BWW Interview: AN AMERICAN IN PARIS National Tour's Ben Michael
Calling all humans! Tonight, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS opens at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, and this is a show you absolutely don't want to miss. With music by the Gershwin brothers, book by Craig Lucas, and with the choreography and direction of Christopher Wheeldon, this show brings beauty and light to the aftermath of World War II in Paris. We follow three young men who are on a journey to find love and to find their way in the world through making art in a time when the world was struggling to recover.
I got the scoop from actor Ben Michael who plays Henri Baurel, a French singer, on his journey from second grade kid to professional actor and on what makes AN AMERICAN IN PARIS beautiful, special, and so incredibly relevant to the time in which we are currently living. Keep reading to hear what Ben had to say!
I don't even know where to start with you! You have your hand in so many different pots. You're a stage actor, you've done voiceovers, you've done television and film, I think I read somewhere that you had a podcast at some point. How did this all start for you?
Well... oh boy... I really started doing this in like second grade. I did the school play because my sister did it, and I wanted to be like my sister so I did that. And then that's just kind of kept going, and once I hit high school it got serious. Then I went to school for it. I went to Syracuse University for musical theatre specifically.
What was the first show that you did in high school?
In high school the first show that I did was THE SECRET GARDEN, which has been cool because I've gotten to do a concert version of it since I've become a professional which was nice to kind of dip back into that. The first show I ever did was FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, and then I've done that a few times professionally afterwards, so things kind of keep coming back. Everything's kind of cyclical with this business, which is kind of fun. Once I graduated school... I'm from Philadelphia originally, so I moved back home. Philadelphia has a great theatre scene, and I kind of just started working in that city.
At what point did you know that this was going to be your career path and not just something you like doing for fun?
The end of my sophomore year I auditioned for... there was a local all girls school that would have boys from the area audition for their shows, and they were doing LES MISERABLES. I went in thinking, "Great, this is awesome. I can be Javert, it'll be a lot of fun." Once I auditioned then they had callbacks and everyone was in the auditorium as they were doing callbacks. He kept bringing people up, and I wasn't brought up, and I was like, "What's going on? Can I just sing something?" And then he started assembling groups on stage to like see people together, and he put me in the middle and just kept moving people around, and I was like, "What is happening?" He ended up casting me as Jean Valjean. It was because of that. I did that, and during that I was like, "Oh, ok, not only is this a lot of fun, but I'm good at it." That was the big turning point for me. That was the beginning of my junior year of high school.
What was it like... you said you've been on stage since second grad so this may be throwing it back a little... but, what was it like the first time you got up in front of an audience? How did you feel? A lot of people say it's a very addictive feeling.
It is. I'm trying to think if I had... I think when I was a kid I wasn't really aware of it. I think it was once I started having the feedback afterwards. I didn't have great vision and I didn't have contacts so I couldn't see the audience, so I never really had an anxiety in terms of stage fright or anything like that, so I think it was afterwards, specifically going back to LES MIS, where I started talking with people afterwards and seeing the impact I had over them emotionally and being able to say, "Oh, I'm not just kind of getting up there and singing songs and doing these things, I'm actually impacting other human beings in the room." I think that was it for me.
Who are some of your big influences in the musical theatre world?
Vocally, Anthony Warlow is the big guy. He's an Australian. He would do a lot of Operettas and he's done a bunch of musicals down there. I think he's only done ANNIE on Broadway, and that was very recently. And, I actually strangely got to meet him. I was up at 145th and St. Nick in New York where I lived, this was two years ago, and I'm walking down the street and I see him standing next to an apartment building. I was shocked because this was a completely random part of the city and I see this idol of mine. I walk up and I was just like, "You're Anthony Warlow. I'm a big fan. I just wanted to introduce myself, and you're great. And, what are you doing here?" He says, "Well, I have a lady friend who's here and I'm just visiting." And I was like, "That's great." She walked out so I was like, "Great, thanks, bye." It was such a random thing. There's a line in a show that I did in high school called "New York is the biggest little town I know," and it's just so true!
I love hearing stories like this because I think sometimes theatre fans can think, "Oh my gosh I'm being ridiculous when I get to meet this person that I love," but it seems to be the same with people who are in the business, too! It's kind of this perpetual cycle of everybody has an influence or someone they look up to, too.
All musical theatre actors at heart are little kids who look up to their idol. We're just kids and we get to go on stage and play every night. We're just kids.
So right now you're doing AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, but this isn't your first rodeo with touring, though. You toured with FIDDLER ON THE ROOF before. What's tour life like? How is it different from performing in one theatre for a whole run?
