Legend has it that Barbra Streisand has a shopping mall the basement of her mansion. Whether true or false, that’s what the writers of the off-Broadway comedy Buyer & Cellar would like us all to believe. And star Michael Urie has the lone task of bringing it all together.
Coming off his 401st performance of the one-man show, Urie (you may know him as Vanessa Williams’ assistant Marc from Ugly Betty– at least I did) didn’t seem exhausted at all. At the time of the call, he was in Chicago, finishing up a month long stay where he performed for a 550-seat audience nearly every night.
He talked energetically about the challenges of bringing Babs to the stage, keeping a long-running show exciting, unlikely audience participation and the possibility of getting back onto television screens. June 20th he will make his way to D.C.’s Harman Center of the Arts for another string of performances, this time only getting to spend a week and half in the city.
“I wish I was going to be in D.C. longer! I’ve worked in D.C. once before and I loved it soooo much,” he said.
When you’re here, what’s the schedule like as far as rehearsing and free time, do you get time to go explore and stuff?
Well, I will. I’ll get there like a day before I start performances. I don’t really need to rehearse anymore.
Yeah, you’ve been doing it for a long time now.
Foreverrrrrr. Yesterday was my 401st performance. Can you believe that? But, so I don’t really need to rehearse. But I will need to- I haven’t done it in that space in the Harman Center, I mean I’ve been there so I’ve seen it and I’ve spoken out loud in the room but I’ve never like you know like been on a set and worked with the lights so I’ll at least step on stage and see what it’s like but for the most part I just get there, I do it. There’s some other press stuff that I’ll be doing when I first get there and I actually know a lot of people in D.C. and so many people involved with the show know a lot of people, so just a lot of greeting people and having fun with people and reconnecting with old friends. Michael Kahn, who runs the Shakespeare Theatre, was my teacher in school and it’s been so cool to reconnect with him so far on this and we’ll get to do even more. And then I will have some days free and I’m sure there’ll be copious amounts of walking, going to a museum or two. I just love that city. Every time I’ve been, I’ve fallen in love all over again. It’s so beautiful and clean.
How do you go about keeping the show fresh, since you’ve done so many performances of it. How do you keep yourself energized and engaged with the audience, especially since this is a one-man show. That must be a lot.
It is a lot. It’s crazy, it’s a very complicated idea and one that I’ve spent the last year and a half of my life thinking about. How do you do a one-man show and how do you keep it fresh and how do you not go crazy being all alone? And it’s a daily balance, honestly. Getting up in front of people and starting a 100 minute monologue is terrifying prospects and that part never really gets easy. The show is actually pretty easy to do because it’s such a good story and it is obviously complicated and I have to go through a range of emotions and I play five or six different characters but I’m also getting to tell the audience, this new group of people, this wonderful, hilarious, very surprising story and that never gets old. And that’s really what keeps it fresh.
Sort of like, I’m sure you have like some great story that you tell at parties or at dinner and you can like crank out the story – you know all the best parts, you know exactly how to unfold the story to make people enjoy it the most – and once you’re good at it, it’s really fun to do. It becomes fun and it becomes sort of easy to do. And that’s sort of I think why the play has stayed so fresh. The play is all me but it’s also all the audience at the same time. I really think of it as like a two character play – there’s me and there’s the audience. So every performance, I have a brand new costar and no two audiences have ever been the same. I mean, similar and I can sometimes guess what an audience is going to do and be right but generally it’s a brand new group of several hundred people.
So, in the show, you’re tackling this big persona of Barbara Streisand, but not exactly doing an impersonation. How do you kind of access a little bit of her but still allow the audience to layer on their own imagination?
There are no costume changes, there’s no makeup or hair, it’s just like me in a t-shirt and jeans and sweater and I’m telling you this story and I then sort of suggest these other characters. I’m really one guy, Alex Moore is really who I play, and then he kind of becomes the people. And at first it’s sort of like a narrative, like an audiobook, but really it becomes more like a play, like you’re just watching a play and I’m the narrator of the play and I also play all of the characters in the play. But there’s no trying to convince you I’m somebody new, it’s always this one guy and I think that’s also sort of the reason that the play is a two character play, where the audience would be a character, but it’s also I think part of why people of all walks of life enjoy it, not just people who like Barbara Streisand or whatever, but people love it because they’re invested.
