Back on the New York City stage for the first time since 2010, actress, singer and performer Michele Lee is debuting her much anticipated new cabaret show in a very special threenight-only run on January 30, January 31 and February 1 at supper club 54 Below.
Lee last performed live in New York in 2010, opening her rave-reviewed musical act at Feinstein’s at the Regency in Manhattan. Also that year, Lee performed at Carnegie Hall with Michael Feinstein and appeared in the play Love, Loss & What I Wore, written by her favorite writer-director Nora Ephron and her sister Delia.
Lee’s new concert, developed over the last six months, also features her brilliant quintet led by arranger/conductor extraordinaire Ron Abel. The show boasts an eclectic songbook, with classics she popularized as well as songs from those magical composers, lyricists and artists with whom she has worked and shared stages in every medium. Audiences will enjoy Broadway hits, along with Lee’s enthralling personal backstage stories, anecdotes from her visits to the White House over the years and some unexpected turns and surprises.
She will include tunes like “Nobody Does It Like Me” from Michael Bennett’s hit musical Seesaw (which won Lee a 1974 Tony nomination), Joni Mtchell’s “A Case of You,” “Feeling Good,” “I Dreamed a Dream” and even a medley of songs depicting the change in women’s attitudes in theater over the course of time.
Of course, Lee is known worldwide for her Emmynominated role as Karen Fairgate MacKenzie in the landmark CBS TV series “Knots Landing,” now the fifth-longestrunning primetime dramatic series in history. She appeared in all 344 episodes of the show, setting the American record for the greatest number of consecutive appearances by a leading actress in an hour long primetime dramatic series. In addition, her directin credits include numerous “Knots Landing” episodes.
She has also starred in and produced numerous films for TV, including CBS’s Emmynominated “Big Dreams and Broken Hearts: The Dottie West Story,” “When No One Would Listen” and “Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story.” More recently, Lee appeared in the Universal feature “Along Came Polly” opposite Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston.
We talked to Lee ahead of her performance to get the scoop on what she has in store.
How does it feel to be back performing in NYC?
I never left New York. My parents were New Yorkers, from the Bronx and Brooklyn. I was conceived in New York and born in Los Angeles; I was bi-coastal from birth. New York City is known all over the world as…well, it’s like the question, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “Practice.”
When people think of New York, they think of entertainment, Broadway, concerts. They think of Liza With a Z, “If you make it there, you make it anywhere.” Also, you must remember that long before I did the series “Knots Landing,” I was in the theater—that’s where I started. Before I was in the original “How to Succeed in Business,” I had already done two Broadway shows. I was a baby.
What can we expect from the new show?
A new Michele Lee in that I’m not all Broadway. There’s a little jazz. A lot of comedy, and I’d like to say a little hip-hop, but I’m afraid not. I’m appearing at 54 Below, and it’s like a classy, sexy speakeasy with incredible food and a feeling of being in my living room. It’s intimate and delicious. I never know what’s gonna come out of my mouth. Sometimes I even surprise myself with the words that fall out of it.
Are people sometimes surprised that you’re also a singer and dancer?
When I was doing “Knots Landing,” we had fans of all ages, so many of our viewers had no idea that Karen Fairgate MacKenzie started as an entertainer. My initial interest was always in music. Then of course there are people who only know me from my musical background and think, “Who the hell is Karen Fairgate MacKenzie?”
Any advice to drag queens who aspire to be a performer like Michelle Lee?
Do you have any advice for Michele Lee who aspires to be a performer like a drag queen? The wonderful thing about the people who love the theatrics of dressing up and performing life a little bit larger than life is that… life is…well, think Mame.
Any last words for your LGBT fans?
Society has come a long way in recognizing the differences in all people. We are not 100% there yet, but look back a few short years ago when Rosie or Ellen were still living in a closet and Chastity Bono was being televised as Sonny and Cher’s adorable little girl. Society needs to catch up one day at a time. Be confident in who you are. Try to do it as gracefully as you can. A smile and intelligence goes a long way.
In Her Own Words
///By Michele Lee
BEFORE PEOPLE REALLY HAD AN UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT GAY WAS, I HAD PARENTS WHO NEVER SAID A DEROGATORY THING ABOUT ANYBODY WHO HAD A DIFFERENT LIFESTYLE OR RELIGION. THIS WAS A TIME WHERE IF YOU WERE 16 YEARS OLD YOU PROBABLY WOULDN’T KNOW WHAT GAY WAS. OH, AND BY THE WAY, IT WAS “QUEER.” THE EISENHOWER ‘50S ERA OF “FATHER KNOWS BEST,” “OZZIE AND HARRIET,” HAD NO REAL UNDERSTANDING THAT THERE WAS A WHOLE WORLD OUT THERE THAT LIVED IN A WAY THAT WAS VERY MISUNDERSTOOD.
My father, a Hollywood makeup artist (Jack Dusick), told my mom to take me on an audition so I would learn what “rejection” was. I remember going with her to the Ivar Theatre one bright afternoon. When the doors opened, I saw this guy, Jonathan Lucas, and immediately fell in love. He was very muscular with his tight t-shirt, short shorts and cowboy boots. He would leap on and off the stage teaching actor/dancer wannabes the choreography to be auditioned.
When we got home later that night, the phone rang, and much to my parents’ chagrin the producers offered me the job. So much for rejection! My father had to eat his make-up sponge and my mother had to explain “gay.”
From the time I was a teenager I always felt like I was on the outside looking in, as many people in entertainment often feel. My strength was to be the Michele Lee Dusick (birth name) that lived in me. The entertainer. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve always been attracted to people that somehow had the aura of… sameness? I have found these people to usually be talented, creative, funny and—not always, but many times—gay. Long before it was the “in” thing to do or the popular thing to do, I had friends, both men and women, who had another sexual orientation. In fact, I secretly loved the feeling that I had many friends that others didn’t or couldn’t share.
When I did “Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” written by Charles Busch (who still remains a very close friend), I played a bisexual woman who came into the lives of a straight couple (Linda Lavin and Tony Roberts) and threw their lives upside down, topsy-turvy. Sandra Bernhard saw the show and asked me to do her then radio show. She really only knew me as Karen MacKenzie from “Knots Landing,” or Rosemary from How To Succeed. She was surprised that I was a little offcenter with a sense of humor to match. Sandra and her family and I have been close friends ever since.
Who: Michele Lee
When: January 30 at 7 p.m.,
January 31 at 8 p.m. and
February 1 at 8 p.m.
Where: 54 Below, 254 West 54th
Street, NY, NY 10019
Tickets: $45. Call (646) 476-3551
or visit 54below.com