Rupert debuted on Broadway as a teenager in 1968 and won the Tony for his featured work in Sweet Charity in 1986. Acting is but one facet of Rupert's talent, and he is content now to work in front of the lights only when a project appeals to him as much as Legally Blonde.
Question: Have you been having as much fun as you imagined you would with this show?
Michael Rupert: It's a lot of fun. It's a funny show, and for me it's a lot of great people to work with. It's a great cast, and everybody is really nice. It's actually one of the nicest groups of people I've ever worked with in a show. There haven't really been any ego problems during the whole process, and it's actually a fun place to go work eight times a week.
Q: Sounds like you had a smooth rehearsal period, by all accounts.
Rupert: It actually was. The thing that impressed me — and I've certainly been through this process quite a bit in my life — I just felt like going in, the writers and Jerry [Mitchell], the director, and everybody just seemed to have a good idea where they were going. Certainly, a lot of changes were made in San Francisco, but very few of those changes, when we would put in new things during previews out there or during our entire run out there, were lateral moves. It seemed like every time they did something, it made the show better and made the show what it needed to be.
Q: How much did your Professor Callahan change from the earliest script you saw?
Rupert: Early on, we were still figuring out how to play the guy because so much of the show is so up and fun and bubbly, and here comes this guy who has to be a jerk. I think there was a question about how much a jerk he should really be, just for the tone of the show. And Jerry certainly let me just play with stuff out in San Francisco. I did a couple performances where I played him a little friendlier than he has ended up, with the students, like a little bit more of a mentor rather than such a hardass. It kind of ended up where you have to buy that when he hits on Elle, he really is a jerk, and it makes her do what she does, which is realize she isn't just a bimbo from Malibu.
Q: Has it been fun watching the cast album do well?
Rupert: It's terrific because I know — having been through this process with [songwriters] Larry [O'Keefe] and Nell [Benjamin] and James Sampliner, our musical director and co-arranger, Chris [Jahnke], our orchestrator — . . . [how] hard [they worked], and there has really always been a very positive kind of feeling coming from them. They just wanted to do the best they could do, and they wanted the audiences to have a great time listening to this score, and I'm glad that it came out as well as it did. Q: I saw the cast signing CDs at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square a couple weeks back, and you looked like a bunch of rock stars.
Rupert: It's really fascinating. Obviously, the show appeals to young girls, the teenage girl crowd. Guys love it as well. I'm amazed at the number of people . . . who brought their kids to see the show and the parents like it as much as the kids did. We have a contingent that comes to see the show that for some of the performances at the Palace, it really is like you're at a rock concert. These girls are screaming! Even a couple days ago, James, our musical director, said to me at intermission that he almost missed a couple of cues during one of the songs because the girls behind him were screaming so loudly. It is kind of wild.
Q: Aside from performing, you have directed several shows and written others. Is it hard to separate the writer-director from yourself in someone else's show?
Rupert: Having written a couple shows myself and having done some directing, there are times when it is a little hard. I have to kind of stop myself and say, "Okay, I'm the actor now, and my job is really to bring to life what these writers have envisioned, even if I think, 'Oh this would be a better line here,' or 'If the music did this, wouldn't that be better?'" Heather [Hach], who wrote the book, and Nell and Larry and Jerry —everybody — when I would come up with some ideas, they were great collaborators. There were times when I might make a suggestion from a writing standpoint, "What if I said this rather than that — is that cool?" Of course, a lot of actors will do that. If you are fortunate enough to work with writers whose egos aren't off the charts, they are pretty open to that kind of stuff. I am right in the middle of another writing project. I took up a writing project for a show that's going to be produced in Pittsburgh in the fall. So while we were in San Francisco I was writing that as well, so I was really in my writer mode, and I did find there were a few times when it was hard to back off the writing thing and say, "Okay, I'm acting now."
Q: What about the opposite side — do you accept feedback from actors when you are directing?
Rupert: Having been an actor as long as I have, as a writer, when I'm writing something, I do respect the actor. Whether it is something I'm directing or writing, I love working with smart actors who are collaborators, who want to be in on the whole process and don't want to be told, "Just sing this" or "Just move there and sit there." I think it's great. There are times, certainly, with any writer … if I've written something, there are those moments when I think, "That's not how I'd do it. That's not how I'd say the line." Or, "When I wrote it, that's not how I sang that song." But it is amazing how often good actors suddenly will make you see — as a writer — things you didn't even know were there. That is very exciting.
Q: So, the ideal is people on both sides who can relate to what the other does?
