BWW Feature: Michael Kirk Lane - The Intersection Where Art Meets Heart
Michael Kirk Lane is a family man. Whatever it is that holds his focus in any particular moment, the path is one guided by a strong sense of family; it's a good thing, too, because he is a man with many families. The Michigan native has been living in New York for fourteen years and, rather like George Bailey, the long arm of Lane reaches out in many directions, touching the lives of people who look at him with overwhelming gratitude and great love, not just for what he has done for them, but what his personality has brought to their lives... well, his personality and his heart.
The entirety of Lane's youth was spent in one place, a place where all his relatives were no more than 45 minutes away. To this day, he and his brother (now a Texas resident) are among the few who have moved away, but Michael makes sure that he is back home in Michigan (or down in Texas) as often as he can be, believing that the connection between family members is a vastly important one. This connection is one instilled in him by parents and grandparents who didn't only support him in the value of growing up a man of honor, but the need to grow up a man with dreams - dreams he followed, dreams he achieved, dreams he could be proud of. After all, Michael's love of music was inherited from a grandfather who sang in male choruses and barbershop quartets, while his grandmother was a singer in the Sweet Adelines. There was precious little his own parents could do, other than support him, which they always have and still do - they have never, not once, missed a single show he has ever done. To this day, when he is on the stage in New York City, Mr. and Mrs. Lane make a trip to Manhattan from Flint to see at least one of his performances (for those wondering, the Lane homestead in Michigan was not affected by the water crisis). So connected to his family is he, that MKL remembers the process of learning to sing, thus: "I had my first vocal technique lessons at five or six... my grandfather started to teach me about vowel modification - he saw something in me and proceeded to teach me what he knew. And through college, I would hear his voice in the back of my head, about how to modify and make it happen." Singing was, for Michael, a natural progression that occurred as he grew, not a decision born out of a desire to perform, one stemming out of his family's interest in music, including the sacred time every Sunday evening of sitting down together to watch The Lawrence Welk Show - a memory that informed his most recent show "Just Because."
Memories of his family inform every show Michael does, indeed every moment of his life. It isn't just the Lane family history, though, that weaves the thread through his heart and his head - it is all of the families that travel within his heart whose voices he hears and whose stories he tells. Take, for example, his family of childhood friends: "My imaginary friends when I was little were the characters from the shows I would watch... Sharon, Lois, and Bram was the main one for me. They would be my imaginary friends and I would be playing with them, but I knew what time the show started. So I would say to my imaginary friends, 'Okay it's time for you to go to your show. I'll see you later!' And I would sit down and watch the show, and then they'd come back and we'd play more." The shows, the music, the imagination of Lane's childhood has stayed with him for the rest of his life, so much so that his first solo cabaret show was titled "Songs from The Rock, The Street, and The Hood." All of Lane's appointment television, while growing up, was heavily music-influenced, and all featuring original compositions; so grown-up Michael Kirk Lane turned to Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street, and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood for that first show. "All three of those shows have a world philosophy that I think has informed my life. Obviously, we all know the philosophy of Mr. Rogers and boy, could we use his philosophy more in our world today. But also Fraggle rock was very much about respecting each other and finding a way to live together with different creatures, but also the world around us. And Sesame Street, from day one, was bringing different cultures together." That was Michael Lane's thinking when he created his first cabaret show, and in 2019, when he decided to do a new show "Just Because," those themes and that music were still very much present, proving that little 5-year-old Michael's imaginary friends have never left his side. "Just Because" brought Michael's other families onto the stage, along with those childhood memories.
Michael Kirk Lane moved to New York in 2006 and, in a very short time, was introduced to the piano bar community. A friend began taking him to clubs like Brandy's and The Duplex, but the bar that seemed to become his home away from home was Don't Tell Mama. There, he found a family that took him in, took him to their hearts, gave him a home and a job. As a patron, he had befriended everyone in the joint so much that one night the manager suggested he become their seating host, since he needed a job and was always there anyway. From there, he became a singing waiter in the piano bar, then a sub-manager, and when the piano bar became a place where the music was pop-heavy, the club opened a second piano bar, and he became the host of The Show Tune Room, where only musical theater would be played. "I found my New York family in the piano bars," says Lane, "and even though I don't' work there anymore they are still my new york family. There's something really special about the piano bar community - it is a really special community. The staff at Mama's, The Duplex, and Brandys really create a community. We take care of each other. Part of the camaraderie of the piano bar community is being in the trenches together multiple nights a week. Some nights it's the hilarity that ensues when it's dead, and William TN Hall and Joe Regan decide we're going to sing the entire score of a show together 'cause 'There's no customers here, so let's have fun!' Or there are the nights when you've all got to band together to kick the table of drunk a**holes out of the bar."
