Michael Urie on the Joys of Barbra, Patti, and Jessica Chastain

8.12.2013

By Michael Musto

Plus: Will Gaga be the opening act at the VMAs?

Photo by Sandra Coudert

Michael Urie—of Ugly Betty and Partners fame—is giving two award-winning performances at NYC’s Barrow Street Theatre right now. In Jonathan TolinsBuyer & Cellar, he plays Alex More, a fictional, struggling actor who bravely takes a job manning the underground shopping mall in Barbra Streisand’s overflowing Malibu home. And as Alex tells the (again, made up) story of his interactions with the enduring superstar, he serves his impression of Streisand, as she confides her drive for passion in her work, her fear of solitary Sundays, and the defining fact that no one told her she was pretty growing up. This Barbra is charmingly complex and not to be messed with, though she seems very pliable when Alex encourages her to go ahead with the film version of Gypsy. At the very least, it’ll have great lighting! 

Dallas-born Urie won the Drama Desk award for his performance(s) in the play. (And he does a mean James Brolin too.) He also scored as Marc. St. James, fashion mag diva Vanessa Williams’s frisky assistant in Ugly Betty, from 2006 to 2010. Oh, and he did well in our little interview as well:

Musto: Hi, Michael. How did you work on your Streisand impression? 

Michael Urie: I watched a lot of stuff, and I started with interviews. There was an interview she did with Terry Gross for Fresh Air only six months ago, when she was promoting The Guilt Trip. I think she was eating during the interview, which was very helpful. But her energy and her candor are kind of missing from it. She’s not all that fun in interviews. I was trying to find the Barbra that was most like the fantasia Barbra we have in our play. I wasn’t finding that on Larry King or Inside The Actors Studio or Fresh Air. Then I went back and started watching the movies. When I watched Meet The Fockers, I discovered what was very much our Barbra. I love her work as Roz Focker! That was the funny, spontaneous Barbra we remember from back in the day. And she’s really sexy in it and maternal with Ben Stiller, and all those things were just what we wanted.

You’re up onstage with Barbra every night, but still: Is this your first one-person show?

It is. Maybe my last! I never thought having other actors is so important! You can pretend for 30 seconds during a take on a movie or a TV show. Sometimes you have to act with a piece of tape on the lens or a broomstick because someone couldn’t do their coverage. But I’m really alone up there! I have the audience, but they don’t know what happens. It’s kind of terrifying. Every night before I leave backstage, I think, “Is tonight the night I’m going to forget everything?” At one invited dress rehearsal, I skipped a very important section. [That never happened again.] One reason Barbra didn’t want to perform live for so long was she was afraid she was going to forget her lines. She said, “Once they invented the teleprompter, that changed everything.” 

Tolins’ lines are cracklingly funny. I liked the way his play touches on some things we expect to hear about Barbra, but in very unexpected ways.

I love this play so much and love telling the story. What keeps it alive for me is that there are so many wonderful surprises built into the play. You can feel the audience assuming it’s going to go in certain directions. The reaction is gold.

Speaking of glowing responses, Ben Brantley of the New York Times recently penned you and the play a giant act of journalistic lovemaking. How have you avoided becoming an egotistical monster after that?

Who says I did? [laughs] It’s awesome to get a rave, but also it’s dangerous. We have to remember what we all tell each other backstage, which is it’s just one person’s opinion. But I certainly realize he’s a big deal, and it means a lot to a lot of people who take his opinion as fact. A lot of people still let him decide for them what they’re going to buy tickets to. That makes me very happy. 

Could this play become a movie?

Maybe. What if we got Barbra to play herself? Or Andrea Martin? 

On a trapeze!

I’m sure there’s a trapeze in the mall somewhere. [Laughs]

Has Barbra freak Richard Simmons come to see the show?

No, he hasn’t. Joan Rivers came. 

I brought you two together when you cohosted a party for me in 2010!

I know! I don’t think she remembered me, though. 

Is she a Barbra freak?

She’s not, but she did talk about how “Barbra and I got our start together with Rodney and Woody.” Imagine walking into a dinky little club and seeing those four people perform.

It’s sort of like walking into the Duplex today. Kidding. By the way, I loved the music that’s piped into the theater before the show. I think I recognized Shirley Bassey’s voice.

It‘s all cover versions of songs Barbra made famous. There’s Luther Vandross doing “Evergreen.” I think Eydie Gorme is in there, singing something. Did you by chance notice at the end of the show, after I’m bowing as the audience is leaving, it’s “Life on Mars,” the Bowie song, by Barbra? It’s crazy and hilarious and also incredible. The director found it and I begged him to please make it the exit music. It’s the perfect song—and it’s such a weird version of it. I looked it up and Bowie said, “Love Barbra, hated that version.” 

Let’s talk about life on the Upper West Side. When you studied at Juilliard, did you work with future star Jessica Chastain?

