Last week Josh and I had a chance to sit down with Tony-nominated Broadway star Michael Berresse, currently starring in the revival of A Chorus Line as Zach, opposite 2007 Tony nominee Charlotte d'Amboise. We talked with Michael in his dressing room for an hour and a half, discussing the success and challenges of his show, unpredictable audience members, Liza Minnelli doing high kicks in the aisles, and what it's like being an out actor (with a very attractive and talented boyfriend, we might add), both on Broadway and in Hollywood.
Josh & Josh: Hi Michael! Congratulations on the Tony nominations for A Chorus Line [for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Featured Actress for Charlotte d'Amboise]!
Michael Berresse: Thank you so much!
How's the show going?
I think it's the best it's ever been. It's
become more and more organic. The show is actually in the best shape it's ever been in,
which is not always the case when a show has been on for almost a year. The Tony
nomination brought even more visibility to Chorus Line. We're the only show to open this year
that recouped its investment. The show's going to be here for a while. I'm really enjoying it. There's
a national tour starting soon, too.
Have you had a lot of celebrities coming to see the show?
So many. Vanessa Redgrave, Rosie O'Donnell. This week Alec Baldwin was here. Alec was backstage and Charlotte [d'Amboise, who is Tony nominated this year for her role in "A Chorus Line"] told me, the next day, that Alec said some really nice things [about my performance]. He's a fantastic actor, he's really funny and talented, and I think all that drama is a little overblown [concerning the infamous "little pig" voicemail Baldwin left his daughter]. Alec had to leave before I got there. [We had] Liza Minnelli, who got up and started doing the kick line in the aisle during the show.
No! What do you do when something like that happens?
You just let her do what she wants to do. Nobody really argues with her. [laughter] I was at the Tonys one year, when I was performing, and she was a presenter. She found me backstage and grabbed me and wouldn't let me go, just talking and talking, and I wondered what was going on. Then I realized she was so terrified to go on stage that she had to stay engaged with someone, and then she heard her name called and she just turned and walked away, like "Okay, I'm done with you," and then went out on stage. [laughter] Crazy. Show business.
For much of the show your character, Zach, the director of the show-within-the-show, is at the back of the theater, talking to the actors on stage. It is strange acting from the back of a theater?
In Chorus Line I had to learn to act with my voice, because I'm offstage, but heard, so much. It's tricky. Silence is critical, and when you breathe, and when you say your lines.
I hear these stories of Zachs from the past who have their checkbooks out, doing their bills, because there are a couple of gaps there when you're not talking much, but I can't do that, because then I wouldn't have an honest feeling about what's happening [on stage].
[As Zach] I'm supposed to be alone in an empty theater. There are [audience members] sitting right next to me. There are people talking to me, there are people standing right next to me, there are people's cell phones going off, there are ushers ushering me to the bathroom if they don't know I'm the guy in the show. Some guy shouted at me "Just give her the job, give her the job!" A little boy crawled up in the seat in front of me and put his hand on my leg. Another time a guy passed out and fell on me.
Have you had any overzealous audience-member encounters?
I've had some stalkers. Usually it's women, or really young or much older men. This flight attendant started bringing gifts every time she came to the show. She started sending strange letters, and then she showed up on Valentine's Day and wanted me to take her to dinner, and then she got beligerant, and tried to contact me at home.
Depending on what you're doing, or what role you're doing, people sometimes can't tell the difference [between you and your character]. In Chicago my original role was as Fred Casely, and I wore almost nothing, and people would wait at the end of the night, and say things, or call me, or flash me. It's kind of crazy, because they think that's who you are.
Tell us about how you got into acting and dancing in the first place. Weren't you a gymnast first, and then sort of fell into the whole acting thing by accident?
I was a competitive gymnast when I was young, and that's how I got my first job. I didn't know what the hell I was doing, and I didn't know how to dance. I went to this audition with a friend as moral support, dressed in jeans and a button-up, no dance shoes or anything, and they said, "You should audition." I was like, "Okay." So I danced barefoot, in my street clothes, and I sang "Miracle of Miracles" because it was the only song I knew from when I did musical theater in high school. I got the job and that was it.
It all started because I could tumble, because of gymnastics. But then when you get a job on Broadway as an athletic Gene Kelly type, that's all they want you to do, and for four Broadway shows in a row that's all I did. So then I started having to say no, and people think you're an asshole, but then you get another opportunity to do something with someone else, and the first people come back and [forgive you]. I started understudying, then taking over roles, then starring in shows, and then choreographing and writing. I realized if I was going to [make it], it was up to me.
Have there been any really outstanding moments for you in this show?
The great thing about Broadway is that actors get to do what people are afraid to say and do [in real life]. There was this teenage boy a few weeks ago during Paul's monologue [concerning a young male dancer who dealt with sexual abuse in his past, and also with being gay], where the boy just lost it, crying. It was so moving. His whole world just cracked wide open because he's watching some kid talking on stage about his own life. And whether his parents figure it out that night or not, sometimes that's the best part about doing this.
