Talkin’ In The Green Room With…. Michael Leeds

michael leedshalfWelcome to a regular, if intermittent feature: Irreverent, lighthearted question & answer sessions with some of South Florida’s best known professionals.

Yes, Michael Leeds is a director, teacher, actor, dancer and songwriter, but what this interview shows is he is a raconteur with a storehouse of hilarious and fascinating theater stories.

Leeds is best-known locally as a freelance director of classic musicals, Neil Simon era comedies and harrowing dramas such as The Timekeepers which won Leeds a Carbonell this spring and many others for Island City Stage where he is associate artistic director. He is currently polishing Broward Stage Door’s production of the venerable Butterflies Are Free.

But his past life as a Broadway dancer and eventually bookwriter/director of the Johnny Burke revue Swinging on a Star has filled him with a trunk full of stories ranging from the woman who did an I Love Lucy bit for her audition, to the time he may have upstaged Elizabeth Taylor while wearing a panda suit.

Our advice is to put your feet up and take your time reading this one.

Hometown: Franklin Square, Long Island, NY

How long have you lived/worked in South Florida? I think about 8 or 9 years

What school did you graduate from/what was your major?

Ithaca College. BFA in Drama

What was your strangest audition story on either side of the table?

Back when I was a performer in NY, I didn’t have what I’d call the strangest audition but it was certainly one of my worst. I was auditioning for a Duke Ellington revue and I found this little known Ellington gem called “Doin’ The Crazy Walk.” It starts out, “Say, listen folks, I’m excited with news! Say, listen folks, now’s the time to enthuse.” And then it proceeds to talk about a new dance crazy called The Crazy Walk where you “Stick your arm out, shake your feet. New dance, can’t be beat. Got no time to talk I’m doin’ the crazy walk.” And on it goes, all about rolling your head and bopping up and down, etc. So, I’m auditioning for these two ladies sitting behind the table and just as I start to sing, this man walks into the rehearsal hall. They motion him over but instead of walking behind me, he walks in front of me – this is while I’m singing. Then he gets a metal folding chair leaning against the wall that he drops with a huge clang. He picks it up but he’s having trouble opening it, so one of the women gets up to help. Finally, he’s got himself situated and they’ve said their hellos and turn their attention to me. Well, I had come up with the clever, or so I thought, idea of singing the song straight through, then saying, “A little demonstration” and acting out this “Crazy Walk” which if you actually do what the lyrics say to do, is impossible and makes you look, what I hoped, would be extremely comical. The problem was, none of them had paid attention when I was singing the first part of the song so when they finally turned to me, they had no idea why this actor was shaking his head and flapping his arms and kicking his feet while wobbling his legs. Surprisingly, I didn’t get to sing my ballad.

On the other side of the table: Before we brought it into New York, I directed Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah – The Songs of Alan Sherman in Arizonia. We had an open call and we asked for a comic monologue and a song. So it was the end of a long day and this woman comes in with a folded up card table. She opens the card table, takes out a bottle and a spoon, wraps her head in a bandana (I never figured that part out) and begins the “Vitameatavegamin” episode from I Love Lucy. For anyone who hasn’t scene this classic (is there anyone who hasn’t seen this classic?) it’s the episode where Lucy lands a TV commercial for a nutritional elixir called Vitameatavegamin which is 23% alcohol and they keep asking for re-takes and Lucy gets drunker and drunker. So imagine, if you will, the worst actress in the world without a comic bone in her body, imitating Lucy getting drunker and drunker until this actress collapses to the ground, supposedly in a drunken stupor.

After she got up and we had picked our jaws up off of the floor, I asked her if she had a song. She said she hadn’t brought any music but she’d like to sing something a cappella. She comes up to the table, I mean right up to the table, places her hands on top, takes a breath, and in the worst Cockney accent this side of the Atlantic, with absolutely no sense of pitch, launches into

“I’m Henry the eighth, I am
Henry the eighth, I am, I am
I got married to the widow next door
She’s been married seven times before

And every one was an Henry (Henry!)
She wouldn’t have a Willy or a Sam (No Sam!)
I’m her eighth old man, I’m Henry
Henry the eighth I am.”

And she was dead serious! So when she finishes the second verse, I dutifully join in for

“Second Verse Same As The First!”

And she continues with me and the producer supplying all the appropriate echoes. Surprisingly, she didn’t get to sing her ballad.

What is the best/worst costume you wore or forced someone to wear?

