Michael McGrath (pronounced McGraw) is a lucky guy. And he knows it. The Worcester native first came to the attention of Boston audiences in Gerard Alessandrini’s musical spoof “Forbidden Broadway” back in the 80s. He costarred with Toni DuBuono, the lady who would eventually become his wife.
Since that time, he has established a successful career on Broadway and beyond. Along the way he has picked up a Tony Award (along with Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle honors) for his role opposite Matthew Broderick and Kelly O’Hara in the Gershwin musical “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”
His impressive Broadway credits also include “Memphis,” “Born Yesterday,” “Wonderful Town,” and creating the role of Patsy, King Arthur’s long suffering sidekick, in “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” This month he returns to The Cape Playhouse in Dennis to play Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s classic comedy “The Odd Couple” from June 9 to June 21.
Here’s a condensed look at our recent conversation:
BIR: In “The Odd Couple,” Oscar is the classic slob and Felix is the fastidious neat freak. Which one are you at home?
MM: I’m the Oscar-Felix combo. (Laughing) I can be a little unkempt. There’s always a little pile on the floor, which Toni yells at me about. But I love to cook, and I’m a bit of a foodie, and that’s very Felix of me. And I’m way into sports, so that’s very Oscar of me . . . This show plays as good as it did in 1965. It’s amazing how it has held up to the test of time. I think it’s a classic.
BIR: Playing The Cape Playhouse is a homecoming for you.
MM: I love working there. My family has had a place in West Yarmouth since the late 70’s, early 80’s. It’s always a great retreat.
BIR: Talk a little about growing up in Worcester. Did the performing bug bite you early?
MM: Way back when, when I was in grade school, grammar school, it was something that I always loved doing. I always liked making people laugh. You know, it’s sort of the old adage, being a show off. It sort of morphs its way into an acting career, I guess. I was always in the forefront of performing and singing and doing whatever I could do in those days, when I was a little kid, to get attention in some respect.
BIR: “Forbidden Broadway” has become a cult classic, cleverly parodying musical theater for more than 30 years. Performing it at the Park Plaza Hotel from ‘85 to ‘88 had to be a demanding experience, but also a great training ground.
MM: “Forbidden Broadway” has always been one of the hardest shows I’ve ever done. Anybody that goes into it finds that out quickly. It’s very hard on the voice because you use so many different muscles and techniques to get different impersonations . . . It’s like doing an opera every night. It was 24 songs a night.
BIR: Since those days, you’ve had a lot of long runs in New York. Is that a blessing or a necessary evil?
MM: Any actor will tell you it’s a blessing, as much as some may complain. To have a long run, and know you have a place to go every night, and you’re in a hit . . . it’s definitely a blessing. Because it’s security. Fame is fleeting but the paycheck is what puts the bread on the table.
BIR: It must have been almost overwhelming to work with Eric Idle, creating “Spamalot.” You had a truly impressive cast.
MM: It was an amazing time in my life to work with such people as Mike Nichols and Tim Curry, Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce. They were all amazing. And to be in that group – everybody treated everybody as a peer. It was a wonderful, wonderful collaboration . . . When the project was first presented to me, I thought, ‘How the hell are they gonna do a musical version of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail?’ I just couldn’t see it. None the less, when I was told that Mike Nichols was directing it, I jumped at the chance to be involved, of course.
BIR: And you got to sing the most iconic song in the show.
MM: We worked in New York for five weeks before we went to Chicago to do our out-of-town tryout. . . . I was sitting in the hall outside the rehearsal studio early one morning . . . there was a meeting going on inside . . . Eric Idle came out and said to me, “McGrath, are you familiar with ‘Always Look On The Bright Side of Life.’ “ I said, “Of course I am. Absolutely, I am.” He said, “Well you just got a new number.” And I said, “What? What?” I thought he meant I should be looking on the bright side of life because I got a new number. And he said, “’Always Look On The Bright Side of Life.’ It’s your new number in the show. We need something to open up the second act and now it’s yours.” I just looked at him. And then he said – and you may not be able to print this – “Don’t **** it up.” (Laughing)
BIR: Doing “The Odd Couple” is a little like coming full circle, since you worked with Neil Simon in the 90’s.
MM: It was one of those things, like meeting Eric Idle. Meeting Mike Nichols. These people are iconic in the business. When you’re welcomed into their little club, it’s pretty fun. I first worked with him on “The Goodbye Girl” in 1993 with another iconic figure, Martin Short. And Bernadette Peters . . . I was Martin’s standby in that show. . . I wasn’t performing, I was his cover. So I used to sit at the table in the rehearsal room every day with my script open, sitting next to Neil Simon, listening to his asides and being engaged in conversation with him . . . l mean, everything that came out of his mouth was hilarious. But you know, sometimes he would just engage me in conversation about my family or the ball game last night or something like that. It’s pretty incredible to get a glimpse inside of those people.
BIR: One of your next big projects is brand new. A musical based on “The Honeymooners” with you playing Ralph Kramden.
MM: It’s something I’m completely jazzed about . . . We’ve done a couple of presentations in New York with my dear friend Hank Azaria as Ed Norton . . . We’ve gotten some great feedback, there’s been some great work done on the script. We’re doing another presentation -- or what we call a workshop – in the fall, and hopefully we’ll be on stage somewhere, I think on the East Coast, in the spring of 2015. We’re shooting for a Broadway opening in fall of 2015.
BIR: At the end of the day, it sounds like a pretty good life.
MM: At the end of the day, it’s a damned good life.
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
“The Odd Couple” June 9 – June 21. The Cape Playhouse, Route 6A, Dennis, MA. Tickets: CapePlayhouse.com or 877-385-3911