There seems to be a unique opportunity in the entertainment industry to serve as role models.
If you want to be in a profession that gives you exposure, then it's important to use that exposure honestly. I saw David Hyde Pierce [former Frasier star who won a Tony for his current role in Curtains] at an event recently, and he was very open, but I didn't know he had come out. I knew he was gay a long time ago, but I say good for him [for coming out].
I'm saying this for the record: fucking Hollywood. The gays that run the industry and try and force actors back into the closet because they're afraid it's going to make them unmarketable have so polluted the industry that it makes me really, really angry. It's so hypocritical. It's studio execs, and a lot of them are gay, and they're still saying, "You can't be out." There are exceptions, like T.R. [Knight, from Grey's Anatomy], but I'm ready for there to be a 25-year-old heartthrob who's hot and working and have him be totally out. All they need is someone young and hot, whose career is built on being a straight sex symbol, and then have him come out, and then everything will be fine once that taboo is broken. It won't make any fucking difference. Does anyone really care?
You don't need to tell everybody your secrets, but don't lie. It's just a shame, living out of fear. Fear is the most dangerous weapon that abusers have. If you're not ashamed, they can't use it against you.
It used to scare me when I met people who were really out and gay because I thought something terrible would happen to them, and there was a time where something terrible could have happened, but it's not true anymore. I don't define myself by my sexuality, but it's part of who I am.
[When I was younger] I was very self-conscious. I always felt -- and this is going to sound harsh, but I guess it's true -- like a faggot. Like I couldn't just be what I wanted to be, or laugh at what I wanted to laugh at. I believed it when somebody would laugh and say "faggot" and then I'd feel bad. But now they say it and I'm like, "You're right!" [laughter] Gay people that are ten or fifteen years younger than me now have changed so much, to be at a young age and be able to self-express. I just didn't have role models to help me figure that out until I was older.
I don't necessarily believe anymore that being in the closet is going to help you get famous, or stay famous. You know, some people knew T.R. Knight [before he outed himself], but look at him now. Now everybody knows who he is. So it's okay, boys, you can come out.
Michael Berresse is also the director and choreographer of Off-Broadway hit [title of show]. (Yes, that's the show's name; we didn't just accidentally leave the title out.) They plan to bring the show to Broadway soon.
"College students steal songs from [title of show] off YouTube and perform them at their colleges," Berresse says proudly. "We have a big show that's growing. We did five special events in the last six weeks. Rodgers & Hammerstein bought the material and are waiting to publish it until we find out if we're going to go to Broadway. It's the thing that I'm the most proud of in my whole career."
Berresse should be proud because The New Yorker called [title of show] "immensely likeable," The New York Times called it "delectable entertainment," and Entertainment Weekly called it "sly, sassy, and inspired."
Oh, and the person who wrote the music and lyrics, and also has a starring role? None other than Michael's (very sexy) boyfriend, Jeff Bowen.
* Michael was nominated for a Best Featured Actor in a Musical Tony Award in 2000 for his role as Bill Calhoun in Kiss Me Kate.
* Michael's first big acting gig was at Disney World. "I was there for the same ages and years when you'd be in college," he says. "It really taught me about community, it helped me really understand my sexuality in a much more positive way, and it taught me how to work my ass off with five shows a day in 90% humidity. It was really hard, but I grew up a lot," Michael says. It was also while at Disney that he had his first "healthy" same-sex relationship. After Disney, Michael moved to New York, and has worked on the stage (and screen) consistently since 1990.
* Michael has two small framed photos of his boyfriend in his dressing room. On his dressing room table sits a picture of his boyfriend, eyes closed and wearing a knit hat, somehow managing to look both serene and hot. "It's very sweet," Michael says of the photo, "and to me that's what I feel and think of when I think of him. But he was like 'Fuck that, you need to have a sexy picture of me in your dressing room." Thus, on a shelf above Michael's mirror sits a shirtless picture of Jeff, ripped torso in full view, focusing a smoldering stare straight at the camera. "Then he gave me that picture. And now I keep it on the top shelf," Michael said, laughing.
* Michael cringes, but admits that he has performed for both George W. Bush and George Bush, Sr., at the Kennedy Center Honors. "We did Forever Plaid, which turns out to be Bush Senior's favorite show." Who knew that Bush Senior was into musical theater? And Forever Plaid, a revue of a faux 1950s harmonizing boy band? Hmmm. Very interesting.
* Michael says that he's performed for so many celebrities that he's rarely star-struck anymore. There is one woman who gets him every time, though, he reports. "When Meryl Streep came to see Light in the Piazza [in which Berresse starred in 2005] -- she came, like, eight times -- she brought her daughter and waited at the stage door like everybody else. She made me really, really nervous. People would see her and they'd be all, 'Fuck the Light in the Piazza cast, it's Meryl Streep!'"