You have to get invested, you have to imagine what the rest of picture is because we’re only showing you a pretty white room and a guy but we’re taking you into a street of shops in the basement at Barbara Streisand’s house and you don’t see any of it – you have to imagine what all of it looks like. And you have to, I’m six different characters including someone you may know and others you don’t know and you have to fill in what they look like because I just look like me. Basically I’m just like a neutral guy in a neutral room and you have to fill in the rest. And the audience gets really invested and it’s so thrilling for me to, it’s like sharing, it really is like sharing the stage with the audience. Sometimes too much, sometimes the audience really thinks that they have lines, which is funny.
Do you have a fun story from one of the shows?
Well, last night actually, funny enough, there’s a part where I talk about The Grove in L.A., it’s like an outdoor mall, so he’s talking about the mall and when I mention that in the play, I say “It’s not like The Grove – do you ever shop at The Grove? I loooooove The Grove. It totally transformed L.A. Whenever someone says ‘Hey, let’s go to The Grove’ I’m like ‘Yes’.” And then when I said that last night this woman in the audience – well first I could hear her because I can hear everything that happens in the audience, it’s crazy, it’s a pretty quiet place with just one guy talking and we get intimate.
The Harman Center is pretty intimate too, but the theater I’m in now is like 550 seats and I can hear everything and I’m all the way downstage, like I’m right there, I’m like in the room with you so like I can hear everyone talking, I can hear people going through their purse and eating food, I can hear everything. So I hear this woman go “awwww,” like a disgust of The Grove, and I was like hmmm she doesn’t like The Grove. That’s funny because normally people are like “What’s The Grove?,” sometimes people are like “Oh I love The Grove,” but no one’s ever been like “awwww.” And I do ask some questions, but I don’t actually expect answers. They’re not hypothetical questions, but they’re not questions that are meant to be answered, so when I said “Whenever someone says ‘Hey, let’s go to The Grove’ I’m like ‘Yes’” she yelled “NEVER!” and I like looked in her direction, everyone laughed, and I switched to a look of shock on my face and then I said “OUT!” and pointed to the door. But I almost never add any text to the play and people don’t always, that doesn’t happen very often. That was a pretty exciting version of the play, usually it’s just like “Oh really, uh huh, yes, how interesting.”
Are you still most-often recognized from Ugly Betty after doing a lot of stuff on Broadway and this touring show?
For sure, I mean that has the greatest scope of anything I’ve done for sure. People will recognize me or come up to me and mention something else I’ve done but not Ugly Betty but even if they saw me in something else, they knew me from Ugly Betty, you know what I mean? Like I’ve become familiar to some people becuase of that show and then you know, I’m lucky enough that I’ve got some other things that are within reach and that people find them. So they like know me from Ugly Betty but they like recognize me from something else. But yeah, that’s definitely been the most widely seen gig I have had.
Do you prefer the theatre stuff over the television stuff? And are you working to do more with television or movies?
I mean, I’m always ready to go back to TV and I’m open to that and movies too. The theatre though is so visceral and it’s so thrilling and it’s such an animal that like, it’s kind of like a drug. I’m kind of like addicted to the theatre. But I also quite like doing TV and film and I’ve even directed and produced some and I love doing that as well. That’s extremely challenging, but very gratifying. Not that TV isn’t challenging, but working in TV is like vacation. It’s not nearly as difficult as directing and producing or acting on stage and you get paid way better and it’s glamorous, so that’s great about TV and the work can be great and I’ve been very lucky. The work I’ve had on TV has been of I think great quality. The show Ugly Betty, I’m so proud of the quality of the show, not just that I was on a TV show that was famous, but it was about something and I had a great part and the actors were just brilliant and I was really proud of it and really sad when it was over. And then I was on a short-lived comedy on CBS called Partners that I was also really proud of, I also thought the quality was excellent and the people obviously were brilliant and that was very short-lived so I’ve been really lucky that things have come my way that are really really good. I don’t watch a lot of TV and I don’t feel like putting everything on hold to do TV. I certainly wasn’t interested in not doing Buyer & Cellar in lieu of not doing TV so I sort of just go where I’m asked to go for the most part and this play has kept me in the theatre for the last year and I’m thrilled about it.