Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Interview: Ben Michael of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

pixeltracker

An American in Paris

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is coming to Omaha! This winner of multiple Tony Awards, based on the 1951 Academy Award winning film of the same name and adapted for stage by Christopher Wheeldon, will run February 13-18 at Omaha's Orpheum Theatre.

I spoke with Ben Michael who plays Henri Baurel, a man who is following his passion for performing but has a surprising background that is revealed in the course of the story. Ben Michael, who has played a wide variety of roles in his career, discussed his own background and talked about the show.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you realize that you wanted to do musical theatre?

I grew up in a small town outside of Philadelphia call Hatboro, so I'm very happy that the Eagles just won the Super Bowl! (Laughs)

I started doing theater in, goodness, it was second grade. My school district would do an all school musical where if they needed kids, we'd audition. My sister had done it when I was in first grade and I thought, "Oh, that looks like fun. I want to be like my sister." So, I auditioned the next year. I did it periodically off and on and took a couple years off to play sports. Then, once I got to high school, I got back into it after taking about two years off.

I always say my turning point was the end of my sophomore year, beginning of my junior year. There was a local all-girls school that was auditioning for LES MIS and that one of my favorite shows at the time, so I thought, "Great. I'll go and audition." I thought that I'm more of a baritone in the musical theatre world, so I'll go out for Javert. It'll be great. I got called back the next day. They were calling back everyone in one group and we were all sitting out in the theatre. The director would call people up on stage. He would call people in different pairs. And I sitting in the theatre... I was never called up to do anything. I was just sitting there doing nothing for maybe an hour, hour and a half. By the end of the time, he finally called me up on stage and was calling other people up on stage, just lining us all up to see who was there. And I was standing in the middle thinking, "Okay, this is weird." And he ended up offering me Jean Val Jean, which is the lead. It was my first major role in a show, and after we went through the whole show, I thought, "You know, not only am I pretty good at this, I really enjoy it!" That was the big turning point for me.

From there I went to Syracuse and started my professional career after that.

You did baseball in high school. Did you do dance too? There is quite a bit of dancing in the show.

There is quite a bit of dancing in the show. I don't do nearly as much as the other people. My dance load in the show is very light. In high school, I only did dance that was in the shows that I would do. So there wasn't much, but then there was a rather large amount once I got to Syracuse, because they really try to give you the whole triple threat training.

I just watched the Gene Kelly movie last night. I noticed that Gene is a tapper, and everyone else does ballet. Is it going to be the same in this show? Is the character Jerry (McGee Maddox) going to tap, or is it all ballet?

It's actually not. Christopher Wheeldon, our brilliant director/choreographer, comes from the ballet world and he knows the focal point of the show, of the movie, of the story is the ballet in the second act. He wanted to kind of keep ballet key. There's a tap number, a show girl number, in the second act (that happens to be my number) but that's the only tapping. The Gene Kelly role really takes an exorbitant amount of ballet training. McGee Maddox, our Jerry, was a principal ballet dancer for years. He's more than capable of shouldering that load.

What do you think is the big draw for this show? Will people love it for the big spectacular dance numbers or will they love it for classical musical theater?

I think it bridges that gap, actually. At its heart, it has that old musical theater feel, and it happens to have ballet throughout. What's really great about the choreography is that, yes, it is ballet, but there are lots of modern aspects of it. It's not only women on pointe and men lifting them. There are a lot of different dance vocabulary, so to speak, involved. There's modern. Chris was able to really fuse the different styles together and to have his own voice. It's really great. I think, if you love ballet, you're going to really enjoy the show because it's a lot of ballet. But If you're a classical musical theatre fan you'll love it because it's a classical musical theatre boy meets girl sort of show.

So, something for everyone?

Exactly!

In the movie, there was reference to recovering from the War. In this national tour production, are there also references to the military?

What's really great about the show as compared with the movie is that the movie takes place a few years after the war ends whereas the show takes place right after the war ends. Everyone is kind of living in that kind of world where it's, "Okay, we just got out of this world shattering (literally) event. How do we create a life after it?" There are uniforms involved in the opening ballet, there are references to the war throughout the show. I think what's really great about the show is this feeling that this whole thing happened, now how do we continue? How do we go on creating a new life? There are definitely military aspects involved, but it doesn't beat you over the head with it.

In the movie, I didn't really catch a significant role for Henri's mom, Madame Baurel. I see that she's a major character in the musical?

Mmmhmm.

So why do you think she was put in there in a bigger capacity?

I'm not exactly sure why Craig Lucas put her in. I would assume that in the movie all the characters are a bit older. In the show, the five main characters are all younger. They all have a 20ish sort of feel. So, I think what he was trying to do is have this older generation who lived through the war and saw time before the first world war and kinda had this connection to the past. I think that is the reason she is such a predominant aspect of it. It's just to give it a different perspective on the war. For Henri, his whole goal is to get away from the dreariness and sadness of the war and to try to bring light through the dark. She's kind of a foil to that, in a way, as well as Adam. She balances it out a little bit, to say, "Hey, yes, we're going to bring this positivity, but there are still things happening, there are still people getting betrayed." She tries to ground that.

In the movie, Henri at first seems a superficial character who is only interested in himself and his career. Only later do we see there is more to him. Is this apparent in the musical?

It is, yeah. That whole thing is still there. His journey is fairly similar in that way. That's the great part about playing this character. He's not just a superficial person. Everyone went through something in the war.

You could say Henri was self-sacrificial.

Yes, but he doesn't use that. He doesn't play the pity card.

What will the audience come away with? Is there a message here?

I think overall this show is about finding your way. Where it gets really lovely is when Adam has a speech in the second act where he talks about if you have the power and ability to do good through art you have to. If we have this ability to change people's lives, even in a small way, we have to do it. It's a great show, especially for anyone who wasn't able to get to New York to see it. It does really bridge that gap between the ballet and the musical theatre world. It's just a new way to present a musical. It's a really innovative way to do it. It's not just "Here's some dancing; here's some singing!" It's woven throughout. Transitions are gorgeous. It's just a beautiful show.

Photo (left to right): Ben Michael, McGee Maddox, and Matthew Scott

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy


Related Articles

Featured on Stage Door

Shoutouts, Classes & More

From This Author Christine Swerczek