GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Michael X. Martin of 'Ragtime'

By: Jan. 04, 2010
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A childhood in the dance studio, musical theater training at a conservatory, and then start hitting those open calls. That’s one path many follow into gypsy-dom. Michael X. Martin, who tallied enough Broadway chorus credits to earn the Gypsy Robe on Ragtime’s opening night, followed another. He didn’t take dancing or singing classes as a kid. He majored in English and performed only sporadically until senior year in college. And he came to New York in his mid 30s, a veteran actor of Shakespeare and other nonmusical classics.

His résumé since moving to NYC isn’t typically gypsy, either. In addition to ensemble tracks in Ragtime and six previous musicals—9 to 5, All Shook Up, Man of La Mancha, Oklahoma, Kiss Me, Kate and Les Misérables—his Broadway credits include featured roles in Curtains and 1776. He’s played principal roles off-Broadway and regionally, and even gotten to do some of musical theater’s most coveted leads, like Javert and Don Quixote, on Broadway as an understudy.

What has been typical in Martin’s career, for gypsies and all other performers, are the ups and downs. For Martin, 2009 started with ups: He’d just wrapped a run at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles of a brand-new musical, 9 to 5, that was slated for a spring debut on Broadway. The last new musical he’d done at the Ahmanson, Curtains, had also moved to Broadway and ran for nearly a year and a half—through June 2008—with Martin playing the part of Johnny the stage manager the whole time. But then came some downs. 9 to 5 didn’t impress critics and closed after just four months. In the fall, Martin was back on Broadway in the revival of Ragtime, which did impress critics—possibly more than the original 1998 production had. But it struggled from the start at the box office, and rumors quickly started swirling that it would shutter after the holidays. They, unfortunately, proved true, as Ragtime is scheduled to close this Sunday, Jan. 10, less than two months after opening.

Martin’s attitude toward the ups and downs of the business: “If you expect anything more than what is guaranteed you in the contract—for you to go, I think this is really going to be a big hit—you’re setting yourself up for a fall. As far as how long a show runs, that is anybody’s guess at anybody’s time.” The short lives of his most recent Broadway efforts have not marred his memories of them. He remembers 9 to 5 as “great fun... Dolly Parton was wonderful, and I really liked working with Joe Mantello.” And he recalls that “the audience, on a nightly basis, was going nuts for the show: standing, screaming. I’m not exaggerating: When those three women would come down [for the curtain call] every night, there would be a roar from the audience.

“Usually, shows with that kind of response run longer than four months,” he adds, “so that was a little baffling and disheartening.” As for Ragtime, in recent weeks it too has had “insane” audiences, according to Martin. “You just have to scratch your head: To do two in a row that would have that audience response and have them both close so quickly, you kind of feel like there’s no gravity. As I told my wife, there’s no one in the world more leery of a sure thing than me.” The only conclusion he can draw about Ragtime’s fate is “That’s just the nature of the business. The bottom line is, every night you’re still going out and doing your job and trying to make it all work.”

Martin’s roles in Ragtime include two historical figures, J.P. Morgan and Admiral Peary. Though he didn’t need to do any research since, he says, director Marcia Milgrom Dodge is “a research hound, [who] provides you with an unbelievable amount—volumes and volumes,” Martin found some additional information of his own online. He’d also read the E.L. Doctorow novel on which the show’s based (though he’d never seen the movie or any stage production of it). “There were some great scenes in the book that involved J.P. Morgan that you don’t see in the play; that’s research material right there, even though Doctorow may have taken some liberties,” says Martin, describing his process of re-creating someone from real life: “I don’t look anything like Morgan, so I thought, Okay, this is where I try to infuse the character with the same intentions he had. He’s the richest man in the world—you have to have a certain decisiveness about you, you’re used to getting your own way... The scene where there’s a hostage in his library and he has to wait outside until they coax Coalhouse Walker out. Well, he was probably a man who wasn’t used to waiting for anything, ever. Something like that can inform the character. Or you read that he had this huge red nose, and he would catch people looking at it and he would just glare back—I guess he had a glare that could melt steel. You might find places to slip that in, not that you want that to govern your whole performance.”

Another bit of history Martin uncovered while working on Ragtime inspired him too. During rehearsals at the Hilton Theatre, he learned that his grandmother’s brother, an actor named Raymond O’Brien, had been performing at the Lyric (the Hilton’s pre-renovation incarnation) 80 years earlier. He’d met his great-uncle twice before O’Brien died when Martin was 12, and the only Broadway credit he knew of his was a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts featuring the early-20th-century international star Alla Nazimova. Then Ragtime stage manager Jim Woolley, a theater history buff, did some research for Martin and produced a list of 14 Broadway shows that O’Brien had appeared in—including The Three Musketeers at the Lyric. “I would give anything to sit down with him over a couple of drinks just to talk about his career and what theater was like back then,” Martin says of his uncle, his only relative to precede him in showbiz.

