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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

An Interview with Michael Rupert

Also see David's review of Legally Blonde, the Musical

Michael Rupert
Michael Rupert
Michael Rupert has been a familiar and welcome face on the stages of the Great White Way from his Tony Award nominated Broadway bow as the teenaged Bibi in John Kander and Fred Ebb's The Happy Time to his most recent Broadway role as Elle Wood's complex law Professor Callahan in Legally Blonde, the Musical. He recently returned to the role in Legally Blonde on its national tour, and graciously sat down with me over lunch during the show's Seattle stop to talk about some "happy times" in his versatile career as a performer, writer and director.

David-Edward Hughes:  Your journey with Legally Blonde began with being cast in the Broadway company. Had you been involved with any of the workshops?

Michael Rupert:  I didn't do any of the workshops, actually. I'm not even sure who did. But I had worked with (director/choreographer) Jerry Mitchell before. The role of Callahan was the next to last role he cast; I guess he couldn't find someone he really liked. I was in Pittsburgh directing a show, in the middle of tech. The writers (Heather Hach, Nell Benjamin and Laurence O'Keefe) wanted me to audition, as they didn't know my work, other than from some recordings. Because I was in the middle of tech I actually passed on being seen initially. Then a couple of days later they called again and asked if I would fly in for a quick audition, so I did finally, and they gave me the job. But neither myself nor Orfeh, who was cast as Paulette, had done any of the workshops.

DEH:   I just happened to see the original film again, two days after seeing your show here. It really is a close adaptation, which may well have been a very conscious decision on the part of the writers, since the film was still in recent memory and out on DVD.

MR:  I think the creators for the most part did a very good job of theatricalizing, not just putting the movie onstage, but finding theatrical equivalents to some of the stuff that the movie did.

DEH:  The reception for the show in London, where it just opened recently, was pretty much raves, versus the sort of tepid critical response to the show when you all opened in New York.

MR:  Oh, it's a huge hit in London. They got great reviews. It's interesting. With London and the reviews on the tour. New York is really the only place that didn't get it. It has done very well on the road; Even pre-Broadway when we were trying out in San Francisco, their critics liked it very much. Then we got to Broadway, and for the most part the critics either dismissed it or were kind of like, "Well, it's not really very good but the audience had a good time." It was kind of strange that way. There was a time when the major critics admitted that a show wasn't their personal cup of tea, but the audience loved it. They don't really review shows like that much anymore. But some of them did with Legally Blonde. It's actually a much smarter show than people think it's gonna be. They think it's gonna be just big and loud and dumb and pink, but you know a lot of the writing in the show is very clever. For what was being musicalized, I think the creators did a pretty damn good job, I really do. By the time we left San Francisco and went into New York, very few changes had to be made. Some shows close out of town and get a complete overhaul before they go to New York. Our show, they replaced one number: the song "Positive" went in to replace the song "Love & War" about what Elle's pals were going to do to Vivienne. Some of the imagery in it was a bit severe. It was a funny song, and a good song, but the decided they needed something different in tone. But that was the only change they made.

DEH:  You have specialized in more likable characters, flawed but likable, so is it a lot of fun to play the dark character of Callahan?

MR:  The fun of playing Callahan is, when Callahan finally hits on Elle, kisses her, there are times when you can hear audible gasps in the audience, from people who didn't see it coming. They either didn't see the movie, or don't remember it well. And every once in awhile there will be one lone voice in the audience saying "Oh no he didn't!" and that's very funny. It's also interesting, In San Francisco. I had been telling Jerry I didn't know if "Blood on the Water" was working as a scene, as a song. I felt like Callahan comes on and all the fun is sapped out of the show, and Jerry said "No, it works. Can't tell you why, but it does." And then (director) Jack O'Brien who Jerry had done Hairspray and The Full Monty with came there to see the show and he said to me, "The interesting thing is when Callahan comes on there are now people in the audience who will say, oh this is an adult show too, it's not just bubblegum. That's why it works, Michael." And I grew to enjoy being the adult center to the show, with all this craziness going all around him. I don't have to jump around and be silly. And I like that.

DEH  Being an accomplished writer yourself, is it a double-edged sword when you the actor have thoughts about what the writers have given you. Do you feel yourself wanting to make suggestions?

