Dallas — Growing up, Michael Urie had performed at Plano Children’s Theatre but by the time he entered Plano Senior High School, he was pretty sure he would be a speech and drama teacher. Then he performed a monologue in a UIL competition that was meant to be dramatic—until the audience started laughing. So he quickly changed it for comedy emphasis.
That experience of connecting with an audience that laughed at the words coming out of his mouth, and the way he delivered them, changed everything. He entered college as a drama student at what was then Collin County Community College, Spring Creek Campus (now Collin College), performing at its acclaimed Quad C Theatre (now Collin Theatre Center). That led to an audition for the Juilliard School, to which he was accepted. He graduated in 2003.
After performing in regional and off-off Broadway theater, he got his big break: Being cast in what would become a hit TV show, Ugly Betty. He played Marc St. James, the assistant to a hardline fashion magazine editor played by Vanessa Williams. The show’s run ended after five seasons, but it opened up more doors for Urie, who also appeared on the short-lived TV show Partners in 2012.
He frequently returned to the stage, though, starring off-Broadway in The Temperamentals and revivals of The Cherry Orchard and Angels in America (both parts), and in the Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. More notable has been the solo play Buyer & Cellar by Jonathan Tolins (Twilight of the Golds, The Last Sunday in June), which Urie originated and starred in for more than a year after its off-Broadway opening in June 2013.
The show then began a national tour, and opens this week as the inaugural production of AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Off-Broadway on Flora series, which also features the Second City, monologuist Mike Daisey and Austin’s nationally revered Rude Mechanicals. Intererestingly, when Urie left the New York production, he was replaced by Christopher J. Hanke, who also has local connections (he has been in several Casa Mañana shows); and Urie had replaced Hanke in How to Succeed.
Urie, who has also directed the documentary about high school speech and debate, Thank You for Judging, and the narrative film He’s Way More Famous Than You (produced by his life partner Ryan Spahn), met with a group of journalists earlier this year. The conversation below comes from a media roundtable that took place in the lobby of City Performance Hall.
TheaterJones: Collin College and Collin Theatre Center (formerly Quad C Theatre) is known locally for its productions and higher standards than you normally see with a two-year college. What about their training prepared you for the world of show business?
Michael Urie: They treat that theater like a professional theater. The classes are fantastic but the way they run rehearsals are the way rehearsals in the professional world are run. The quality of those shows, and I remembered that from before I went there, they look and feel like professional shows. Sometimes you have a young person playing an old person, but this quality is mature and even the undergrad shows I’ve seen don’t really feel as polished as the ones that Quad C does. I think that’s because they are professionals. Gail [Cronauer] continues to act all over the [country], and Brad [Baker] has worked professionally for years. And they have some money, so the sets look fantastic. Adult professional actors in town go and work there because the quality is so good, and that really helps [students] know how to behave like a professional.
Tell us the premise of Buyer & Cellar.
It’s the totally fictional account of a completely made-up guy who works in the absolutely real basement mall at Barbra Streisand’s house. When she built her latest Malibu house, she put a street of shops in her basement. There’s a dress shop, a gift shop, a sweet shop, an antiques store… They’re filled with her crap.
We don’t know if anyone works down there, but [playwright] Jon[anthan] Tolins imagined that there is and he has a customer, just the one. I play Alex More, the struggling actor who gets hired to run the shops.
I [also] play Barbra, the woman who runs Barbra’s house, her husband Jim [James Brolin], Alex’s boyfriend Barry and a few other brief parts. I call it a fantasia. It’s like a fantasia of what it would be like to work in Barbra Streisand’s basement mall.
It forces the audience to use their imagination. It takes place not only in the mall, but around Barbra’s estate, and at Alex’s house and other places…the sets are minimal. When I do Barbra, it’s more like an interpretation of her.
How do you transition between characters?
It’s a really subtle change. Imagine a guy who can tell a story really well and he can become the other people, and you think “oh my god you sound really like them.” There’s no hat or glasses or anything like that.
The reason it works is because the play is so smart. For instance I have a scene where I’m playing Alex and Barry. They’re both white gay men in their 30s. In theory how different could they be? But we found a way to try and make them different, and their scenes are filled with conflict. What helps to differentiate is not only what I’m doing, but one person is fighting for one thing, and other is fighting for something else. The conflict is really good and clever.
This has been a critical and box office hit in New York. Are you worried about how it will play to non-New York offices?
I’m really happy that it’s been a hit. It was a bit of gamble. It didn’t have a reading or workshop, and for a new play off-Broadway to have a new production without a tryout of some kind is very rare, if ever. Now I’m nervous because I’ve been playing to New Yorkers and tourists but now I’m going to be playing to local theatergoers. I know the audiences here because I was one of the audiences here. I know they’re smart and eager and they come ready to enjoy it.
With New York audiences, it’s an incredible theater town but sometimes if it’s a hit they might expect something, or they came through a blizzard to get here, could be any number of hurdles. I’m glad to come and play to new people. I’m so proud to be coming back to my hometown. … Dallas was my number one request; it was top of my list when we started looking at the tour.
How did you get this part?
I had done a reading of a play that Jon wrote that has not been produced yet. I met him socially and I knew his play Twilight of the Golds from speech tournaments. I said “I know your plays.” Then we both got jobs on this CBS sitcom Partners that I was on and he was a writer for. Because we were away from home [New York], we became really good friends.
Originally the play was written for Jesse Tyler Ferguson. I read it and I really liked it. So Partners get canceled, we’re back in New York, and there are theaters that are interested. Jesse was cast in [The Comedy of Errors at] Shakespeare in the Park, and almost immediately the Rattlestick Theatre said “we’ll do it, when can you start rehearsal?” Jonathan got Jesse’s blessing for me to do it.
You made your name in Ugly Betty, but you’ve always come back to theater.
Theater is like a drug, I’ve never been far from it. Every substantial break from Ugly Betty was spent on stage. I moved to LA for Ugly Betty, and then they moved the entire show to New York and I was thrilled. Getting that job was like hitting the jackpot. Not only was it a good show and a great part, I worked with incredible people and it opened doors.
I did a lot of regional theater and off-off Broadway before that, but to be a headliner in something in New York without having you own hit on stage, TV cred really helps. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to build my own credibility aside from that. I’m still more than happy to talk about it, and I’m more than happy to let it be an “in”—and more than happy to cash those residual checks.
What was your knowledge of Barbra and her work before this?
I was a fan but not like an aficionado, but my mom was a big fan. I remember watching the ’96 comeback concert on DVD with my mom and learning to appreciate it through my mom’s eyes. I learned a lot about why people love her so much through my mom.
Ironically when my mom came to see the play, after the show we were telling her the story of how I got the job, and we mentioned it was written for Jesse Tyler Ferguson. She said “Oh! … He would have been great!” I was like “Mom!” She’s seen it like three times.
Has Barbra seen the show?
I have not met Barbra. People who are close to her have told us she knows about it. Entertainment Weekly did a nice piece about us for their Best Of [issue] for the end of the year. I was asked what I would do if she came to see the play, and I said “I’d shit my pants.”
Somebody told me that she read that and said [insert Babs voice] “ah yeah, he’s smart.”