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An Interview with Michael McElroy

Michael McElroy and I sat down to talk about life before and after his role as "Jim" in Big River

Craig: Welcome Michael, tell me...when did the acting bug bite you? Who were and are your inspirations?
Michael: When I was very young. My mother loved theater and took me and my brother to all the shows that toured Cleveland. We saw the touring companies of The Wiz, Best Little Whorehouse, Porgy and Bess. So my love of theater started there. My uncle is also an accomplished musician and would come to Cleveland for the summer and music direct different shows. I would go with him to rehearsals and hang out.

Craig: So what was your first acting role?
Michael: My first acting role was in a mini production of The Wiz that we put together in elementary school. I was the Lion.

Craig: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to Broadway. How did it "happen" - and what stumbling blocks, if any were there?
Michael: I went to Carnegie Mellon University for Musical Theater/Drama. At the end of the senior year all the seniors go to New York to do a showcase for New York agents and casting directors for theater, film and television. After the showcase is over, all those industry people interested in you are put onto a list and given to each of us. We then have a couple of days to meet with agents and casting people. Out of my showcase I found my agent that I've been with for 13 years and got an audition for NYSF production of Richard III with Denzel Washington. I was cast in the ensemble. I went back to school, graduated, moved to New York and started my first job there.

After that 2 months later I got my first national tour: SARAFINA, came back to NY after 6 months on the road, understudied in a musical Off-Broadway and the day after it closed I auditioned for Miss Saigon and started the next day. The show had been running for 3 months when I went in.

It has never been about stumbling blocks for me. I feel that everything that happens prepares you for the next experience. Those difficult times gave me the strength to move forward but also made me appreciate every job I received. I also feel that every job that I get is meant for me and all I have to do is keep working hard and growing as a person and an actor so that I can be prepared for the next experience.

Craig: You have quite a resume with roles in well known shows such as RENT, Tommy, Miss Saigon and most recently Big River. Which has been your favorite and why?
Michael: I have a few favorites for different reasons. Flick in Violet will always be one of my favorite experiences. I love the show and was a part of it from its first workshop at the Eugene O'Neill. It was also my first principle role and led to other great experiences. Also working with that amazing group of people: Susan Schulman, Brian Crawley, Jeanine Tesori, Kathleen Marshall, Michael Rafter, Buryl Red, Tim Sanford all the people at Playwrights Horizons, as well as the incredible group of actors Lauren Ward, Michael Park, Stephen Lee Anderson, Cass Morgan, Paula Newsome. It was a
special experience.

Big River will also always remain special to me. Learning sign language and working with such an incredible group of actors was simply amazing. I learned a lot about myself on and off the stage and I think I worked harder than I ever have before. But Rent and Wild Party will also be special for me as well.

Craig: Well do you have any dream roles?
Michael: I don't have dream roles really. I've been fortunate enough to play the roles that inspire me and bring me great joy as an actor.

Craig: That's truly wonderful to hear. You received a lot of attention (and rightfully so) for your role as "Jim" in Big River. Can you share what playing that role meant to you in this particular production?
Michael: Playing Jim was a soul opening experience. I was very nervous about doing the role because I didn't want to play a slave. I've said this a lot in different interviews but I was worried that putting myself into the mindset of a slave would be difficult emotionally in a way that I wasn't sure I was prepared to go. But after speaking with friends I realized that all the incredible experiences I have today are directly related to all the sacrifices of those who came before me. Also that I had a responsibility to give voice to their experience. I wanted the character to have dignity. I didn't want to be a stereotype but I wanted to be true the period. But there was also something special about the sign language. The character of Jim was elevated just by the fact that he could communicate in sign language. So with all these facts in mind, I began trying to find the truth of the character and hoped that my other concerns would find their place in the role.

Craig: Over the course of the run of Big River, can you share with us a story
that stands out in your mind - not from what happened on or backstage, but
rather a moment with the audience.
Michael: It was always a joy to come out after the show and see so many deaf and hearing-impaired audience members. There was such a feeling of happiness at finally being able to see a show where they could watch the action and understand what was going on. Usually at Broadway shows there is one show where sign language interpreters come and stand off to the side in the audience and interpret what's happening onstage. But the audience members watching don't really get to see the show. This was one of the first times that sign language was on the stage being done by deaf and speaking actors.

I felt honored to be a part of it and especially honored when they said my signing was good. And to meet the deaf or hearing-impaired children after was especially wonderful. At a young age when you know you're different, it's important to see those who are like you realized on the stage. It validates you.

