Interview: Michael Kelly of THE PLEASING RECOLLECTION at 54 Below

"It's just always about making music with people that you trust and that have your best interest at heart."

By: Apr. 03, 2022
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Interview: Michael Kelly of THE PLEASING RECOLLECTION at 54 Below On Tuesday night, when opera singer Michael Kelly steps onto the stage at Feinstein's/54 Below, the audience will be given a chance to see something completely new. The baritone will be presenting a new piece titled THE PLEASING RECOLLECTION which is a hybrid that brings together the art forms of opera and cabaret.

Based on the real-life experiences of librettist Stephen Kitsakos and driven by Kelly's desire to be involved with innovative new works, the tale set in the edgy and exciting times of Studio 54, the gay sexual revolution, and the Bronx Fires carries with it music by Martin Hennessy and Musical Direction by Bénédicte Jourdois. These four friends and colleagues have worked tirelessly to bring this project into the light, and the word is out: the first of two performances is already waitlisted. Fortunately, fans can still book in for the encore performance on April 6th.

Before the big reveal, Michael Kelly got on the phone with Broadway World to chat for a bit about building a show from the ground up, making music with longtime friends, and whether or not the opera sound and the Seventies make good artistic partners.

This interview has been edited for space and content.

Interview: Michael Kelly of THE PLEASING RECOLLECTION at 54 Below Michael Kelly, welcome to BroadwayWorld.

Hi, Stephen. How are you today?

I'm fine. And yourself?

I'm doing really well. Thanks.

I'm happy to hear that. And I'm glad that you were able to chat with us today.

Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for taking the time.

You are in preparations for an interesting new project titled The Pleasing Recollection. Will you use one high concept sentence to tell our readers what The Pleasing Recollection is?

Yeah. It's about a young gay man making his way through New York City in the late 1970s, and early eighties, trying to find love. And along the way, he meets some really iconic New York celebrities.

How did you come to be involved with the Pleasing Recollection?

Interview: Michael Kelly of THE PLEASING RECOLLECTION at 54 Below
Photo: Aramis Ikatu

I was approached by Martin Hennessy and Stephen Kitsakos, who wrote the piece. They had written a couple of songs and wanted me to perform them, record them. And when I got them, I was completely intrigued by what they had created, I asked them to have a meeting about it and to see if we could maybe develop it further, into a whole show, a one-man show. That's exactly what we did. I asked Stephen if he had more stories like the ones that he had and he said, "Yeah, of course, this is my life... this is from my life." So, they worked together on a full libretto of all of these great stories and we got working on making it into a thing.

To that end, you are one of the creators of this program.

In a way, in regards to getting it on its feet, I guess I had a hand in sort of shaping what it ended up being. They asked me what kind of story that I wanted to personally tell... we knew that it was about a gay man, and I said, "If we're talking about the late seventies, early eighties, the thing is I don't think we should be telling an HIV/Aids story." I also don't think we should be telling a coming-out story. These are stories that I've told before, in my work, in my career, and they have been told so many times before. What we haven't seen a whole lot of are stories about gay men having success during that time, and finding love. So that's essentially what I asked for - let's tell a positive story, especially right now: in the midst of all of this chaos in the world, let's tell something positive and uplifting and enjoy it.

So it's sort of a gay man's story where the gayness is incidental to the story.

Interview: Michael Kelly of THE PLEASING RECOLLECTION at 54 Below Essentially. I mean, this is New York City, of course, even at that time, it was a pretty open place... not quite what it is today, maybe, but I think a person's sexuality is not all of who they are. It doesn't completely define them, and it doesn't define our protagonist, despite the things that he experiences in the show, which are pretty gay. It's really a human story. It's about a man and love and a path towards a life that's fulfilling.

Were you looking for a one-man show to do when this came along or was it all just happenstance?

