Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Meet Michael Wartella: Mickey Rooney in Chasing Rainbows at Goodspeed Opera House

Sometimes the transition from being in control of your life to having absolutely no control is swift, but other times it is so gradual that you wonder exactly when it truly began. Mickey Rooney

Hello, Dexter Morgan
MICHAEL WARTELLA (Mickey Rooney). Broadway/National Tours: Wicked. Off-Broadway: RENT, The Kid (The New Group), Seussical (Theaterworks/USA), Oliver Twist (TFANA). Regional: Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz, at Flat Rock Playhouse; A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Christmas Carol, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, (Ovation nomination), all with the Denver Center Theatre Company; Oliver Twist (co-production with A.R.T, and Berkeley Rep). Film/Television: Blood Night: The Legend of Mary Hatchet, Mysteries of Laura, and Hallmark original movie Loving Leah.
Michael has been living and working in New York since 2004. He grew up in the Berkshires in Massachusetts which is about ninety minutes north of Goodspeed.
Courtesy: Michael Wartella
He did a lot of theater there as a hobby. He came to New York at eighteen and enrolled in the Circle in the Square Theater School. He did a two year program there in midtown Manhattan. In 2006, when he graduated, he started auditioning AND working. He started out with a big year. He got his Equity card with a TheatreWorks show.
He got a nice regional contract with a play that played several regional theaters. From there, he went on to do several workshops and all of that led to establishing him as someone to be notice in New York. THEN, for the next four years, everything seemed to tank! He couldn't book anything.
He ended up becoming a waiter at Vynl. He met his now former wife there.
Courtesy: Michael Wartella
They had a kid together. They now have an eight year old son that they both adore, Hunter. That actually took away some of Michael's time and energy in terms of pursuing his craft. In a strange way, that gave him the impetus to try even harder.
He did a lot of auditions during that time. He attributes the fact that he wasn't booking a lot to his youth. His confidence started to dwindle. That really is what is needed in the audition room to nail the job. It took him a while to get back on his feet. He lucked out when he got the job for a show called A Prayer for Owen Meany. It is based on the John Irving novel.
The movie Simon Birch is roughly based on this as well.
It was a beautiful three act sweeping epic of a play. He had an amazing time creating with this play. By the time, he had rebooted his confidence as an actor. He finally felt like he knew what he was doing and that everything was going to be OK. From that point on, he finally started getting call backs and booked some work.
Courtesy: Michael Wartella, Tuck Everlasting
It was a year or two after that that he did the revival of Rent that was at New World Stages. Again, that was another moment that propelled him forward. It was an open-ended musical in New York. It gave him a seal of approval. Things were pretty much OK after that. He did Wicked, and went on tour with that in addition to doing it on Broadway for a couple of years. Along the way, he began doing workshops of both Tuck Everlasting  (which ran very briefly on Broadway) and Chasing Rainbows (as that started to be developed). That leads us to where Michael is now.
with son Hunter,  Courtesy: Michael Wartella
This is a very interesting time for Michael. He just turned thirty. He is no longer that twenty-three year old right out of college auditioning. He has been around awhile and he has seen alot. He has noticed a change, not only within himself, but also those others that he shares the stage with. It is a shift in life in which career becomes part of life instead of the main focus. It is now something he does. It is a part of who he is, NOT who he is. That is freeing and wonderful and also a little terrifying. You're not really sure how/where it will move forward from this point on. The good news for him is that he is riding the crest of what has become a successful time in his career.
He has been working a lot, which has been great. The worry about working has dissipated. If he works, it is wonderful. It is what he hopes to be doing.
Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland
If he doesn't, he no longer takes it as a sign that he is not good enough to do it. He now realizes that that is part of the business. If that happens, he will work on something else in the meantime. It is tricky trying to balance your "real life" and your career. They are not always the same thing.
Chasing Rainbows
It's probably hard to find anyone around today who is not familiar with Judy Garland.
Older generations may have grown up with her in Easter Parade or Meet Me in St. Louis. Others might remember her fondly as a powerhouse entertainer and singer who hosted her own television variety show.
Photo: Diane Sobolewski
Ruby Rakos portrays Judy Garland in a scene from “Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz,” with Michael Wartella as Mickey Rooney on stage at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, through Sunday, Nov. 27.
But at the very least, even the youngest among us know Judy as the unmistakable and indefatigable Dorothy Gale in the timeless MGM classic movie The Wizard of Oz. But a lot happened on "the Road to Oz", those formative years that put "Baby" Frances Gumm on the path to becoming Judy Garland and a super-star.
Photo: Diane Sobolewski :Ruby, Michael, Berklea Going as Lana Turner
And that journey is what brilliantly comes to life on the Goodspeed Opera House stage in the latest Goodspeed Musicals production CHASING RAINBOWS: THE ROAD TO OZ.  (BraoadwayWorld Review: Read MORE).

