October 9, 2001

Stage Door

Michelle Pawk


by Zachary Van Brunt

Michele Pawk is the kind of actress who can make a supporting role feel like a star turn, as she’s proven as Fraulein Kost in the current Broadway revival of Cabaret and Irene in the original Broadway cast of Crazy For You. Off-Broadway, Michele has shone as the leading lady in shows from john & jen to After The Fair. Michele Pawk just finished recording a song for Fynsworth Alley’s upcoming Sherman Brothers Album and opened in Reefer Madness this past weekend off-Broadway. Michele also appears on several Fynsworth Alley discs, including The Stephen Sondheim Album and The Stephen Schwartz Album.

ZVB: Can you tell us a bit about the song you sing on The Sherman Brothers Album?

MP: I recorded "That Darn Cat," which was the title song from the film, That Darn Cat. I don’t know who recorded it for the film. I don’t remember. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard it actually. It was good, though. It was a really nice arrangement of it. I enjoyed it.

ZVB: Did you ever see the movie?

MP: That Darn Cat? You know, I must have. I must have. I grew up during that time, so I saw all of them. I must have. I just remember, "That darn cat. That crazy cat." That’s all I really remember.

ZVB: The last few songs you recorded for Bruce were a little bit deeper, like "It Wasn’t Meant to Happen" on The Stephen Sondheim Album or "Blame It On the Summer Night" on The Stephen Schwartz Album. This is more of a fun little ditty. Was there a different take on that?

MP: I think so. The arrangement that Bruce had done — which I really, really liked — was just sort of playful and kind of sultry. I always ask him before I go record, "Is there anything you want to say to me?" His answer this time: "The only thing I can say to you is smoky." So we just had a good time. Toward the end of it, like the second take, I just started to make cat noises and things like that. I’m still not sure whether it comes under the heading of smoky, but it did come under the heading of funny.

ZVB: So is this going to make it on the album?

MP: I don’t know. You never know with him what’s going to make it on the album.

ZVB: So just a little bit of Catwoman coming out of you then.

MP: Yeah, there was actually a little bit. A little Eartha Kitt in me.

ZVB: Well, this is more of a pop song rather than a straight from a book musical. Did that change your approach at all in recording it?

MP: I approach everything the same way. I look at the lyric and I try to tell the story as best I can no matter what they are. But I will say that, musically, the pop structure is different than a theater song. So, yeah, you do have to approach it a little differently. I think about starting off simply and then adding a few more ornaments as the song goes on.

ZVB: I don’t mean to have this sound like a throwaway question, but did you enjoy recording the album? MP: Oh, always. I would walk into a studio with Bruce Kimmel if he wanted me to record the worst song ever written in history. Luckily he’s never asked me to do that. So far, so good. Yeah, it’s always a blast. First of all, they’re always so prepared and on time and it’s just fun. It’s relaxed. With Vinnie [Cirrilli, Fynworth’s engineer] at the board, you can’t lose. It’s fun. It’s what it should be, which is fun. I think he always captures that on the albums he does. The spirit is always relaxed and fun and festive.

ZVB: Now moving on a bit, you open with Reefer Madness this weekend. Do opening nights ever lose their magic with you?

MP: Yeah, well, no. Yeah. They’re different. Opening nights are always different. It’s funny. I just had this conversation this morning with my darling John [Dossett, Michele’s husband] and he said, "Opening night. It’ll be great. It’ll be a love-fest. It’ll be wild." It’s not always like that. Sometimes you do opening nights and because the producers have invited mostly their friends, and their friends may or may not be avid theatre-lovers, sometimes they’re rather quiet. That’s always anti-climactic for me because you want the opening night to be the end of the long haul that you had for these past few months, which is rehearsal every day and then rehearsal every day and doing the show at night. The first performance for me — that first preview — is always opening night in a sense. It’s the first time you’ve done it in front of people. Usually for me, it’s like rehearsing in front of people, which is definitely what this one was. It’s exponentially gotten better and easier as it’s gone on.

ZVB: Through the preview process?

MP: Yeah. Because of the disaster downtown, we lost work time in the theatre and they did postpone the previews for a couple of days. A lot of the technical aspects literally didn’t get to the theatre. They were being sent, they were being shipped, but there were no flights or anything, you know? But if that’s the smallest thing that’s happened to us, then we’re blessed.