During the pandemic, I think we were all kind of thinking about what it would be like to get through this and what our careers might look like on the other side of it. I think for me, I recognized that things were probably going to be on a smaller scale, coming out of this, operatically or even in the musical theater world, and cabaret felt like the right kind of thing that I would want to do. I wanted to connect again with an audience in an intimate and substantial way. I wanted to make something that companies felt that they could afford to produce. And this is very lean, it's very flexible; we just need some basic lights, a piano, and a table and chair - it's really simple. I've done one-man shows like that before, like Ricky Ian Gordon's Green Sneakers, and As One, which is an opera about a transgender woman by Laura Kaminsky and Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed - that's just two characters and a string quartet. So, this type of thing is something that I love to do and have had a lot of success doing. It made sense.

So the smaller, more intimate venues are not new to you?

No, in fact, way back when, I did my master's at Juilliard, a big focus of my training there was on recital training, song repertoire, just me and a piano. That's been a big part of my career thus far, on top of all of the opera and musical theater that I've performed as well.

When all of you got involved at the very beginning and it was just a couple of songs, what was it about this work that appealed to you, that made you want to grow it into something greater?

Interview: Michael Kelly of THE PLEASING RECOLLECTION at 54 Below It had a beautiful narrative, it felt present. It felt theatrical even though that was not their original intent. They were actually thinking of making a little song cycle out of it but it just had so much life in it. I could see it with those two songs - they were more than just poetic, they were more than descriptive and active in what they were talking about. It just made sense to me to turn it into a show.

It sounds like you have an eye for this kind of thing. Do you think that this could be the beginning of a new artistic avenue for you?

Well, it's interesting that you say that: I'm working on a couple of projects where I'm the librettist in some creative projects for operas. So yes, it is a big part of who I am and what I do. I've been a poet for a long time and some of my poetry has been set... in fact, one of my poems that was set by the composer Ben Moore is coming out on an album on April 22nd. It's an album of all of his songs or a collection of a number of his songs.

I think I've heard of this. I think it's called Gatherings?

Yes, exactly.

Tell me a little bit about that since we happened upon the subject, organically.

Ben is a dear friend of mine - his partner is the pianist, Brian Zeger, who runs the vocal program at Juilliard. He was my mentor and my teacher when I was a student there, so I've known Brian and Ben since 2003. I've always loved Ben's music and found that I took to it very well, and have sung quite a lot of it. When I made my debut recital I asked Ben to write a song cycle for me to premiere on that recital. We decided to come up with an LGBTQ-themed collection of songs, one of which is Harvey Mill's Hope Speech that we truncated down.

And we included two truncated texts from the It Gets Better project, which inspired it all, and then finished it out with a poem of mine about coming out to my brother. I think it was last year that Ben called me up and said, "Hey, I'm finally, after all of the years, gonna put out an album of my song repertoire; I'd love for you to be a part of it." It's a really beautiful cd with a lot of variety, and his songs are just very special and the world needs to know them better.

It must be rewarding to get to work with someone who's been a friend for a while, in such a creative fashion.

Interview: Michael Kelly of THE PLEASING RECOLLECTION at 54 Below I'd say that's very true. It feels like coming home whenever you get to do something with a friend, especially one that you collaborate well with, which is always a hope and a goal, that those two things can align. Having Brian Zeger, who accompanied all of the singers for the album, play for me - it had been many years since we had the opportunity to do that. I felt very fortunate to be able to do it

Now, on the subject of working with friends, through the process of doing the Pleasing Recollection, you must have become close with Martin Hennessy and Stephen Kitsakos - it's an autobiographical piece, isn't it?

It's completely pulled from his own life experiences - embellished of course, poetic in their aesthetic. This is his story and it's been a joy to get to work through them and hear deeper details about who he is and what he went through as a younger man. I'd say we've all become good friends and Bénédicte Jourdois, who is accompanying and is even playing a role in the show, is a colleague of mine from my Juilliard days, that I've known for a very long time. So it's just always about making music with people that you trust and that have your best interest at heart, and our support system, that we can be for one another. Getting into these things where you're building something from the ground up is a big responsibility, so it takes a lot of love and a lot of light to get it done.

On the 54 Below website, in the description of this program, it describes this as being a time period that was exhilarating and dangerous. What did Stephen provide you with that helps you to build a foundation for your character?

