Michael Urie Talks Succeeding in Business While Hosting Drama Desks
By: Iris Wiener
May 23, 2018: Who better to host an award show celebrating the best in theatre than an actor who personifies it? Over the past year, two-time Drama Desk Award winner Michael Urie garnered rave reviews for his brilliance with physical comedy in The Government Inspector; his moving, sincere performance in Second Stage’s Torch Song; and the titular title character in Shakespeare Theater Company’s Hamlet. In the coming year he shows no signs of slowing down. Immediately after hosting the 63rd Annual Drama Desk Awards for the third time on June 3rd, Urie heads to the Kennedy Center to reunite with his Ugly Betty co-star Becki Newton in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. However, if fans can’t make it to D.C. to get a taste of Urie’s talent, they can check out his work on digital platform BroadwayHD. Urie took the director’s seat for the twice-extended Off-Broadway production of Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, which will be streaming this summer.
Of the many hats Urie has worn as of recent, none are quite the same as that of Drama Desk Awards host. The awards are the only major New York City theatre honors for which productions on Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway compete against each other in the same categories. As he readies himself for the big day, he reflected on what it means to be a Drama Desk Award winner, how he plans to make the event memorable, and the pressure in creating a smooth show.
Theaterlife.com: This is your third time hosting the Drama Desk Awards. Getting ready for it should be old hat for you. How do you approach the role of host?
Michael Urie: The thing about hosting the Drama Desk [Awards] is that you have to ask yourself, “How do you put on a show for a room full of people who put on a show for a living? How do you attack entertaining professional entertainers?” For me, it’s not about pretending like I’m doing a musical or a play; it’s definitely an awards show with all that goes along with it. For better or worse, there’s going to be a lot of awards, it’s going to take a long time, people are going to get embarrassed by being played off…it’s all going to happen. For my money, it’s best to lean into that. I try to make it fun, have a good time, help people to enjoy it and make it as quick as possible.
TL: How do you describe what happens at Town Hall during the Awards show?
MU: The Drama Desk is a small operation. It’s not like doing the Tony’s because we can’t very well put on a full production number on the stage at Town Hall. It’s really a celebration of all of New York theatre, and a chance for people who did a few weeks Off-Off-Broadway to be in the room with people who have multi-million dollar budgets on Broadway. It’s a level playing field and it’s for this select group of people who saw every show to decide what they think should be recognized. Sometimes the winners are surprising. I think it is cool because you can never really count on anything. I appreciate that the Drama Desk is not run-of-the mill in terms of what they recognize and what they award. It has been a really fun playground for me.
TL: It must be a lot of pressure to host because everybody is looking forward to seeing what you have up your sleeve, while Thank You speeches are not always very titillating.
MU: If you’re stuck with a host you don’t care for it can be a really long night, so being the host can be a very scary situation. I think it’s important to just keep it going. I try to keep things in my back pocket that are safe, quick and effective, so there’s no surprises on my end. It’s a room of people who know what flop sweat looks like and know the smell of blood in the water. On the other hand, I know the theatre community really well; I’ve been a part of it for a while, I’m immersed in it, and I see as much as I can. I think that I have a pretty good handle on what the room will find funny. The stuff that we usually do is for the room- it’s not the same as Twitter humor, TV humor or gay humor; it’s New York theatre humor!
TL: Of the nominated shows and actors this year, which of them most easily lend themselves to jabs from the host?
MU: It’s a year where there’s a show called Frozen and a show called Margaritaville, and that sort of writes itself. There’s a show called Mean Girls and there’s a show called School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play. You can’t make that up, nor would you! There’s a show where three women play Donna Summer, and then there’s Three Tall Women, I don’t want to spoil what that show’s about but…(laughs) Only two of the five nominated outstanding musicals were Broadway musicals, so that’s very interesting. What’s exciting to me about this season is that in many ways Off-Broadway was the place for new work, while Broadway was the place for old work and looking back in many ways.
