Michael McGrath Gets Political at George Street Playhouse
By: Iris Wiener
No one knows better than Michael McGrath that performing is Nice Work if You Can Get It, seeing as how he won a Tony Award for playing the role of Cookie McGee in the 2012 production of said musical. However, he is having no problem getting nice work these days, whether it’s in portraying the personal secretary for the president of the United States, singing show tunes in a Broadway revival, or bringing comedy to a stage adaptation of a television classic. McGrath, who is also known for bringing his talent to Broadway’s Memphis and Spamalot (for which he was also nominated for a Tony), is currently stepping into his third role in a play written by Joe DiPietro with The Second Mrs. Wilson at George Street Playhouse.
As Secretary Joe Tumulty, McGrath aids First Lady Edith Wilson in her efforts to keep Woodrow Wilson in office after he falls ill. The play looks at the real life events in which a woman became the de facto President of the United States, a story that McGrath says remains timely and important. He spoke with Theaterlife about working on a dramatic piece, and his upcoming spots in the musicals She Loves Me and The Honeymooners.
You worked on Swinging on a Star at George Street Playhouse in 1994. How has the experience of working at the theater changed over the years?
It feels more intimate now. It may have just been the enormity of getting a new musical up on its feet that may have made it feel bigger. It’s a very intimate space, which I like, as opposed to playing big Broadway houses for a change. It’s a lot of fun.
One might say that you are becoming one of Joe DiPietro’s go-to actors, after having worked on Memphis, Nice Work if You Can Get It, and now The Second Mrs. Wilson. What is it about his work that speaks to you?
There are some characters he’s written that fit what I do best. This [Secretary Joe Tumulty] is one of them, even though he is actually a real person. He was a blue collar politician from Jersey City coming up. He knew the street very well. A lot of times my strength is the blue collar persona. I think when Joe writes a character like that he maybe thinks of me. That’s always nice.
How do you describe Tumulty’s relationship with the other characters?
I think there are a few antagonists in this play and they all have goals in mind. Colonel House is an antagonist at times. Certainly Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. My character gets at odds with Mrs. Wilson at times. The goal of all the president’s men is to get the Treaty of Versailles signed and to get the League of Nations included in the treaty. So when we are at odds, we are only at odds because we are at times trying to achieve the same goal. These days you would consider my character the White House Chief of Staff. I run interference for the president, I keep him on schedule, and I’m the guy who decided who did and didn’t get to see him. At one point during the play Colonel House gets ejected from the inner circle, and that’s when I become more of a prominent player in the day to day running of the White House while the president is ill…along with Mrs. Wilson of course!
What type of research did you do while working on the character? How did you get to know Joe Tumulty?
Nowadays you can Wikipedia, and there’s quite a few books about Wilson, the Treaty of Versailles, and the League of Nations. Often there is a drama director that does all the research for you and puts together a packet so that you can read and find out about these guys. I was interested to find out about him. I wasn’t born and bred in New Jersey, but I live in Jersey, and have lived here for about fifteen years. It was interesting to me that he was a guy from Jersey City and came up through the ranks of local politics. Woodrow Wilson was also Governor of New Jersey, and that’s when Joe Tumulty started his relationship with Woodrow Wilson. He was basically his Chief of Staff when Woodrow was governor.
Arguably, one of the most interesting aspects of the play was that there was, in a sense, already a female president. How much did you know about Edith Wilson prior to working on the play?
I didn’t know any of the history behind that. I think that Joe [DiPietro] is doing a great service, not only to the theatrical community, but to the public at large. Edith Wilson was very much the acting president while Woodrow was recovering from his stroke.
How much of yourself have you injected into the character? He has taken on a more humorous tone since the play debuted with a different actor at Long Wharf Theatre in May.
I think one of the distinguishing factors about Joe Tumulty is that he was a bit acerbic in his remarks. He could be witty, yet sarcastic. The best way to put it is that he was kind of a wise ass. I’m injecting my delivery into the humor of Tumulty. I’m sort of using my timing and my way of delivering a line.
Why is Edith Wilson’s story relevant in 2015?
It’s amazing to see how politics works. It’s always worked almost the same way. It’s working this way now in our own government. It’s not so much the whole story of the first lady and all that surrounds this play, but it’s so much about how politics used to involve compromise. In this story, Henry Cabot Lodge and Wilson can’t come to a compromise. Lodge wants certain revisions in the treaty and wants the League removed, but Wilson will not budge on those terms so it dies. It doesn’t pass in Congress. It’s the same way today. If you can’t get people to compromise and agree on certain things, then bills die. Politics works the same way that it did one hundred years ago. It’s fascinating to see the inner workings, and you understand a little bit more about what goes on inside the Oval Office and Congress.
What do you believe Woodrow and Edith Wilson would think of the current state of politics, especially with the media circus that has been surrounding Ben Carson and Donald Trump?
I don’t think I can speak for them, I don’t know what they would say! Depending on who the nominees are, it will be interesting to see if we do get our first female president. I don’t know how much Woodrow Wilson was in love with the idea that his wife Edith was being considered, or is now considered, the de facto president. All I can tell from this play alone is how much he adored her and how much he trusted her.
So much of your work is comedic and farcical, if not musical. What made you want to break away from that pattern?
It’s something different for me. I’ve been looking for a play to be that for me for a long time- an original play, a chance to break out of the things that I normally do, and the characters that I normally play. Of course, there was also the musical comedy aspect. Not that it hasn’t been good to me, but I love the idea of being able to play a few dramatic scenes. I’ve been really enjoying that, and I’m thankful for the chance to do it.
You’ve been working on The Honeymooners for a number of years. Any updates about when it will be coming to New York?
We’re still working on it, but the project is definitely still going forward, possibly hitting the stage next year. I’m going to do She Love Me first.
What excites you about getting started with She Loves Me?
It’s a great show, one of those perfect musicals. I enjoyed working with Scott Ellis on On the Twentieth Century. I did a benefit concert of She Loves Me a few years ago with a lot of the same cast members, so I’m looking forward to actually getting to do a full run of it. I’m playing Sipos. He’s sort of like the friend to Georg, he’s probably a little older than Georg, and he’s married. His life is set, so he doesn’t have a lot of the angst that Georg has. He’s sort of a calming influence on Georg. He’s also one of the shop clerks.
Where would we find you on your day off from The Second Mrs. Wilson?
I’m a foodie, so you would find me in my kitchen making Steak au Poivre with wild mushroom risotto.
For more information about The Second Mrs. Wilson, visit www.GSPonline.org or call 732-246-7717.