Michael Urie Takes On Barbra Streisand in 'Buyer & Cellar': INTERVIEW
BY NAVEEN KUMAR
Michael Urie is playing Barbra Streisand Off Broadway, and every other character in Buyer & Cellar, playwright Jonathan Tolins new one-man play which opened on Wednesday at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. An exceptionally gifted comedian and stage performer, Urie does the diva justice—and she’s just one piece of the story.
You may or may not be surprised to know that Barbra has her many earthly possessions organized into something that resembles a posh strip-mall in her basement. That is the factual part of the story. Buyer & Cellar imagines if she hired some poor (lucky?) soul to work down there, manning the shops for just one special customer.
Urie plays just the man for the job—an out of work L.A. actor named Alex, who’s just been fired from playing the Mayor of Toon Town at Disneyland. Alex is the play’s narrator and protagonist, and while he tells us about his experience with one of the world’s most bizarre retail jobs, he also plays himself and every other character involved.
Tolins’ play is well crafted, hilarious, and completely accessible to folks who know nothing about Barbra Streisand. Of course, the show’s success is thanks in no small part to Urie’s charming, whirlwind performance. I spoke to Michael about his work on the play, his choice of gay roles, and his personal feelings on the lady of the house.
Naveen Kumar: How did you approach playing different characters with only yourself to play off of? You recently directed a film about high school forensics (Thank You For Judging), and I know from my own experience, that forensics (or speech and debate) requires some similar skills, like using yourself as a scene partner.
Michael Urie: I’m so glad you mentioned forensics, because it was so helpful to have that vocabulary of popping from character to character. I had experience with forensics in high school, and [have been] reliving it all these years with Thank You For Judging. So, when I read the script I was like, ‘I get it! I get how I could do this.’
I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to actually figure out. Because comedy is all about timing, and usually you time yourself off of others. Whether it’s an audience if you’re doing stand up or if you’re doing a scene, it’s about how you play off of [that other person]. So, I was like, how am I going to play off of myself? Not only that, but continue narrating the story. That was the greatest challenge.
I’ve learned more [performing in front of an audience] than I did through all of rehearsal, because audiences tell you what’s funny.
There was no one way to create the characters, I had to attack them all in very different ways. There’s a lot of trust, obviously, in the playwright. What’s great about [John’s writing] is you could figure out how to play the character of Barbra even if you didn’t know who she was. He’s written that character so beautifully and so three-dimensionally, that I think you could probably interpret that character without any knowledge of Barbra Streisand and get really close.
NK: That was actually my next question. As the story’s narrator, Alex tells the audience from the beginning that he’s not going to “do” Barbra. Was it challenging to steer away from impersonation? How much did you know about her going in?
MU: That [line about not ‘doing’ Barbra] is such a brilliant precursor, and it takes so much of the onus off of me. Because everybody has an idea of what Barbra sounds like, she’s iconic. Even if it’s just 'Like buttah.' People have done impersonations, real impersonations, brilliantly. We didn’t want to try to do that, because it’s also not about her it’s about Alex, she’s just a character in [the play].
I think that’s part of John’s genius, that he has created something that’s meant to be an emulation—accurate storytelling rather than a series of impressions. Thank God! I don’t think I could do a real impression, certainly not without his words, I wouldn’t know what to say.
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But to answer your question about what I knew of her, I would say I was a fan but not a fanatic. I had seen her in concert once and loved it, and I knew her 1990-something comeback concert because my mom and I used to listen to it. It’s so funny, I listened to that concert album again [recently] and I remembered very vividly asking my mom, ‘What does it mean when she says ‘I kept my nose to spite my face?’’
So, my memories of Barbra go way back, but they certainly aren’t that extensive. There was that concert, I loved Hello, Dolly! and I’d seen other movies. Also I remember very, very clearly when I saw Meet The Fockers—not Little Fockers, but Meet The Fockers—thinking that she’s absolutely brilliant in that movie. Those were my Barbra benchmarks, I would say.
Of course now, like Alex in the play, I have become a fanatic.
NK: How would you feel if Barbra came to see the show?
MU: (Woof) I don’t know. I don’t know! I don’t know, that would be crazy. It would be really crazy. I think on the one hand, they would have to not tell me. But on the other hand, I think maybe I’d want to do it a little differently if she were out there? But I do feel really good about what we’re putting out there. It’s a really loving portrayal, in that it’s a love story in a lot of ways, about her. If anything you come away liking her more than you did when you walked in. At least that’s the hope, and I feel like we’re doing it. Nobody’s been like, ‘You really let her have it!’ [Laughs]
NK: I know you trained at Julliard and you’re a theatre guy, what are the different challenges and rewards you find in performing for theatre versus television and film?
MU: Performing in front of an audience is the greatest thing in the world. It’s like a drug. I love the theatre, and when I was doing TV, I would do a play every time I wasn’t doing TV.
Obviously the scope and exposure of television is so great, and the family you make working on a long running show like Ugly Betty is such a close group of people. That’s the thing I’ve missed a lot about this show, is working with other actors.
I always come back [to theatre] and I always want to be on stage, and doing great works. It really feeds your soul.
NK: You’ve said before that you find being open about your sexuality has helped your career, though not every actor feels the same way about their own private life. Can you speak a bit more about this?
MU: We all have an idea of what kind of an actor we think we’re going to be, or what kind of actor we want to be, and there’s no way I could have ever predicted that my career would end up the way it is. If I was not open about who I am and if I was not open to playing gay parts, then I would not have the scope of work that I have. I think more than being open about my sexuality, being open about the sexuality of the characters I play is what keeps me busy.
Also, just because the sexuality is the same from character to character, doesn’t mean I’m doing the same thing over and over again. I would get bored that way, that wouldn’t be interesting to me. If someone said, ‘Hey, we want you to play the part of a fashionable, snarky gay guy who works for a domineering, hilarious, evil boss.’ I would probably say that’s exactly what I did on Ugly Betty, and I probably wouldn’t want to do that.
I’ve been lucky enough to be offered gay parts that are so fascinating, like the part I’m playing in Buyer & Cellar. If I had a no gay part policy, I never would’ve been able to do it. You can’t possibly compare [some of the parts I’ve played] they’re totally different—except for that one box you check.
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:sandra coudert, jeff ellingson)