and so far he's been very kind, as we go through the process."

"I feel so honored to be a part of this, and to play this role where I get to
learn something every single night that I'm not expecting to learn."

Working with a new leading man, as well as the daily challenges of being on stage keep Michael constantly on his toes. "I attempt to go out there, and to do what I know, but the beauty of live theatre is that there's always some pebble that gets thrown into the wheel every night. It's never what you're expecting either! For example, at last Sunday's matinee, during my big chicken burning scene the chicken wasn't smoking! I thought 'oh God, what am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?' Of course they don't start pushing the fog until 3 lines before I run onstage and say 'oh lord, not the chicken!' I knew I had to do something, so I just busted out the door coughing hysterically, and everyone on stage was looking at me like 'what's he's doing?' I yelled 'the chicken's burning!' and got the biggest laugh that I've gotten in a long time. It was also the freakiest thing that I've ever done because 'oooh Jerry Zaks didn't direct that.' That's why I feel so honored to be a part of this, and to play this role where I get to learn something every single night that I'm not expecting to learn."

Speaking of Jerry Zaks, he gives high marks to the director as well. "Mr. Zaks knows comedy, Mr. Zaks knows theatre, and he definitely has the resume to prove that. I found myself watching a lot, in the rehearsal room, just watching him negotiate moments. Comedy I think, is one of the hardest things that you can do, to find a universal thread of comedy is even harder, and in 2005 on Broadway, comedy is twenty times harder! You have to learn to negotiate your choices, and to negotiate timing a lot, and that's what I learned a lot from him about doing. I try to work on that every night, but again it's a different 1500 hundred people out there every night, and sometimes they're very, very quiet, and sometimes they're very, very boisterous. Learning how to commit to your choice as a comedian is something that I never really thought about before, I'd think 'go out there and be funny, and if they laugh keep going, and if they don't then stop and try something else out.' Since then, I've learned to negotiate my timing, and that's been a great lesson that I learned from Jerry Zaks, a great lesson."

Joining Michael onstage every night, are the Cagelles, whose awe-inspiring dancing impresses those both onstage and off. "What those boys have to do in this show is nothing short of amazing, and I don't know how they walk away from the theatre every night. Physically, it's brutality and I love that I don't have to do that! I watch the 'Can-Can' in the wings at least three times a week, and I stand there and say a silent prayer to God, thanking him that I don't have to do that. I appreciate it, because having done Mamma Mia! for 3 years, on a raked stage, with the flippers and the dancing, and doing flips off of walls and stuff, I know what they're putting their bodies through. Their spirit is so high, and their attendance record is also so high, which is also amazing. They're very fun guys to party with, and I say that because it's very rare that you get to be in a show with somebody, or with a group of people that talented, that are also that much fun offstage. That means that they're healthy in mind as well as body and talent. I feel honored to be a part of them, and they do raise my game eight times a week."

Prior to La Cage, Washington made his Broadway debut in 2001, originating the role of Eddie in Mamma Mia! "That was a huge blessing, because to be 21, and to land a role in a new musical that's sold out forever, was just great. I was there for 2 years, and 10 months and as the run progressed, after about 5 months, I was thinking is this really what I do? What I do well? I'm not really that happy, but learning to be that happy was a great triumph for me, and that's when I decided to write Mahogany. Mamma Mia! is what it is, and you know that going in when you buy your ticket, or if you're in the production. It's a very very high energy, fun, colorful, dance your butt off kind of thing, and that's great. I'm naturally a little bit more subtle though, so this show is a little bit more my vein in terms of being funny, and having the energy, but also the subtlety, and I love subtlety. I look back on the whole experience with great fondness, because I bought an apartment with my Mamma Mia! money, and because I wrote a show that's very dear to my heart. I also made some great friends, and I learned 23 Abba songs that I didn't know before, and that I'll never forget. It's ingrained in my brain, and I think that even if I have a stroke or something when I'm 85, I'll be humming the harmonies in the back of my head. Just the harmonies though, because I didn't ever get to sing the melody!"

"Beginning your career as a principal in a Sondheim show, is a good place to start!"

