Spotlight on Michael Gruber

by Ed Feldman        

(page three)

EF:  You went to NYU. Do you think an education in acting/theater is necessary to be a good actor? Is it more of an inherent talent that you cultivate along the way?

DJ:  For me it was a condition that I go to a university where I could not only get an arts education but a liberal arts education as well. That was a condition of my parents paying for school. It was valuable for me to study other things and make me a more rounded person. In regards to going to school or not, I've seen amazing talent who did not go to college for it. I know hugely talented people that I went to school with who haven't worked at all. I don't know the answer to that. I would always encourage a young performer to continue to study. I think it is important. It shows a certain respect for your craft to study it. For me it was the right thing to do. I don't know if it is the formula to succeed.

EF:  You are an actor, singer and dancer. In what order would you put those?

DJ:  Oh boy. I would say it is probably actor, dancer, and then singer. Most of the studying I've done has been in acting. My intention when I moved from San Francisco to New York was to give up the dancing all together. I wanted to be an actor. I'm such a fan of musical theater. My dance training was in my younger years. There are amazing dancers out there in shows like Fosse. I don't pretend to put myself in any category with those kids there. What they can do is amazing. It takes so much training and energy. I studied voice but consider myself a singing actor. I won't be coming out with a CD. I can get my way through a song but don't look for that CD (laughing).

Broadway Bares Poster
For Broadway Bares
Photo: Max Vadukul
EF:  Let's talk about Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS. I've had the opportunity to both volunteer and contribute. It is a great organization. I know you have done Broadway Bares. How did you get involved with them?

DJ:  I have been very involved with that benefit on and off for the last 5 years as well as the Easter Bonnet competition and the flea market. All things Broadway Cares are worthwhile doing. I just love those people. My standard answer anytime they ask me to help out is absolutely. The organization doesn't absorb for itself but gives it back and that is why so many in this community give so selflessly of themselves. I guess they were rated in "Money Magazine" in the top 10 of charitable organizations by how much was raised and given back. Everyone just gives his or her time without payment. I really get a little choked up when I talk about Broadway Cares people. They are just great!

I love doing the collections after the show as often as possible. People see a show they love and then to give that extra dollar is something they really want to do. It is a nice expression of the audience's appreciation of the show to give money to a cause the company has championed. To get that one on one connection with audience members who love the show is gratifying as an actor.

EF:  Let me name a show and perhaps you can give me a few lines on what that experience was like for you. Let's start with Chicago:

DJ:  Daunting situation as first. It ended up being an amazing experience. It had been opened for 2 weeks and I went in as a swing. To come into a show that was so white hot and to work with the likes of Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, Joel Grey and an ensemble where many had worked with Bob Fosse ... I had appreciated his work as an audience member but did not have any experience with that style of dancing and movement. It was nerve wracking. I found my way in the company though and eventually became dance captain. It is a fantastic show.

EF:  Little Me?

DJ:  I loved that experience so much. Rob Marshall and Martin Short are just geniuses. It was such a fun show to work on and such a nice group of people. It felt like a tiny part of my heart broke when I read the reviews. It was disappointing. To a great extent, the NY critics did not embrace it. I thought it was a funny, perfect, joyful show. It was successful in its limited run and Martin Short won a Tony for it. I think the people who came to see it enjoyed it. The press didn't share my deep feeling about the show and that got me down for a little bit. I look back at that experience with such fond memories.

Denis Jones in A Chorus LIne
In A Chorus Line
EF:   A Chorus Line?

DJ:  You know I got my equity card doing A Chorus Line. I actually did four Chorus Lines in fairly rapid succession. I played Mark in the first production and then Mike in the three that followed. I had a really wonderful experience as a part of the opening in [BC/EFA's] Gypsy of the Year last year when they brought the original Chorus Line members on. People were freaking out when they formed that line at the end.

EF:  I had a tear in my eye. There were people screaming.

DJ:  It was very moving.

EF:  You know I'm just looking at the door of your dressing room and there is a sticker that reads "We don't need no stinkin' Tony's!" It was believed that had The Producers not come along when it did, The Full Monty might have swept quite a few of the awards. How is the cast dealing with it?

DJ:  Everyone is fine now. It was disappointing certainly. Fortunately, we can live beyond that. Business is great here and I think it will continue. We are in a fortunate position and I don't take that for granted. I feel badly for so many shows that could have used some recognition to stay in business. I saw The Producers in previews. It was amazing. I just loved it. It isn't a sour grapes situation. They deserved all the hype they have gotten. It would have been nice for us to win a few things. The reception we get each night is in the end more important than an award. When you take the curtain call and feel that response it is great. During the Tonys, before we went on, we had some of the cast sit in the audience in preparation for our number. During the commercial break, I ran into some people I knew and everyone was so warm and excited and mentioned how they loved the show. It was such a nice spirit. It wasn't tense or competitive at all.

EF:  How would you define success in terms of being an actor?

DJ:  I used to think it was making a living at it. Now I also want to try to have a career full of as many projects that I care about as possible. This show has been such a tremendous gift and remains so every night. I feel very successful at the moment and I'm very grateful.

EF:  You mentioned all the fans before. Do you think there is an obligation to the audience beyond the show?

DJ:  For myself, yes because I remember very well what it was like to be that person waiting at the stage door and how much it meant to me to get an autograph. It is so gratifying to hear the responses of audience members. It is nice to meet people and talk with them after the show. Do I think it is an obligation for everyone? No. There are performers who are really uncomfortable with that and if they give 100% onstage they have fulfilled their obligation.

There is something people waiting at the stage door should know. I know when I play Keno, it is a minor character and it isn't one of the leads. I would feel uncomfortable presuming they want my autograph. So, unless someone approaches me, I don't burst out of the door with my arms wide open. I know when performers come out and go through the crowd, it can be misread as not being gracious.

EF:  What advice would you give to people who want to get into the business?

DJ:  (after lengthy consideration). It is a hard question because to decide to pursue a career in the arts is a tough decision. It is very very difficult. It doesn't necessarily get easier. You can progress to a level in your career where people know who you are and more opportunities are available to you but it remains hard. To make a decision to be in this business, you have to do some soul searching. You have got to muster up that determination and treat everyone with respect and treat each job with respect. Don't call in all the time, be a good employee not just a good actor. It is about respect for yourself and what you do. If you are able to make a career out of it, really be thankful that you are getting paid for what you love to do. It is such a tremendous blessing.

Thoughts and Reflections Let's face it, an actor's strength is pretending to be someone else and making it believable. Getting a glimpse of what makes an actor tick and make his work more believable is truly enjoyable and was a highlight of this interview with Denis. He is a thoughtful, considerate person who often reflected on his answers to questions. His capacity to give of himself to promote a cause may not be unique just to him but certainly showcases what he is all about. He is a compassionate human being with inner strength and commitment that translate on stage in his wonderful performances.

Broadway producers have made the practice in recent years of injecting TV and film stars into musical productions. This is not necessarily a bad thing but is not always successful. The search for musical theater talent should not be limited to these stars. In the case of Denis Jones, the search for true talent succeeded. Donna McKechnie (A Chorus Line) put it well when she said; "doing a musical is not just acting. It really is a lifetime of direction to build the craft, the confidence and the ability to sing and dance and act believably." I think this sums up Denis quite nicely. Go see for yourself. The Full Monty plays at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

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