An Interview with Allegheny’s Own Tony Award Winner Michele Pawk
by Jim Bulman
Michele Pawk grew up in a small rural community outside Butler, Pennsylvania, and matriculated at Allegheny in 1980. Active in music and theatre from the moment she arrived on campus, she transferred to the College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati for professional training, spent several years on the West Coast, then moved to New York, where, for the past decade, she has performed in major musicals both on and off Broadway—Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret and Chicago, the Gershwins’ Crazy for You, and Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along among them. Michele has supplemented her theatre career with frequent television appearances in shows such as Golden Girls, Law and Order, and L.A. Law and with occasional film roles as well (The Cradle Will Rock, Jeffrey). She currently is starring in a new Sondheim musical, Bounce, which is having tryouts in Chicago and Washington, D.C. prior to a New York opening.
In the fall of 1980, Michele performed in a revue called Side by Side by Sondheim on the Campus Center stage. A joint venture of the Playshop, the Music Department, and the Student Experimental Theatre, the revue featured several wonderfully talented student performers, but it was Michele who filled the auditorium with her rich mezzo and dynamic stage presence. I still remember the way she belted out the show-stopper “Broadway Baby,” a song in which—ironically, in hindsight—she yearns to make it big time on the Great White Way. I had the privilege of performing several numbers with Michele in that show. She was only a freshman; I was a young faculty member. One of us went on to win a Tony Award …
I spoke with Michele on the morning of August 20, shortly after she had returned to New York from the Chicago run of Bounce.
JB: Michele, you’ve just won the Tony for Best Featured Actress, for your role in Hollywood Arms. How does it feel?
MP: It’s thrilling. It’s flattering. I’m awed and honored, especially because this play closed in January, and many Tony voters hadn’t had a chance to see it. I was amazed that my performance was remembered so long after the play had closed.
JB: It’s a particular honor that you won for acting in a “straight” play, isn’t it, when you’ve made your name in musicals?
MP: It is. Often there’s an unfortunate stigma attached to musical theatre actors, an assumption that if you can sing and dance, you can’t act. So yes, the Tony carries a certain cachet. It brings a level of confidence that’s nice to have. The greatest thing about having won, though, is all the lovely cards and calls I’ve gotten from people I haven’t seen in years and years. Tony Chiroldes, a friend of mine from Allegheny—do you remember him?
JB: Sure I do. He’s remained in theatre too, hasn’t he?
MP: Oh, absolutely. He lives in New Jersey now. He and I have remained in touch, and I received the loveliest card from him. That’s been the best part of it.
JB: Hollywood Arms must have been a challenge. An autobiographical play by Carol Burnett, in which you were cast to play Carol’s mother.
MP: The biggest challenge was the fear factor. Carol Burnett is an icon, and when she walks into the room, you think, “My God, how can I perform in front of her?” But there was something about me that reminded her of her mother: essentially a physical resemblance, I think. She’d based the play on a memoir she’d written for her three daughters. Her daughter Carrie persuaded her to turn it into a play—or actually, a movie. But Carol sent the movie script to Hal Prince, who said, “God, kid, this is a play!” So she revamped it, and Hal directed it on Broadway.
JB: Was Carol present at rehearsals?
MP: Oh my gosh, yes. Hal structured them so that we’d rehearse in the morning, get a scene or two on its feet, and then we’d go to lunch. Carol would come in at three and we’d run what we’d done in the morning for her. After the first four or five times of thinking, “Okay, now I’m going to make a fool of myself in front of Carol Burnett,” I got over it. She was everything you’d dream her to be—generous and warm and friendly and smart. She couldn’t have been more supportive.
JB: Especially given the circumstances.
MP: Remarkably, yes. Carol’s daughter Carrie died of cancer before we opened, so many of us thought that the play would be canceled because Carol would need time to recover. But she didn’t. She threw herself into rehearsals as a sort of healing process and showed up every day. It was absolutely inspiring.
JB: The kind of fortitude she shared with her mother, possibly. I remember reading that although her mother is a rather unsympathetic character in the play—an alcoholic, wasn’t she?—you managed to make her sympathetic.
MP: When you live with a character and get under her skin, it’s easier to find positive reasons for the things she does. Carol’s mother was a dreamer in a very difficult time. She was a single parent in the 1940s. She had raised two kids and lived with her own mother, a domineering woman who wasn’t supportive of her dream at all. In the face of that, she still believed herself to be a player. She was a writer for Hollywood glamour magazines who loved to tell the story of how, when she interviewed Rita Hayworth, Rita asked her for a nickel to make a phone call. “Rita Hayworth owes me a nickel!” She was a scrapper, trying to be the best parent she could. I loved that about her.
JB: You did a lot of television acting when you lived in California, didn’t you, instead of musicals?
MP: I did a lot of television, yes; but musicals too. I moved to California after graduating because I knew a woman there who would offer me a job doing industrial shows. But I kept doing theatre, because that’s what I know and love. I got my first Broadway show while I was out there. Mail. It was a little musical that started at the Pasadena Playhouse—had a huge run there—then went to the Kennedy Center and finally New York.
