INTERVIEW: Tyler Michaels on West Side Story and His New Theatre Company
by Basil Considine
Somali gangs in Minneapolis might get all the press, but the City of St. Paul is about to get its very own gang problem. Well, kind of – the Jets and Sharks of West Side Story are set to occupy the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts from April 4-16. This classic musical is being produced as a collaboration between the Ordway and the Teatro del Pueblo, and engages with gang rivalries, immigration tension, and other themes that remain surprisingly relevant today.
In this production, Tyler Michaels plays Tony, a former Jets member who is swept back into the violence and falls tragically in love with Maria (Evy Ortiz). Basil Considine sat down with Tyler Michaels to discuss his acting career, his new theatre company, and returning to the role of Tony.
How did your journey as an actor begin?
I started in middle school with Annie – I played the Apple Seller, and I had two lines.
I don’t think i said something like “From this day, I’ll be an actor” – I was very rational, and said, “I’ll try it and see how it goes.” So I tried it in high school and that worked out, so I tried it in college and that worked out, so I figured I’d do a few professional roles and see how that went when I moved to the Twin Cities.
And so now, naturally, you’re ready to hang it all up and go on to a regular 9-5 day job.
[Laughs] I think it’s been everything and then some for me. I couldn’t be happier with the career that I’ve had. It’s been a dream come true.
At the same time, it’s important for me to keep developing. I’ve made it a point of diversifying my talents as much as possible, and never be “just” a singer, but to be a theatre artist.
What are some of those growth areas that you’re working on?
Starting a theatre company [Trademark Theater]. Investing in my talents as a creator and a director, and as a theatre administrator.
I want to devote a lot of time to new works – I love performing and will hopefully continue doing it to the day I die, but I also want to be a theatre artist and do as many things as possible. With Trademark, we’ll only do new works.
Trademark Theater’s debut show The Boy & Robin Hood opens not too long after West Side Story. Do you have any sort of break in-between?
We close the 16th of April and start rehearsing for Robin Hood on the 18th. I do have a pretty light summer [after that], and then I know that I’m doing a show in the fall, but I can’t say what it is yet. I also got married last year, so my wife and I are going on a honeymoon this summer. [As they say,] “All my dreams have come true.”
The Boy & Robin Hood has a 2.5-week show run, which is ambitious for a new company’s debut. Are you going for broke on this?
I suppose you could say that. We really want to make an impact on our community, and I think we need a strong successful first run to put a flag in the ground and say, “We’re not just going to be a small company that does just a few shows.” We’re going to move our arts community forward with doing new works, with sharing new works to communities outside of MN.
I really hope that in the next 20 years, in the grand scheme of things, that Trademark Theater becomes a hub for new works – their creation, development, and performance – and a place where people come for these. To have that strong of a mission and make that statement, we need a strong first production. We’re really committed to making that statement well.
In addition to being Trademark Theater’s artistic director, you’re credited as having conceived The Boy & Robin Hood. How did this show come to be?
I stumbled on these old 15th- and 16th-century Irish and Scottish ballads about the Robin Hood myth. By looking at them, I discovered that Robin Hood was very much not liked in that time: our contemporary idea is of this guy in green tights who says “Ha, ha!” but [in these sources] this guy was all greedy and dark and chopping people’s heads off – and I started getting excited about it. It was so different from what we currently think about the character.
My conception was to smash those two worlds together: to take the contemporary “fancy and free” and put it up in juxtaposition with this gritty, really violent brutal world of Robin Hood. I think we were able to pull some contemporary themes and issues from that, like the escalation of violence and what it means to have a character who’s not black or white and inhabits shades of gray.
Tyler Mills, the writer of the piece, is a good friend of mine – we generated a lot of ideas together that Tyler Mills then put onto page. It was a partnership of ideas sharing, and [at the end of the day] Tyler Mills wrote a beautiful script that I could never write.
[Composer and lyricist] David Darrow came in halfway through the process of generating ideas for the show; he’s also a good friend of mine and we’d both worked on Jonah and the Whale. The process ended up being all 3 of us gathering around weekly and discussing the show, heading towards the same end goal…which ended up being our production.
You’ve done a lot of classic roles in the musical theatre canon over the past several years. How does that compare with what’s up next? How does that desire for growth coincide with your work with Trademark Theater?
It’s awesome to do all of these classic shows – West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, Cabaret, Oklahoma, Peter Pan... Truth be told, I’ve already had the opportunity to perform many of my dream roles; many of the rest, I probably won’t get to play until I’m 40 or 50.
With The Boy & Robin Hood, I won’t be performing – only directing. I’d like to focus on developing new work.
Turning back to West Side Story…so you’ve joined a gang. Every parent’s dream come true for their children.
[Laughs] I joined a gang, and I got out as quick as I could. [Editor’s note: At the start of West Side Story, Tony has already left the Jets.]
New York City is a very different place now than it was in 1957, when West Side Story opened on Broadway – it’s almost unimaginable for us to think of gangs running amok where Lincoln Center now sits amidst all the very expensive condos. Is this production updated or transplanted in some way, or is it set in the classic 1950s period?
It’s definitely classic period – but I will say it’s impressive how real and current the story feels [today]. In this day and age, with everything that’s going on with the politics and the cultural issues in the nation, all across the country…it’s almost an imperative that this story be told, and I hope that the people affected by these issues come to see it.
West Sides Story‘s been being shown for 60 years now, but it’s still so relevant and impactful to today’s current situations – all around the world.
Do you remember how you first encountered West Side Story?
It was in high school: I played Tony in a high school production. It’s a little of a full circle story for me – now I actually get to do it as a professional, playing it in one of the biggest theatres in our little community here. How awesome is that?