ZVB: What effect did the attacks have on the rehearsal process? MP: We were devastated, as is the rest of the nation. We were rehearsing, and by that point we were in the theatre tech-ing. The theatre is on Third Avenue, between 13th and 14th, and those first few days, Mayor Guiliani quarantined everybody from 14th street and down. We literally weren’t allowed down there for a couple of days. Even as we returned to work that third day, as did every theatre person in the city, it was devastating. You don’t feel like you want to be doing a musical at that time. And at the same time, we did somewhere know that the gift that we have to give is important. If we can help people escape for two hours from their troubles and the plight of the world, then that’s what we’ve given them. And I really, really do think that’s beneficial. As a matter of fact, we’ve gotten those comments quite a lot since we’ve been in previews. And it’s the kind of play that is just escapist. It really is. If you just come and go with us, it’s just a blast. And you’ll laugh, and I think that’s been a gift.

ZVB: Well, I have to be honest. I haven’t seen the show. How is it escapist? What is the show about?

MP: It’s based on a 1936 propaganda film called Reefer Madness about what marijuana will do to your kids’ minds. It was made in a very serious vein. If you ever see the film, it’s just horrific. I mean, it’s so awful. I mean, not funny. It’s just the longest 70 minutes you’ll ever spend in your life. As I watched it, it’s like, ‘Oh, of course.’ If you just add an extra little oomph to this, it is somewhat campy. And I think that is what they’ve done a fantastic job with. Of course, when you add music to anything, you obviously heighten the reality. As far as the tone and the actors, we’ve just taken it a step further. While we’re very serious in telling the story, when you tell a story like that that is so absurd in a very serious vein, it’s just funny. I’m really pleased with it at this point. I hope people come to see it.

ZVB: I can imagine how some people could be put off by the title. What is the tone of the show?

MP: I don’t think the show in any way, shape or form is meant to send a message pro or con about the uses of marijuana. I really don’t. I don’t think the writers in any way intended for a message to be taken from that. If there was sort of a message to be had, it’s about the use of propaganda in our world at this time. We’re inundated by it. We’re told what to think from the far right. We’re told what to think from the far left. And people are just totally obsessed with their view and their vision. If you’re going to take a message from it, that’s the one to take. Breathe. Look at it all and try to stay in the middle of it. Be aware when someone is trying to give you a snow job. And even the media to a large extent. For instance: one of these storms that we’ve had. The first hint that a big snow storm is coming, they’ll have "Storm Watch." And then the storm never gets here. And they look like fools. In a way, it’s like that. Take a breath. Not that in any way, shape or form they’ve done this about the disaster downtown. You could not heighten that any more than it was heightened. But the tone of the show: overall, it’s just fun.

There’s a lecturer involved. He pretty much welcomes everybody to the theatre at the beginning of the show and tells everybody that he’s assembled this cast of people. You know, the same cast that last year did Green Grow the Lilacs. And this year, we’re going to put on this very, very important play. And I want you to pay attention, because this could happen in your town. And then he tells the story of this very sweet, young couple of innocent high school kids who get lured into the reefer den and then what happens to you when you smoke marijuana.

ZVB: And it kind of takes off from there.

MP: And what makes it funny is this: in this play, when you take one hit from marijuana, that’s it. You’re hooked. You’re incredibly addicted. Your eyes bug out of your head. You’ll sell your child to get weed money. You’ll start to steal people’s cars. You’ll kill people. That sort of thing. I mean in a funny way.

ZVB: In a funny way. Of course.

MP: So that’s what happens. And that’s why it’s funny. The sense of it is absurd.

ZVB: Does playing something that’s "campy" differ from playing a role that is "serious"?

MP: It does and it doesn't. You as the actor know that it’s supposed to be funny, but for me, I think that style is particularly difficult because I think you have to be even more truthful. You have to be very, very true to the setting and scenario of it. What is heightened is the scenario. But if you play the truth in the scenario, to me that’s what makes it funny. People who comment on the campiness of it, to me, that’s not really funny. That’s why those actors who were in Bat Boy were so funny: they were so serious about the bat boy and the story. And he made me cry. That, to me, then you’ve got a story you can follow. But if you as the actor are just poking fun at it: not so funny.

ZVB: In your show, about half the cast did the show in Los Angeles, and the other half of you are new to the material. How did you all come together?

