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Can-Can's Michael Berresse Defends the Honor of the Classic Broadway Musical

The seasoned Broadway vet dusts off his dancing shoes for the Broadway-bound revival of the Cole Porter gem.

Michael Berresse will play Hilaire Jussac in the Broadway-bound Paper Mill Playhouse revival of Cole Porter's Can-Can.

"I haven't been on this side of the directing table in a big musical since A Chorus Line," said native Broadway hoofer Michael Berresse, who is stepping back behind the footlights for the Broadway-bound revival of Can-Can at Paper Mill Playhouse. "Actually that's not true. I did Parade as well," he added, referring to a 2009 production at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. Regardless, it's been several years since the Broadway workhorse has jumped into the company of an honest to goodness ensemble musical — particularly one destined for the Great White Way, as is this revamped version of the Cole Porter classic, featuring a brand-new book by sitcom moguls David Lee (Frasier) and Joel Fields (Ugly Betty). Lee and Fields update Abe Burrows' original tale of dance hall owner Pistache (Kate Baldwin) and judge Aristide Forestier (Jason Danieley), who threatens to close down her scandalous place of business. Berresse takes on the role of art critic Hilaire Jussac, whose plans to host a ball at the club are thwarted by the new legal entanglements.

In recent years, Berresse has been focusing his energies on plays — including a 2012 run at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage in The Normal Heart — as well as on roles in film and television, though a certain niche of theatergoers may recall his Broadway directorial debut in the cult hit [title of show], as well as its off-Broadway successor, Now. Here. This. The power of the Can-Can, however, has sucked him back into Broadway's golden age — a world that gave him his start in productions like Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, Damn Yankees, Carousel, and another Cole Porter favorite, Kiss Me, Kate, which gave Berresse his first Tony nomination. With roots this strong, it's no surprise Berresse's passion for the genre overflowed as TheaterMania spoke with him about the exciting new revival and its potential position on the Broadway roster.

How have you been enjoying your time back in the rehearsal room?
It's fantastic. I love it. The truth is it's good for my body, my head, and heart to go back and do a fantastical Cole Porter musical. The last Cole Porter musical I did, Kiss Me, Kate, was pretty good to me. I actually haven't had this feeling about a musical that I was in since Kiss Me, Kate. From the first day, we just had a strong sense that this is one of those moments where the stars are aligned and it's the right people at the right time having a wonderful time.

What kind of changes have been made to the original material?
David Lee and his writing partner Joel Fields have done a beautiful job rewriting the book. And it's not just rewriting the book, it's actually restructuring the entire musical. The can-can itself used to come at the very end of the show almost like an afterthought and now it comes much earlier. The dramatic structure is changed and I think it's much stronger. David Lee has a very quick, smart sitcom wit about him, and it's really refreshing to see that little bits of that have been imbued into the show. It's just a very specific kind of musical because it's smart but it's also wildly entertaining in an old-fashioned way.

Do you think audiences, potentially Broadway audiences, are ready for an old-fashioned musical?
I think they will flip out. It is a throwback in the best sense. The jokes are genuinely funny. They're not creaky. And when Kate [Baldwin] and Jason [Danieley] sing, it's like time stops. But on top of that, the ensemble is spectacularly good. They're not just good dancers, they're really good storytellers…that's a really important aspect of a good musical to me. I like to say great star turns don't make great shows, they make great star turns. Great ensembles make great shows.

There aren't too many shows these days with big Broadway ensembles.
Sometimes I feel like I see an ensemble come out and do a number almost like a novelty number. It's not part of the story. The integration between the principals and the ensemble in the show is totally seamless and really satisfying.

Do you know any details about the show's Broadway future?
We don't know the details on that yet. But it can be a great season for revivals, and that's exciting to me, because if you do them well, there's always a place for classic musicals.

Some people would argue the Broadway slots should be reserved for new works. How do you feel revivals should fit into the Broadway picture?
We didn't have a Best Musical revival category at the Tony Awards until 1994. Until then it was just Revival and even the Revival category didn't come around until the seventies, so revivals are a modern phenomenon. Everyone should hear Rodgers and Hammerstein, everyone should hear Cole Porter. And then they also should hear Duncan Sheik and see the lineage. Most of the people who are worth their salt [and] who are creating new musicals now, adore those old pieces and were greatly influenced by them when they were kids, and it shows up. I love that there's a young audience who can appreciate a revival as well as a brand-new piece. I think they're both important.

Michael Berresse with Amy Spanger in his Tony-nominated role of Bill Calhoun in the 1999 revival of Kiss Me, Kate.