Interview with William Michals, This Week's Emile de Becque

Paulo Szot had performed only in opera, never a musical, before making his theatrical debut this spring in the Broadway revival of South Pacific. William Michals, who will play Emile de Becque at every performance this week while Szot's out, has been jumping between the opera and theater worlds for much of his career (and life), with plenty of concerts also in the mix. He's played many of musical theater's silken-voiced leading men--Lancelot, Javert, the Man of La Mancha, e.g.--in regional and touring productions and has starred on Broadway in Beauty and the Beast.

As the standby for Emile, Michals is at the theater every night. He's gone on in the role at four previous performances, most recently about a month ago. This summer he also expanded his fanbase from his performances in two shows at NYC's Town Hall: In mid-July he partook in A Night at the Operetta, then came back two weeks later to sing "They Call the Wind Mariah," "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?" and "Some Enchanted Evening"--the latter unamplified--in All Singin' All Dancin'. In past years the baritone has captivated Town Hall audiences in the annual Broadway Unplugged concert, which returns for its fifth year--without mikes but with Michals--on Nov. 17.

Interview with William Michals, This Week's Emile de BecqueMichals sat for an interview with BWW last Wednesday at the Vivian Beaumont Theater while the South Pacific matinee was taking place on the other side of the lobby doors. 

How does your Emile differ from Paulo's?
I can't do a Brazilian-French accent [smiles]. Of course Paulo has to work his English through his Brazilian accent and then add the French accent, and he does a wonderful job. I can't duplicate that. We come from different backgrounds, and he has his personality imbued in it and I guess I work it from my personality. This is a departure for me because it's a role that's nearly contemporary--50 or 60 years ago, but we're just real people here in pretty much modern clothing--so it's very much peeling off the veneers and being...real.
I hope I don't disappoint. I know I'm going in for a Tony-winning performance, and it's a performance that's only gotten better over time, and Paulo's a sweetheart. If you have to do this [standby] job, it's a privilege to be part of the company. It's an open-ended run, it's very successful, it's beautifully directed, and working with Bart Sher is a really great education for me, learning about my art. And part of the blessing of being in this production is just the music. People backstage are constantly humming and singing along with the show. The music is a gift from God. 

Had you ever played the part before?
Yes, when I was 16. I did a production of it in high school, and then the following summer in community theater. My high school was in New Jersey, and the community theater was down in Spring Lake, on the oceanfront. I grew up in Union County, but I really call the Jersey Shore my home. 

Interview with William Michals, This Week's Emile de BecqueYou were performing on Broadway this week in 2001.
I was Gaston in Beauty and the Beast around the time of 9/11. It was a real privilege to be a part of the theatrical community at that time. It was very emotional and meaningful. By Thursday night all Broadway was back on, and audiences needed that escape. Even as I remember it now, I get choked up because I realized how theater could take people away from the unimaginable reality, even if for an hour. It didn't take away the reality, but it allowed people to transport themselves to a different place. That's kind of like this show does: It doesn't erase the realities of our folks in the armed forces overseas, but it transports us. If one can escape and be present at the same time, that somehow happens in musical theater. The moment when Loretta [Ables Sayre] is singing "Bali Ha'i," for instance. It's just magical--that melody, her performance, the idea of the song that there's a magical island... 
On the three-month memorial, at Ground Zero I sang "Let There Be Peace on Earth." Pataki, Giuliani, all of the workers, I believe the cardinal from St. Patrick's were there, and people around the world were watching it on television.

Some of today's musical theater performers focus on the new generation of theater composers in their cabarets and concerts, but you seem to favor the "classic" showtune repertoire. Is this true?
Well, I know what side my bread is buttered on. I should say, I know what I'm best at, and you wouldn't want to hear me sing hip-hop or R&B. I happen to love the more classic musical theater, and opera, and that extends through Wildhorn and Lloyd Webber, a lot of Alan Menken. I sing William Finn. A couple of years ago, I did See What I Wanna See at the Public Theater, by Michael John LaChiusa.
When I do my own concerts, I have room to throw in a specialty cabaret-type number or an obscure piece of music. But in symphony concerts, you generally have to sing the more familiar music, and for better or for worse, everybody just loves "The Impossible Dream" and "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Music of the Night" and "Ol' Man River." You can't argue with the highest-quality songs; you can't argue with Richard Rodgers or Jerome Kern or Cole Porter... Also, when you're up there on stage with a 60-piece orchestra, not a lot of the more modern musical theater is orchestrated for a big orchestra. 

Interview with William Michals, This Week's Emile de BecqueWhich came first for you, theater or opera?
That's an interesting question. [Pauses to think about it.] I suppose theater did. In grade school and high school I did a couple of the musicals. Then, my junior and senior years of high school, I began classic voice training that encompassed musical theater and opera. My voice teacher was coincidentally my aunt, Nadine Eisner Michalski. When I went to Boston University, although I was still doing musicals in the summers, I was part-time in the opera program--did all the opera productions, recitals and concerts. I went to Tanglewood for the summer and studied with Phyllis Curtin, a revered teacher at Tanglewood and in the New York/Boston area, and she was a very important mentor to me at the time. 

Why didn't you major in voice or drama at college?
At 17 years old, the age I was when I entered college, it seemed to me it was a little premature to narrow down my college experience that way. An operatic voice doesn't mature until at least your 20s and 30s, so I didn't see the rush. I was an international relations major--kind of poli sci, geography, economics, languages. When you haven't declared a major, you say: "I'm majoring in indecision." For lack of a better choice, I majored in international indecision.
After college I took a few years off from pursuing a performing career, although I still studied voice. Then I picked it up again and went out to the Aspen Music Festival and did the opera program there and started auditioning for opera companies, when an audition came out for the Paper Mill Playhouse. I got a job in their production of Oklahoma--I was in the ensemble and understudied Jud--and I built a career from there. 