JB: So that was the show that brought you to New York?
MP: It did. But I went back to California. Fast forward to a year or so later, when I auditioned for the Gershwin musical, Crazy for You. In those days producers held auditions in L.A. for all the big Broadway shows. I got cast in the show, but not in the role I ended up doing. I was cast as one of the dancers. I guess I was fortunate that my dancing was strong enough to get me the offer; but at that point in my career, I didn’t want to be in just the chorus or the dancing corps. I wanted to play featured roles. I wanted people to think of me as a lead. Someone gave me what turned out to be great advice, to turn down the offer and wait for something better, so I did. Sure enough, the girl to whom they offered the part that I eventually got was already committed to something else, so they called me. I flew back out to New York on my own nickel for another audition and got the part.
JB: And delighted Broadway audiences with your performance of “Naughty Baby” for hundreds of performances. It was pretty risky for you to be offered a role in a musical like that and say no, wasn’t it?
MP: Oh for heaven’s sake, every day is a risk in this business! I’m forty-one and still fly by the seat of my pants. I took a risk, sure. The risk of not working. There was probably a little naivete in my decision; but in hindsight, it was the best thing I could have done.
JB: And now you’re starring in a brand new Sondheim musical. The “Broadway Baby” you sang at Allegheny twenty-three years ago was prophetic.
MP: Yeah. How much more exciting can it get?
JB: You’re working with the best talent in theatre today.
MP: It’s such a thrill. I’m incredibly lucky. All I ever really wanted to do, I’ve been doing for the past four or five years. I’ve been blessed to be in the room with some amazingly gifted people: Sam Mendes and Robbie Marshall [the director and choreographer of Cabaret: Marshall’s Chicago just won the Oscar for best picture]; Michael Mayer [The Triumph of Love], Graciela Daniele [Hello, Again]; Frank Galati [Seussical]. And now Steve Sondheim and John Weidman, and of course Hal Prince [the composer, librettist and director of Bounce]. I’m in the room with greatness, and it’s joyous; but in a sense, they’re no different from any other theatre professionals. It’s all about collaboration. What they care about is the play, the process, having fun and doing the work. Working with talented people has become increasingly important to me. The question for me now isn’t how big the part is or what it can do for my career, but who can inspire me to be better than I think I ever could be.
JB: People you can keep learning from.
MP: Because what else is there? I think that the key to great directors is that they cast well; and by that, I don’t mean that the person they cast is perfect for the part, but that they trust. They’re smart enough to see something in you during auditions that makes them think that eventually they’ll be able to get something far greater from you. Then they give you the freedom to explore, and they stay out of the way a bit. That’s the greatest gift a director can give an actor: space, space, space.
JB: It’s analogous to the educational process, isn’t it, wherein a good teacher will give students the freedom to discover things for themselves?
MP: It is, yes. More like the kind of education I got at Allegheny than at the conservatory.
JB: Can you describe the differences?
MP: They’re night and day. The education I got at Allegheny was such a gift for me, and I imagine for most kids who go there. It gives you the freedom to learn about yourself—how to discipline yourself. You learn how to socialize, how to limit yourself. At eighteen, I wouldn’t have been ready for the conservatory environment. I was hardly ready at twenty. The conservatory didn’t allow me as much freedom. It was incredibly intense.
JB: Like a graduate program?
MP: Very much so. I wish I’d stayed at Allegheny and finished the four years there, then gone on for graduate training. I’m a big proponent of getting a liberal education before you get training as a theatre professional. Quite frankly, we don’t need any more dumb actors. The only thing actors have to draw on when communicating a scene is their life experiences, and if those experiences don’t include a good education, if their general knowledge is limited, they’ll make less interesting choices. You can be an actor any time. A broad education is the best foundation an actor can build on.
JB: You sampled both types of education as an undergraduate.
MP: Yes, and when I went to Cincinnati as a transfer student, I found myself way ahead of other students in terms of mind-set. I was more grounded; I’d had two years of college to consider what I really wanted to do. At eighteen, few people are willing to hunker down and do what it takes to survive at a conservatory.
JB: Very different from the balance of priorities we encourage students to strike at Allegheny.
MP: I have to tell you, though, that the training I got in theatre at Allegheny was some of the best I’ve ever had, even at the conservatory. Allegheny has an amazing theatre program. The teachers were nurturing, wonderful people, and I felt very, very lucky to have had them. Students today should be absolutely thrilled to be studying under you guys!
JB: This will make great copy for the magazine, Michele. I’ll put it in boldface!
MP: It’s the truth. And not just the theatre program. Music, too. There was a professor—very tall, with dark hair—who did choral music.
JB: David Cassel?
MP: Cassel, that’s right. I had a theory class with him that was—oh, my gosh—more intense than any class I had at Cincinnati. I tested out of all theory classes at Cincinnati because of that class. It was that good.
JB: Are you still in touch with any of your Allegheny classmates?