It was just a lucky audition.
He was doing Wicked at the time in New York and was auditioning. He was reading for workshops, especially. He was called in to read for this. He had no idea it was even in development.
Photo: Diane Sobolewski, Michael and company of Chasing Rainbows
This was when Bernie Telsey was casting it for New World Stages for a reading and he got the part. He had known a little bit about Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and in the back of his mind, he always hoped that if there was ever a show about him, he wanted to be involved. There are always one or two famous people in this business that you gravitate towards. Mickey was already one of those people for Michael. The little he knew about him, he already felt this kinship right away.
Photo: Diane Sobolewski, Michael and company of Chasing Rainbows
He was incredibly excited to go in and audition. He felt that he really understood the "character".
He also knew, going into the audition that Rooney was this bigger than life personality and so full of energy in a way that is not always as prevalent in today's audition room. Mostly what Michael auditions for is a lot more modern in terms of what they are looking for. He knew that with Mickey, he hap to tap back into his fifteen year old high school days when everything was over the top and he was fully committed and "you work for the applause."
Ruby and Michael at Flat Rock Playhouse (Source BroadwayWorld.com)
Flat Rock Source Playbill.com
He went into the room with that attitude. Tina Marie Casamento told me in my interview with her that he brought in a pair of drum stick brushes in his back pocket. Halfway through his audition song, he brought a music stand out and started drumming on the music stand. He used to play the drums back in high school. He slid on his knees across the floor and drummed in front of the reader. It was so big that when he finished, everybody applauded. He thought, "That usually doesn't happen in an audition."
That was a good sign and it was one of those moments that he felt it was a good marriage of character and performer. He luckily got to do the workshops when they began.
He started at New World Stages. He (nor Ruby) did not do the Belmont University student workshop. From there it went to Flat Rock and now Goodspeed.
Between that there have been table reads from time to time to tweak. It has been an honor for him, to say the least, to be an integral part of the evolution.
Michael and Hunter. Courtesy: Michael
He has worked with various directors and usually that is a good sign that you might not get the job! It's usually the director who has final casting approval. Luckily, he and Ruby have continued to go to the next step. So, he thanks Tina for that, as well.

Finish this sentence: I'm bad at...
being an adult in the 'real' world. He is so focused on his craft and his career and his son and family that it has not given him time to focus on 'simple' things like paying his taxes on time and going to the doctor and dentist for routine check-ups and going to the gym and maturing into his thirties the way that a 'normal' person would do. He feels like he is behind the curve on that.
However, when it comes to the business, he approaches it from the mindset of a seasoned
A Prayer for Owen Meany (Courtesy Michael)

What interests Michael the MOST about this profession?
He feels that this is what he was born to do.
As he has grown up in this business, he can tell you it's not about the money. He has thought about walking away more than once to do something more lucrative. However, has been unable to do that. It is just in him. It lights a fire in him thinking about it, talking about it, working on projects with other artists, watching them perform...directing, acting, every element of the business. All of it turns him on and gets him going.
He mentions that he recently listened to my interview with Karen Mason (Ma Lawler/Kay
Karen Mason
Koverman). He listened to the entire hour. He asks, "what other thirty year old is spending their night off listening" to what we had to say word for word. He admits to being a theater geek in that mentality.

Name one piece of art that you wish you had created and why you wish you had created it. 
He begins by telling me that he recently began to write some music. They would fall into the soft rock/pop realm. He has discovered that it is incredibly hard and not something that comes easily to him. One of his favorite artists is Coldplay and one of his favorite songs is Fix You.
Photo: Diane Sobolewski
It is a brilliant four minute long mega hit. It is incredibly simple in it's lyrics and incredibly simple in the music, but somehow, it is incredibly evocative. It has been heard in movies and a lot of people from Michael's generation adore it. It also used to be the song for Michael in acting class that he knew within ten seconds of hearing it would make him cry so he would use it a lot. It almost makes him angry in terms of how good it is. He feels like when he is sitting there writing his own music, sometimes he has those moments where he feels like he is Salieri listening to Mozart.
He keeps asking, "How did they do it?' It is astounding to him and he wishes he had that ability.