TL: One of the most exciting moments in recent Drama Desk history was when you won in 2013 for Best Solo Performance in Buyer and Cellar.
MU: It was me over some woman named Bette Midler and some other woman named Holland Taylor…(laughs) It was pretty exciting and such a whirlwind. That is what I was talking about. Somebody could win playing in a 99-seat theatre Off-Off Broadway for four weeks against somebody who has a million dollar budget on Broadway. I am the proof! It speaks to what the Drama Desk can be. I was happy to be nominated and to go [to the show] and didn’t really think much about it. Literally, when I sat down I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. What if I win? What would I say?’ You hear people say that and you don’t believe it. I think that might be the only time when I just didn’t think about it.
TL: What advice do you have when it comes to winning a Drama Desk award gracefully?
MU: What I can say is that they will play you the hell off. The way to do it gracefully is to keep your speech short and show up. They won’t let somebody accept in your place and they will play you off from the very beginning. The first damn winner will get played off if they don’t keep it quick!
TL: You have had the most amazing year in theatre, and have personified the true thespian’s experience between Torch Song, The Government Inspector and then Hamlet. Why is theatre your home?
MU: I’ll be lucky if I ever have a year quite this exciting again. I always feel like theatre is a staircase and television is an elevator. In the theatre you really can’t feel the momentum of this job leading to this job leading to this job, and this job helping this job. Doing The Government Inspector, Torch Song, and Hamlet back to back was very informative and they informed one another. The fact that I knew that I had Hamlet and Torch Song coming up after Inspector freed me in a way, and it also gave me confidence while doing Torch Song. There was a real sense of pride in Hamlet as well. It was a dream role with my mentor [Michael Kahn] directing in a beautiful theatre with really smart audiences. It was such a wonderful way to give my Hamlet, as they say. It’s the kind of year that you’re told will never happen, and that you assume will never happen, but that you dream might happen. And I got it! That’s not the kind of thing you can just show up and get. I’ve been pounding the pavement and doing the work. In television there is a lot of luck and being in the right place at the right time. That’s why I say it’s an elevator. You might be on the top floor, you might be on the first floor, but it’ll only take you a minute to get there. In theatre it’s really a staircase. Sometimes you’re walking down the stairs, sometimes you’re walking up the stairs, but there’s steps.
They would never have let me play [Torch Song’s] Arnold Beckoff unless they had seen me play Barbra Streisand. Michael Kahn said he first thought of me playing Hamlet when he saw me in Buyer and Cellar talking to the audience. You’d never imagine making the connection from Buyer and Cellar to Hamlet. However, it wasn’t until he saw me in Homos, or Everyone in America at the Labyrinth, a role in which I spoke in big words and long thoughts, that he said, “I want to do a Hamlet that’s real and funny and where my actor can be authentic, talk to the audience, and then be broad and crazy.” Great theatre-makers don’t necessarily need to see you do exactly what they want from you in order to want you for it. In the theatre, the artists who make it can really use their imaginations.
TL: How will Torch Song have grown when we’re lucky enough to see it when it begins previews on Broadway in October?
MU: I don’t know yet, but I would like to go deeper and fuller into the characters because I am so proud of what we did Off-Broadway, but I think there’s more to mine there. I hope to run as long as we can so as many people can see it as possible. It’s a really special play.
TL: Being in a show called How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is very apropos for someone who played Ivan in The Government Inspector; after all, Ivan would probably have a lot of advice on how to actually succeed in business without really trying!
MU: He definitely would. Ivan’s advice would probably be: “Get drunk and tell everyone a lie. Watch your back and don’t take any shit from anyone.” And he would add, “don’t let anyone know who you really are.”
TL: What will it mean to be performing opposite your Ugly Betty co-star Becki Newton again in Business?
MU: I’m so excited. We’ve been trying to work together again since we stopped working together many years ago. She’s going to be so good in this role, and it will be so fun to just spend three weeks together making each other laugh, and more than likely, annoying everyone around us!