I think the big thing is that the audiences change. From city to city the demographics change. That is the big shift is kind of having to say like, "Oh this town for some reason gets this joke, but this town gets this other joke." It's just a very interesting... everything is kind of this... it's a different beast. It's kind of fun to shift and feel the energies of the audiences. On stage that's the big difference. In terms of the travel and everything, it's kind of... you just get used to it. You're in hotels no matter where you go. So even if you're doing a regional gig, you're still in a hotel and you get to sit down a little bit more, but I think the great thing about tour is you're forced to see the city, to see the town, to get to know the little shops and the people there because it's such a small amount of time that you're in each city. When you're doing a regional gig in Maine or California or wherever, it's a little bit more lax. You're able to kind of sit back and say, "Oh, I'll do this at such and such a point," and then you reach the last week and you say, "Oh, I didn't do anything that I said I was gonna do." Here you're forced to really get up and go and get to see the cities.
What are some of your favorite places that you've been?
In terms of this tour, we were just at the Kennedy Center in D.C., which is just... it was just special. Getting to perform on this iconic stage was just incredible. And I happened to be on the cover of the playbill for the first few weeks, which is just so random but really cool to just say that I was on the cover of the Kennedy Center playbill.
Do you have any tips for fellow actors who may be embarking on their first tour? What are some tour tips that you have?
Oh, that's a good question. I was expecting that, "Do you have any tips for people who are going into acting," but this is a much better question. I would say just see the city. Get up and walk around. Of course, listen to people. I think the locals is the key. We have a small group of crew who travels with us, but then we have local crew and dressers that are there at each theatre. I think the key is just to talk to them because they're obviously the ones who have lived in the cities and the towns for however long, so they're going to have the insight on everything. So they're probably the key to really enjoying and finding the hidden gems in each city.
So let's talk about AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Can you give me kind of a run down of the show and how your character comes into play?
Basically, it's set after the Second World War literally the day after Paris is liberated. To give you the stock answer, it's a story about love and art and people growing up after such a monumental experience in life such as a war. But, to give you a little bit more of a long-winded answer, it's the story essentially about a young woman who is French. She grew up French. She's a dancer. And, she meets these... well, she knows one character, Henri, which is the character that I play... she's known him for years. She meets Jerry and Adam who are an artist and a musician respectively, and Henri wants to be a singer. It's about three artists who meet this beautiful woman, and she kind of becomes their muse in a way. It's just about how she's irresistible, and of course as musicals go, all three men are in love with her. It's kind of just about that journey and figuring out... and it's literally... what I love about the show so much is that it's about all these people, these four and then another... an American heiress who comes in and falls in love with Jerry... it's about these five people who are young and they're trying to find their place in the world through art, which is a really beautiful thing.
Yeah, and I feel like that's something... finding your place in the world is kind of a universal theme. Everybody can kind of relate to that, but specifically being a group of actors doing a show about a group of artists trying to find their place you guys must relate to that really well.
Yeah. Oh, definitely! It's a really great show to run. It's a beautiful show, and it's just fun to do because we, like you're saying, relate to these characters so well.
I know this show is kind of known for its dancing, so what's the rehearsal process like for a type of show where there's not just the literal dancing, but so much movement otherwise?
Honestly, my rehearsal process was kind of bizarre. I can't really speak to all the dance people. A couple months ago we had a huge turnover and had about fifteen to twenty new people come into the cast because we were running the show for the last year before that. I came in with that group. I think the ensemble folk were there two weeks before me, and just learned the show. The really difficult part is the movement with scene changes even. It's just a lot of long hours and drilling, and a lot of, specifically with what we're doing, of saying, "This is a large panel that you're going to be moving. You won't get to touch it until three days before you go on the stage when you perform for the first time." That's honestly, probably the most difficult part of rehearsing a show so big like this is you have all these humans around you, but you don't have these massive pieces of set that these humans then have to move. For me, it was interesting because I came in and I essentially rehearsed for a week by myself because there were a bunch of new principals coming in, but the new Lise and the new Adam had done the show on Broadway, so they were associated with the show. They knew it well, and then I had the next in terms of load so to speak. I had the most, so they brought me in. They taught me the show essentially by myself with the occasional understudy coming in to say lines opposite of me, but that was my rehearsal process. They came in and we were able to kind of shape and mold it a bit more.
It's such a quick rehearsal process. I think when kids do community theatre and theatre in schools the rehearsal process can be months, but usually it's like a week or two for you guys. How do you retain all of that so quickly?
It's a lot of work at home, just you know reading. I read the script a lot and then just kind of say the words over and over again if I have to. It's just a lot of repetition for me. Some people get it really quickly. I just repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, and read, and read, and read just so that it kind of sinks in. The key is just to... a lot of time we worry about, "Oh, I'm gonna forget my line," but during the rehearsal process if we just listen to the person across from us, usually we're going to have an idea of what we're going to say next because of what they said. It's really just trying to let go of the anxieties and the worry about, "Oh, I have to have my lines right," and just listening to the person across from you because that's what acting is. That's the best way to do it, but it's just a lot of work at home and a lot of repetition.