MR:  When you are hired to just act, you have to be the tool for the writers. There are times when I would say to Heather, "Can I use this word instead of that word?" and 90% of the time she'd say "Try it," and there were times when she'd say, no I really like my word, can you stick with that? But the whole process of putting the show together for Broadway originally was just a really delightful experience ... once I got over the initial shock that I was old enough to be everyone's father. Many of the kids in the cast were making their Broadway debut, and were right out of the conservatory or college, and I felt like the old man of the group. Which I was! But it was also kind of nice to be the guy with the experience, and just stand back and let it happen. The original company, as is this company, was a terrific group of people. It's just been a good experience all the way around. Everyone has fun, not a whole lot of ego problems.

DEH:  You have recently been working on your own new musical, Streets of America.

MR:  That's the current title; we're considering a couple others at the moment. It's not based on anything; it's about a bunch of young people in San Francisco in 1969 during the Vietnam War. We actually did a production of it at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. I have a relationship with the University and whenever I have time I go and direct things for them. It was cool that they wanted to do the show, but it was kind of bizarre. I gave the head of the theatre department the current draft we had of Streets of America, because he wants to develop new things. I gave him the demo and the score and he loved it. I told him, well it needs a lot of work, but they wanted to do a workshop, and then a production. Because I was doing Legally Blonde, I wasn't going to be there to work on it, though my collaborator Matthew Riopelle was. They gave me a night off and I flew to Pittsburgh just to see it, I only got to see it once. We learned a lot from seeing that production, there was still a lot wrong with the show, it needed re-writes, but it was very valuable to be able to see it. And now we are moving ahead with it. Matthew works for Lifetime Television in Los Angeles, so we do most of our work on the show long distance, but with the Internet at your fingertips that's not too difficult. We have a new director attached, and we have a new rewrite. We have some theatres that have expressed interest, so we'll finally find out in the next few weeks where it's gonna land.

DEH:  Can we time-warp back to your first Broadway show, The Happy Time? You were a young teen working with the likes of Gower Champion, Kander & Ebb, David Wayne and Robert Goulet. What was that like?

MR:  I lived in Los Angeles, and was cast there. I was only 15, I was pretty young, and I had been doing TV and film, but not very much theatre. I did a production of Peter Pan where I got my Equity card, but that was it. I didn't really know theatre people that well, so it wasn't until we got underway with The Happy Time that I even knew who Gower Champion was. I was a little na´ve theatre-wise at that time. Working with all of those people, I was too na´ve to be impressed by any of them. I mean, I knew who Robert Goulet was, but it wasn't like I had any of his records. I didn't even know who David Wayne was. I hadn't seen any of his movies or know that he was in the original Finian's Rainbow. One actor in the show, Charles Durning, went on to be a big star. It was interesting about Charlie. Of all the actors in the show, and his role of Uncle Louis wasn't that big, but I remember being impressed as a teenager with the work he was doing. He would come up with the smallest little bits to flesh out that character, which wasn't even a lead role, that totally brought Uncle Louis to life. I remember being just amazed at him. It was fun, but at the time I wasn't impressed that I was the lead in a Broadway show.

A funny story John Kander told me, years later, was that Gower cast me because of my naivetÚ, because that's who the character was. John said that I actually clinched the deal at the audition, I was the second to last person they saw for the role of Bibi. I went into audition, sang two songs. Everyone was there but David Merrick, the whole creative team. They had their little pow-wow at the table and then Gower said, "Would you sit over there in the corner? We have one more actor we need to see, but we'd love to talk to you, so can you just sit over there while we see this other boy?" So this kid came in, young teenager, and they asked him what he was singing and he said: "I don't know, I don't have any music." which wasn't unusual for Los Angeles in 1967, where they didn't cast a lot of musicals at the time. I had brought a stack of music, because I didn't know what they were going to want to hear, so I offered this kid music. John Kander said that was when Gower turned to them and said, "That's who Bibi is. A kid who would offer his competition music." And John told me that Gower decided then that I would be cast in the role. Isn't that a sweet story? I had no ulterior motives; I was just offering the kid some music because he didn't have any.

Legally Blonde, The Musical runs through March 14, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Avenue, Seattle; $25.50-$103.50 (206-625-1900 or www.5thavenue.org). The show then moves to San Jose. For information on that run and future tour stops go to tour.legallyblondethemusical.com.

See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.



- David Edward Hughes



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