Actor/singer/activist Michael-Leon Wooley will be gathering his Broadway cohorts and presenting their collective musical theatre talents in his fourth benefit for Hope of the Valley – BROADWAY TO THE RESCUE: A BENEFIT FOR THE HOMELESS. This one-night event October 14, 2017 at the Montalban Theater will feature multi-credited Broadway and Los Angeles performers, including Tony Award-winner Lillias White, Tony nominees John Tartaglia and Sharon McKnight, Drama Desk winner Aaron Lazar, and more yet to be announced.
The eternally busy Michael-Leon carved out some time from the current New York City project he’s involved in to answer in-depth my probing inquiries.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Michael-Leon!
It started a couple of years ago after the death of someone really close to me. A friend was diagnosed with a horrible brain tumor, that took him eight weeks after diagnosis. I had a difficult time bouncing back, and despite a successful career, was feeling a bit lost. Someone suggested that since my friend was an advocate for the homeless, why didn’t I do something for the homeless too. So I googled “homeless” and “volunteer.” Hope of the Valley was the first thing to come up. I contacted them and they said, “Come down and help serve lunch at the Mission.” So I went. And after a few weeks, I realized how incredible they were, and was blown away by their extraordinary, tireless work with the homeless. I asked them one day what they did for fundraisers. They told me a guy once came and sang some songs and it was great. And I said, “Let me help you out,” and came clean for the first time about my career and what I’ve done. I put together a small benefit at the Federal Bar in North Hollywood, called my Broadway friends in L.A., and we sang and blew the roof off the place. It was a great night and we raised about $3,000 and have only grown since. Now, headed into our fourth show, we’ve raised about $100,000 in under two years, and hope to do more. My work with Hope Valley is what I’m most proud of these days, even more than anything in my career. And I was honored a couple of weeks ago when asked to join Hope of the Valley’s Board of Directors. Awful long way from serving lunches. Oh, I said, “Yes.”
Heading into your fourth show, this one-nighter at the Montalban Theater, what challenges of your first event have you mastered now in putting together this fourth show?
Well, it’s funny. As we master some things, as the show grows; we learn there’s new things to master. Getting sponsors is part of the job. Picking the right date and venue. We are always a little behind, but we never worry about the show. We have no doubt that that part comes together. These performers are such pros and at the top of their game, they all have a fearlessness when it comes to it. And that’s been a very cool byproduct of BTTR. We’ve had to assemble a huge ensemble to flesh out the show and some big numbers. Young performers from around Los Angeles, they call our show ‘Broadway Bootcamp.’ In rehearsal, they are asked to step up in a big way. We move at a quick pace. The Broadway vets are bringing it, and they have to bring it too. It takes a lot of courage and work to be toe-to-toe with everyone on stage… and they do it in spades!!!
Will there be a theme threading through this show?
Well, we’ve had different themes in the past. Disney, Christmas, gospel. But this time we’re going back to our roots. Most of the performances October 14th are numbers that these performers actually did on Broadway! A lot you’ll never see anywhere else but here. Some are flying in from NYC, some are taking time from their TV and film work to revisit their Broadway performances.
Lillias White is singing from THE LIFE, the song that got her a Tony Award. Tony nominees John Tartaglia and Sharon White are doing their numbers. Not to mention songs from HAIRSPRAY, WICKED, RENT, CATS, A CHORUS LINE, MEMPHIS, HAIR and more! I get all excited just talking about it!
Who gets to pick the song selections?
That job falls on me. And it is my favorite part of the process. And though I started BTTR by myself, the amazing Kymberli McKanna came on board as another producer. She’s always great about bringing to mind a show or a song I would never have thought of. I end up listening to a lot of Broadway stations on Sirius and Spotify. And it’s kinda cool when a number pops up of me singing.
Do you know what you’ll be performing? Or is that a secret/surprise?
Not sure yet, I sometimes think I’d just like to host the show and put it together. But I would get my head handed to me on a platter if I didn’t do something. I have an idea for this show. It should be real fun.
As one who’s performed in cabarets and piano bars in both New York and L.A., how would you differentiate the New York audiences from L.A. patrons? Differences can’t be subtle, right?
Well, I think audiences in general are all just out to have a good time. I think before the curtain rises, whether in NYC or L.A. or Kalamazoo, everyone is hoping for a thrilling experience. Though that doesn’t always happen, that’s what we’re all rooting for. I had as much fun at HAMILTON at the Pantages as I did at LEGALLY BLONDE at the Cupcake Theatre, a small theatre in the NOHO arts district. Before the curtain rises on any show, I’m like, “C’mon guys! Bring it!!!”
I will say the biggest compliment I get from BTTR is “Wow, I feel like I’m in New York!!!” That always is a homerun to me!
You started playing piano when you were just five years old. Did you twin brother Marcus-Leon share your love for the keys?
