His Life in the Theater and the Debut of Bette & Barry
By Mike Jeknavorian
Michael Leeds has been involved with many shows, both on and off the stage, including the hit Liza Minnelli vehicle, The Act. I chatted with Leeds about life in the theater and about his musical, Bette & Barry: From Bathhouse to Broadway, which will make its world debut in South Florida in January 2019.
MIKE JEKNAVORIAN: You have a background as writer, a director and a performer. Do you consider that you’re all of those equally, or one of them more than the other?
MICHAEL LEEDS: I’m a director first and then a writer. I direct theater and I also write plays and screenplays.
MJ: You wrote and directed the Broadway musical, Swinging on a Star, which covered the musical eras from the 1920s to the 1950s. Do you think that one era produced a higher caliber of music than another?
ML: I think that the music of every era is not only impacted by the era before it, but also that it’s actually an outgrowth and sometimes a rebellion of the previous era. But I think that my personal favorite between the 1920s to the 1950s would be the 40s. I love the big bands and the novelty songs, as well as the terrific ballads that would go on to be classics. And, of course, I love the great musical theater that came out of the 1940s.
MJ: And you were nominated for a Tony Award for the show?
ML: Actually, the show was nominated for a Tony for Best Musical. So, if we had won, it would’ve most likely been the producers who would have accepted. Still, I have a speech in my pocket if the occasion arises (laughs).
MJ: As a performer/dancer, you were in the Kander and Ebb musical, The Act, which starred Liza Minnelli. Did anything wild or unexpected ever happen during the run of the show?
ML: The most nerve-racking moment in the show was that every night I had to catch and toss a mic to Liza, and I was always afraid I would either overthrow it or drop it. And then I had to do it when we did the number on the Tony Awards! I’m happy to say that we never dropped the mic. Well, okay, just once.
MJ: You must have encountered a lot of celebrities during the run of that show. Were you “star struck” around any of them?
ML: The show received so much attention because of Liz and that rubbed off a bit on the dancers. Liza was great about bringing us to her dressing room after the show, and she’d introduce us to whatever celebrities, and there were many, who came backstage to see her. I remember I met Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. I had just taken a shower downstairs, and I ran into them on the stairs wearing only my towel (laughs). I also met Gene Kelly, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. But I think the one who had the most impact on me was meeting Jackie O. It was like meeting history.
MJ: Of all the shows that you have performed, which was your favorite?
ML: I think the shows I’ve directed have had the most meaning. I directed and choreographed A Little Night Music for the Houston Grand Opera. I worked with Stephen Sondheim for a couple of days before rehearsals, and then he came down to see the show. He was very complimentary about it. That was certainly a highlight.
MJ: Let’s talk about your present show, Bette & Barry: From Bathhouse to Broadway. Of course, the first question is, have you met either of them?
ML: I’ve never met Bette. Barry, I met over the phone. I was directing a show called Miracles, which had lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and music by Stephen Schwartz, Marvin Hamlisch, and David Shire, and we were looking for one more composer. The producer approached Barry Manilow. He was on the coast, and it was arranged that I’d call him that night. I called him, expecting to just chat about the show and what we needed, but instead, he sang and played me a song he had just written an hour before! It was a terrific song, but unfortunately the show never happened.
MJ: It’s common knowledge that Midler and Manilow performed at the Continental Baths in New York City. Did you ever see them there?
ML: I never saw Bette, but I did see Barry perform solo at the baths. Just to be clear, he was on the stage (laughs). And then I saw him when he opened the second act for Bette in one of her tours. No one knew who he was then, so he wasn’t getting the massive response he would receive later after “Could It Be Magic” hit the airwaves.
MJ: Do you think that a vintage bathhouse, with entertainment, could work today?
ML: If the entertainment was as good as Bette, absolutely.
MJ: And this is the world premiere of Bette & Barry: From Bathhouse to Broadway?
ML: Yes, it’s the world premiere.
MJ: You were involved with the casting of the show. Was it difficult to find someone who could impersonate Midler and Manilow?
ML: I did do the casting with the artistic director, Andy Rogow. We weren’t looking for actors to actually be those icons, but rather what happens in the show is… Well, I don’t want to give that away, but it’s a fun twist. We’re lucky enough to have Mallory Newbrough and Michael Ursua, who have wonderful voices. Michael is also the musical director/arranger.
MJ: What’s your dream for this show – Broadway, a LA run, Vegas, a movie?
ML: I think that at this point my dream is to just have it go well!
MJ: And do you live here or in New York?
ML: I go back and forth to New York, but I’m now based down here. I’m actually flying up to New York right after Bette & Barry: From Bathhouse to Broadway opens to direct a show at the York Theater. It’s a presentation of Carmelina, a terrific musical by Lerner and Lane.
MJ: And finally, will you have time for any “downtime” and fun in South Florida before the show opens?
ML: Truthfully, there’s never any downtime. I wrote a film called Fluidity, which might become a TV series, so I’m writing what’s called the “bible” for the series. I’m also working on a play that I’m writing and directing at Island City Stage next season. It’s called Starmaker, and it’s the story of Rock Hudson and his gay agent, Henry Willson.