I was one of the dancers on the TV special, Night Of A Hundred Stars at Radio City. It was a big deal, benefiting the Actor’s Fund, and there were, literally, one hundred stars. In one number, Lola Falana was to sing “My Heart Belong To Daddy” and the choreographer got the idea to put her in a skimpy nightie and dress us dancers as pandas. So we were on stage in these huge, lumpy panda costumes dancing with Lola Falana. The Doobie Brothers (this was 1982 and they were big) were in the wings, waiting to go on next. And they were stoned on their ass. And the stage manager told us that while we were dancing, one of the Doobies leaned over and asked him, “How do they get those pandas to do that?!”

Wait, it gets better. At the end of the evening, (the taping went on for five hours) all the stars were staged to stand on these bleachers while the photographers take pictures. So the choreographer approaches me and says Alexander Cohen, the producer, wants one of the pandas to be among the stars and would I do it? I put on my sweaty panda suit and they stick me in the first row. Now, as any performer who’s worked the streets of Disneyland as Goofy or Donald knows, you can’t hear a thing in those huge heads. So I’m standing in the first row and Alexander Cohen gestures to the photographers and they rush up, there must have been at least fifty, and they’re all snapping pictures – of me! And they’re shouting at me but I can’t hear what they’re saying but I figure I might as well give them their money’s worth so I stick out my arms, bounce from one foot to the other and start waving at everyone. I mean, this panda was a hit! And then, gradually, what the photographers were yelling starts to filter through the huge head and I hear, “Panda, get out of the way! Damn it! Panda, get the f**k out of the way!” It turns out Elizabeth Taylor was right behind me and I was blocking her. People Magazine did an article on the show and they included a picture. In the first row you see this giant panda surrounded by Warren Beatty, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Lillian Gish – and what might be Elizabeth Taylor’s fingernail. I cut the picture out, framed it and it’s hanging on my wall. How many performers can say they upstaged Elizabeth Taylor?

You have a reputation for getting your actors to dig deep inside to find their characters and then helping make the performances seem almost naturalistic. What do you do to achieve that?

Well, thanks for saying that but I don’t know that I “get” actors to dig deep. They usually are eager to do that on their own. I’m a big believer in table reads and research. Like most directors, I do as much research as I can before rehearsals start. It grounds me in the play by knowing what was going on in the world during the time period of that play; music, film, politics, major milestones, etc. Whatever I find that I think might be helpful, I bring in on the first day of rehearsal for the actors to look at and sometimes discuss at the table read. It was especially helpful with plays like Driving Miss Daisy, Twilight of the Golds and The Timekeepers where what was going on in society had such a major impact on those characters. Sometimes it’s the writer’s life. For example, with The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams’ personal life provided major insights into his characters for me.

Time permitting, I like to have two or preferably three table reads before I break it down into individual scenes. The table read is an invaluable opportunity for the actors to hear the play without having to “do” anything. To that end, I prefer actors don’t try to “act” the play at these readings but rather concentrate on hearing the text spoken aloud by the other actors who are giving voice to characters you previously only heard in your head. The first table read is the reverse of that old phrase, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” At the first table read, it’s the only opportunity you’ll have to get a first impression. Singers do this automatically when learning music. Singers coming together to sing a song for the first time concentrate on the melodic line, the individual notes, finding where to breathe, the blend between their voice and the other singers; allowing the song to dictate the execution. If you substitute “text” for melody, “words” for notes, and “beats” for where to breathe, it’s the same. You’re essentially allowing the play to guide the reading.

Some directors are tied to a particular company, but other than Island City you have been a free-lance director working with many different groups? What are the challenges of that and how you cope with it?

There are pluses and minuses. Working at different theaters allows me to explore different types of plays or musicals that I couldn’t do at just one theater. The downside is that I don’t have a steady paycheck.

Do you watch every performance after opening night? If not, do you worry about it when you’re not there? Can you just let it go on its own after opening night?

I try to drop in about once a week if I can. I don’t worry about what happens when I’m not there because I trust the actors I’ve cast and the stage manager to keep it fresh. I don’t “let it go” because I think the process doesn’t end with opening night. It’s a journey that keeps going through the run. There’s not one show that I’ve done that I haven’t felt there were things I could’ve done better. You never entirely reach the vision you have in your head. As Gertrude Stein said, “There’s no there, there.”

What play are you dying to do but no one would think of you for?