What is the one thing that Michael has learned about himself on Chasing Rainbows that surprises him the most?
There has been a lot. He considers this project one of the best things that has happened to him career wise.
He loves created new work, especially new musicals. It is not something you get to do in this profession. Oftentimes, you are put into a show that is always running or a revival.
What was terrifying to Michael when they first started is now the thing that he loves the most. He sat there as actor, spectator, and a director's mindset when he first read the play and asked, "What can I do with this? Is there a better line for this? Is there something that I can do in the storytelling  with the dance moves, whatever?" This is an amazing team to work with. Tyne Rafaeli is such an amazing director. We were so lucky to have her. She is such a great collaborator.
Marc Acito (book), David Libby (Musical adaptation) and Tina Marie Casamento Libby
(Conceived) were all so open to collaboration that it was wonderful to get to work on this. To get back to the question at hand, Michael has learned that he is much more capable than he thought of coming up with ideas and being creative on the spot and being brave and being committed to something on stage. When he began this process, that was the thing that scared him the most. Now, it is the aspect that he wants to base his career on.

How important was Michael's training?
It turns out that was vitally important.
He is always PRO-TRAINING for any young artist who comes right out of high school. He knows that it is always not necessary to book work. However, it is such a helpful part of the process. Michael's school was not a school that gives you a stamp of approval and guarantees that you get an agent and that gets you on Broadway like a Carnegie-Mellon. What his school did offer was immense deep rich acting training that he has yet to experience in his performing life. He did a lot in the Berkshires growing up, taking classes and shows and he was really good at razzle dazzle performance. He had from a very young age total showmanship and commitment. He was not good about going beyond the text and thinking deep about it, being honest, truthful, authentic with the work.
Michael's greatest creation
His adult training beat that out of him and taught him how to feel and how to think with the goal being, at his school, not opening "your mouth until you believed what you were saying. That had never been a goal of his before. So, he has really been thankful and lucky in that his training is coming in handy especially in things that have been running so like like Wicked when he is asked to just jump in. Because of his training, he is now able to read the script and learn a brand new piece of text, working on it from the beginning. Realize that the circumstances and stakes are just as intense and real as a Chekov or Shakespeare play and play them with that intensity. That is one example of how his training now plays off.

Is Michael living the career that he envisioned for this time in his life.
In some ways yes, but he doesn't believe anyone truly does. He remembers telling his father, "I got accepted into this acting school and I am going to go there and probably a year after that I will play Mark in a revival of Rent on Broadway."  
His father was like, "Really? Are you kidding?" Of course, the irony of that is that he was lucky enough eight or nine years later to get an off-Broadway revival where he covered Mark and went on thirty-plus times. He got to play his dream role and work with certain people that meant something to him. It think. He certainly thought and envisioned it. He got a Broadway show earlier than he thought. It was several years after leaving school. You dream big. Michael is still dreaming big. If he had his way, he would be Christian Boyle and then he would move on to doing sit-coms and TV and SNL...the sky's the limit.
Michael tells me that the reality is that now that he is a grown-up and he understands the real world. It is hard to get any job, whatsoever. He is incredibly thankful and lucky and fortunate that he has been working quite a bit in his whole career and especially over the past four or five years. It all feels to him like it is just the beginning. On the other hand, it all feels very surreal at the state of his daily life. Recently, he was thinking he has done two Broadway shows. He cannot believe that! There are moments in which he gets totally humbled at how lucky he is to have come this far.
This question comes courtesy Tina Marie: What is the one thing that you have found most surprising in rehearsing this show?