MP: It was an interesting process, I’ll have to say. The L.A. people were all very sensitive not to say those things you want to say in rehearsal, like, "When we did it like this, it really worked." They kept sort of watching themselves and catching themselves, which those of us in New York who were really new at it really appreciated. And then vice versa. I think that theatre sensibility is very different from L.A. and New York. I think there was a process for them, too, learning that what would work in Los Angeles doesn’t necessarily work in New York, and how to make adjustments. I think now — and really, just since we’ve been running it — which I think is what should happen and always does happen if it’s right, you sort of meld into one. Now there’s not the division of ‘Oh, those people did it before.’ At the beginning, you knew those people did it before, because they knew their lines and none of us knew any of our lines.

ZVB: How does your character, Mae, fit into the show?

MP: Mae is the reefer den mother, kind of like a cub scout mother gone bad. She’s the one that owns the house in town — the reefer den. She has herself stuck in an abusive relationship with Jack, the evil villain of the play, who picks up the young kids and brings them into the reefer den, which, of course, Mae hates because she loves kids, and she got hooked on the weed. "I don’t want to see anybody else have anything happen to them what happened to me." So she watches this and throughout the course of the show, you get to watch her progress from not having a voice, to eventually speaking up, to eventually exacting her revenge, which she does. It’s an interesting idea. I really like that Andy Fickman, our director, said at the beginning there are three woman principals in the show. One is Mary, the ingénue, the sweet, little innocent girl in high school. The second woman, one step higher up in the madness, is Sally, who is the reefer den slut. And then you go one step further down the age line — I guess that's what to say, because that’s the way it is, unfortunately for me — then get to Mae, the reefer den mother. I think what he’s trying to say is the innocent girl is how Mae started out at the beginning, and this is what happens to you if you smoke the weed. You start out as an innocent, and then you’re willing to sell your baby to support your habit and then in the end, your life is pretty much not your own. I kind of like that image. For a simple, little play, I think that’s profound in its own way.

ZVB: How do you relate to the character?

MP: Wow. Well, let’s see. Crack mother. No, that’s not me. Let me think. I think we’ve all be in situations in our lives where we find ourselves in the midst of a circumstance that we know is not healthy for us and we want to get out of, but we can’t get out of for whatever reason because we’re being destructive or we’re being dependent. I sort of tried to tap into that and sort of heighten it ten thousand-trillion times. Like I said, the circumstances are heightened for her. I just tried to tap into the woman who’s really, really a good, pure soul underneath it all and just got herself stuck in this world and doesn’t really know how it happened. But at the same time, she’s incredibly addicted to the drug. And when she’s on the drug, she’s sort of a different person then she is when she’s not on the drug. So in a sense, it’s a very, very different world. The addiction aspect of it is similar to the woman I played in Cabaret, who was addicted for similar reasons in a very different setting. They needed to be numbed. There was no way to get through the day because my life is so awful unless I’m totally whacked out. Cabaret was an example of the real world and the real time. And Reefer Madness is a pretend world and a pretend time that we heighten and try to make fun of.

ZVB: Well, it’s funny you mention Cabaret because I was just about to ask you about that production. I’ve always wondered if you played the accordion before the show.

MP: I learned. And I have to say, I’ve challenged myself a lot in the course of my career, and/or have been challenged. I have never worked harder at anything in my life. Oh, my God. I play the piano, and they asked me if I’d play something for the audition. So I was, like, OK, sure. I’ll work up a Bach three-part invention. So I do. I play the piano at the audition, and they say to me, "Do you think you could learn how to play the accordion?" And I said, "OK." You know, you’re at an audition, so you’re, like, "Sure. Yeah. I’ll play the accordion." So sure enough I get the job and the first day of rehearsal there was the entire company of us. The ensemble all played instruments. Most of the people had played those instruments in high school and not since. So the journey from not only picking up this instrument again and learning how to play it, but they had to play the entire score. My dilemma was: I had to teach myself how to play the instrument. Which is just difficult. It’s awkward. The instrument’s heavy; it weighs about 40 pounds. The right hand has a keyboard, which is smaller than regular keys and up and down, and the left has buttons which are sort of chords. And while you’re playing all of that, you have to pump the thing. It’s heavy. And in the middle of the process, I lost feeling in my right hand because it was so heavy I wasn’t letting the instrument do the work, I was manhandling it. I was pushing and pulling instead of letting it fall. Because it’s so heavy, that’s what it’s supposed to do: the bellows are supposed to fall out. I didn’t know this at the time. But the hard thing about it, and I think anybody who has to accompany themselves playing an instrument will tell you if you don’t know how to do that already, it’s an incredibly difficult thing to learn to do. You learn to play the instrument and you learn how to play the song or songs. Then you have to learn to accompany yourself, which is total different thing. And then for me, I had to add another element, which was during the reprise of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." It was not anything about me playing the accordion. And that was the hardest thing. I had to get good enough at playing the accordion that I didn’t have to think about it. And it was so terrifying for the first two months. I was terrified. I’d play it right sometimes, I’d play it wrong. I’d have to start over again. I would play this chord at the beginning of the song, which showed my solidarity for this one Nazi that comes into the wedding of the German Jew and German non-Jew. I’d say to the guy, I’d say, "Herr Ludwig, this one’s for you." Then I’d play a chord. Well, I can’t tell you the countless number of times I’d say, "This one’s for you" and then play the wrong chord. "No, that one’s not for you. This one’s for you." And then I’d try again until I got it right. And Denis O’Hare, who played Herr Ludwig, is the greatest actor ever. That whole thing was a thrill. I feel blessed to be a part of that.