Prior to his Broadway debut, Michael's New York debut was in Sondheim's Saturday Night at Second Stage Theatre, a show that had him doing double duty. "I loved playing Ted in Saturday night, not only because it was Stephen Sondheim, and because it was my first gig in New York, and because Kathleen Marhsall was directing for the first time out of Encores, but it was so fantastic because it was non-traditionally cast. I really didn't know which way my career was going to go, because I was 19 and still at NYU and doing 24 credit hours in the day, and I got this show over winter vacation, and I thought 'oh God, I'm going to have to drop out of school!' I decided not to tell anybody at school that I got this show so I did 24 credits during the day, and 8 shows a week off-Broadway by night. That's something that you can only do when you're 19 or 20 and think that you're invincible. Looking back at that now, I'm sure that I would pass out in the middle of something if I tried to do it again, but some of my dearest friends in the world came from that show and I'm very, very glad that I began my career that way. Beginning your career as a principal in a Sondheim show, is a good place to start!"

Like so many actors these days, though his heart lies on stage, Michael also feels the pull of some of the other mediums of entertainment. "I grew up doing TV, and film, and I got my SAG and AFTRA cards when I was 11. After that I studied musical theatre for 2 years at NYU, and then moved into the Television and Film studio. I'm trained in TV, and in film, and both have been passions of mine. I've always been one of those actors who wanted to begin in the theater, and to really lay roots here; to call it home, and to learn the training and the discipline of the theater. I don't think that I've conquered that by any means, so I think I still owe myself and owe my craft a couple more years in the theatre to really solidify some things."

One of the ways that he'd love to solidify things is with some meatier roles, and he readily has examples of what some of those are. "I would love to play Arnold in Torch Song Trilogy because I love Harvey Fierstein's writing, and his perspective on life and relationships. I know that it sounds very gratuitous, but something bigger and thicker and juicier like Arnold, or Paul in Six Degrees of Separation is what I'd love to do next. If I had to pick another musical theatre role, I would love to try the Leading Player in Pippin."

Aside from planting seeds in the acting world, Washington also has his hand in some other areas of the business serving on the Board of Directors for the Moonshine Project, an Off-Broadway theatre company. "The Moonshine Project was founded by a friend of mine Steve Bebout, who directed me in Little Shop of Horrors when I was at NYU and became one of my dearest friends. He began a theatre company called the Moonshine Project, which is dedicated to developing new works by young artists. We did a show Off-Broadway that got reviewed by the Times last year, and the whole project is a labor of love for him. He asked me to serve on the board of directors, and on the advisory committee. I don't know if it's because I bought an apartment, so he thought that I must be good with money somehow, or because artistically we were always on the same wavelength but I'm happy to be involved.

"That's what makes it a very full rich community,
starting at the same place, and ending up in different places."

It's great to be a part of something from the beginning, and that's something that I've been very blessed to have had so far in my time in New York. I'm very happy to be part of the Moonshine Project, but I'm very proud that Steve went on a limb. We have to encourage our friends, something that's always fascinated me is that everybody that you go to school with, and there's so much talent, and so many people with gifts – but everyone uses them in different ways. Some have the drive, and some don't, but everybody doesn't end up being an actor which baffled me about two or three years ago. I was wondering why aren't we all acting together? You realize though that different people go off on different tangents, and to different areas of the business. That's what makes it a very full rich community, starting at the same place, and ending up in different places. Whenever a friend decides to venture away from acting into another part of the business, I find myself jumping on board with them for whatever they need me to do, or want me to do to help.

Looking back on the past couple of years, brings two special thoughts to mind on some of the experiences that he's had. "The first is being able to play a role, and being able to make people think different from what they thought about, and what they thought the role should be. One of the greatest compliments that I get consistently is that 'oh, I didn't think the character could be that,' and I hear that consistently. When you step out on a limb, and not for the sake of being different, but just because that's your truth, I'm glad that people get that.

The second thing I have to mention is Jim Carnahan, who cast the show and his associate Jeremy Ritch, because they've gone to bat for me so many times. They saw what I'm getting to show several people in La Cage now, over the past 4 years even before I got out of school, and have always kept me busy. To have someone in your corner in this business who goes to bat for you, and who believes in your talent even when you're not making them money, or making them a name is very important. Even if it's all readings and workshops and developing and honing, it's important. This is the first project that he's cast me in over 5 years that's actually a production, and for 5 years he supported me, and that's something that's very important for me. If you have someone in your corner, you must always thank them. There might not be a time for me to do that publicly, so I'm happy to have the opportunity to do that now."

We're happy to help get the word out there, and to learn a bit more about this rising star. Something tells me that there's lots more to come… For more on La Cage aux Folles, click here.

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