Michael Urie on Barbra and Boyfriends
By Jerry Portwood
Photos by Sandra Coudert
I admit to being something of a dilettante when it comes to Babs. Sure, I've seen a smattering of her films (but not the ones you'd expect) and have listened to concerts and albums (mostly when forced to while driving with a theater friend who insisted she was divine). For the most part, however, I respect her stamina and realize she's a great talent, but she doesn't do much for me on a creative level. As it turns out, I'm not the only closet case when it comes to Barbra.
Michael Urie, who wowed audiences with Buyer & Cellar when it was Off-Broadway, has now transferred his hit one-man show to the Barrow Street Theatre for an open-ended run. The show deals primarily in fabulous Streisand legend and lore, and Urie admitted to me he was in the same camp when he started work on the show.
"I didn't necessarily get all the references in the show at first. I mean, I liked her, I'm a fan, but not a fanatic," Urie says by phone after a weekend of breakneck performances. "My biggest memory was watching her big comeback concert on PBS or VHS with my mom. There's thing that I remember, when she sings 'I'm Still Here,' she's rewritten most of the lyrics, and sings, 'I've kept my nose to spite my face.' My mom laughed, and I didn't get it when I was a kid, so she explained that Barbra never had her nose done. That turn of phrase now makes sense to me after doing this show."
It's true: Now Urie is a Barbra expert. In Buyer & Cellar, he plays Alex More, an out-of-work gay actor who winds up being hired to play a shopkeeper in Streisand's Malibu estate's basement, which is set up as a faux shopping destination for her alone. The setup may seem strangely plausible—and it is based on Barbra's 2010 dream home coffee table book, My Passion for Design—that's why there's a "disclaimer" that Urie gives as a preamble to the show, explaining that everything is fiction and that none of this is based on anyone's true story. Playwright Jonathan Tolins (who Urie met when the two worked on CBS's Partners sitcom last year) wouldn't want to piss off the diva and have her come a-knockin' with a cease and desist order. Despite it being false, Urie embodies his multiple characters—including a queeny boyfriend, a slacker gay dude, a ballbuster assistant, and Barbra Streisand herself—with rapid-fire delivery that keeps the audience on its toes.
We know Urie could troll YouTube for clips to capture Barbra's quirks, but who did he base Barry, Alex's boyfriend in the play, on? Could it be the main man in his life, Ryan? "I definitely wanted Alex and Barry to be different from each other, and in the course of four minutes, I'm playing multiple characaters so I needed them to be different," Urie explains. "I think lots of gay couples are sort of like Barry and Alex—one is louder, the other quieter, not always. So they are based on me and Ryan and friends. But my partner and I are both kinds of Alexes. Or maybe I would be Barry and he would be Alex. In fact, there have been times when I'm doing one of Barry's rants—when he's pitching Gypsy and he's being really, really silly—that reminds me of myself being silly with Ryan at home, and I come to the end of the speech, I realize I am going to say Ryan's name, not Alex's so I have to cut it short so I don't make that mistake."
Urie got the chance at the role after his TV show was cancelled and he moved back to New York City from L.A. But he's also been hard at work on a movie he directed and recently premiered, He's Way More Famous Than You, as well as another short film that he's currently editing. So how does he manage to have the stamina to keep all of these projects going and maintain the high energy level the show requires? "I'm on drugs," he quips. "No, seriously, I take a lot of naps. I am a power-nap expert."
Buyer & Cellar is now at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City
Behind the Scenes shots of Michael Urie in his pajamas from Out's Out100 shoot.
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