Are there any particular moments in the show that you just really love, or that are really special to you?
Well, I have to say "Stairway to Paradise" because it is my big number and it's the flashy New York number which is so much fun to do, and I normally don't really get to do that because I'm more of the singer/actor and not the dancer. So, I get to move around a little bit there. But, I think for me there's something really special for me about "S Wonderful" because the three guys get to sing together and it kind of... the thing I really love about McGee [Maddox] who is our Jerry and Matt [Matthew Scott] who is our Adam is that we're buds. Hopefully that's shows, but even offstage we're... Matt and I a lot of times share a dressing room, and McGee will come in 15 minutes before the show and we'll just chat and we'll joke around and we'll be idiots together. I think that's one of my favorite parts of the show is that that sequence into the next scene because we're all together. It's fun to get to do a show with two people you have fun with... everyone, but you know to be so intimately involved with scenes and stuff with people that you enjoy and have fun with.
What are some of the differences between the film and the production?
I think the big difference is the overall tone because the movie is set years after the war, where this is set directly afterwards. Everything with the feelings of what people went through and what they saw and you know the people who they did or didn't lose is still so fresh. It's... I don't want to say it's more somber because it's not really that... there's just a weight to it, there's a gravitas to it that you don't get with the movie because it's a little lighter and it's Gene Kelly so everything is lighter and it has that flash. This is really rooted in the human experience of what all these people went through, and it's every single person on the stage. You know that they had family members who were killed or taken away or who weren't killed or taken away but who were working with the Nazis. It's all kind of so fresh that there's a bubbling energy underneath that... a real weight to it that I really love because we don't try and shy away from it. We really dig into it, and bring that to light while also then being able to... you know, what I love about Henri is that he went through all of this with everyone, but he is trying to look past it and be positive. One of his first lines is... he says, "People need to laugh. Paris needs it." He's always so positive, and he wants... through his music and through his art he wants to bring light to people's life after such a dark time.
Which, again, you guys are doing in every city that you go to. It's amazing,
What's the takeaway from this story? What can we learn from it?
Oh boy. I don't even know if I've ever even thought of that. It's probably a thing I should think about. I think the big thing, honestly, is... well there are a few things. I mean it's love and art can change you, and also that you know you should listen to what your heart is telling you. I think that's the big thing.
I think because this show focuses so much on these artists trying to figure out their way, to me that says a little about why the arts are so important. Why do you think it's important for kids to learn and participate in the arts even if it's not what their career path is going to be? Because it won't be everyone's.
Yeah, exactly, but I think they're so important because gives a voice to these kids. There's so many times where, you know, their voice isn't heard whether it's you know their parents just kind of doesn't really listen to them or whatever reason... I don't have to get into why kids are neglected, but it's so important to give kids through the arts because then it allows them to be creative. It's so applicable across the board no matter what they're doing. If you are able to kind of tap into that creative, imaginative world and then be able to speak through that, it's so important for every single human on this Earth. The other thing is that it brings you closer to humanity and it gives you empathy and it allows you to be able to look across to another person and say, "I may not have gone through what you have gone through, but I can empathize with it because I have an emotional awareness," and that is so important because... I don't want to get too political, but there are many people in this world who are leading countries and our country who are not emotionally aware of what other people are going through. This is honestly on both sides of the aisle. It's so important for everyone to be able to emotionally connect as human beings because... there's something that I discovered, which is not that profound, but in college I was like, "We are the only beings on this Earth who are able to feel the emotional range that we can feel, so why not feel that and why not be aware that other people are able to feel that?" By not going through the arts, by cutting all these fundings for the arts, you're giving these children... or, you're hurting these children by not allowing them to feel the full range of emotion that they are born to be able to feel. I'll put my soap box away now.
I love it. I agree with everything you just said, especially as someone who grew up in the arts and now seeing kids being able to... anyway, we could go on for hours about that.
So to wrap us up, is there anything else that you think we as an audience need to know or be aware of before we come see the show?
I don't know, I feel like I've said enough about it... just to know that it's a gorgeous show and there's beautiful dancing. Christopher Wheeldon's choreography is stunning, and it's not just with the dance numbers proper. Everything... the movement of the show as you were saying earlier... the movement of the show is just beautiful. His vocabulary that he uses, his physical vocabulary, is very evocative and it's beautiful, and just you know to be ready to just sit back and be awed by the beauty of what humans can do physically and emotionally and vocally and everything. Just be ready for that.
Come experience the beauty of love and art through song and dance in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS this week only at the Saenger Theatre. Visit http://www.saengernola.com for tickets and more information.