Martin, 55, estimates that Ragtime is approximately the 150th show he’s been in as a professional actor. (The X, required by Equity to distinguish him from another Michael Martin, is his real middle initial—for Xavier.) Early in his career, he’d do about eight shows a year, as he was a company member at regional theaters that performed rotating rep. Right out of college in 1976, Martin was accepted in the apprentice program at the now-defunct California Actors Theater in Los Gatos, near his hometown of San Jose. After a couple of seasons there, he headed to San Francisco and spent two years at the American Conservatory Theater. In addition, he was working summers at PCPA Theaterfest in central California—which he joined year-round in the mid ’80s. He also became a company member at Denver Center Theatre for seven years prior to moving to New York in 1991. At those four theaters out west, he appeared in such plays as Saint Joan, Major Barbara, Table Manners, Ah, Wilderness!, Indians, Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, Hay Fever, The Crucifer of Blood and Christopher Durang’s A History of the American Film. He also did new works as well as several Shakespearean roles, among them Orsino in Twelfth Night, Laertes in Hamlet, Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well, Cominius in Coriolanus and Launce in Two Gentlemen of Verona. All the while, Martin admits, “I never had any interest in coming to New York. There are so many actors throughout the country who have wonderful careers and enjoy their theater lives and never set foot in New York.”

But one day circa 1990, “I just woke up one morning and was like, I think I might want to go to New York and see what’s out there,” he says. He spent the next year planning a relocation and on Aug. 2, 1991, arrived in the Big Apple. Just over a month later, thanks to a referral from an actress he knew at the Denver Center, he was starring as El Gallo in The Fantasticks, then still playing down on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village. The next year, he went out on tour with Les Misérables. During his year and a half on the road, he graduated from the Les Miz chorus to Javert. He then came back to New York and understudied Javert on Broadway, playing an ensemble track that included Grantaire.

From time to time while he was in Les Miz, Martin would drop in on some friends who were in Blood Brothers, playing next door at the Music Box. On one of those visits, he was introduced to a Blood Brothers cast member named Shauna Hicks. Martin and Hicks married in 2000 and are now the parents of a 5½-year-old son, Sean. These days, Hicks performs primarily as a headliner on cruise ships. Early in their marriage, Martin went along with her on a two-week Caribbean/Amazon cruise and performed onboard. It’s the only time they’ve worked together besides a pre-marriage production of Company at Cleveland Play House, where he was Harry and she Amy. (Martin had done Company two previous times—in 1983 at PCPA Theatrefest, when he played Bobby, and at Denver in 1989, as Paul.)

In 1994, Martin was in the inaugural cast of A Christmas Carol–The Musical, directed by Mike Ockrent and choreographed by Susan Stroman, that would play Madison Square Garden every holiday season for a decade. “That production was very special to me ’cause that was the first show I did in New York that was original, I was there at the very beginning,” says Martin. “Mike Ockrent was a delightful person, and Susan Stroman’s work was great. It was a fun company, we did 15 shows a week, and it was a wonderful experience. To have that be your first new show was a real blessing.”

He returned to the MSG Christmas Carol in 1995 and 1996, understudying Scrooge every year. Martin next performed on Broadway in the spring of 1997, in a limited run of the Tim Rice/Alan Menken King David that reopened the New Amsterdam Theatre in advance of The Lion King’s premiere. He was then featured as founding father Josiah Bartlett in Roundabout Theatre’s revival of 1776. Starting in the fall of 1999, he was on Broadway for four years straight, in a succession of revivals: Kiss Me, Kate, Oklahoma and Man of La Mancha. In all three of those shows, just as he’d done in Christmas Carol and Les Miz, Martin got to go in a principal role he understudied.

Once, when his wife came to see him cover the part of Jud in Oklahoma, she overheard the couple sitting next to her talking after they’d opened their programs. “One said, ‘Honey, look, Michael X. Martin is going on for Jud.’ And the husband said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me!’” Martin’s wife engaged them in conversation and discovered that the last Broadway show they’d seen was Kiss Me, Kate—at a performance where Martin went on as Fred/Petruchio. “They went to see the Tony Award-winning performance of Brian Stokes Mitchell and they’re stuck with Michael X. Martin,” he laughs, “and then the next show they saw, Oklahoma, I’m sure they were eager to see the Tony Award-winning performance of Shuler Hensley, and they were stuck with Michael X. Martin.” When his wife revealed that she was married to this Michael X. Martin, “they were very nice,” he says. “Maybe they were just trying to maintain some social grace, but they were very complimentary about both performances.”

Off-Broadway, Martin originated principal roles in a number of musicals—some, like Polly Pen’s Bed and Sofa, that were well-received and have had a life in regional theater; others, like one called Jack’s Holiday (as in Jack the Ripper, whom Martin did not play), produced by Playwrights Horizons in 1995, that have been largely forgotten. And some that seemed promising but fell short, such as an adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling story Captains Courageous starring Treat Williams. With a creative team that included Jerry Mitchell, Catherine Zuber and Jonathan Tunick, Captains Courageous was presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club in early 1999, and it remains one of the bigger disappointments in Martin’s career. “I thought it was a lovely show. When they’re good shows, you just want them to get their due,” Martin comments. “One of the heads of Sony Records was in our rehearsal room saying ‘When can I record this?’ It was a beautiful score, but we didn’t want to record it before we opened—we wanted to get it in our bones first. Then the reviews were mixed, and we never saw that guy again.” The show also closed early.