Rupert: That's the great thing about working with a really good director who understands that, and, interestingly enough, many of the really good directors in the theatre were actors first, people like Joe Mantello, Jerry Mitchell. They were performers. Many years ago I worked with Bob Fosse a couple of times. People like that really understand both sides, and they end up oftentimes being some of the best directors around.
Q: Debuting on Broadway as you did in The Happy Time in 1968, was it indeed a happy time?
Rupert: It was a great time. It was a lot of fun. I also was very young. I was only 15 years old. I was really a kid. In a way I was just a kid having a great time. Even though I remember Gower Champion, who was the director and choreographer of the show, sitting me down right before rehearsal started and saying to me, "I know that you're a kid, you're only 15, but I'm going to expect you to work as hard as the adults, you know. And you have a very big responsibility in the show, and I don't expect you to goof off. And you need to really focus." From Gower at 15 years old, I learned very early on a lot of discipline and how to focus as an actor, and I think that's something all actors should be able to do. But it was just a great time. [Robert] Goulet was terrific. Our relationship was kind of like big brother-little brother, that kind of thing. And to work with Kander and Ebb, who had just come off their big hit Cabaret. It was kind of swell. That show went through many, many changes out in Los Angeles before we came to New York, but for a 15-year-old kid from L.A., it was kind of like a dream come true. I was a lead in a Broadway show; it was quite terrific.
Q: How did recording the cast album for The Happy Time in 1968 compare to Legally Blonde in 2007?
Rupert: Technology, of course, is so far beyond what it was then. I remember we recorded the album in a place called Webster Hall, which is still there, which is [now] a club. The whole thing was done live. The orchestra was there. Usually, the orchestra now comes in and records the tracks, and then the singers come in and sing them — that way you don't have to keep the orchestra around while the actor screws up, and you have to do another take, etc. Interestingly enough, with Legally Blonde, "Blood in the Water," one of the songs I do in Legally Blonde, was one of the few tracks that was recorded live. It was the first thing we recorded the day we recorded the album, and they brought the orchestra in, and because the song stops and starts — it's Callahan teaching a class — they decided it was going to be harder to pre-record the track and have me sing to it because the song changes a little bit every night depending on the audience reaction, how I do it, how James conducts it. So recording "Blood in the Water" was very much like recording The Happy Time all those years ago. The rest of the show, the orchestra pre-recorded the tracks the day before, and most everything else we just sang to the tracks. In 1968, recording The Happy Time, it just had a little bit more of a feel like you were flying by the seat of your pants.
Q: What can you tell us about the show in Pittsburgh you are working on?
Rupert: It's a new musical called Streets of America. It is something I've actually been working on for seven years off and on. It's about a group of young people in San Francisco and Berkeley in 1969 during the Vietnam War. It's kind of set in the music industry there as well as the students, the politics of the time. It's really a lot of fun because the score is very much that sound of the late sixties in San Francisco, sort of the San Francisco folk rock sound. And we're doing it at a university. We're developing it at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, where I've actually directed a couple of plays. They are terrific people, and they have a terrific department. I was actually out there with them last year. I directed Ragtime for them. I just happened to mention to the dramaturge there, "I'd love for you to take a look at this script that my collaborator and I are working on and get some feedback from you." He flipped for it…so we're very excited. It's terrific that we even have the opportunity. And the people at the university really believe in it, they think there's something there.
Q: Do you look to aim your career more toward the behind-the-scenes work?
Rupert: At this point in my life — because I've been acting for a long time — I don't get as excited about acting as I used to because I've kind of done it. My ego doesn't need it. I don't need to be onstage. I've got a Tony Award already for that. [Laughs.] When I do take acting jobs at this point, I really do them because I really like the material. I don't feel like I have to be out there on stage all the time. With Legally Blonde, I really thought it was going to be a lot of fun, and I liked Jerry enormously. When they called me to audition for the role of Callahan, I thought, terrific, because I had read the script, and I'd heard some of the music and I thought, "This is something I would love to do." Stuff that I get excited about now is the writing project I'm working on — if that could end up on Broadway, that would be swell. Just the process of writing it at this point is very exciting to me, and some of the directing projects that I've done in the last few years are very exciting. As an actor, too, it's like, I don't think you make the great living that you do on Broadway when you do the regional theatre gigs, but in the last few years, all of the really exciting plays and roles that I've done have been in regional theatre. It is not always the greatest living in the world. I've chosen work to do that I love, and that has been exciting for me as an actor.
A CHRISTMAS WISH: MORE!
Christmas in July: Misfit Kids' Letters to Old St. Nick, Mary-Mitchell Campbell's July 23 concert benefit reading for ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty), mentioned in last month's column, was an absolute treat for all who attended and all who performed in it as well. The musical comedy revue of songs, with lyrics by Playbill.com managing editor Kenneth Jones and music by Gerald Stockstill (BMI Workshop alumni), were a laugh riot and offered remarkable showcases for the talent involved. I spoke to some of the performers after the show had wrapped (or was unwrapped, in this case).
