Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Where Are They Now? - Michael Cole

Michael Cole was one of the truly great guys of Richmond theatre, and remains a good friend today to a great many who are still singing and dancing in the Virginia trenches. He has moved onward and upward to some pretty exciting places, and we're proud of him. The following is an article that was written about Michael by Holly Timberline for Richmond Marquee Magazine (www.richmondmarquee.com). Holly has granted permission to post it on the Barksdale Buzz.

I Don't Think We're in Oregon Anymore
An Update on Michael Cole
by Holly Timberline

If you were a local theatregoer 15 years ago, then you saw Michael Cole onstage. During his decade in Richmond, he performed with every major theatre company in town. With his sturdy tenor voice, blonde good looks and perpetually cheerful nature, he enchanted people around him, whether he was onstage or off.

Michael grew up in Oregon and found his way to Richmond in the 80s. He moved to New York in 1993, looking for bigger acting fish to fry. What he found was a career working for someone he had long admired: composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz—the man responsible for Wicked, Pippin, Godspell, etc.

RM reached Michael on his cell phone on a recent afternoon, in the middle of his workday. He took a break to answer some questions about his busy, happy life:

How did you become Stephen Schwartz’s assistant?

When Michael got to NYC, he landed an apartment right above Schwartz’s studio. One day, Schwartz complained that the cleaning service he used was no good. The industrious—and hungry—Michael offered his services. "I started out cleaning his apartment for $50 a week," he says. At some point, Schwartz asked Michael to type a letter for him, and it grew from there. "Basically, every time Stephen offered me a chance to take on more responsibility, I said yes." Michael became Schwartz’s full-time assistant about 8 years ago.

What kinds of things do you do?

"One thing I like about the job is that it’s different from one day to the next," says Michael. Schwartz had a presence on the web before Wicked, but the volume of email he receives has expanded dramatically since the show opened in 2003. Schwartz likes the interaction with fans, and the sense that there is an actual relationship there, Michael explains, and he really takes time to respond to questions. Except when he’s too busy, which is where Michael comes in. "I manage a lot of e-mail!" he says. "All of the email comes to me first and then I deal with what I can and forward fan letters and the rest to Stephen.”

One task that falls to Michael is to keep an eye out for people who want a little too much time or attention from Schwartz. "Stephen's fans are terrific," he says, "but of course, some are, well, fanatical. I've learned to recognize this type of personality and have learned to give the potentially demanding ones just enough to make them happy."

What’s going on at work today?

Schwartz is currently writing an opera, a musical adaptation of a 1965 British film, Séance on a Wet Afternoon. It isn’t scheduled to open until spring of 2009, but Schwartz is letting people sample the goods here and there. "Today the singer who is creating the lead role is coming in to sing through some of the music. I can't tell you who she is, but she is an internationally acclaimed opera star. How cool is that?"

Does working for a "celebrity client" come with any sorts of wacky requests? Do you have to find dancing pigs for his kids’ birthday parties or anything like that?

"Well, he’s pretty normal," Michael says with a laugh. "He doesn’t send me off on crazy errands like that." Still, Michael’s role when Schwartz gets a trim may seem a little unusual: "He had a hairdresser he really liked," Michael says, "and she used to be in Manhattan, but now she lives in New Jersey. So sometimes when he needs his hair cut, Stephen has me pick him up at his home in Connecticut, drive him to New Jersey for his haircut, then take him to New York City when it’s over." Even a tri-state haircut is enjoyable for Michael, who says, "I like it because he’s captive in my car!"

What kinds of assignments are difficult?

"I don’t always fully understand the intricacies of how it all works with royalties, publishers, percentages, international rates... I have a pretty good handle on it, but when he asks me to do research on it, it’s challenging." Another less-than-favorite task is to return calls to people "who will talk forever."

What are your favorite memories of your time in Richmond?

Michael’s time in Richmond was his version of college, he says, and he still considers his Richmond friends to be among his closest. Play-wise, he will never forget performing in Falsettos at Barksdale. He says, "It’s one of those rare shows where, with the exception of just one moment in a tech rehearsal, every minute of that production was glorious. It was just a great time."

Where do you live?

Michael and his partner of 10 years, Steven Skybell (currently playing Dr. Dillamond in Wicked on Broadway), live about an hour outside of Manhattan in a town called Mahopac. From his house, it’s a short stroll down the street to Lake Mahopac, where he regularly indulges one of his passions besides theater: water-skiing. "I can ski in the morning and be at work in Manhattan in an hour," he says.

Will you return to the stage any time soon?
"If I lived in Richmond, there’s no question I would still be performing," Michael says, "because people doing theatre in Richmond are doing it because they love it and are passionate about it... Falsettos [in Richmond] was a love fest. To me, it feels more like a business in New York." He’d like to get involved with his local community theatre, but doesn’t have the time right now. He has found time to sing with the Westchester Oratorio Society, including some solo work, which he found "interesting, challenging, scary and fun."

So things are going pretty well for you?

"I have a terrific life! I love it. I love everything about it. I’m in the right place, I love my job. Life is pretty sweet."


S Johnston said...

How nice to be able to know what Michael Cole is up to. And to learn that he's doing so well. I'm not at all surprised.

Years ago I took my son to see Brer Rabbit at Theater IV. Mr Cole played Brer Rabbit. He was wonderful, very funny and athletic.

After the show, my son wanted to get Brer Rabbit's autograph, when the cast comes into the lobby to meet the children in the audience one on one. But when my son saw Mr Cole in person, talking with other children, he froze. Try as I might, I couldn't get him to go up and talk to Mr Cole, even though I knew he really wanted to.

Apparently Mr Cole noticed my urging, because before I knew what was happening, he said excuse me to the others waiting in line and came over to where my son was cowering. He knelt down to get to my son's level, and started talking to him, and within seconds turned my son's timidity into a giant smile.

He signed the program, and we went on our way. All the way home my little boy talked about nothing else.

That was years ago. My son's in college now. But I'll never forget how nice Mr Cole was to a child and parent that he didn't even know.

I'm thrilled he's doing so well, and I hope he'll come back to Richmond to perform again sometime in the future.

Carol2 said...

This is such a great interview with Michael. Thanks for posting it! Cool photo.

I have a Michael Cole page on my site as well:

I'm one of the many people who keep Michael busy with things like getting the latest podcast approved for my Schwartz-related blog. http://www.theschwartzscene.com/blog/

I know Michael is a good actor but he seems to be really happy with his work for Stephen. He's always helpful to those who email him.

bcm said...

I don't know if it's appropriate to comment on a comment, but I will:

It's fun that Carol has posted a comment on the Barksdale blog because, once upon a time, several years ago in college when I was doing research on the musical Godspell, I couldn't find a lot of information in one place; it was very scattered, so I made the "Everything You Need to Know About Godspell page. www.geocites.com/cugodspell, which at the time was the best Godspell webpage on the net and came up at the top of every search for Godspell.

Carol contacted me a few years ago because she had created this wonderful site dedicated to Stephen Schwartz, which you can find the link to above, asking if she could purchase my site or redirect or whatever because she was writing a book and her site was...yada yada yada. Anyway. I was a stubborn, prideful youngster and initially said no.

But Carol has far surpassed that now very out-dated Godspell website and has an incredible resource for all things Stephen Schwartz at www.musicalschwartz.com.

Theatre is such an interconnected community! I love it!