It was there, at Don't Tell Mama, that "Just Because" was presented and Michael's musical director was William TN Hall; at every performance, the iconic Sidney Myer joined Michael on the stage for a duet - Sidney is the booking manager for the club and the Patriarch of the Don't Tell Mama family. There, during each performance, Michael told the stories of his kinfolk, his grandparents, the Lawrence Welk Show, and the recent funeral of his grandmother, with whom he had grown extremely close in the years after her husband's death, as his mother looked on, tearfully. He shared stories of his life in cabaret, alongside his Don't Tell Mama father figure and his Brandy's brother, as the gang from The Laurie Beechman (where Lane is the house manager) cheered from the audience. He spoke of his love of the Muppets, the Fraggles, of Sesame Street, as Sesame Street creatives looked on. Yes, Michael Kirk Lane has become the friend of his childhood idols.
"I consider myself one of the luckiest Muppet geeks in the world...it's special to now be so close with people who are responsible for the things I loved as a child."
Michael's childhood fascination with Muppets and puppets is a well-known part of his personality, and his friends know it. While working at TDF, Michael's boss, Marianna Houston, arranged an introduction with beloved Fraggle Rock actor Kathryn Mullen, whom Houston knew through her work with an organization called No Strings Productions, and before he knew it, Michael Lane was working with No Strings alongside Houston (a board member), Mullen, and Mullen's husband. Michael Frith, designer of some of the original Muppets, as an associate producer. He has also done voice work on important films that No Strings has created, films they call their "make the world a better place" films. "There are children in Pakistan learning English, with my voice coming out of a trombone playing monkey in a movie called The Flying Tent." These films the company has made are among the proudest accomplishments in Lane's life because he is not only an actor, a singer, a Muppet geek, and a friend to the cabaret community - Michael Kirk Lane is an educator, and the children of the world matter to him, very much.
Lane is a proud alumnus of Siena Heights University in Michigan, an institution with one of the longest standing chid drama programs in the state of Michigan. MKL, having been teaching summer acting classes since the age of 17, became one of the first students at Siena Heights to take classes, not as a teaching assistant, but as a teacher. His teaching at Siena Heights (where he was presented with the 2018 Outstanding Alumni Award) led him to work at Flint Youth Theater, where he would perform at night and teach during the day. There is not a trip home to Michigan that Lane does not arrange a visit to Siena Heights to visit or do fundraising, and he is never out of touch with his fellow alum, the teachers, or his mentors there. He has continued his teaching in New York City, where he leads various classes with Wingspan Theater and at the 92nd Street Y. It is at the Y that he teaches an Exploring Cabaret class where students have heard him say "You're presenting a version of yourself and, yeah, you might need to massage a story one way or the other to make it fit into what you're trying to accomplish or to fit in the time you have, for the patter between those two songs. But you're still presenting a version of yourself and it was working in a piano bar that made me comfortable with that. Because you are yourself in a piano bar. There's not time or space for a character or a pretense... on a night where you're slammed, and there's a waiting list. That's where I developed that persona of myself, and I think my performance persona is still very genuine to who I am."
It is, perhaps, the quality of being genuine that has made Michael Kirk Lane so very popular a member of the families he inhabits, be it a family of kinfolk, college chums, piano bar buddies, cabaret comrades, puppeteering pals, or special students. Onstage or off, Michael Kirk Lane is a very genuine fellow, who wishes for no more than to simply be surrounded by a family of good people and to do good work - not a difficult task in life, if you have the right outlook and the right attitude. Done and done.
"We're all eventually working towards the same goal. So let's make it more like Mickey and Judy in the barn and let's all put on a show together. Let's all work together to make it the best it can be."
"We all need a place to belong"
Michael Kirk Lane is the 2020 MAC Award Recipient for Best Male Performer in A Musical Comedy Cabaret for his show "Just Because"
Michael Kirk Lane was born on April 21st. This article was published on his birthday, 2020.
Photos by Stephen Mosher