Although you certainly play many young roles on stage, there’ve been more than a few years since that high school production. What was it like coming back to the part? Was it like learning the whole show over again?
The show was in my bones, but not in my head. It took a lot of work to get it back into my brain, just memorizing all the music again. I had the melodies and the arc of the show down already, which was helpful because it is a very short 3-week rehearsal process.
This short schedule really worked – everyone is stepping up, came in all memorized, etc. It wasn’t so hard [as it might have been] – there are a lot of people who came as sort of a group with the director, and they helped us step up into their vocabulary and world.
Tell me more about the rehearsal process.
It’s a bit of a tiered process – the ensemble came in maybe 3 or 4 days before Tony and Maria to learn the dance numbers, because there are so many dance numbers – it’s really hard, really technical. Then we came in on the following Tuesday. We worked Act I, then Act II, and now we’re working the whole show this week, then we’re in tech next week. It’s really a 3-week [only] process, but it hasn’t affected the quality of the show. It’s efficient and it’s streamlined, and we’re getting to the heart of the show.
When were you first cast and when did you start preparing the material?
I knew that I was going to be in the show last fall. I had other shows to do before starting West Side Story, so I didn’t focus on it until a month ago. I then called up [Musical Director] Raymond Berg to go through the songs, to record things and start to feel how each other was approaching the material. Then it was “get off book as much as possible” to memorize the words (but not memorize the character).
The great thing about the role is that it’s a lot of singing and a lot of talking, but I don’t have to do a lot of movement. It’s like the Jets and the Sharks do all the dancing and Tony and Maria do all the singing. It’s like an opera in this respect.
What was the audition process like?
I’d done the Ordway general auditions some years before and it was a pretty standard callback scenario. [Casting Director] Reid Harmsen called me in – I had known him as an acquaintance theatre buddy, seen him do a few shows around town, and he’s seen me do a few shows as well. He asked me to come in and prepare some sides for Tony. We also did a dance number from “Cool” one afternoon. Shortly after that, I knew they were trying to figure out some things, then a few months later, I got the call.
How does the rehearsal period compare to the rehearsal schedules during your college training?
In college, we definitely had more time to rehearse. That said, I also participated in the Straw Hat Summer Players at MSU-Moorhead, where you rehearse a show one week and put it up the next week. It’s a real summer stock company, so while you’re learning the show, you also build a set, too. Compared to that, it’s not that bad.
A lot of veteran actors say that the decline of summer stock theatre has really changed the prep skills that a lot of actors have at the start of the career.
It’s theatre bootcamp. It was grueling and hard – blood, sweat and tears – but I loved it, and it taught me a lot about how to do a show in a short period of time. It trains your body and soul.
I loved my education at MSU-Moorhead, and I can’t really argue with the success I’ve had – and I attribute it to the education that I got there. It certainly helped me. We say at Straw Hat that if you do this [summer stock] and say, “I want to do it again,” you know you’re in the right biz.
There are also a number of theatre companies in the area that [always] do productions this quickly – Chanhassen being one of them – so I’m pretty used to this expedited rehearsal schedule.
Given the vocal demands of this particular score, how do you pace yourself and manage your instrument? Was there special preparation?
It’s almost bonafide opera. I do musical theatre a lot – it is my profession and I do a lot of it, but this is a whole new level of singing. It’s a different type of singing – it’s taken me the past 2 weeks to get to this level. I’ve put away the contemporary sound to get back to a more open sound. There’s a beauty to it – it’s extremely technical, but not technical in a contemporary vocal sense. You just drop your jaw and let it out, and there’s a freeness in the beauty of the music.
I’m also just dead at the end of the rehearsal because it’s so taxing. It’s the best musical theatre show ever created.
What are your vocal studies like at this point in your career? Do you take regular lessons or coachings?
I’ve kind of spun away from the whole vocal training thing and go in and out of studying with voice teachers and coaches in the area. Because West Side Story came so quickly after another show, I didn’t have time to meet with anyone. I sort of fell back on my old training for this: going back to the basics and those classic Italian arias, making sure you have the right vocal placement, being careful that you’re not getting fatigued, etc.
The contemporary musical theatre style is very different from WSS; both are extremely fulfilling and gratifying, but I’ve had to adjust my instrument to step up to the plate vocally. It’s been very hard, but very rewarding too. I just always hope that I get that high note at the end.
How do you prepare for performances and rehearsals?
I always give myself at least 2 hours between waking up and performing or going to rehearsal. It seems like my voice needs at least that time to get to square one. I get some food, do some vocalizing – humming, warming up the instrument, etc. – and about 20 minutes of vocal warmups, followed by maybe 20-30 minutes of physical exercises. I make sure that I have the specific range or technique in my voice or physical bit that the specific show requires.
I spend anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour to get in the zone with my body and my voice to be ready to go for an 8-hour day ahead of me. In this show, I sweat almost as much from the singing as if I were dancing. I’m certainly jealous of all the people doing all the dancing…but it would be hard to do both in this demanding show!
What’s your pitch for someone seeing this show?
I think it’s one of the best shows in the American musical theatre canon, so that’s reason alone to see it. It’s been quite a while since it’s been done in this community, so you should really come see it.
The talent on stage is stunning, combining our local talent with some out-of-own talent makes such a great show, such a powerhouse of performance.
There’s [also] a story at the heart of this piece that is so powerful to this day, today, this year, 2017. This show about the 1950s is so impactful to our current times and cultural and political situations that I think it would be very affectful for our audiences and open up a chance for dialogue about really difficult issues that our country is facing.