MICHELE PAWK gives a sneak peek at THE SHERMAN BROTHERS
ALBUM, REEFER MADNESS and more...
Michele Pawk is the kind of actress who can make a supporting
role feel like a star turn, as shes 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
Alleys 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
MP: I recorded "That Darn Cat," which was the title song
from the film, That Darn Cat. I dont know who recorded it
for the film. I dont remember. I dont know that Ive
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." Thats all I really remember.
ZVB: The last few songs you recorded for Bruce were a little bit
deeper, like "It Wasnt 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. Im 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 dont know. You never know with him whats 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
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
ZVB: I dont 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 hes never asked me to do that.
So far, so good. Yeah, its always a blast. First of all, theyre
always so prepared and on time and its just fun. Its relaxed.
With Vinnie [Cirrilli, Fynworths engineer] at the board, you cant
lose. Its fun. Its 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. Theyre different. Opening nights
are always different. Its funny. I just had this conversation this
morning with my darling John [Dossett, Micheles husband] and he
said, "Opening night. Itll be great. Itll be a love-fest.
Itll be wild." Its 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
theyre rather quiet. Thats 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. Its
the first time youve done it in front of people. Usually for me,
its like rehearsing in front of people, which is definitely what
this one was. Its exponentially gotten better and easier as its
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 didnt get to the theatre.
They were being sent, they were being shipped, but there were no flights
or anything, you know? But if thats the smallest thing thats
happened to us, then were 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 werent
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 dont 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 thats what weve
given them. And I really, really do think thats beneficial. As a
matter of fact, weve gotten those comments quite a lot since weve
been in previews. And its the kind of play that is just escapist.
It really is. If you just come and go with us, its just a blast.
And youll laugh, and I think thats been a gift.
ZVB: Well, I have to be honest. I havent seen the show. How
is it escapist? What is the show about?
MP: Its 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, its just
horrific. I mean, its so awful. I mean, not funny. Its just
the longest 70 minutes youll ever spend in your life. As I watched
it, its like, Oh, of course. If you just add an extra
little oomph to this, it is somewhat campy. And I think that is what theyve
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,
weve just taken it a step further. While were very serious
in telling the story, when you tell a story like that that is so absurd
in a very serious vein, its just funny. Im 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 dont 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 dont.
I dont 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, its about
the use of propaganda in our world at this time. Were inundated
by it. Were told what to think from the far right. Were told
what to think from the far left. And people are just totally obsessed
with their view and their vision. If youre going to take a message
from it, thats 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 weve had. The first hint that a big snow storm
is coming, theyll have "Storm Watch." And then the storm
never gets here. And they look like fools. In a way, its like that.
Take a breath. Not that in any way, shape or form theyve done this
about the disaster downtown. You could not heighten that any more than
it was heightened. But the tone of the show: overall, its just fun.
Theres a lecturer involved. He pretty much welcomes everybody to
the theatre at the beginning of the show and tells everybody that hes
assembled this cast of people. You know, the same cast that last year
did Green Grow the Lilacs. And this year, were 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, thats it. Youre hooked. Youre
incredibly addicted. Your eyes bug out of your head. Youll sell
your child to get weed money. Youll start to steal peoples
cars. Youll kill people. That sort of thing. I mean in a funny way.
ZVB: In a funny way. Of course.
MP: So thats what happens. And thats why its
funny. The sense of it is absurd.
ZVB: Does playing something thats "campy" differ
from playing a role that is "serious"?
MP: It does and it doesn't. You as the actor know that its
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 thats
what makes it funny. People who comment on the campiness of it, to me,
thats not really funny. Thats 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 youve got a story
you can follow. But if you as the actor are just poking fun at it: not
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
MP: It was an interesting process, Ill 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 doesnt necessarily work in New York,
and how to make adjustments. I think now and really, just since
weve been running it which I think is what should happen
and always does happen if its right, you sort of meld into one.
Now theres 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. Shes 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 dont 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. Its 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 thats the way it is, unfortunately for me then get
to Mae, the reefer den mother. I think what hes 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 youre 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 thats profound in
its own way.
ZVB: How do you relate to the character?
MP: Wow. Well, lets see. Crack mother. No, thats not
me. Let me think. I think weve 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 cant get out
of for whatever reason because were being destructive or were
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 whos really, really
a good, pure soul underneath it all and just got herself stuck in this
world and doesnt really know how it happened. But at the same time,
shes incredibly addicted to the drug. And when shes on the
drug, shes sort of a different person then she is when shes
not on the drug. So in a sense, its 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 Im 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
ZVB: Well, its funny you mention Cabaret because I
was just about to ask you about that production. Ive always wondered
if you played the accordion before the show.
