PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Michael McKean

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Michael McKean Filling the biggest shoes on Broadway since Nathan Lane initially bid farewell to The Producers is Michael McKean, the first actor to play weighty wife and mother Edna Turnblad in Hairspray since Harvey Fierstein ended his legendary two-year run in the show on May 2.
Michael McKean (left), with Dick Latessa in Hairspray
Michael McKean (left), with Dick Latessa in Hairspray Photo by Joan Marcus

The performance marks the Broadway musical debut for multi-faceted comic actor McKean (his Broadway debut was in the 1990 play Accomplice). McKean has made his mark in television ("Laverne and Shirley," "Saturday Night Live," "Smallville," "Primetime Glick") and film, as star, and sometimes screenwriter and composer, of such titles as "This Is Spinal Tap," "The Big Picture," "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind." ("A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" from "A Mighty Wind," written by McKean and his wife Annette O'Toole, was even nominated for a 2004 Oscar.) And now he and his wife O'Toole are writing a movie musical. McKean talked to Playbill On-Line about the latest credit on his crowded and eclectic resume.

Playbill On-Line: I'm interested in the demanding physical aspects of the role of Edna. Your fat suit, for instance, appears to be trimmer than Harvey's.
Michael McKean: Harvey is a bigger man, though I'm catching up. As you get older, it gets easier to eat a Heath bar than to do crunches. But, we've been working on the breasts—I'll be honest. [Director] Jack O'Brien comes in and says, "You still need more upstairs." I feel like Scottie in "Star Trek": "We can't take anymore, Captain!" There's a limit, apparently, in how much they can build in and still have it be adaptable, because I have a lot of quick changes. I think they're pretty big. But, listen, there are girls in this very show whom nature has given even more.

PBOL: Harvey also had to regularly shave his arms and eyebrows. Do you?
MM: Yes. Oh sure. First day, we thought, maybe—and I have these big, bushy eyebrows—we were just going to paste them down. We used something that was halfway between nose putty and liquid makeup. They tried that and it just looked like I had big, flesh-colored eyebrows. I went in and hacked them off. I have to do it twice a week, before the Tuesday show and before the Friday show.

PBOL: You basically used your natural voice for the role. Did you try a lot of variances before you settled on that?
MM: There are moments in the show that imply that Edna has a deep voice; she's mistaken for a man over the phone, that kind of thing. So I knew I had to be in that register or an exaggerated version of that register. A lot of this developed in the rehearsal period with Harvey. I never question it. I think they worked on and hit upon a script that has a big, big per-minute laugh ratio. Apart from all the other things that Hairspray is, it's also just a really funny show. And those laughs were developed over months by men and women of great intelligence and talent.

PBOL: You seem to really relish your before-the-curtain dance with stage husband Dick Latessa.
MM: I love that. Come on—we've said it more than once, and Dick has said it with more authority, because he's spent a lot more time on the live stage than I have. He says these things don't come along very often. This is a really special number. It's kind of like what Springsteen might feel about "Born in the U.S.A." [Laughs] No, just kidding. PBOL: And soon you'll get a new stage partner in Peter Scolari?
MM: Yeah! That's right. I'll have a brief period of dating our two standbys, J.P. Dougherty and Joel Vig. [Laughs] Peter Scolari is an old friend of mine. We worked together on an old show called "Goodtime Girls," which was a 1980 sitcom on ABC with Annie Potts and Georgia Engel and Adrian Zmed.

PBOL: You've worked often with Christopher Guest on films such as "Best of Show" and "A Mighty Wind." Any more coming up?
MM: We'll see. I know they're working on something sporadically. Chris is just as happy to stay home and play guitar and play with his kids. Which are two of the best things in the world. I agree with him on that.

PBOL: From way back, you've composed songs, for "A Mighty Wind," "Spinal Tap," even "Laverne and Shirley." One of them was even nominated for an Oscar this year. Have you ever thought of writing a musical?
MM: Well, we are writing a musical, my wife [actress Annette O'Toole] and I. We are writing it as a traditional book musical, with an eye toward doing the film adaptation first. I'm not going to talk too much about it. I don't want to be scooped on the subject matter. I've seen that happen to a lot of people. It takes place in the 20th century. That's all I'll say.

PBOL: When you two write, does one take the lyrics and the other the music?
MM: When we've done it—and this sounds like I'm talking about sex, doesn't it?—we've done it every way you can.

PBOL: How long are you with the show?
MM: I'm here until October, and then I'm going into another project here in town. It's an original play. It will be announced shortly.

PBOL: And then Bruce Vilanch comes in as Edna.
MM: Yes. I know a lot of people have worked with Bruce in the part and they say he's amazing. I look forward to seeing that myself. Like I say, I'll still be in town. So I can actually see the damn thing!

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