After making his Off-Broadway directorial debut with The Lunch Anxieties (Nov. 28-Jan. 4), Michael Rupert, best known for his roles in Falsettos and Three Guys Naked From The Waist Down, is busy staging an Equity workshop of a new musical, The Stars In Your Eyes.
Rupert has high hopes for the Jan. 6-Feb. 9 workshop at NYC's Raw Space, but also realizes New York shouldn't be its first stop. "It's an old fashioned, funny family show, not cynical. I'm not sure it could happen in New York, though we invited some hard-bitten types to the reading a few weeks ago, and they responded well to the charm of `Chip' Meyrelles' book and score. I call it a breath of fresh air because it's really a show you can take the whole family to, but not in a silly or kiddie way."
Reached Jan. 9, Rupert proudly spoke of his cast, "A great group of people." Hard to disagree, considering those actors include Heather MacRae (Rupert's co-star in Falsettos), Brian Sutherland (1776), Jose Llana (Street Corner Symphony), Lanyll Stephens (Once Upon A Mattress, 1994's First Night), Dennis Kelly (Damn Yankees), Jessica Snow-Wilson (A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum), Roxanne Barlow (Victor/Victoria, FL's Don't Stop The Carnival), Jeffrey Blaisdell (Jekyll & Hyde), Amy Heggins, Donna Lynn Champlin, Jeffrey Blaisdell, Joanne McHugh (NYSF's On The Town), Amanda Naughton (TV's "Remember WENN" series), Michael Mandel, Sean Martin Hingston, Matt Raftery and Matthew Thibedeau.
Henry Aronson serves as music director; Joseph McConnell as casting director.
Said Rupert, "We'll do three performances for invited audiences at the end of the five weeks. Some of the backers will come see it; they do have some money in place. I would say it's a 70-80 percent certainty this show will happen. I hope we can find a regional theatre somewhere, rather than starting in New York, so we're inviting some of the tour people to come see it." "Rob Ashford is the choreographer," continued Rupert, "and he's doing some amazing work. The first week I've just been working on the script with the writer and watching while the big choreography numbers are going on, but most of my work doesn't start until tomorrow. That's when I'm going to block a couple of scenes, so I'm really excited. Of course, as with any show, until you start getting it on its feet, it's hard to tell what you can tighten up or clarify, etc. It'll be an ongoing process."
That process isn't always easy. During Rupert's Off-Broadway staging of The Lunch Anxieties (Dec. 3-Jan.4), several audience members walked out and talked back to the people onstage.
The new absurdist comedy by Larry Kunofsky looked at four friends whose fears and desires collide at lunchtime. The play asked: Will Roy give up his obsession with Mira's anatomy? Will the talking rats in Richard and Mira's apartment stop being so rude? And will Death leave Roy alone?
Asked about the audience reaction, Rupert told Playbill On-Line (Jan. 9), "Some thought it was fascinating and liked it, but others hated it. There was such a wide chasm between people, it was kind of a surreal, schizophrenic experience. We had people walking out of the performance and talking back to the actors. Others would shush them. The actors found it very disconcerting. I thought it was this silly, loopy comedy, but the more we worked on it, underneath the comedy was some real stuff that pushed buttons in people. The reaction wasn't `we think it's poorly written' or, `the staging is bad.' They just didn't like what the play was about. But I think I learned a lot from audiences and working with actors on the piece."
Though Lunch Anxieties was Rupert's first somewhat high-profile directing assignment, he's staged numerous pieces in workshop, college and Off-Off-Broadway situations, including a Crucible at Point Park College in Pittsburgh and City, for the Filling Station Theatre Company at the first International New York Fringe Festival this summer.
The directing bug started to bite Rupert nearly a decade ago. He told Playbill On-Line (Nov. 24), "I had just come off doing Mail on Broadway, which was a disaster. I was very down on theatre, and I was really thinking, `Why am I doing this? I don't want to be an actor anymore.' And my friend Peter Neufeld knew I was in bad shape and offered me a chance to come down and be a guest artist at William & Mary College in Virginia. I told him, `I've never taught before? What can I teach these kids?' But he knew I'd been performing since I was 19, and there are things you pick up and don't even realize you know."
Rupert also points out he never went to college, so the William & Mary gig was tempting as a kind of second education for him. "Plus the campus was so idyllic. Anyway, I directed a play there by Arthur Giron called Becoming Memories, and it went better than I expected. Peter [Neufeld] flew down to see it, and he was extremely complimentary, which made me feel confident. I simply put on stage what I'd want to see as an audience member."
But rather than throw all his energies into directing at that point, Rupert instead went through a string of popular and critically acclaimed shows, including Falsettoland (Off-Broadway), City Of Angels, Falsettos and Putting IT Together, as well as a Mark Lamos mounting of The Merchant Of Venice at Hartford Stage, where Rupert played Antonio.
Rupert also did the workshop of William Finn's latest musical, A New Brain, three years ago and was poised for the lead. But when the show comes to Lincoln Center this season, he won't be in it. "Basically, they were worried that it's a musical about a gay man dying of a brain tumor and how that affects his family...and they just said people would identify it too much with the Marvin character of Falsettos. It's a wonderful piece, though, and I'm using one of the cut songs on my upcoming album." In fact, the song, "Sitting In The Middle Of The Ocean," will give the DRG compact disk its title.
As if two directing projects and a CD weren't enough, Rupert hopes to get back to work on a new musical he's penning with librettist/lyricist Allan Heinberg. "It's called Strange Vacation and it's been optioned for Off-Broadway, so we owe the producers another draft. It's about two college freshmen at Georgetown University, one who's very naive and from the midwest, the other actually from Georgetown. They visit New York and check out the last remaining sleazy bar on 42nd Street. Suddenly, the more experienced freshman disappears, and the rest of the musical follows all these dark-comedy adventures of his friend to find him." Strange Vacation is looking at a workshop in summer 1998, with an Off-Broadway staging due in the 1998-99 season.
Despite all this activity and these new directions in his career, Rupert, 46, admits it's a daily struggle to devote his life to New York theatre. "I've been able to eke out a living, but it takes a lot of planning. The good years have to pay for the lean years. My agent, Bill Craver, was totally super about my concentrating on directing, but he warned me, `Are you really ready to do three years of low-paying, lower profile work just to get the experience, to build a resume and learn the craft.' I told him I was, and that's what I'm trying to do."
-- By David Lefkowitz