MP: Yes! Just this summer in Chicago, two people I knew from the choir came backstage after the show. I hadn’t seen them in over twenty years but I recognized them right away. I just couldn’t believe it! The dearest friends I have in my life are people I went to school with at Allegheny: Mary Ferlan, Sue Hodges, Liz Barnhart—
JB: Are you still in touch with them?
MP: Oh gosh, yes. My best friend Mary comes up to New York for every show I do and we have very festive weekends. She lives in Lexington and is getting married. I get down there when I can. And Sue lives just across the bridge in New Jersey. She has two kids, so I was just there last week. Our kids play together. Our boys are the same age.
JB: It’s nice that you’ve been able to maintain those friendships after twenty years.
MP: Those are my tried and true friends. The people who have been with me through it all. The good, the bad, and the ugly. And there has been some of that! I don’t have as many good actor friends.
JB: You met your partner John while performing together in a musical, didn’t you? [John Dossett is currently starring in Gypsy on Broadway with Bernadette Peters.]
MP: Yeah. We met when we were doing Hello, Again by John LaChiusa. That was back in ’94, I think.
JB: So you’ve been together a long time.
MP: Eight or nine years.
[At this point Michele’s little boy, Jack, runs into the room to hug his mother good-bye while dad waits at the door.]
MP: You’re going to the dentist today, my boy! She is going to have you open your mouth so she can look at your teeth. Go AAAAAAHHHHH! And she is going to tell you what a good job you’re doing. I’ll meet you there. All right? Bye!
[John tells Michele that they’re taking the stroller, and Jack runs out.]
JB: How old is he?
MP: Three. John and I waited, obviously, to have a baby. And you know, we wanted it so badly that by the time we had Jack, we were ready to put everything else aside.
JB: What’s it like to have two demanding careers like yours, and be raising a child? How do you manage it?
MP: That’s all about your partner and how supportive he or she is of you. You make the choice to have a child together. Our careers are important to both of us, and we’re lucky that we get to do what we love. But our son is the most important thing in our lives. So it is easy to juggle, because our priorities are the same.
JB: Do you have a nanny to help out?
MP: We lucked into a situation that’s just unbelievable. I was doing Seussical the Musical—I’d just gotten pregnant when it was in workshops, so I thought I wouldn’t be able to do the show; but rehearsals kept getting pushed back until Jack was four months old, so I thought, “Well, I’ll have to get myself back into shape, but I can do it.” I was breast-feeding all during the Boston run. By the time it came to New York, John was in another children’s show, Tom Sawyer, and we knew that with our schedules, we had to get a nanny. I wanted somebody who would come to the dressing room with me so that I could continue breast-feeding. I wasn’t ready not to be near the baby at this point. We hired the first person we interviewed. She was a great kid who had moved here from Seattle and planned to start school that coming fall. She’s still with us.
JB: You mentioned your schedules. What is a typical day like for a working actor in New York?
MP: It depends on where you are in your career. I still audition for things, for films and television and voice-overs—the sort of stuff that pays the bills. And I take classes. Yesterday I took a dance class, which at this point in my life is more about joy than anything else. It’s nice just to keep my chops up a little bit. I also want to take voice lessons again before I go back into the show, just to get myself back into shape [Bounce is on a brief hiatus before its Washington opening]. You spend a tremendous amount of time still working on your craft. It’s all you have.
JB: You’re about to go begin another month of rehearsals for Bounce. Will they last all day?
MP: Yes—ten to six, generally.
JB: That’s a long day.
MP: It is. And then you come home you tend to a three-year-old; and by the time he’s in bed, you’re about ready to shoot yourself!
JB: Or have a good stiff drink?
MP: We have an extraordinary circumstance, because our kid is on a theatre schedule. He sleeps till ten or ten-thirty with us, but he stays up till one a.m. So it’s not like we put our kid to bed at eight and we get some down-time. Oh no, no, no!
JB: That is extraordinary.
MP: It’s fantastic, though, because there have been many times when John and I are both working in shows and neither of us gets home till about eleven-thirty. The thought of having Jack asleep by the time we get home is just too hard to deal with. So we give him a bath and read books and still have a bit of time together. For another couple of years, we’re good.
JB: And after that, when he goes to school?
MP: When we have to get up early in the morning, one of us is going to die!
JB: Any particular roles you’d like to play before you do?
MP: I’d like to do some Tennessee Williams: I’d like to play those women. They’re complicated, and they’re women of a certain age, which I’m fast approaching. Or already in, I should say.
JB: You’re not there yet. You have a three-year-old!
MP: I don’t feel like it, but I suppose you never do. I feel like Dorothy Parker, who in the last interview she ever gave—she was in her seventies—was asked how old she was, and she said, “It’s a shame that I actually am this age when inside I’ve never felt cuter!” I know that feeling. You don’t realize you’re getting older because you gain more self-awareness and more respect and trust. It’s only when you walk by the mirror that it hits you: “That’s right, I’ve gotten middle-aged!”
JB: Not you, Michele. You’ll always be eighteen.
Jim Bulman is the Henry B. and Patricia Bush Tippie Professor of English at Allegheny College.
This article was featured in the Fall/Winter Issue of Allegheny Magazine.