Michele, Ma Belle
Michele Lee comes back to Broadway--but not crawling!--in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife.
In her extraordinary career, Michele Lee has truly done it all. She took Broadway by storm in her teens in shows like Bravo Giovanni and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. She broke into the movies when she recreated her role in How To Succeed..., going on to star in The Love Bug (with Dean Jones) and The Comic (with Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney). She became a bona-fide television star through her appearance in all 344 episodes of Knots Landing during that show's 14-year run, setting the American television record for the greatest number of consecutive appearances by a leading actress in an hour-long, prime-time series. She formed her own production company, which allowed her to produce, direct, write, and star in a number of award-winning TV films. But while her legions of fans may know her best as Karin Fairgate-MacKenzie, Dottie West, or Jacqueline Susann, it's her plum role in Charles Bush's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife--now playing on Broadway, following its acclaimed run at Manhattan Theatre Club--that Lee was most eager to talk about with TheaterMania.
TM: This may be a clichéd question but I have to ask it: How does it feel to be back on Broadway?
ML: Well, if one is going to go back on Broadway, what could be better than to do it in Charles Busch's wonderful play? I just fell in love with the material. Charles has always had an incredible gift, and now he has written some three-dimensional characters in a comedy the likes of which I think Broadway has not seen in a long time. The message, if you want to call it a message, or the theme of the play is really about change--how one has to find change within oneself and not judge other people by their lifestyle. The play is about finding and changing oneself, rather than spending time trying to change everyone around you.
TM: Those who know your work in both musical theater and television may be surprised by the character you play, not to mention the content of the show.
ML: For me, the wonderful thing about the character Lee is that you don't really know who she is. She changes constantly before your eyes. Is she real, or is she not real? Is she a villainess? I love playing an enigmatic character who has things about her that could be considered shocking by some people. There's a sensuality and sexuality about Lee that I haven't played in this way before. I mean, when you think of the roles I've played, they've always been the good girls or the heroines or the girls in trouble--except for the really complicated roles of Dottie West and Jacqueline Susann. But this is very, very different.
TM: I understand that you got your start in musical theatre doing a show called Vintage '60. David Merrick saw it in Los Angeles and brought it to New York. Can you tell me about that experience?
ML: Well, my audition for that show was the first audition I had ever been on. My father had brought home the trade papers--he was a make-up artist--and he said to his very young daughter, "If you think you want this career, you'll have to get used to the knocks and the rejections that come along with it." So my mother took me to the theater and we watched people audition. I was terribly green. I finally got up there and sang this Frank Sinatra song, "You Make Me Feel So Young." Then the choreographer said, "Do these steps." Then I read a little, we went home--and the phone rang. The people asked to speak to my mother or my father and they said, "We want Michele to do the show." So I looked at my father and said, "Yeah, right!" (laughing) It was a Cinderella story, because it was my first show and it ended up on Broadway. It wasn't successful, but that really started the whole thing going, because people became aware of Michele Lee. Actually, Lee is my middle name. My last name is Dusick, but when my mother and I looked at the marquee outside the theater and saw "Michele Lee Dusick," it was like one of those scenes out of the movies. We both said, "Well, that won't do!" So I dropped the last name. The show became a huge hit in Los Angeles, and David Merrick saw it and moved it to Broadway. After the New York run of Vintage '60, I did some Off-Off-Off-Off-Off-Off-Broadway shows.
TM: How far off Broadway were they?
ML: Very. They were in Los Angeles! They next time I came back to New York was for Bravo Giovanni.
TM: One of the Broadway legends associated with you is that you heard about the audition for Bravo Giovanni when you were out in L.A. and bought your own ticket to fly to New York to audition. Is that true?
ML: That's absolutely true. There was an agent by the name of Frank Cooper who had heard about the show. I didn't have an agent or anything then; I was just a kid. But he called me and said they were doing the show in New York, he thought that I was perfect for it, and I should fly there to audition. My parents said, "Well, somebody send her a ticket." But they wouldn't. So I borrowed money from my father and I flew to New York and auditioned. They kept me there for four days. It was Carol Haney's last show, and Stanley Prager's last show. I came in, this little pishilah, and sang "You Make Me Feel So Young" again. (She bursts out laughing.) That song was working for me!
TM: Apparently. You beat out Barbra Streisand for that role.
ML: I did?
TM: Hadn't you heard that?
TM: She auditioned.