LOL. My Marcus can’t really carry a tune. (Thank god! One singer per family, please!) BUT funny thing. He works with computers for a living. He is as talented on the keyboard of a computer as I am on the keyboard of a piano.
I read in your bio that you auditioned 107 times before landing your first role in the national tour company of PURLIE. Which of those 107 auditions was the most nerve-wrecking? The 105th? The 1st? The 106th?
HA, HA! They all were nerve-wrecking. I always hated dance calls. Sometimes auditions are way too early. Sometimes my songs were way too high. And sometimes, I’d go home with my tail between my legs. But I’m grateful for all those auditions ’cause they taught me how to audition, what works, what doesn’t, what to do, what not to do. I love walking in to audition for a musical these days. I go in with a ‘take no prisoners’ agenda and a ‘make new friends’ attitude. (And I really hope everyone in the waiting room, up for my job, gets to hear me.) LOL!!!!
Would you share some fun stories of working with the genius Susan Stroman in the 2000 Broadway revival of THE MUSIC MAN?
I love Stro (as we call her). When I first got a call asking me to audition for MUSIC MAN, I didn’t think they really wanted me. There weren’t many roles for a 6’4 black man in that show as far as I can see, HA!!!! But they couldn’t find the bass sound they were looking for (for the barbershop quartet) and came around to ask me again. They’d already cast the other members of the quartet (Blake Hammond, John Sloman, and Jack Doyle), and they were looking for the right bass. I’ll never forget going in that day. I had just closed a Broadway show the night before. I learned the song “Lida Rose” and had to sing it with the guys. It was a pretty exciting moment. We sounded like a match made in heaven and I’ll never forget the look on Broadway musical director David Chase’s face when we first started singing. They all spoke at the table for a bit. Then Stro came up to me and said, “Welcome to River City!” Hired me right in the room. I was so excited to land another Broadway show the day after one closes. (We always think we’re never gonna work again. LOL!) I hugged her and picked her up in the air. To this day when I see her, I still hug her and always pick her up in the air.
DREAMGIRLS (both the stage musical and the movie) is a top musical favorite of mine. In the film, you sang “Take the Long Way Home” as Tiny Joe Dixon. Tell us some of your memorable moments working with director Bill Condon and the “up-and-coming” actresses who played Deena, Lorrell and Effie.
Well, Bill, he’s amazing, the nicest, the sweetest, the best. It was my first movie and he made me feel right at home. When I first saw Beyoncé, my first thought was, “Damn! That is the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen in my life, even in a robe with her hair in curlers. She was as sweet as can be. Jennifer (Hudson) and I, for both of us, it was our first film, and felt a bit like newbies. I knew she was going to get an Oscar. The role’s just built that way. And Anika (Noni Rose), we met on the first day of shooting. She’s from Broadway, so we hit it off right away – having a bunch of mutual friends. We’re still really good friends and she comes over to my house for parties and dinners. And I love the fact that we got to star in a movie together, the Disney animated movie The Princess and The Frog. Anika as the princess and me as Louis the alligator. We’re both so proud of that film. She’s been dying to be a part of BTTR, but has had work conflicts. But I’m gonna get her!
Which do you prefer: Getting immediate response from a live audience, emoting in front of a camera or sitting on a stool in front of a script with headsets on?
I love my voice-over work; last Friday I was working on a cartoon. Working on a few episodes of Bravest Warriors. And my character had over 100 lines in this session that would be a few hours. A moment well into the second hour of a long day, I was trying to stifle something that kept making me laugh so hard, I had to do a number of takes. I had to smile for a moment, my life is pretty cool. Being in front of the camera is great. I love it, but nothing beats a live audience. Laughter, screaming, applause, cheering and standing. It’s all addictive. And though this career is hard and demanding and challenging, it’s so worth, it’s when, like October 14, well…
You know, sometimes I stand in my kitchen and cook fried chicken because it sounds like applause, and go, “Thank you, thank you! I love you! Thank you!”
How soon do you start planning your fifth BROADWAY TO THE RESCUE: A BENEFIT FOR THE HOMELESS?
HA! Well, I’m thinking about it a little now (and I shouldn’t), but chances are talks will begin at the cast party for this show. Always happens that way after people have a few drinks.
Can you give us a hint as to what kind of craziness the Montalban Theater audience can expect October 14th?
Well, there are a few performances that I may go out in the audience and watch. Aside from numbers from WAITRESS and AVENUE Q that are thrilling, SMOKEY JOE’S, WICKED, HAIRPSRAY, MEMPHIS numbers are sure to stop the show. And Lillias White will blow the roof off the place. Every single performance is a tour de force, not a weak link in the bunch.
Thank you again, Michael-Leon!
Any time, see ya on the 14th.
For available tickets for this October 14th fundraiser (including a silent auction and a champagne and dessert reception), log onto www.BroadwaytotheRescue.com
For more information on the work that Hope of the Valley continues to do, or to make a donation to them, log onto www.hopeofthevalley.org