Interview with William Michals, This Week's Emile de BecqueAnd that career has entailed...
I did the Yeston-Kopit Phantom and yet another Phantom of the Opera--there were about half a dozen versions out back in the '90s. I played Don Quixote at a series of theaters in the Northeast--Bucks County Playhouse and then it toured to other theaters. I played Harold Hill on tour, around the country. I did the Robert Goulet touring production of Camelot for about 12 minutes, and then joined the international tour of Les Miz, where I played Grantaire and Javert. Moved from that company to the Toronto company of Beauty and the Beast, where I stood by for the Beast. Then I moved to the New York company and made my Broadway debut as the Beast. I left and was Chauvelin in the touring company of The Scarlet Pimpernel, with Doug Sills. That was a great year on the road. When I came back to New York, I did Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. I did Billy Flynn in a lovely production of Chicago at North Shore Music Theatre, with Deborah Gibson. We had already done Beauty and the Beast together, so it was nice to be reunited with her. And he's got the best entrance in all of musical theater, with all those girls writhing on the stage.
Since then, I worked for a couple of opera companies. I did the role of Danilo in Merry Widow at Opera Memphis. I went out to Opera Omaha and did Macheath [in Threepenny Opera]. That's one of those shows that's done by opera companies and musical theater companies, and you really kind of have to hybrid the two in order to get an effective production. This was a marvelous production. We sang without microphone. [I've played] Figaro in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, and the Count in the same; Papageno in The Magic Flute; father Germont in La Traviata; Escamillo, of course, in Carmen. I had the chance some years ago to sing Hunding in Wagner's Die Walküre, in the bass repertoire.  

What's your favorite opera role?
It's hard to say. Escamillo is a lot of fun, and you get to come out and steal the limelight with "The Toreador Song." I shouldn't get through this interview without saying that the role that could be called an operatic role that I have yet to do, and I'd really love to do, is Sweeney Todd. 

People may also have heard you sing at a ballpark, right?
I love singing the national anthem and "God Bless America" for sporting events and patriotic events. For me, it's just a perk of my job. There are some singers of yesteryear who I really admire, especially American baritones, and one of them is Robert Merrill. He's a born-and-bred New Yorker and sang for the Yankees all the time. Maybe there's something about a classic baritone voice singing those songs that really strikes a note with people. I've performed all over place, everywhere from the New Jersey Devils to the Oakland A's. It can be a little crazy. At one stadium, I think in Baltimore, there's a two-and-a-half-second delay: You sing and you hear yourself singing two and a half seconds later. It's very mind-blowing, and it completely throws off any sense of rhythm. Afterward, I spoke to Toni Braxton [who played opposite him as Belle] about how difficult it was and she said, "Oh, I've done lots of those things. I just put in earplugs."
Interview with William Michals, This Week's Emile de BecqueWhen I was doing The Scarlet Pimpernel at the Kennedy Center, the joint houses--the Senate and the Congress--were honoring the new, incoming artistic director of the Kennedy Center. In the Capitol building, I was honored to perform for all our elected officials. I sang something from our show, probably it was "Falcon in the Dive"--a fire-and-brimstone song, kind of odd to sing at the Capitol. But it was great. 

You mentioned Robert Merrill. Who are other singers who were role models for you?
I'll tell you a little bit about my background. My grandfather was named Charles Michalski, and my father was William Michalski--he changed his name to Michals when he passed the bar exam and started practicing law. My grandfather loved great singing, and sang semiprofessionally himself. His two sons, Raymond and Bill--my uncle and father--both sang a lot. My father chose a career in law, and my uncle, Raymond Michalski, had his career right over there, a stone's throw away [points to another building in Lincoln Center], at the Metropolitan Opera. He was a leading bass at the Met. Unfortunately, he died young.
So I always listened to classic American singers at home, and the two voices I suppose I heard most--besides the voices of my uncle and my father and grandfather and great-uncle--were John Charles Thomas, a wonderful baritone of the first half of the century, and Lawrence Tibbett, a gorgeous bass-baritone. I still hear their voices ringing in my ears, and those are important models for me.

Besides the Town Hall shows, at which special events have you performed recently?
I did the tribute to Jerry Herman for the American Theatre Wing gala this spring: [singing] "I won't send roses..." Jerry Herman was there. He is hands-on and likes to be involved in any concerts of his music, and so enthusiastically and lovingly and generously. There's nothing like singing with the composer handy, to help us get to the essence of the work. 

Are you going to record a follow-up to your live CD, william michals broadway in concert?
I hope to. I have a number of studio tracks that I've recorded. I think my next CD will be more of a crossover, meaning a crossing over from classical music with modern production sounds. Along the lines of Andrea Bocelli, but with more familiar melodies to American ears. There's a vibrant assortment of artists, from Josh Groban to Russell Watson to Bocelli and Sarah Brightman, who believe that the voice is the instrument that's out front. The music showcases a fully trained voice, sometimes singing in foreign languages and sometimes singing very familiar music. The idea is to communicate directly with every listener, and have the song become integral to them so they can identify with it and it conjures up loftier ideals of service, romance and more principled living. That sounds like a mouthful, like a high goal, but this is an art form where we're pursuing ideals. 

Photos of Michals, from top: in the Vivian Beaumont lobby last week; in an earlier Broadway role, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast; an offstage close-up; as Billy Flynn, surrounded by his jailhouse chorus line, in Chicago at North Shore Music Theatre; as Chauvelin on the Scarlet Pimpernel tour. [Chicago photo by Paul Lyden; Pimpernel photo by Joan Marcus]

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