Michael Urie on Sharing the Stage With Patti LuPone and the Fight for "Full Equality"

Playbill Pride   Michael Urie on Sharing the Stage With Patti LuPone and the Fight for "Full Equality"
 
As part of Playbill's 30 Days of Pride, actor and activist Michael Urie talks about the importance of LGBTQ-themed art supporting the movement for equal rights.
Michael Urie
Michael Urie Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

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It's been a good year for Michael Urie. Following his Off-Broadway run in Buyer & Cellar two years ago, he toured the country with the show and expanded his TV resume with guest appearances on several programs. Now, Urie is balancing both TV and stage work at the same time: On the small screen, he is launching "Cocktails & Classics," a new program on the LOGO cable channel that features classic films and includes both commentary from Urie and a coterie of friends as well as insights from stars of the films. At the same time, he is set to star in a new play by Douglas Carter Beane at Lincoln Center that, he says, reflects his own love of theatre.

On the Screen
Urie & Co. have already filmed screenings of "Cabaret" and "Steel Magnolias" (both of which, like Urie, started out onstage before moving to the screen), "Valley of the Dolls" and "Auntie Mame."

"LOGO came to me with the idea," Urie said, noting that he had been working "for a few years" with the network to find the right kind of project for a partnership. "This was the first time everything clicked." While he had hosted other TV programs, Urie never felt fully comfortable reading from a teleprompter or guiding an interview. "This just felt perfect. I love movies, and I love these movies."

Urie was immediately attracted to the concept of friends watching classic films they'd all seen before, but never together, and sharing their insights (and maybe a bit of snark) together. As "a huge fan of movies since forever," Urie enjoys exposing his friends to movies that they have never seen, so the overall concept appealed to his personality. "We knew we wanted the show to mirror the experience one feels while watching the films," he said. "People who love these movies — capital-L Love these movies — and want to share these movies, and want to share why these movies are so special to them — and iconic." The films, he added, are popular with LGBT audiences, but are not necessarily LGBT-themed. Instead, he said, "these are movies mostly about strong and/or eccentric women, and somehow they have captured the hearts and minds of the LGBT community."

"Cocktails & Classics" guests include Tony nominee Lea DeLaria (who sings jazz covers of songs used in movies for the group), Allegiance star Telly Leung and several entertainment writers (including Broadway insider Michael Musto). Tony and Oscar-winning Cabaret star Joel Grey and Oscar-winning "Steel Magnolias" star Olympia Dukakis (as well as Steel Magnolias author Robert Harling) also came by as their movies were screened to share behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Dukakis, for example, talked about moments from her movie that were improvised on the spot, while Grey brought the original prop cane he used onstage as the Emcee in Cabaret to share with the group. "He was going to quit [show business] before [producer] Hal Prince called him up and offered him the role!" Urie said of the theatre icon and his signature part. Grey also shared how much he helped develop the role of the Emcee for the show, which grew from "set dressing" to a "fully fledged," terrifying character. "And then he told me I would be good as the Emcee," Urie added, "and then I was able to pass away."

On the Stage
At the same time as he launches a new project on TV, Urie is also set to star a new play by Douglas Carter Beane. Shows for Days will begin performances June 6 at Lincoln Center theatre, with Urie playing opposite Broadway legend Patti LuPone (who, just to keep things full-circle, once played his mother on an episode of "Ugly Betty") under Jerry Zaks' direction. "I'm working with the most wonderful group of people who are inspiring and make me laugh all the time," he said, "and make me want to be better, constantly." Being in a room with Zaks, LuPone and Beane keeps an actor on his toes, he added — "because they are on their toes." Calling his director a "master" of the craft, Urie said that it is "thrilling" to work with Zaks, and that LuPone is "truthful" in every moment she is onstage.

The play, a semi-autobiographical backstage comedy about a theatre company in Reading, PA and the larger-than-life people who create its productions, had a special appeal for Urie, who plays a teenager just discovering a love of drama. The characters, he said, are decidedly familiar for anyone who has been involved in show business. "Everybody has those theatrical mentors from when they were discovering the theatre," he said. "Most theatre people can trace their big life moments to the theatre. I mean, I certainly can.

"I can relate to Car because I get that wide-eyed newcomer thing," Urie continued, noting that he was the same age as his character when he became involved in theatre, and that the play is a vivid reminder of that moment he first fell in love with the artform. "It's an amazing time. You're so free, and yet you've just discovered emotional pain.You've started to learn how to be an adult in a small way. You have to deal with people and emotions in an upfront way."

Urie also plays the character as an adult, which he feels relates to his life now. "I get to be the wise adult that I hope to be someday," he said about the other portion of his role, "one who has had experiences and ups and downs in the theatre and a special relationship to the theatre as a grown man—looking back at this boy who is discovering the theatre for the first time." And while the play is a comedy, Urie finds it "moving" to look back at one's own life and remember falling in love with theatre as an artform.

Michael Urie in <i>Buyer &amp; Cellar</i>
Michael Urie in Buyer & Cellar Photo by Sandra Coudert

Arts & Activism
June is Pride month, and as a gay man, Urie is well aware of the significance of launching both a TV project on a gay-focused channel and premiering a new work by a prominent gay playwright at the same time. Activism, he said, can be driven through the arts, simply by telling stories and discussing issues. When Lips Together, Teeth Apart premiered, Urie noted, a play about straight people in a gay man's home on Fire Island in the middle of the AIDS epidemic must have been a tough sell. The risks that playwright Terrence McNally and the show's producers took in bringing that story to the stage was an act of activism in its own right, Urie said. This season, musicals like Fun Home and It Shoulda Been You — both of which have gay writers telling stories about gay characters — are continuing the tradition. "The strongest thing the theatre has done for equality is the work that is produced," he said. But, of course, the work is far from over. "We need full equality," Urie said simply, noting that when Ruth Bader Ginsburg officiated recently at the wedding of Michael Kahn and Charles Mitchem, she emphasized that she was pronouncing them married by the power vested in her by the Constitution. "Was it a hint of what's to come, or her hope?" Urie wondered. "Regardless, she is an enormous ally. I have a good feeling about the Supreme Court's ruling. They'll be on the equality side."

Of course, he added, a struggle does not end once minorities achieve legal equality. "We've seen that with feminism and racism," Urie said. "Homophobia will still be around." But a Supreme Court ruling of marriage equality will be one less legal validation of homophobia, he noted, and the theatre community can continue leading by example. "We have to produce works by and about LGBT people — but not only for LGBT people," Urie said. Quality productions about ever-increasing subject matters will bring new audiences into the theatre, he predicted, which can lead to minds opening in new ways. "Share our differences with the world so that people can learn and enjoy."

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