ZVB: After Cabaret you moved to After the Fair.

MP: Shortly after, because I got pregnant in between and I didn’t know it. I was doing After the Fair and kept thinking, "Ah, I don’t feel good. This is killing me," until I found out I was pregnant. But the show was an incredible joy and that was another really challenging part and play because there were only four actors, and the story was somewhat dark. A beautiful turn-of-the-century story. I love that piece so much. So it was really, truly a beautiful little quartet, ensemble piece with some terrific actors. And Bruce recorded that show. That was very, very sweet of him. I’m thrilled that we have that. The show itself, though, was challenging and triumphant. I reveled in that. It was exhausting, but I think it’s because I was pregnant. Then when we got into it, I didn’t tell anybody because I was early on. I was so sick. Finally, I told the other girl, the lovely Jen Piech. I told her, "Jen, I’m pregnant." I would run offstage and had to keep something in my stomach or I would be sick. I’d run off stage and I’d jam gingersnaps down my throat and then I’d come onstage and she’d find a way to go, "Gingersnaps." It was always a game. She’d try to guess what I put in my mouth. "Crackers."

ZVB: Was it different at all to play a leading role rather than a supporting character?

MP: I don’t tend to approach any of them any differently. It’s funny. I was having the conversation this morning with John about Kate Burton. The reviews just came out this morning for Hedda Gabbler. I have always been a huge fan of hers. She’s an incredible actress. Every single part she does, no matter the size of it, she totally creates it, inhabits it, and makes it her own. I aspire to that. I really do. She’s in a part now that is above the title and now getting the due that I think she’s always deserved. I don’t think it’s any different in the approach. I think physically they’re just more tiring because you’re onstage more. They’re physically and emotionally more exhausting because you don’t have any down time. But it depends on the journey of it. Fraulein Kost in Cabaret was not a huge part by any means, but my track in the show and the emotional journey that she went on was just frying. By the end of the week, I just wanted to kill myself. I would stand backstage before the Sunday afternoon show and I would just have tears streaming down my face, and then I knew that I was in the right place to do the play. That’s a hard place to live eight times a week. It’s hard place to go there. I don’t always want to go there. There’s something to be said for the Crazy for Yous. For those light, fun fare.

ZVB: A few months ago you played Joanne in Company and Pittsburgh’s Civic Light Opera. What was it like to be a lady who lunched?

MP: Oh, delightful. That was delicious, that part. I had a tremendous time with that part. I’m sure there were trepidations with Barry Ivan who directed it and maybe the people in Pittsburgh who ran the theatre, because I’m not really like Elaine Stritch at this time in my life. I had to invest differently in the part, and I think that the part really has it there to do. I sort of saw her as more of a Mrs. Robinson: somebody who was a little older than Bobby, but found herself in unsatisfying relationships. She was smarter than everybody in the room, but very, very insecure. She used her wit and her sharp tongue to defend herself, really. She was the first one to say the joke before anyone could say it about her. I found it more sexual in a way, with Bobby. She has that line at the end of the dance club scene where she crumbles. You just watch her crumble. The scene before "The Ladies Who Lunch" and the scene that follows the song are devastating. He has this banter where she doesn’t speak to him, and then she says, "When are we going to make it?" I don’t know. I had a delicious time. I really, really hope that we get to do it again. It was really, really great.

ZVB: And that number... MP: Well, that number is just sheer genius. It’s sheer genius. This was a real challenge for me. As I’m getting older, I’m trusting the stillness more, and that’s a hard thing to do for me. That comes very easily for some people, but for me, I always masked what was going on with stuff, and Joanne was really a good example of that. You just need to stand still and say those words because those words are so, so good. And then in the middle of it she was basically what I consider a primal scream. She’s all of those women she talks about. And how she abhors them and hates them and loves them and is them. And in the midst of it …

ZVB: … screaming.

