Tony nominee Michele Lee made television history, playing a record-breaking 344 performances as Karen MacKenzie on "Knots Landing." Her Hollywood credits are numerous, but Broadway can also claim her thanks to her memorable starring roles in such shows as The Tale Of The Allergist's Wife, Seesaw and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Lee has also performed in nightclub and cabaret stages for decades.
What brings you to New York and 54 Below now?
Michele Lee: I love the theatre. I love to play in front of an audience. I just thought, I'm going to perform in New York City now. Super Bowl week. It's a big deal! Literally 500,000 to a million people are coming to New York City depending upon the team. It's part of New York's culture, and it's the first time that they're here, playing in New York, and so I thought, this is it. This is the time to go.
It's about having fun! I love singing to people. I love the intimacy of 54 Below. It's like you're sitting in your living room! It reminds me of old clubs like Mr. Kelly's in Chicago. I think I was like 20 when I played the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel, which is no longer. You get to really reach out, and what I like is being me. When I see people on the street, or meet people, they just talk to me like I'm a girlfriend. I was Karen [on "Knots Landing"], their next-door neighbor. I was every woman. I have a sense of direction, a sense of self, I was educated and I cared about the community, and we lived it, and I was a girl next door.
That echoes what I've heard about you. So many people have told me Michele Lee stories. They were at a party and Michele Lee was there, and they all sang around the piano. Or they were rehearsing at Manhattan Theatre Club and Michele Lee did the finale from Seesaw for all the chorus boys.
ML: I love music! All kinds of music. I don't care if it's opera or hip-hop. I love it, I understand where it comes from, where its origin is, the beginnings of it, and so I really get involved with the story of the song that I'm singing. I love doing my own interpretation, and I mean it literally, of what the writer, what the composer was trying to say. And I do a lot of that in the show too — for instance, "A Case of You," which I do in the show...
ML: Joni Mitchell, who was just an artist. You can look a piece of art, a drawing — an artist does that, a painter and an artist. You look at something in a museum, or you're in someone's home, or you're even looking at a child's piece of art, and what it says to you might be very different than what it says to the person next to you. So as an artist, when I do a song, and I say words, like
Just before our love got lost you said
"I am as constant as a northern star"
And I said "Constantly in the darkness
Where's that at?
If you want me I'll be in the bar"
What does it mean? To someone else, it might mean, I'm going to go have a margarita. You want to meet me there in about 10 minutes? It could be that, you see? But I believe when she says, "I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet," she is miserably addicted to a bad boy. And she'll keep going back.
I don't necessarily talk about that — it's not that I want to teach an audience, I want to entertain them — but sometimes when you look at a piece of art like "A Case of You," it's really nice to get into the head of the composer and see how it comes out through another vessel.
Your 54 Below show is billed as having a medley of songs "depicting the change in women's attitudes in theatre over the course of time." Can you tell me about that? ML: One of the first shows I did on Broadway was How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, where I did a song called "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm."
I'll be there waiting until his mind is clear
While he looks through me, right through me;
Waiting to say, "Good evening, dear.
I'm pregnant. What's new with you from downtown?"
I knew what I was singing, but the thing is that my generation of women — we fought! We were women's lib — liberation — the beginning of the understanding that there was a lot more for us... But I knew I was a wife and mother first, and for me, I had to have my career. I was one of the women who said, "I can have everything."
I'm curious about the revue, Vintage '60 — your Broadway debut — because they don't do shows like that anymore.
ML: I auditioned for it before I graduated high school. My father was a make-up artist, and he brought home one of the trade papers, like Variety or the Reporter, and because I wanted to be in the business, he said, why don't you go to this audition?... You'll see what it is to be turned down, and... the difficult road that you're going to have. And so, I went to audition for the show... of course, at that age, you have absolutely no idea that you have to make a living. You have no idea that there's going to be critics and reviews, and things that are going to say: You're good! You're bad! You're lousy! You're too fat! You're too thin! and I was very good — in fact I was excellent — in fact I was beyond excellent because I had no idea... So they stood up and applauded, really. I came home, and the phone rings, and it's the producers of the show, and they say I got it. So my father had to eat his make-up sponge. Anyway, David Merrick saw the show and took it to Broadway.
You've worked with so many of the greats of several different generations. Personally speaking, I was so excited that after your long run on "Knots Landing," you chose to come back to Broadway in, of all things, a Charles Busch play, The Tale Of The Allergist's Wife.
ML: Charles is such a good friend. We're still very, very close. I just talked with him a couple of days ago.
It was such as thrill to see you in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. You were so terrific in that. And I wonder, did that you whet your appetite to be back onstage after so many years away from Broadway?
A: No, actually, it didn't really whet my appetite. It was always whet!
So, all those years you were in L.A., are there any plays or musicals that you did regionally that we might be surprised by? Was there ever a Michele Lee Gypsy or a Michele Lee Mame that we don't know about?
ML: I did Mame at the Hollywood Bowl... Christine Ebersole played Vera to my Mame. We had an incredible cast. I did the things that you would expect me to do. I did Hello, Dolly! Actually, I have not done Gypsy, which I did want to do, so don't let me forget it! Gypsy is mine!
Any songs in the 54 Below show that come from those roles? Do you sing from Gypsy at all?
ML: No, but the closest thing I sing in the show to Gypsy is the Seesaw Finale!
That's Gittel's turn! ML: It is. It's a three-act play, like "Rose's Turn." It was the 11 o'clock number and it was originally called "I'm Way Ahead," which is the body of the song. Michael Bennett and Cy Coleman, and Neil Simon, who was helping re-write everything, thought the song could be embellished [with additional dramatic material] because it was the closer and it could be more of a tour de force. They put it in the show the day we opened.
ML: I have been fortunate, working with the greatest entertainers in the world, like Fred Astaire or Bob Hope. Lucy [Lucille Ball], Carol Burnett, Dick Van Dyke, Danny Kaye, you know, great composers — Cy Coleman and Frank Loesser — and Marvin Hamlisch was a friend forever and ever and ever. And Sandra Bernhard is one of my best friends. Because of Sandra, I'm now on Twitter. She said, "Michele... how could you not be? You're an insane person! You have to do this, and you gotta to do that, and you know, I'm gonna tweet and I'm gonna tell my followers and I'm gonna whatever." So I don't even know what I'm talking about right now because I'm just learning it... Sandra is coming to the show. And I hope all my friends and cast mates and everybody will come and enjoy the time in my living room.