I don’t know if no one would think of me for these but at the top of my bucket list: The Little Foxes, Hedda Gabler, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Playing for Time

What show will you be happy never to see again unless it gets you a job?

I don’t want to say, lest it cost me a job.

What do you say when someone you like is in a terrible show or does a poor job?

I have a dancer friend who, if it’s a musical and he can’t think of anything complementary, will go backstage and say, “Girl, your mic was ON!” As for me, I can’t tell you, otherwise I’ll have to find something else to say.

How do you cope when there are more people on stage than in the audience?

I feel for the actors. But they’re pros. I’ll tell you something wonderful that happened to me. A terrific actress, Shira Abergel, whom I directed in Last Of the Red Hot Lovers, was doing Savage In Limbo at The Alliance Theatre (this past season). She had kindly arranged a ticket for me very early in the run but when I got there it turned out there had been some marketing snafu and I was the only one to come that night. I said I would, of course, come back another night but the actors went ahead and did the performance! I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to be alone in the house watching these talented young actors under the fine direction of Adalberto Acevedo perform this play just for me. I was honored. It happened to also be my birthday and I can’t thank them enough for that gift.

What is there about you that most people don’t know (and that you’ll admit publically)?

Well, it’s embarrassing but – nah, I’d better not.

What’s the hardest/easiest part of what you do?

I’m not sure what the easiest is. The hardest used to be opening night when it was all out of my control. But I’ve relaxed as I’ve gotten older and trust more.

What was the first show you were involved in and what did you do?

It was kindergarten. We were doing Cinderella and I was the messenger who comes to the stepmother’s house to tell them that the Prince is arriving with the shoe. (I don’t know if that’s a real role but there were a lot of kids in the class and I was lucky to book that!) I was to enter downstage of the closed curtain, stamp my foot three times while pretending to knock on the door and say, “The Prince has arrived.” And the curtain would open. So the ballroom scene had been played and it hadn’t gone well. The Prince had run off stage, Cinderella had peed and the teacher was a little stressed. The curtain was closed while they mopped up the pee and set up the stepmother’s house. I was waiting in the wings to go on. My mother had made me a purple crepe cloak and I was verrrrrry eager to play my part.  So I walk on, big smiles to the audience, get to the center, turn to the closed curtain and stamp my foot three times, loudly. And from behind the curtain, equally loudly, the audience hears Mrs. Goldfarb yell, “Who the hell is that?!” Then a hand reached through the curtains and yanked me inside. A few minutes later I walked out again and I must say, performed beautifully.

When did you know this was what you wanted to do and why?

I was the messenger in a production of Cinderella

What do think has been your best work in the theater to date, and why?

I was fortunate enough to direct the European premier of Arthur Miller’s Playing For Time at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It’s a true story based on the French singer Fania Fenalon’s memoir about these women in a concentration camp who formed a ragtail orchestra for the Nazis’ entertainment under the threat of being killed if the commandant was not pleased. They were literally playing for their lives. It’s a powerful piece and at the end when the lights blacked out, there was always utter silence, the good kind of silence, until the lights came up for the bows and the audience realized they should applaud. The production won a Festival First Award. I’d love to direct it here in the States.

What do you think was your worst, and why didn’t it work?

I directed an Off-Broadway musical called Hot Klezmer! It wasn’t a great piece but I certainly didn’t help it. I did it for the money. It was a great lesson in learning don’t take a job for the money. (Well, unless you need the money!)

What was your best experience working in theater?

I always feel the production I just finished directing was the best experience.

What was your worst?

Ohhhhh. There was an Off Broadway Alan Menken musical called Weird Romance and the director had walked out a few days before previews and the producer asked me to step in. The cast was understandably resentful of the situation and the star was, how shall I put this, bats**t crazy! (I would never use her name but, of course, I have no control if someone chooses to google Weird Romance.) Anyway, this star was prone to dramatic eruptions and hysterical crying (hence the director walking out). I quickly realized there was little I could do to help the actors so I worked with the book writer on some minor changes and with the lighting designer on getting some lighting “buttons” for the numbers since the choreographer left before Tech and the audience couldn’t tell when a number had ended. There would be a beat of dead silence until some lone person started clapping. Oh, it was miserable. The saving grace was 1) My name wasn’t on it and 2) I got a lovely crystal wine decanter set from Alan Menken that I still have.

What one role/show would you like to do over or just do again?

My Fair Lady. Matt Chizever was fantastic but (as you well know, Bill) I didn’t nail that one.

