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BWW Interview: Up Close and Personal with TORCH SONG's Michael Urie

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BWW Interview: Up Close and Personal with TORCH SONG's Michael Urie

Theater-goers at the Hayes Theater do not know what to expect when a performance of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song begins. The projected silhouette of a torch singer performs while a set piece rolls downstage and represents the dressing room of a drag performer. It's a stunning directorial touch by Moises Kaufman. Seated in front of a makeup mirror is Michael Urie, who is removing drag makeup at the end of a performance. When Urie finally speaks, something very rare happens: the audience realizes that they are witnessing the perfect meeting of actor and role. It only takes a few words of dialogue for them to come to this conclusion. This is very rare but it seems that the role of Arnold Beckoff was tailor made for the actor. As the play goes on, Urie continues to talk: he goes on for about 20 minutes. In that time he is given enough exposition to endear himself to the crowd before the action of the performance begins.

Speaking by phone on a mid-October morning, Urie proves himself to be affable and quite conversant. He also sounds more energetic than one would expect from an actor who has given two performances the day before. Hailing from Plano, Texas, the first suggestion that he might have a career in the performing arts came with his GI Joe collection. "Oh, I acted out stories with them and recreated movies I'd seen with them," Urie says. "At that point I kindda thought I'd like to write or produce or direct, and I was having fun with the toys." Eventually Urie began acting in school plays and musicals but he wasn't remotely taking performing seriously. He does admit enjoying the laughs he was getting: "You know, that one big spontaneous laugh that you really didn't expect."

All of that changed with a trip to New York. "It was a school trip," the actor recalls. "We saw lots of plays but we also got to visit NYU and Julliard. It was at Julliard that one of my teachers pulled me aside and said, 'This is for you!'" Urie took his teacher's advice and auditioned for the prestigious school. Upon graduation he began the usual routine of "making the rounds" and soon, jobs started coming his way-not the least was a featured role in television's Ugly Betty".

"I was called to audition for that," says Urie, "And it was intended to be just a single guest shot. The idea was to have a different assistant for Vanessa Williams come in each week. Vanessa and I worked well together and she liked what I was doing so the decision was made to keep me on. That single 'guest shot' lasted four seasons."

Theater beckoned, even while Urie was doing Ugly Betty. He was cast in several Off Broadway productions, including The Temperamentals. He also appeared in The Inspector General, Shows for Days and the one-character play called Buyer and Cellar. He made his Broadway debut as a replacement for the role of Bud Frump in How To Succeed.... And Urie seemed to relish the idea of performing in front of live audiences. This was especially true of Buyer and Cellar {and now in Torch Song}, where there are lengthy monologues. "In situations like that, where you're the only character on stage, the audience becomes a character to you and you play to them and feed off their laughs and reactions."

"Oh, television is good but you have several cameras that are shooting you. You have to do several takes of the same scene for each camera angle and the director, the producer and even the camera operator piece them all together for their final version. Very often the shots they choose aren't always your best takes but work better for smoothness or continuity. Your performance in television is really a collaborative effort," the actor says. "However, your hair always looks good on television!.... Theater isn't like that. You rehearse but it's really just you and your fellow actors performing live in front of an audience."

Torch Song created challenges for Urie from the start because Harvey Fierstein was a formidable force. "My audition consisted of reading through the play with a cast of terrific actors that they brought in to do the other roles," he recalls. Obviously Harvey was there and he not only wrote the play but starred in the original 1982 pfroduction as well as in the 1988 film version. " Of course that was more than just a bit intimidating but obviously the producers, directors and Harvey saw what they wanted in me." Urie got the phone call that every actor lives for: he was offered the role.

Although the first twenty minutes of Torch Song is the aforementioned monologue, the rest of the play is not. There is an exemplary cast sharing the stage with Urie, not the least of whom is Ward Horton, who plays the complex role of Ed-Arnold's on again/off again bi-sexual lover. It's a difficult role for an actor who runs the risk of alienating the audience and then working hard to earn back their sympathies. "Ward is my rock," Urie says. "He's a humble, down-to-earth family man with two children and a lovely wife. His audition was one I'll never forget. He came in looking perfect. He had perfect hair, perfect eyes, perfect build and perfect teeth. His audition was also perfect. Absolutely perfect. He was offered a contract right there on the spot. That's something extremely rare in this business. I've heard about it but it's never happened to me." The last comment is made with all due respect to Horton, who is known for his work on television's Pure Genius. It's obvious that the two actors hold each other in great esteem and the audience gets to realize that at the end of each performance when they see the two actors walking off stage with their arms around each other after the final bows. It's touching to witness.

Then there's Mercedes Reuhl, the veteran of stage and screen who plays Arnold's mother, Mrs. Beckoff. Reuhl won a Tony Award for her memorable performance in Lost in Yonkers and an Oscar for her work in The Fisher King. She's a bolt of electricity the moment she steps on stage in this production. "Mercedes is the 'eleven o'clock number' in this show," says Urie. "She teaches at the HB Studios, so we can talk on different levels. I love her."

Most of the action in the second act of Torch Song involves confrontations between Arnold and his mother. With Urie and Reuhl playing those roles, the scenes crackle with electricity. In fact, one could almost see the sparks flying between them. According to Urie, most of that excitement emanates from Reuhl. "She never plays a scene exactly the same. Oh, she doesn't change the dialogue or staging but her inflection or pauses vary a bit each night according to the audience. If they react a certain way to one of her lines she may alter the delivery of the next accordingly. It keeps me on my toes." It also makes for vibrant theater.

Although audiences feel that Urie has connected with the role, Urie doesn't share their certainty. When asked about it he pauses. "That's a good question and it's one that I keep wondering about myself. I was thinking about it as I was walking home the other night. You know, you keep working on the character in every performance and discover new things here and there. Yeah, I think I've connected with Arnold. He's a decent guy-not a perfect guy-but he has his priorities and is figuring things out. He's been through a lot but he's gonna keep on going."

Without a doubt, Torch Song is compelling theater. The play itself is outstanding and holds a message for contemporary audiences. In this production, the acting of Michael Urie and the rest of the cast makes it must-see theater.

And to think it all started with GI Joe's....

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Torch Song is playing a strictly limited engagement at the Hayes Theater. For more information about it or to purchase tickets, please go to: torchsongbroadway.com

Photo Credit: Jennifer Broski



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