Craig: That is inspiring I'm sure...You're also very active in the community. Tell us a little bit about how the Broadway Inspirational Voices came into existence.
Michael: When I moved here in 1990, we were at the height of the AIDS epidemic in NYC. So many actors, directors, musicians, dancers, producers were lost to this deadly disease. The theater community rallied together to raise money and awareness but there wasn't alot being done for people spiritually: to help us deal with the loss. Gospel Music has always been a part of my life. I was raised in the church and knew the healing power of this music. So I asked a few friends who were in Broadway shows to come together and do an evening of Gospel Music. The response was overwhelming. Its 10 years later and it becomes more amazing every year.

Craig: and you have a concert coming up on October 19th (and a cd release 2 days later) - Can you tell us more about what people can expect?
Michael: I'm very excited about this year. Each year I try to choose music that encompasses the variety of Gospel Music. I also try to choose music that will speak to people and inspire them and give them strength to go forward in their lives. We also have Patti LaBelle as our guest artist and we're very happy to have her as a part of the event. This is also the first time at Town Hall. We'll also be doing songs from our upcoming Christmas CD: Great Joy!

Craig: What is the process in putting a show like this together?
Michael: I listen to music all year around and try to put aside selections that I think will be good for the concert. As we get closer to the summer I make a program of the songs making sure that I have a balance of different kinds of Gospel Music. We start rehearsing for the concert in July and rehearse every Tuesday until the concert. I work with Joseph Joubert who play the piano for the choir and arranges and orchestrates for the choir as well. I also assemble a band of incredible musicians and arrangers to write band arrangements for the songs. There are lots of meeting with Tom Viola and the staff of Broadway Cares as well as Tim Thompkins and the staff of Times Square Business Improvement District. We plan fundraising efforts, poster designs, program designs, all the technical aspects through Nathan Hurlin at BC/EFA, sound designers, final rehearses with band and choir and ticket sales. It's an incredible amount of work

Craig: You have quite a roster of performers who are members of the group. Can
you tell us about some of them - who has been with the group the longest and
who are some of the most recent additions?
Michael: Adriane Lenox has been in the group all 10 years. After her Billy Porter and Virginia Woodruff have been there a long time. New members this year are Gwen Stewart who was in Big River, Terri Burrell who is presently in Thoroughly Modern Millie and I also like to bring in those who are just starting out in the business and we have a couple of new members who have just moved to the city. We have people this year from Aida, Beauty and the Beast, Cabaret, Rent, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Mama Mia, Hairspray, The Producers, and four members who are Caroline or Change at the Public

Craig: Can you share any stories about this years BIV Christmas album? What is the process in creating the cd (how do you get the shows involved, pick the songs, etc)
Michael: Kurt Deutsch of Sh-K-Boom Records was very interested in doing an album with the choir. I had worked with Buryl Red many times in recording sessions and recorded for his group The CenturyMen on their most recent album Anthems in Disguise. We got together and decided to do the Christmas Album: Great Joy: A Gospel Christmas! I collaborated with Joseph Joubert and starting in January of this year we started writing. I took traditional Holiday songs and arranged them differently or changed them all together. We wrote new songs as well. I also took lyrics from old carols and wrote new music for them. We started rehearsing the choir in February, rehearsed once a week through March and recorded 2 days a week, five hours a day for 4 weeks in April.

Craig: so Michael.. what does the future hold for you?
Michael: I'm going to be directing for the first time. One of my high school theater teachers is now head of Drama at the University of Miami. I'm going down there in October to direct Violet. I'm looking forward to the experience. I've been down a few times and the students are so talented and eager. I'm looking forward to working with them on a show that is so close to my heart. I'm also auditioning right now and waiting to hear on the next job. Also the choir is doing a Holiday concert for the Actors Fund of American on December 15th. So as soon as I'm back from Florida I'll start work on that.

Craig: Finally, let's do some James Lipton type questions...What are your top 5 favorite musicals?
Michael: Company, Dreamgirls, Violet, Sweeney Todd, Purlie

Craig: Who are your favorite composers/lyricists?
Michael: Sondheim, Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley.

Craig: Who are your favorite performers of the Broadway stage both past and
Michael: Eartha Kitt, Phylicia Rashad, Gregory Hines,

Craig: What was the last show you saw and what are you looking forward to this
Michael: I saw Little Shop of Horrors on Monday. I enjoyed it. I'm looking forward
to seeing Avenue Q, The Boy from Oz, Wicked

Craig: What's in your CD player right now?
Michael: Listen to Gospel Music all the time. At the gym, on the street, in the subway. Its the only music I listen to on a daily basis

Craig: And the last question, what was the last book you read?
Michael: The DaVinci Code. Loved it. Read a lot of Science Fiction. Just starting another book in the Shannara series by Terry Brooks. I've read the whole series.

For more information about the Broadway Inspirational Voices, click here

and click here for CD information and how to purchase "Great Joy!"

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