What was the worst on-stage mishap you dealt with?

I was directing a musical called The Little House In The Woods at Goodspeed Opera. It was about these runaway kids who lived in, yes, a house in the woods. Anyway, it opened with a number I had staged with the kids popping up from all over the theater including one boy who shimmied down a rope from the balcony. On opening night the boy got sick and for some ungodly reason I said I would do his part in the opening. So I came out before the show and made a cute little speech about the director subbing in for the 10-year-old. I go backstage and up to the balcony and it was friggin’ high! I’m staring down at the stage and thinking there’s absolutely no way I can do this. The moment comes, I toss the rope down, climb over the railing and instead of shimmying down like they taught us in fifth grade phys-ed, I lost my grip, slid down the rope and slammed onto the stage. At this point another kid was supposed to run over and jump onto my back. He ran over, I gave him a look of death. He froze and I hobbled off the stage. I’m sure that’s not the reason we got bad reviews and yet….

Do you have a different pay-the-bills job? If so, what is it?

I teach a weekly adult acting class. For those interested, the web site is – (no, that’s too crass).

What’s the weirdest/worst non-theater job you ever had?

I was the elevator operator in a dance club in New York City. I have a slight case of claustrophobia so it was not a happy experience.

Do you have unexpected special talents and skills?

I’m a songwriter. Two of my songs were in Martin Charnin’s Off-B’way revues. In case anyone’s looking for a comic audition song, one is called “No Cocaine In Cancun,” written with John Forster, and another is called “Being With Me Is No Picnic,” written with Brian Lasser. They kill!

What is something you’re really bad at?

I cannot draw to save my life.

What would you do if you couldn’t be in theater?

I’d find a way to be in theater. Not doing this is really unimaginable to me.

What’s your most unforgettable theater experience?

Well, of course, the Broadway opening night of Swinging On A Star was exciting. But actually the most unforgettable experience goes back to Night Of 100 Stars. Like I said, it was chock full of stars. So it was like you’d be rushing to rehearse a number with the NY Yankees (they backed up Liza singing “New York, New York!”) and you’d race past Gregory Peck or Jane Fonda or Bette Davis, etc. It was redunkulous! There was a segment that was honoring The Greats of the Silver Screen and it ended with James Cagney (one of my idols). Mr. Cagney was a little frail by then and had trouble getting out of a chair. But he didn’t want to be seen like that. So myself and another chorus boy were positioned on either side of him in the front orchestra pit and right before it was to rise up, we helped him stand and moved to the far ends so no one knew we had helped him. But in the meanwhile, we were standing on either side of him, facing upstage and he was in the chair facing down stage so he’d already be facing the audience when the pit rose. He looked over at me and he said, “So you’re a dancer.” And I said, “Yes, Mr. Cagney” and he says, “I used to dance a little.” I used to dance a little!! (For those youngsters out there, rent Yankee Doodle Dandy). He told me he wasn’t trained, he just “picked stuff up along the way.” They were showing clips of his movies and because he was facing downstage and I could see the stage, I asked him if he’d like me to tell him what the clips were. He nodded. So, I described the clip from Love Me Or Leave Me with Doris Day. He said, “Never saw that one.” The Bride Came C.O.D. with Bette Davis. “Didn’t see that.” His incredible performance in a clip from Ragtime. He said, “I heard that was good.” I said, “Mr. Cagney haven’t you seen any of your movies?” And he shook his head and said, “I like to garden.” So the pit starts to rise, we help him up, move to the sides and once he appears the crowd goes crazy giving one of the longest standing ovations I’ve ever seen. It was terribly moving. He choked up a little, said a few words and the pit lowered. We hurried to help him back into his chair. When we reached the ground, he turned to me, shook my hand and said – and this I treasure – “Keep kickin’.”

What show or performance did you not see now or in the past that you wish you had?

I wish I was around to see Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie.

What performer would you do almost anything to see?

When I was younger it would’ve been Barbra Streisand (gay much?). Now it’s not a performer but anything directed by Mike Nichols.

What do you think South Florida theater will look like in five years?

I think we’re on a roll. There’s so much really good talent down here and hopefully it will continue to flourish and get the national attention it deserves.

What could it be?

I think it could be what it is but more so: a well known and well respected community of very talented artists.

Finally, add a question (and answer) you wish I had asked.

How do you retain those good looks? // Awwwww, Bill.

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