Michael Urie On Keeping A Relationship And Loving An Audience

Also: An inside look at the Drama League and Chita Rivera Awards, and a midnight showing of "Three Tall Women."

My old boss and cohort from Logo’s Cocktails & Classics, Michael Urie, is moving to Broadway in October with Torch Song, the streamlined version of Harvey Fierstein’s trilogy in which Urie plays a proud gay man (and drag performer) striving for acceptance and personal justice. He will also host the Drama Desk awards for theater excellence on June 3 (his third time doing so), and he’s nominated for other awards for Torch Song, as well as the comic revival The Government Inspector.

I caught up with Michael (famed from Ugly Betty) for a quick chat spanning various aspects of his blooming fabulousness.

Hi, Michael. Why do you like hosting the Drama Desk Awards?

I like hosting, as you know. I like an audience. I’m a bit of a whore that way. I like the Drama Desks because it’s so inclusive. You’ll have somebody from Broadway with a million dollar production behind them and someone who did three weeks at PS 122. I love that it’s an even playing field. I don’t know how even it really is, but it feels like good work will get noticed. The committee is very small—there’s only a handful of people who see so many damned shows. They really are, in their way, objective. They don’t make decisions based on what’s hot or what has the most powerful marketing team behind it, they really go and see everything and make decisions based on what they’ve seen.

Well, they obviously didn’t see Torch Song or The Inspector General! (We laugh: My joke was a result of Urie not being nominated for a Drama Desk, despite acclaim virtually everywhere else.)

Then there’s that. This year, they saw every show on or off Broadway except that!

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Will you start the awards ceremony by making fun of this heinous omission?

I have to acknowledge it, razzing them, or I’ll just take one. I know where they keep them. Actually, the night of the Drama Desks, they only have one, covered with fingerprints.

They have to engrave them, then send it to the winners in the mail. I’m still waiting. Anyway, you are bringing Torch Song to Broadway. What has been the most stimulating thing about reviving this groundbreaking play for you?

I would probably say how much it means to people, not only the people that saw it before and are experiencing it again, but the people who never saw it. The people who saw it before, for so many people it was the first positive expression of gay life—the first time somebody got up on a stage or screen and said, “I want to love somebody and I want somebody to love me back” and not self-pitying. It’s emotional and Arnold (Urie’s character) certainly runs the gamut of feelings, but he wasn’t having a pity party. He didn’t hate himself. He wasn’t suicidal or depressed. This was before the plague, so he wasn’t sick. It was about a guy who wanted to be what his mother was—a parent and a spouse. That was a problem—because of outside forces, he couldn’t be what he was. For people for whom that was the first one, it meant so much to them and it toured—so many people saw it with Estelle Getty or Jonathan Hadary or Donald Moffat. They saw these other great actors who did it in their hometown. It changed their life, even as people were getting up and leaving.

Some people actually left?

They didn’t know what they were sitting down to. I think it would be exciting to tour it now and remind people. This shortened version is going to be published. For years, it’s been hard for people to produce it around the country because it’s so long. Harvey wouldn’t let people produce the plays separately. This production will give people the new script and let them present it.

So Arnold wants to be what his mother (Mercedes Ruehl in this production; Getty in the original) has been?

That’s what he wanted—the same life she had. The climax of the play is her telling him he could never be that. The reaction from people who saw it then versus now, the biggest change seems to be with the mother. When the mother says, “This isn’t natural. If I’d known it was gonna be like this, I wouldn’t have had you”…she says these horrible things, and people are more shocked now. People then were less shocked because you heard it all the time. It was what was said. It was boilerplate, whereas now it’s shocking and painful. At the beginning of the play, he’s a kid who thinks he knows everything, and by the end of the play, he’s a man who knows he doesn’t know anything. People see themselves in this guy.
He’s got a life and he’s figuring out how to be a parent and they’re playing house. The mother comes in and it’s definitely a gut punch. It’s a personal attack. What shocked people [with the original] was the idea that a gay man could be a parent. What was really shocking was this science fiction story of a gay man having a gay son and being okay.