MP: Yeah. She gets out of control and then comes right back to it to finish the thing. I loved it. I could do that part for a while.

ZVB: Was it at all intimidating to play a role so closely associated with the original actresss?

MP: Yes. Incredibly. Incredibly. Yes. I did not see the original, but I did see the anniversary revival that they did as a one-night benefit at Lincoln Center probably 10 years ago. I was never so excited to be in the presence of greatness that was on that stage. It was truly a thrill. Elaine is just … I’m just a huge fan of hers. She’s just absolutely an idol. And consequently, in a way, it was sort of freeing, because I realized I cannot do that. You can’t come close to that. She just is, you know?. She just is. I had to reinvent it for myself.

ZVB: Do you see any differences between regional theatre and the New York arena?

MP: Most of the regional theatre that I’ve done is summer stock, and there’s such a limited rehearsal process. The process is really backward. But that’s what it is. My process has to be different. For me, I find — just because I’ve done it a lot now — I find that if I can just get the words in my body and try not to make any choices until I get on my feet, I do fine. But if I have the words and at least the music down … I was blessed to do Into the Woods, too, and that was another one. When I had the words in my mouth, because Sondheim is so technically proficient, then I was able to have a rehearsal process. You can use the week or ten days you have to really rehearse it, but if you’re spending that week just trying to get the words down, then you’re behind the eight ball. It’s different in that approach. I don’t do that here with a lengthy rehearsal process, but I think that’s just sort of the beast, what summer stock is.

ZVB: Just to finish up, I wanted to ask you some questions about you rather than your career. What is it like to be married to another performer?

MP: Well, when it’s John Dossett, it’s heaven. It does not get any better than that.

ZVB: I think you’re a little bit partial there, though.

MP: Well, OK. I guess nobody else has been married to him, so they can’t really say, can they? You know, he’s my dream. Just my absolute dream. I am so blessed to share my life with him. And another actor? That just sort of came with the deal. He’s an incredible actor. I hope we could do something together sometime. We’d like to do that. I love nothing more than watching him onstage. Except watching him offstage. He’s an unbelievable father. I know for some people it’s difficult being in the business and having a relationship. Not for us in any way, shape or form. We’re just incredibly supportive of each other. Some people get into a competitive, sort of, situation. We just don’t have any room for it. I think both of us are old enough to know that it’s just so difficult as it is. You need that support. That sense of team, rooting for you.

ZVB: And having a child. How does that affect your career?

MP: Oh, you know what? It’s as everybody says. Before it all happened, everybody said, "It’s going to change your life in the most incredible way. I can’t wait!" And they’re absolutely right. In a way, I’ve always sort of thought of myself as sort of a together person and a person who has my priorities in check. But, boy, having a child just brings that all the way home. Things are just not that important. I don’t get that upset about stuff anymore, and I certainly don’t waste a lot of time on bullshit anymore. It just is not that important. Never, ever in my life have I known how blessed I am during this time of this tragedy downtown. People’s families and lives have just been torn apart. We, of course, as a nation, will never ever be the same. I’ve never in our years together been so thankful for what I have. I’m really, really lucky.

ZVB: Back to John. You worked with him in Hello, Again. Was this before or after you two married?

MP: That’s where we met. We didn’t quite get it all together until probably a year or two after that, but we did meet then. We were blessed enough to do a concert version this past summer of A Little Night Music in Philadelphia. Ah. Boy. It was just a thrill, first of all, with Paul Gemigniani conducting the Philadelphia Philharmonic. And to hear them play that score … oh, it just was a thrill of the lifetime. It’s made us want to do the play now.

ZVB: Just wait for the revival, right?

MP: Yeah, right. John was set to do Assassins, and that’s unfortunately postponed for a while. And I can understand why.

ZVB: Yeah, so do I. But that’s not to say that I don’t agree with or am happy with the decision.

MP: Well, you know what? Between you and me and whoever else is listening, they’re certainly talking about doing it sooner than later. They had indefinitely postponed it and potentially cancelled it, and now the creative team and the Roundabout are talking again about it. They want to take a look at it. And I think that’s fair, because maybe now more than ever people will understand that piece. It’ll have a whole different resonance for us.

Copyright 2001, Fynsworth Alley

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