That's a good question. He's definitely discussed what it was like to be so young and so green in New York during that time. In one of the songs, there's a juxtaposition between the fire that he felt, walking around the West Village, what was sort of lighting him up, not only as a person but as a sexual being, too, feeling enticed by it all. And the juxtaposition is with the fires that were happening in the Bronx during that time, like the literal setting of fires, the riots that were happening there. I think that's a lot of the danger that he was talking about - it was a dangerous time to be running around New York City In one way it was filled with interesting people and exciting parties and celebrities who were partying right next to you, depending on where you went, and on the other hand, you could be mugged walking down the street. It was a sort of wild time. We've talked through that a lot, to get into that mindset of what it was like to arrive here - he grew up in Staten Island, so it was a matter of crossing the harbor, and the difference between how safe he felt at home and all of the differences and the things that you could see and experience over here was alarming at times and extremely enticing

Do you lean more into the research, or your instincts, or discussions with your playwright to achieve your vibe for the performance?

Interview: Michael Kelly of THE PLEASING RECOLLECTION at 54 Below It's a big combination of all three of those things. I am quite instinctual, that's a big part of who I am as an artist. I find that I can tap into something pretty quickly as an actor, and as a vocal actor, to find the colors of the emotions that I'm trying to portray in my own voice, my singing. I try to do a lot of research. For this I've been looking at what was happening at Studio 54 during this time and what was happening in the art world and the music world and in the gay world, trying to really immerse myself in that information because it really does add so many layers to the portrayal of the character.

You just mentioned the era and the music - it's the late seventies and the early eighties. That's a time that was overwhelmed with the sounds of rock and roll and disco music. Does the operatic musical theater vibe meld well with the era that you're portraying?

I think that it does. You're not gonna find rock and roll and disco happening in the piece. There's a lot of musical theater. The celebrities that he meets are Stephen Sondheim and Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein and Larry Kert. So it really is more about the world that Stephen himself was finding himself in. He was a pianist during that time, playing for studio gigs and playing for rehearsals, and auditions. He was also one of the pianists that Marie's Crisis back then, really experiencing all the Queens surrounding that piano, wanting sing through show tunes. I think that the influence for the sound world of this piece is driven from that corner of what was happening in New York.

How do you feel about the importance, the value of queer artists telling queer stories?

I love that question. It's very important to me; our lived experience allows us to go that much deeper and I think that there is a certain ownership to identity. I think that right now, we're experiencing a call to action to make sure that the stories that are so personal to certain groups of people are told by those people. I believe in the importance of that as an actor. I feel confident that I can portray any character that I'm right for but there is a lineage, a heritage to being able to tell stories, and I feel honored to be able to do that because it is an important part of who I am as a person and as an artist.

So pretend I'm a stranger you've met at a party or in a coffee shop and compel me to come see this production.

Interview: Michael Kelly of THE PLEASING RECOLLECTION at 54 Below I think that right now we are hungry for personal stories that are sexy and funny and lighthearted and filled with love, and that's exactly what we have here. We've got something that anyone could relate to. This is a story about a human being finding love and success. Right now, coming out of such a hard time, that's exactly what you would love to find on the stage in front of you. I'm excited about the music and the vocalism that we're creating here. Also, the combining of genres - I've been calling it a Cabopera because it's cabaret and opera put together. I can't really think of another piece that does that. You're seeing something brand new, something unseen. Witnessing something new is an exciting thing to be able to do.

Well, I love brand new, especially when it comes to art.

Yeah. Tapping into what the future of art can be and finding new ways to press outside of the boundaries that have been established... I'm excited, as an artist, by that prospect.

Michael, thank you for chatting with me today. I hope you guys have a wonderful experience at 54 Below. I think you'll really like it there.

Thank you so much, Stephen. It's a pleasure to talk to you and thank you for asking such interesting and compelling questions. They really got me talking.

Next up comes the singing. Have a sweet day.

Thank you so much.

Photos of Michael Kelly by Michael Young Photography.

THE PLEASING RECOLLECTION plays 54 Below on April 5th (waitlist is available to this sold-out performance) and April 6th. For information and tickets visit the 54 Below website HERE.

THE PLEASING RECOLLECTION will play Fire Island on May 29th. Information is HERE.

Michael Kelly has a website HERE and information on Ben Moore Gatherings is HERE.


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