MP: I learned. And I have to say, Ive 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 Id play something for the audition. So I was, like,
OK, sure. Ill 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, youre at an audition, so youre, like, "Sure.
Yeah. Ill 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. Its awkward. The instruments
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 youre playing all of that, you
have to pump the thing. Its heavy. And in the middle of the process,
I lost feeling in my right hand because it was so heavy I wasnt
letting the instrument do the work, I was manhandling it. I was pushing
and pulling instead of letting it fall. Because its so heavy, thats
what its supposed to do: the bellows are supposed to fall out. I
didnt 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 dont know how to do that already, its 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 didnt have to think about it. And it was so terrifying for
the first two months. I was terrified. Id play it right sometimes,
Id play it wrong. Id 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. Id say to the guy, Id say, "Herr Ludwig, this
ones for you." Then Id play a chord. Well, I cant
tell you the countless number of times Id say, "This ones
for you" and then play the wrong chord. "No, that ones
not for you. This ones for you." And then Id try again
until I got it right. And Denis OHare, 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 didnt
know it. I was doing After the Fair and kept thinking, "Ah, I dont
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. Im thrilled that we have that. The show itself, though,
was challenging and triumphant. I reveled in that. It was exhausting,
but I think its because I was pregnant. Then when we got into it,
I didnt 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, Im
pregnant." I would run offstage and had to keep something in my stomach
or I would be sick. Id run off stage and Id jam gingersnaps
down my throat and then Id come onstage and shed find a way
to go, "Gingersnaps." It was always a game. Shed 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 dont tend to approach any of them any differently.
Its 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. Shes 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. Shes in a part now that is above the title and now getting the
due that I think shes always deserved. I dont think its
any different in the approach. I think physically theyre just more
tiring because youre onstage more. Theyre physically and emotionally
more exhausting because you dont 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. Thats a hard place to live
eight times a week. Its hard place to go there. I dont always
want to go there. Theres 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 Pittsburghs
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. Im sure there were trepidations with Barry
Ivan who directed it and maybe the people in Pittsburgh who ran the theatre,
because Im 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 doesnt speak
to him, and then she says, "When are we going to make it?" I
dont 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. Its sheer genius. This was a real challenge for me. As Im
getting older, Im trusting the stillness more, and thats 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. Shes 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
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
Im just a huge fan of hers. Shes just
absolutely an idol. And consequently, in a way, it was sort of freeing,
because I realized I cannot do that. You cant 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 Ive done is summer
stock, and theres such a limited rehearsal process. The process
is really backward. But thats what it is. My process has to be different.
For me, I find just because Ive 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 youre spending that week just trying to get the words
down, then youre behind the eight ball. Its different in that
approach. I dont do that here with a lengthy rehearsal process,
but I think thats 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
MP: Well, when its John Dossett, its heaven. It does
not get any better than that.
ZVB: I think youre a little bit partial there, though.
MP: Well, OK. I guess nobody else has been married to him, so they
cant really say, can they? You know, hes 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. Hes an incredible actor.
I hope we could do something together sometime. Wed like to do that.
I love nothing more than watching him onstage. Except watching him offstage.
Hes an unbelievable father. I know for some people its difficult
being in the business and having a relationship. Not for us in any way,
shape or form. Were just incredibly supportive of each other. Some
people get into a competitive, sort of, situation. We just dont
have any room for it. I think both of us are old enough to know that its
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? Its as everybody says. Before it all
happened, everybody said, "Its going to change your life in
the most incredible way. I cant wait!" And theyre absolutely
right. In a way, Ive 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 dont get that upset about stuff anymore, and I
certainly dont 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. Peoples families
and lives have just been torn apart. We, of course, as a nation, will
never ever be the same. Ive never in our years together been so
thankful for what I have. Im really, really lucky.
ZVB: Back to John. You worked with him in Hello, Again.
Was this before or after you two married?
MP: Thats where we met. We didnt 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. Its 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 thats
unfortunately postponed for a while. And I can understand why.
ZVB: Yeah, so do I. But thats not to say that I dont
agree with or am happy with the decision.
MP: Well, you know what? Between you and me and whoever else is
listening, theyre 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 thats fair, because maybe
now more than ever people will understand that piece. Itll have
a whole different resonance for us.
Copyright 2001, Fynsworth Alley
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