From ‘Knots Landing’ To ‘Oz’
Michele Lee, veteran of stage and screen, is best known for her role as Karen MacKenzie in the TV drama “Knots Landing,” and now she has returned to Broadway in “Wicked.” Lee portrays the role of Madame Morrible and can be seen over the next several months at the Gershwin Theatre, 222 West 51st Street.
It is always a pleasure and humorous adventure speaking with Lee because of her spontaneous, impulsive and quick-witted sense of humor.
When we last spoke you said you would soon have a Broadway surprise. I was thrilled and elated to find out that you have joined the cast of Wicked. I would imagine that it is difficult to leave your home for a period of time and relocate across the country.
Yeah, but the thing is I so love New York. I’ve always had an apartment in New York. I would come in for a week or so if I wasn’t working. I know I told you this before, but I was conceived in New York. My parents were New Yorkers. However, I was born in L.A. I do miss my friends, but I am having an incredible time in the show.
I know somebody of your caliber does not have to audition for a show. I imagine that you received a call, and someone begged you to be in Wicked. So how did you actually get the part?
Well, someone called and begged me to be in it! Actually, they asked me several times to do the part, and for whatever reason I didn’t. But yes, someone called and asked me to do it. I’m sure there was a lot of people who would do the role. Honestly, I was hesitant. The reason I was hesitant is because I never in my career played anything near this kind of a role. Now, have you seen it?
If I was a gay man they would have revoked my gay card. No, I haven’t.
I will tell you this … the people that see the show are astounded at how good it is. And a lot of people, I think, feel that it was a kind of show that was not seen initially as “YOU’VE GOT TO SEE THIS SHOW!” by the press. However, after 11 years or however long it is, it is filled to capacity every night. The Gershwin Theatre is one of the largest theatres in New York. The audience screams, and not just at the end of the show — they scream during the show at the incredible performances, the talent. Caroline Bowman is playing the Green Witch. She’s got this incredible voice. I find myself watching, which I do often, onstage. I find that my mouth is open while she’s getting to the end of her number, because of the raw talent.
I know that you’re really really good at telling stories. I just know there has to be a story connected with how you prepared for this role.
Let’s see, there’s a few. And the reason I was hesitant was because it wasn’t anything near the characters that I played before. And first of all, she’s evil. You don’t know that from the start. She’s really manipulative and just thinking about herself. In comparison, I can think of Donna Mills from “Knots Landing.” But she also has an accent and demeanor from other roles that I’ve done. In Wicked there were several words that I made up, so it’s not like learning a regular script. In other words, one of the words I’m supposed to use is despondent. But the word I use in the show, the way it’s written is “despondiary.” It’s difficult to memorize. Now mind you, when I was in “Knots Landing” I used to memorize the lines while they were lighting the scenes. That’s how fast my brain works. When you get out of the habit of the memorization process, it can take a lot longer. And so while I was trying to learn this show, the assistant I have here in New York would be sitting with me and literally be cross eyed. She would read a paragraph I was learning, and then finish it, and then I’d screw it all up. Also, the stage is what they call a raked stage, so it’s higher in the back. It comes down to where the orchestra pit is, and it might be two feet higher. I swear you could have rolled me down that stage. It’s so difficult to understand that when you’re walking side to side one of your legs is higher than the other. I’m not a dog! It was very difficult, and still is, to move on the stage. And when I say roll down the stage, you actually feel like you’re running down the stage and trying to hold yourself up. The other thing is that I’m very unrecognizable on stage; also, I am beautiful. This makeup is about an hour’s worth. I have to get in much earlier. My eyebrows are literally higher than my own brows. My own brows are whited out. My lips are over and under my lip line. I look a little bit like Tony Curtis in the movie “Some Like It Hot.” I am definitely a gal in drag! Honestly, when you see it on the stage it is beauteous. I will tell you though, in this show they have their whip out in the most glorious way. The people who come see it will literally say, “My God, it’s like it just opened.” I can’t tell you how many hours they put in with the corrections of things that have gone a little astray or have gotten old. Things get old on a show that has gone for so long. When you watch these performances, they are amazing! For me it’s just so much fun, because the important thing is what they said to me when I agreed to do the show, which was make it your own. There are obviously things that you have to do to get to the arc of the character. But how you get there is up to the actor. The road I have chosen is perhaps a little bit different than other people.
I almost feel guilty about talking about what I do to make it different, because the character is horrible, but I play it so that she’s very likable. It’s just fun. The actors are nice people. That’s very difficult sometimes to find when you’re in a working situation. You really feel the comradery of Broadway actors. People are just rooting for the first-time Broadway dancer. The costumes, they made them for me brand new when I came into the show. They are so gorgeous.
I understand that you have performed in this theatre before. What was it like coming back?
I did Seesaw there. Oh my God, the actress that plays Glenda there has the dressing room that I had. It is identical. I have photos from a magazine interview that I did in 1973, “Good Housekeeping” or one of those, that shows me in the dressing room that still exists. Everything is exactly the same, including me standing at the stage door. It does bring back memories.
How long do you expect to be in Wicked?
I will be in it till at least January. I have an option to go further if I wish. I do have time off, which is so great. I’m going to sing in the Kennedy Center in November, and I go to the White House in December.
Do you have a favorite scene?
Some are just fun watching other people. I’m on stage watching other people — go figure that one out. There is one that I love. I do it up in the balcony call, and they like my character from below. She gives a speech to the town of Oz. I love this character, because she’s so over the top. I love playing that scene. It’s very distorted.