She was in my class! She was my mother in The Seagull. We were husband and wife in a new play and lovers in a Restoration comedy. And for our showcase, we did a scene from Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy. She came to see Buyer & Cellar. It was great to see her. She hasn’t changed a bit. Before our class at Juilliard, they never did a showcase in L.A., only one in New York. Jessica was the one who spearheaded that happening. It’s such a tremendous asset to be seen. It gave us all a debut.

And you ended up getting such a great break with Ugly Betty. That role wasn’t supposed to be recurring, was it?

I wasn’t even supposed to go past the pilot. The idea was that Vanessa Williams’ character fired her assistant every week. But Vanessa immediately took a liking to me and started giving me pointers. “If you stand next to me, you’ll be in the shot.” “Why don’t you take this line and I’ll take the next?” I started mimicking her at one point, and she saw me doing it and could have said, “Stop doing it.” Instead, she said, “That’s funny. What else can I do that you can mimic?” I was this little nobody and they’d had no plans for this role beyond the pilot, but by the end of the pilot, they asked me to be in the cast photo!

But didn’t you feel bad bullying Betty all those years?

When the show was first on, people would stop me at the grocery store and say, “Stop being so mean to her.” I hear that happens to people on soap operas and things. When we finished that show, we were complete emotional wrecks because we did not want it to be finished. Thankfully, we knew we were ending, so we had time, and they wrote a lovely finale. Even though Marc had been mean to Betty, we had lovely scene together.

Patti LuPone played your mother in one episode. Was that the high point of your life until then?

It was pretty awesome. I couldn’t believe when I walked into the trailer and she was actually there. She and my mother kind of look alike. They met after we saw Patti’s show with Mandy Patinkin. It was kind of surreal to see them in the same room. One of my great regrets about Ugly Betty is that we never brought Patti back. It was an unhappy ending and could have been a really fun storyline to fix. But the writers had so many characters to service.

Was your followup show, the short-lived Partners, a gratifying experience?

I loved doing that show. It was pure fun, until we were on the air and then it became about trying to get more viewers. The writers were so talented and I loved the cast. I grew up watching sitcoms. That’s what I wanted to do more than anything when I was a kid. And to work on a network like CBS, which has such crazy viewership! But that’s what ended up biting us on the ass. The lowest rated show on CBS had eight million viewers. We had 6.5. If we’d been on another network, we’d have been a hit.

You should have been on the Oprah channel. Speaking of partners, what do you think about all these high-profile same-sex couples divorcing lately? Isn’t it only natural?

I guess so. Gay couples have been breaking up all this time. Now that it’s legal, it’s a bigger deal and one that needs a press release. It’s sad, but like you said, it’s a natural thing that was bound to happen. I don’t think it’s indicative of  marriage. I hope not. We all worked so hard to get it!

HOW DATED IS FIRST DATE?

Up on Broadway, straight characters are taking baby steps toward marriage in First Date, a musical about an unassuming guy and a brash girl going through the title process in hopes of becoming the new Brolins, I guess. Zachary Levi is comically agile as the nervous and somewhat nerdy “blind date virgin,” and the show exudes a giddy likability, but the psychiatry jokes, “She’s not Jewish?” throwback, and screaming queen character make the whole thing seem a little bit dredged out of a Borscht Belty time tunnel. That queeny guy is the girl’s BFF and is known to ear-splittingly shriek his flaming concern for her, followed by coos of “Later, skank.” But at least the gays in the show seem to find love faster than the straights do. And like I said, there are laughs, so even if First Date isn’t really the first anything, it might make a good, you know, first date for those not looking for the kind of project that would normally star Jessica Chastain.

Meanwhile, theater might help NYC’s big gay dance club, xl, stay afloat. I recently wrote about the mass exodus of the place’s promoters and the hardships  they left behind. Well, the club has brought in an intergalactic, interactive rock concert slash performance piece called The Orion Experience that’s a fun, frothy bit of Sid-and-Marty-Krofft-on-“molly” type of ambient entertainment. They’ve also booked Kate Middleton’s even more disrobing cousin Katrina Darling to do a night in September, which should be royally amusing. 

And they’re benefiting from the mishaps of rival clubs, like Stage 48, where Saturday night’s Viva bash is the hottest weekly gay event and as such, has been under fire by the neighborhood. (I hear the community board got that place’s roof shut down after noise complaints had a nearby hotel losing some business. I don’t think that’s the end of the battle either.) Also, now that the long-running club Splash is kaput, xl has nabbed its key staffers, plus the legendary Musical Mondays event, which they’ve dyslexically renamed Monday Musicals. That’s the happening where theater queens droolingly stare at Broadway videos and live performances as if facing Mecca. If Barbra ever does Gypsy and it becomes a video, expect to hear some very loud gasping in Times Square.  

Oh, “let me entertain you” with one last bit of diva dish. I’m hearing that art lover extraordinaire Lady Gaga will do her new song, “Applause,” as the opening number of the VMAs on August 25. (And no, she won’t be dressed as Jo Calderone.) What’s more, Miley Cyrus will supposedly perform on the show, and she’ll also join the very thick Robin Thicke for a scintillating duet! I guess they couldn’t get Barbra and Neil Diamond.

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