Mary Poppins' Gavin Lee sang the droll song "Don't Bring the Reindeer 'Round" with his wife Emily Harvey.
Q: How much fun was that for you?
Gavin Lee: It was great fun, and it went down really well, and it's funny and just great fun to do. It's fantastic to do when you've been doing a role for as long as I have. You know, I'm in my third year of playing Bert. I've only done one tiny thing before this that isn't to do with Mary Poppins, so it's so nice to just get some new material and have a go at it, and we were just saying, "There are so many great songs. I'm sure we're all going to be nicking them for auditions because they're perfect."
Q: How long did you have to learn the song?
Lee: We literally . . . went to Mary-Mitchell's on Tuesday, she put it in our iPod for us, and we came in today at one and did it on the stage once with her, and we came here tonight.
Q: Your song had some fun choreography. You worked that out yourselves?
Lee: Yeah! We were in the lounge going, "Oh, let's put an arm in here, and a leg in here," and that's pretty much it. It was fabulous. Great songs, and I wish we could do it again. *
Xanadu's Andre Ward had folks howling with his letter to Santa extolling the virtues of the Ken doll.
Q: How did you get involved in this benefit?
Andre Ward: I know (Christmas co-star) Sally Wilfert. We did a show together a couple years ago, and they were having trouble finding a man for this song, and she thought of me, and I'm so excited that she did. I rehearsed with Mary-Mitchell yesterday. It's sort of flying by the seat of your pants. . . . It was really fun; I had a ball. I'm so happy to be asked to do it.
Roger DeWitt, last on Broadway in The Woman in White, had a showstopper called "Showstopper," where he imagined himself upstaging Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a Christmas pageant.
Q: You pretty well knocked that song out of the manger…
Roger DeWitt: It's not the kind of song that demands any subtlety whatsoever, and that is my forte: No subtlety! It was a lot of fun. When you sing great material, it kind of sings itself. Everything is right there for you, and it just comes organically, so it was a blast!
Q: Is comedy your bag?
DeWitt: I have a big legit voice, but I excel in comedy because it's against type. If I sing big legit leading man stuff, it's against type. I'm a character guy. I've been a character guy all my life, so yeah, comedy is what I love.
Q: What was it like being onstage during all the madcap performances?
Daniel C. Levine: It was great. The writing was fantastic, so it was really easy to deliver a funny performance. It's challenging because we had no rehearsal with the rest of the cast, so we didn't get to see the performances beforehand. We were snooping around just trying to see what was going on, but it was good. These things are great, and Mary-Mitchell, of course, is incredible — the charity is incredible. These things get thrown together so quickly. This one came together so well. There were great people in this!
For more information about ASTEP, visit www.createsomethinggood.org.
HITHER AND YON
So you saw the latest Harry Potter movie, and you finished off the final book the day after it came out. Those suffering from HP withdrawal have a few more chances to catch The Magic of Mrs. Crowling, running at the Kraine Theater on East 4th Street through Aug. 5. The show, written by Brian Silliman with an original score by Larry Lees, tells of the writer of a Potter-esque fantasy series (the title character playfully portrayed by Shelly Smith) and what happens when she insinuates herself into the home of a dying boy who wants only to know how the story ends. This satisfying comedy ranges from pitch black to oddly moving. Dennis Hurley and Patrick Shearer stand out in a talented cast. Call (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com for more information. . . . Good to see Bruce Kimmel and David Wechter's sci-fi send-up The Brain From Planet X, which won hearts (and brains) in L.A., will be a part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival in September. Fans of the movie "Grease" will want to check out Barry ("Doody") Pearl as the title character. Alet Taylor, Merrill Grant, Benjamin Clark and the dynamic Cason Murphy will be reviving their roles from the L.A. production. . . . Hard to believe that Brian Stokes Mitchell has never had a solo gig at Carnegie Hall before. He'll remedy that situation Oct. 15 in an evening directed by Richard Jay-Alexander with guest stars Reba McEntire and Phylicia Rashad. Wonder if music director Paul Gemignani will don a turban for the event as he did when conducting for Stokes' Kismet at City Center last year. Tickets for the Oct. 15 concert are available by calling (212) 247-7800 or by visiting www.carnegiehall.org. . . . . Feinstein's at the Regency has announced that hit makers Ashford and Simpson will kick off the fall 2007 season with shows from Sept. 12-29. Check out www.feinsteinsattheregency.com for more info.
Tom Nondorf can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.