ML: You're kidding! (laughing) Those were the days when I wasn't interested in things like that. One of the reasons you're so at ease when you're young is that you don't really think of yourself as having to pay the rent, you know? It's like, "Okay, I'm here, I'll sing"! Barbra was in the theater next door doing I Can Get It For You Wholesale when I was doing Bravo Giovanni. I remember that there was an article in the Times on "the young talent on Broadway," and we were both featured in it. I think I've got a copy of that somewhere in Los Angeles.
TM: Your next big Broadway show was How To Succeed.... You replaced Bonnie Scott as Rosemary Pilkington. How did that come about?
ML: Well, it was easy: She got pregnant! About eight months into the run [of How to Succeed...], Bonnie announced that she was pregnant. I was doing Bravo Giovanni, and they called and asked me if I'd be interested in replacing her. I had already seen the show and fallen madly in love with Bobby Morse. So I said, "If [Bravo Giovanni] closes, I would jump into How to Succeed... so fast!" When I went into the show, it was still the original cast; no one else had been replaced, because it was during the first year. That was a great training ground for me.
TM: Is it true that Robert Morse handpicked you for the movie version?
ML: I don't know if that's true or not. I know we loved each other very much. I'm sure that Bobby put in his two cents, because we worked so well together. I think it showed on stage. Bobby taught me so much; I would just follow him around like a sick kitten. He would give me notes and ideas. He'd explain why certain lines in the show were working or not from night to night. It was like going to school.
TM: After How to Succeed..., you did Seesaw, which is something of a lost show.
ML: Yes, I know, and it's so brilliant.
TM: Some of us musical theater buffs have been saying for years that City Center Encores! should do the show with you, Ken Howard, and Tommy Tune recreating your original roles.
ML: Oh, my God. I would do that in a minute! What fun that would be.
TM: I understand that Lainie Kazan was originally cast in your role, but it didn't work out.
ML: They were out on the road and I got a call from Larry Kasha, who was one of the producers. He later became the producer of Knots Landing. He called me and said, "What kind of shape are you in; can you come back to Broadway?" I said, "Well, maybe. Send me the stuff." I loved the character! I didn't know what shape the show itself was in, but I felt I couldn't go wrong playing that character. So they flew me to wherever they were--Detroit, or someplace like that--and I ended up doing it. Michael Bennett came into the show when I did. I must say that I adore Lainie; she was a very good friend of mine then, and she still is. We lived in the same apartment building when we were both doing Bravo Giovanni. A lot of people don't know this, but Lainie was in the chorus of that show, and everybody thought that she was just the sexiest thing that had ever happened! We both lived in the Whitby on 45th Street. She lived with Ellen Weston, who today is a big writer-producer and also a friend of mine. We were all girlfriends; we lived on the same floor, believe it or not. So, when I went into Seesaw, it was very uncomfortable. Years later, I was at a New Year's Eve party at Lee Grant's house, and who was there but the wonderful Lainie Kazan. We saw each other across the room--it's getting very romantic here!--and tears welled in our eyes. We latched onto each other that night and haven't let go since. We're in touch constantly. She's off doing another movie in Toronto right now; I called her just the other day.
TM: You've worked with so many theater legends. I'm going to name some of them, and I'd like you to say the first thing that comes into your head.
ML: Okay, but if I say something stupid, I'd like to try again. You've got to give me a second chance!
TM: Okay. David Merrick?
TM: Jerry Herman?
TM: Bobby Morse?
ML: A teddy bear!
TM: Ken Howard?
ML: A tree--a strong oak tree.
TM: Tommy Tune?
TM: Michael Bennett?
ML: Oh...the first one to stump me. He was just everything. I'll have to think about him.
TM: Dean Jones?
ML: He's like the epitome of what a Disney movie is. Is that a terrible thing to say? He's got great comic timing.
TM: Anthony Hopkins?
ML: Always impeccable.
TM: Elizabeth Montgomery?
ML: A very giving actress; no ulterior stuff going on.
TM: Ben Gazzara?
ML: I don't know...rough sex! (laughs)
TM: Hume Cronyn?
ML: Rough sex! (laughs even harder)
TM: Anne Bancroft?
ML: Oh, my goodness. Beauty.
TM: I'll end with one of the masters, who has a new play on Broadway: Neil Simon?
ML: Hmmm. Complicated. Is that a good word?
TM: Well, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. It's great to have you back on the boards. And maybe, someday, you'll do another big, splashy, Broadway musical.