Here’s a fun fact I was able to pass along to Michael Urie the other day between the matinee and evening performances of Shows for Days: Taylor Swift was born in Reading, Pennsylvania and grew up partly in the small, affluent, nearby town of Wyomissing. And why was this relevant other than the fact that we all must live now in Taylor Swift’s World and pant for every scrap of trivia related to her?
Because in Shows for Days, Urie plays Car, a teenager who does community theater in Reading and lives in Wyomissing. I didn’t force Urie to go on and on about Swift but I did ask him about the play’s author, Douglas Carter Beane, upon whom Car, both as his young self and as his adult self, Urie plays. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said, “to wear the Douglas Carter Beane uniform every night onstage.” The uniform, as interpreted by costumer extraordinaire William Ivey Long, consists of patterned blazer, shirt, no tie, and jeans rolled up at the ends. Sneakers complete the ensemble, although I believe I have once or twice spied Mr. Beane himself sporting hard-soles.
Has it been difficult to play an autobiographical character when the author is in the rehearsal room? “No,” Urie replied. “Doug has made the experience painless. He’s so good-humored and self-deprecating, which has made me less worried about everything.”
Urie said that Shows for Days is his first time playing a character so directly modeled on a living author. “But anytime you are a narrator,” he explained, “or doing a monologue, you feel as if you are a kind of stand-in for a writer’s sensibility.” Sometimes, Urie jokes, he wishes the actor/writer roles could be reversed: “On my last big stage project, I told Jon Tolins he should be my understudy.”
Tolins, for those of you who have spent the past two years staring unrelievedly at non-theatrical sites on your cellphones, is Jonathan Tolins, the author of the hit Buyer and Cellar, a solo show that Urie, beginning in 2013, played 541 times off-Broadway, on national tour, and in London. In it, Urie played an unemployed actor who works at Barbra Streisand’s own domestic mini-mall.
“When I first read that play,” Urie recounted, “I thought: if I don’t screw this up, it’s going to be very funny. And I thought we had the advantage of starting at Rattlestick” – an off-Broadway theater that is known for serious fare and whose audiences are not necessarily lyric-perfect to “Papa, Can You Hear Me?”
Urie admitted to finding the experience slightly scary at first. “It was a long one-man show, 100 minutes. I was intimidated. I was surprised, but very pleasantly so, that the show became such a long-run.”
Urie played an actor in Buyer and Cellar and a nascent writer/actor in Shows for Days. But what’s his own back story to the performer’s life?
“I loved movies as a kid,” he explained. “And I guess I figured that doing theater was the closest thing.” He took a theater class in middle school, in Plano, Texas, where he grew up. But fuller participation had to wait until high school, where he was one of only 3 boys in an advanced-theater class, and where he was coaxed into, among other things, a production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Like Car in Shows for Days, Urie said that eliciting his first big laugh as a performer was a gateway drug to full-blown show-biz addiction. “I was 15. We were doing The Curious Savage," which, for those of you unversed in theatrical lore, is a 1950 play by John Patrick, which initially starred Lillian Gish. “I made a very bold choice on a line reading,” Urie said. “I got a crazy laugh. That sure felt good.”
After high school, Urie spent a year at a community college. A theater teacher there took a group of students to New York, where, said Urie, “we saw 13 shows in 10 days. Two of them were A New Brain and Twelfth Night, right here at Lincoln Center Theater, both of which I loved.”
Not long after, Urie was admitted to Juilliard, the alma mater of his Shows for Days colleague, Patti LuPone. They had worked together before, on the TV show “Ugly Betty.” “Like in Shows for Days,” Urie said, “’Ugly Betty’ was a combination of comedy and drama. Patti and I had a great time together. I learn so much from her. And I learn a lot from the other actors in the cast – Jordan [Dean], Dale [Soules], Lance [Coadie Williams], and Zoe [Winters].”
Urie also pronounced himself happy to learn that the city in Pennsylvania where the play takes place is pronounced “Red-ding” not “Reed-ing.” “That makes sense – this is a very colorful story.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.