There was a definite response (including from dimwits like myself) feeling, “Why does he want the same things straight people have?” But as in so many cases, Harvey was prophetic about the importance of those rights.

He was a prophet, and if the community hadn’t been sidelined by AIDS, perhaps that would have been the fight. He helped turn the tide anyway, in terms of equality.

Harvey actually said that, as awful as AIDS is, it made us visible in the world’s eye and forced us to create a sense of a noticeable community that it was impossible to turn back from. In some dark, despairing ways, it actually helped pave the way for future cultural advances. Speaking of LGBT love: Can I ask a quick, maybe dumb question (which is related because we’re talking about gay families)? You are boyfriends with fellow actor Ryan Spahn, whom I also j’adore. What’s your secret to a long-running relationship?

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That’s a tough one. I once heard somebody ask my father that and he said “Patience,” and I thought, “Wow, I never heard him talk that way.” Ryan and I have the same fights over and over again. Last week, we went to an Alan Mencken event. We were four minutes late and couldn’t go in until after the first song—it actually started on time. That’s the kind of thing Ryan and I fight about. He likes to get there early and go to the bathroom, and I like to get there very last minute. Our fights rarely extend beyond simple, trivial things like that. When we do have a big problem or major conflict, it is not the fight that it could be because we air our grievances.

So your motto is, “Do sweat the small stuff?”

Do sweat the small stuff because the big stuff needs patience and care.

I loved bantering with you about movies on Cocktails & Classics. What constitutes a good movie for you, whether it’s good or good-bad?

I just thought about this while watching movies on a plane. I’ve always thought watching movies on a plane is a specific kind of attention because you can’t go anywhere. You’re trapped. I find I usually like movies on a plane better. We are slaves to our phones these days, and if you don’t think about your phone during a movie, it’s succeeding. Given our attention spans with our stupid tablets, going to the movies is precious to me. Sitting down and turning off your phone is sacred, and if the movie doesn’t hold your attention, then it hasn’t succeeded. Unfortunately, that becomes the filmmaker’s plight. They have to keep us and they have to hold us. These classic movies, they hold your attention and do not let you go. Your favorite movie [laughs], The Poseidon Adventure, was on recently, and I said to Ryan, “I’m canceling my day. I want to see every choice they made.”

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Even the bad ones? You never hear a complete The Morning After! Anyway, are you really going to be in Barbra Streisand’s next movie? I heard a rumor.

Nope. I don’t think I’ll be in Barbra Streisand’s vicinity. That’s a crazy rumor. I’d be thrilled.

Not after you savaged her in that play, Buyer & Cellar! [laughs] Has anyone confused you with Brendon Urie, the Panic at the Disco singer who was in Kinky Boots?

They usually think I’m related to him. I don’t think anyone’s confused me with him, though. I would relish the comparison. He is super cute. Although the other day at Angels in America, I was leaving the first part and literally walking out of the theater with the audience. Someone stopped me and told me how good I had just been in the show! I guess they thought I was Andrew Garfield or James McArdle…It was a really bizarre moment.

And they’re both nominated for Drama Desks, lol! Anyway, congrats on your amazing success. Love you, lunch.

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This Butz Is Made for Working

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A similar bunch of trophies, the Drama League Awards, had a Marriott Marquis gala last week whereby a dais full of dozens of honorees each got up to voice their utter gratitude. And there was levity, too. My Fair Lady’s Norbert Leo Butz quipped, “I feel like I’ve worked with half of you and slept with the other half.” Taking note of that remark, Harry Clarke’s Billy Crudup later made sure to deadpan, “Just for the record, I have worked with Norbert.”

The New Dramatists annual lunch at the Marriott Marquis honored Denzel Washington, who’s currently starring on Broadway in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and the stars came out to gusheth. Director George C. Wolfe said that with Denzel, it’s all about the work: “There is no vanity. There is no ‘Look at me.’ There is ‘Look at it.’”