On TV, Martin has done multiple episodes of every series in the Law & Order franchise, playing everyone from a Midwestern tourist to a crooked CEO to a judge. But he hasn’t had any nonmusical stage roles since coming to New York, and rarely even auditions for them. “You don’t often see people jump the fence,” Martin says. “When you audition in New York, they want to see you in a very small, specific, easy-to-identify category. It’s tricky to go between plays and musicals in New York.” This is the polar opposite of what Martin experienced pre–New York. “In regional theater, when you walk in to audition, they try to see you in as many varied roles as you could do—to hire you for a season,” he says.

Nonetheless, Martin says opportunities have expanded since he moved to NYC in the early ’90s. “At that time, the ABC’s [theater listings] in the New York Times was, like, a quarter of what it is now. What’s changed in the 18 years I’ve been here is there’s a lot more going on now. When I was doing Christmas Carol, a lot of the dancers were saying ‘There are no dancer shows on Broadway anymore.’ Then Susan Stroman really came to the foreground, and Fosse came out, Chicago came out. Now there’s some great dancing shows on Broadway.”

Interestingly, many of the musicals Martin has done since coming to New York—from Les Misérables and A Christmas Carol, through Captains Courageous, Man of La Mancha and Kiss Me, Kate, right up to Ragtime—are based on literary classics. “Perfect for an English major,” says Martin, who received a bachelor’s in English from Santa Clara University. He’s even played the title role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (a musical adaptation composed by Phil Hall and produced at North Shore Music Theatre in 1996) and costarred in a musical about author Henry James, Polly Pen’s Embarrassments, at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater.

Martin had selected English as his major because he’d enjoyed the courses in high school and wanted a liberal arts education. He performed in his first play during senior year in high school and then did one show each of his first three years in college. “Just before my senior year, I said: I’m going to get this into my system, or out of my system,” he explains. So as he was completing his English degree, he sang in the choir and performed in as many school productions as he could, among them A Streetcar Named Desire, The Fantasticks, A Man for All Seasons and The School for Scandal.

He has taken voice lessons over the years but virtually no dance classes since they were required of all Jets and Sharks for a community theater production of West Side Story he was in thirtysomething years ago. In place of formal theatrical training, Martin was schooled on the job. “You can learn by training, and sometimes you can learn just by working with good people,” he says. And as a repertory company member, he was tested as no classes could have done. “Nothing, nothing is more exciting than doing rotating rep,” he says. “Between a Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Saturday night, you might do three different roles. One year at PCPA, I did Bo in Bus Stop and at the same time Lancelot in Camelot and Johnny Tarleton in George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance.”

Those days of doing several shows at once are far behind him, but in the past couple of years Martin has begun multitasking in another way. He now has a sideline, albeit uncompensated, as an editorial cartoonist for the Riverdale Press, the weekly newspaper (circ. 12,000) serving the Bronx neighborhood where he lives. Martin had given up drawing as a hobby when he finished school, but his interest was revived after actor Gerry Vichi joined the cast of Curtains—and spent his offstage time painting in the dressing room. “He’s an excellent abstract artist, and he did about 150 paintings in the six months he was there,” says Martin. “When I told him I used to draw, he almost got angry with me: ‘You have a kid now and you don’t draw?!’ The next day, I showed up to the dressing room—there was paper there, pencils, pens. He had brought in all this stuff. I started drawing again for fun in the dressing room and I haven’t stopped since.” Last year, Martin decided to take his “hobby” a step further and contacted the Riverdale Press about contributing editorial cartoons on local politics and happenings; the paper’s been running them for the last six months or so.

Martin has a few small projects, like readings, lined up after Ragtime closes but will of course be looking for a new job. He isn’t focused on any particular show or part, though. “Actors,” he says, “are often asked: What role do you have your eyes set on? I feel: Stuff you don’t think about and couldn’t even consider falls in your lap sometimes, and that’s much more interesting than any scenario I could have created.

“I don’t know what’s next, but I haven’t been disappointed yet, so I will maintain that viewpoint.”

Photos of Michael X., from top: wearing the Gypsy Robe, which he received for being the Ragtime ensemble member who’s done the most Broadway shows; on stage with Dolly Parton during a 9 to 5 curtain call, with him in costume as Consolidated Industries CEO Mr. Tinsworthy; as a new immigrant, on left in top row, in the opening scene of Ragtime; performing Curtains’ “It’s a Business,” at far left, with (from left) Christopher Spaulding, Debra Monk and Michael McCormick; arriving at 9 to 5’s opening-night party last April; in a Curtains curtain call, right, with Ernie Sabella; passing the Gypsy Robe to Joseph Medeiros of White Christmas. [Ragtime photo by Joan Marcus; Curtains performance photo by Craig Schwartz; all other photos by Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.]