Marc Acito kept reminding his actors that these are real people. They had real lives. The goal was not to play a version of them from the Hollywood movies but to authentically replicate their real lives. Of course, everyone did a lot of research. When Michael started to delve into the mind and discover who Mickey was, he thought, "What makes Mickey tick."
If he was behaving at that level, what got him there? Michael feels like that is the entire point of Chasing Rainbows with Judy. The show, according to Michael, barely touches on it. Being that Mickey isn't the focus of the story, his contributions to Judy are only touched upon a little bit. Mickey was raised in a very hectic situation. His father was an alcoholic and was barely around. His mother was a showgirl and raised him quite literally out of a trunk on the vaudeville circuit in dressing rooms in which he was surrounded by beautifully women all the time very much like Guido in Nine. There were SOME similar things in Michael's life that he could understand. What is amazing to Michael is that Mickey's joy and love for what he did and his notorious love of women and his passion for meeting and marrying women came from a very sad but rich place.
A lot of performers are searching for love or acceptance. He never felt like he got that from his immediate family. Having never meeting Rooney, Michael is putting all this speculation together on his own. It has been really incredible for Michael to see all of this. They say clowns cry the hardest.
It all came from a pretty serious desperate need for Mickey, all that joy and energy.

Judy Garland had as mentors early on Kay Koverman and Roger Edens. Who is the most influential person on Michael's work?
He says there have been different people at different times.
Starting out, both of his parents were and are both performers. They still act and teach and choreograph in the Berkshires. It was all taken very seriously when Michael was a kid. He would be reprimanded if he wasn't in his light or he was wearing light colors backstage when he should have been in dark colors. It was instilled to him from an early age that this was a serious profession. He grew to really appreciate and love that.
It put him a little bit ahead of the game professionally with a lot of the people that he has worked with. He tends to have the same kind of a professional sensibility with someone like a Karen Mason as opposed to someone just out of school. His parents had a huge influence on him that way.

Once Michael got to New York, his acting teacher, Alan Langdon at Circle in the Square, was always on his shoulder. His work was so depthful and rich. It has never left him. That is pretty much true of everyone he has ever worked with. Joe Mantello has been a huge hero and a mentor of his.
They have worked together on a couple of things. He is such an amazing director and artist. He is also quite an amazing actor. When Michael saw Joe in The Normal Heart, he thought, "That just wasn't a show. It was an event.

His performance in that was so intense and so rich that I thought if I can't do it like that, I don't want to do it." Terrence Mann has always been an inspiration to Michael. He was lucky enough to work with him at one point and he has been an inspiration to Michael on commitment and energy and professionalism. Michael considers himself lucky that he has gotten the chance to mingle with these "giants." "Holy crap! How did I get here?"

What is it about the business that you think has changed for the better...and for the worst since you began in it?
Positively, Broadway and musical theater has had a bit of a resurgence thanks to shows like Glee and American Idol. Also, the LIVE musicals being broadcast on TV. It is great and cool to open all of this up to new audiences and new generations.

That is something that the powers that be may not have thought about as they began all this. It is also poisonous and tricky for those involved because it starts to get to a point where people want to go into this profession simply because they want to be famous and just for certain accolades and attention verses telling stories and being authentic. That gets to be a little tricky sometimes to sift through those things.
In closing, Michael is really thankful in the fact that he gets to tell stories and he gets to do this for a living. It has been an important art form in our history as humans. Michael is glad it is still happening. If he had to come up with a thesis statement about what he is about in this business, it's about TRUTH. It's about HUMANITY. It's about a bunch of people sitting together collectively in the dark, take a breath, and have a cathartic experience. It proves that we are not alone in the world. Everything they may be experiencing, painful, shameful, hard, and joyous, and wonderful is also something that other humans may have experienced or may be experiencing. If we can have that moment with each other, it makes a difference to really affect those people walking out of the theater.

Michael has always aspired to, in some way, to be a reflection of humanity for the audience. If he can do that for the rest of his life, he will be a happy camper.
Many impressive visitors have walked The
Yellow Brick Road to Oz and Broadway from The Wiz to Wicked . The Wizard of Oz’s fabled movie’s star Judy Garland has been a character in The Boy From Oz to End of The Rainbow. Goodspeed Musicals’ new musical, Chasing Rainbows: The Road To Oz tells the story of Judy Garland before she became the international legend in movies like A Star is Born, Meet Me in St. Louis, and in concert.  (The Westfield News, READ MORE)

Don't Miss Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz through November 27th at The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut.
Thank you, to all of the artists mentioned in this blog for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give!

With grateful XOXOXs ,

Courtesy Scott Clarke
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