Denzel himself accepted the award by talking about his lengthy career, which started when he longed to get on Broadway and earn a whopping $650, and magically did so. He said he was proud to “touch the hem of O’Neill’s garment and interpret his brilliance.” And he made sure to note that his son, John David Washington, had won an award at Cannes for Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, in which he’s a cop who manages to infiltrate the Klan. “Nothing makes me happier than being known as his father,” said Denzel, who gushes pretty well himself.

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In the crowd, I cornered Alex Newell—the ex-Glee star who plays Asaka, Mother of the Earth in Broadway’s Once on This Island—and he told me he’s a longtime fan of Denzel. “My favorite movie of his is The Preacher’s Wife,” said Newell. “I could watch it on repeat for the rest of my life.”

The annual gala benefitting the Actors Fund was even more spectacular, as it celebrated the quintessential quartet of Warren Beatty, Kenny Leon, Chita Rivera, and Uma Thurman, all of whom showed up. Presenter Mandy Patinkin read a letter from Stephen Sondheim remembering that Beatty was one of two finalists for the role of Jets leader Riff in the original West Side Story, “but Jerry Robbins wanted a dancer” and “Warren wasn’t born with the ability to move his feet to music.” A dancer extraordinaire, Chita was wonderfully self-effacing, saying, “I’m so glad to wake up in the morning,” but ending with a much more confident, “By the way, there’s still a lot of salt in this shaker!” John Doyle (who directed Chita in 2015’s The Visit) remarked that he and his husband have a picture on the wall of two people who are loving and caring “and a bit naughty”—Pope Francis and Chita Rivera!

It was great to see the Broadway icon again at the Chita Rivera Awards for dance, an extraordinary evening held at the Skirball Center, one filled with current and future legends. Ariana DeBose did some stunning swirling around in a “Hot Stuff” number from Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, and the won for Outstanding Female Dancer in a Broadway Show. Sergio Trujillo won for choreographing that show, and Tony Yazbeck nabbed best male honors for the long-closed Prince of Broadway.

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Harold Prince himself received a special honor, preceded by some numbers from his musicals. (Harvey Fierstein slayed it with a funny and heartfelt “If I Were a Rich Man” and Bryonha Marie Parham hit a home run with a stunning “Cabaret”). And Chita gave an award to John Kander (the composer half of Kander and Ebb) and remembered when he played “All That Jazz “ for her for the first time. Chita was excited, jumping up and down with the first few chords, only to have Kander interject, “That was just the vamp…There’s a whole song coming.” Years later, Kander told her he wanted her and Liza Minnelli for a musical called The Rink, which would be a mother/-daughter story. “Who’s going to play the mother?” wondered Chita, innocently.

A truly bizarre mother centers Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, which I caught up with at a midnight show last Thursday, hosted by the cast of The Boys in the Band, which is also directed by Joe Mantello. At the Actors Fund benefit performance, I sat opposite Zachary Quinto and Matt Bomer and enjoyed the cracklingly acted look at “A” (Glenda Jackson), a 90-something woman who’s senile, racist, and paranoid, but at times engaging as she recounts moments from her life—or tries to; “B” (Laurie Metcalf), her sardonically bemused attendant; and “C” (Alison Pill), her uneasy legal liaison. “It’s downhill from 16 on for all of us,” we learn, as it becomes clear that “A” used to be taller, poetically enough, and also (due to bone loss, of course) once had way more of a spine.

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In the second half, the suspicion is confirmed that these are all the same tall woman, at different points in her life. As each delivers an explanatory monologue to the audience, we learn that “C” is basically the 26-year-old version of “A” and is filled with revulsion over what might happen, desperately trying to believe that the best is yet to come; and “B” is the 52-year-old version, straddling her young and ancient selves with a clear-eyed vista of two extremes.

Pill is sterling, Metcalfe is sublimely funny, and Jackson gives a master class in crotchety genius. Along the way, there are lots of laughs (especially regarding a bracelet perched upon an erect penis; the problem is “A” never liked to perform oral sex), as well as some insights into aging, change, and regret. And by the way, Glenda, at 82, went through the midnight performance with full energy and concentration. Just watching her do so, I felt like I should be in a home.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.