"START SPREADING THE NEWS/ I'M LEAVING TODAY/ I WANT TO BE A PART OF IT, NEW YORK, NEW YORK."
It was maybe a little bit like one of the old movie musicals about show biz in a glamorized New York City – the kind of film he told me he'd been obsessing over and memorizing since he was a tap-dancing toddler.
Singer-actor Michael Hughes, who's booked at the Duplex Cabaret Theatre in Greenwich Village for three shows – September 10, 15, and 20--- got to NYC a week early, jet-lagged but spirits not lagging, his noticeably aglow eyes fighting a battle to close, but he made his way to the place to be on a Monday night – the popular open mic at Birdland, hosted by Jim Caruso. He dropped off his suitcase and some of the music from his Mickey & Judy act. He brought some music to Birdland, knowing he might not get his opening at the open mic 'til midnight or even later. He could sleep the next day. He treats life like a living musical comedy and he heard his song cue.
"I WANT TO WAKE UP IN THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS"
Yes, it was Labor Day, but Jim was holding his weekly event and it was very well attended. After all, it's "the city that never sleeps," to quote a line from the theme song from the movie musical about the music business, New York, New York, where it was introduced by the star it was written for: Liza Minnelli. In fact, the anthem about the city and "making it there" is included in his award-winning Mickey & Judy. The "Judy" is indeed Liza's mother, Judy Garland, and both are major favorites from many of his beloved films. No, he's not playing Mickey Rooney --- nor Judy Garland, for that matter– it's a one-man musical about himself, a "pseudo-memoir," with lots about Judy Garland and her music and how it affected Michael, whose nickname is Mickey. Thus, the title. Get it? When we met the next day for the first part of our interview, I saw those Hughes eyes open as fully as possible and almost fall from their sockets when I was showing him a nightclub and Liza Minnelli entered the room as a patron, inches away from where we were standing. "A Liza sighting! I know this sounds dramatic," he gushed later, "but it was like a little sign –an omen."
We had arranged to meet for part of this interview in the beautiful hotel lobby next to the elegant supper club, Feinstein's at Loews Regency Hotel on Park Avenue, a couple of hours before Michael Feinstein himself (whom Liza had introduced to NYC in his premiere engagement many moons ago) would appear on stage for his latest opening night of a duo show with Marilyn Maye (review elsewhere on this website). In her first solo piece, a medley, Marilyn included "Over the Rainbow." One of Feinstein's solos was "Hello, Dolly!" – which was on Marilyn's very first album and was the number Liza and Judy used to greet each other in their legendary joint concert at the London Palladium. It was also the piece Michael Hughes happened to have sung the night before at the Birdland open mic, where he got a big ovation and won over the crowd. Yes, in what he calls "a dream come true," singer-actor Michael Hughes, came to town on a Monday, was on a famed nightclub stage hours later and just around midnight by the bar area was hired for a plum gig. With their eye for talent, Scott and Barbara Siegel were there, looking for someone to add to their long-running weekly late night variety show at Feinstein's, Broadway Ballyhoo! In the right place at the right time, with the right talent, he was booked. Since we were planning on meeting for an interview, and I was assigned to review the show there, I suggested we meet at Feinstein's so he could see the space and get used to the stage while it was empty. So, he did, looking like a kid who just got the keys to the candy store and was told he could live there. Or maybe a character in a movie musical who comes to full life when the song begins or as he dances down the street, singing his heart out in the heart of the big city. In his case, he wears red sneakers as a nod to the ruby slippers Judy wore in the film The Wizard of Oz to walk down the yellow brick road.
And I wasn't at all surprised when I returned to the club on Thursday for the Ballyhoo! to find my interview subject stopping the show –and a few hearts, I think—with a big-voiced, romantic version of "Maria" from West Side Story. (You can find him doing this and many others on Youtube and the links at the bottom of this article). "I can't believe I'm really here," enthused the young singer to his new-found fans. "We studied your videos in school," an admiring, boyish Michael Hughes told Michael Feinstein, who was now looking on, in HIS audience for this late-night event, in which both he (previously unannounced) and Miss Maye took their turns on stage to sing, too. That was the icing on the cake --- and there actually was cake for all of us, as it happened to coincide with the beginning of the cabaret king's birthday. "Scrape me off the floor!!" was his answer when asked how it all felt. "It was like being a kid and going to Disneyland, like a fairy tale with Cinderella come to life," remarked the guy who worked for Disney for two years in Japan's theme park, cavorting with another Mickey --- Mickey Mouse --- and Minnie --- and singing songs in three languages.
Coming back down to earth a day later, he reflected, "Just to be on that stage where some of the best—bar none—performers have played was fantastic." That roster includes stars from those classic movie musicals and Broadway shows – Carol Channing, Shirley Jones, Mitzi Gaynor and Mickey Rooney. Although he does making passing reference to him and those Rooney/Garland "let's put on a show" films, his presentation is "my autobiography, using songs from Judy Garland's career and more. I grew up knowing I wanted to be on the stage." That growing up was in Canada (where he still lives). He was a bullied kid who didn't "fit in," he says. "Singing healed me." He tells how. "Mickey & Judy is about 60% singing and 40% talking." He uses the songs just as a musical does: when the emotions get too intense for speech, he bursts into (classic) songs. "I'm told that, at the age of two, I was saying, 'I want to see my name in lights.' I thought my life WAS a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movie." Asking his parents to write a letter to the teachers to please only call him by his preferred character name, he seemingly was always "in character" or in costume, and not necessarily male clothes. "The girls had most of the good songs and nicer clothes," was his rationale. His relatives loved performing and music and the family's player piano and its rolls inspired his roles and favorite numbers. His parents "didn't want to diminish my creativity," but were, well, concerned. They brought him to a child psychiatrist by age four. He played and was observed through a special mirror. That doctor did extensive work and, out of a clear blue sky –the kind painted on cycloramas in film musicals-- got back in touch with him a few years ago to see if he'd be part of a follow-up study of how childhood behavior/tests can or can't predict adult eventualities. He said OK, largely because he'd be allowed to read the extensive notes and reports of those long-ago sessions about which he'd been curious. It was a fascinating look at the unusual little boy he used to be, and guess what. The idea for a cabaret act and/or one-man theatrical piece was born.
That tiny tot who sang and danced and dressed up soon was set forth on a career as a child actor and singer, doing a play in Toronto, and bouncing into an open call for the child role in the heavy dramatic musical Les Misérables at age eight, choosing as his audition number the inappropriately bouncy "Singin' in the Rain," he remembered being done by Gene Kelly, whose picture hung on his childhood bedroom wall. ("I didn't get the part.") But he did become a lifelong performer (stage, TV, film, Disney theme park and a USO tour, and much more). One memorable McDonald's commercial was seen in Canada, the USA, etc. And he snagged a role on a Canadian TV series called "Boogie's Diner," starring JM J Bullock and James Marsden. ("I was Desmond, the troublemaker teenager.") He went on audition after audition after audition. It became a way of life. He had an agent. As a teen, he ran away from home and went to Manhattan –he couldn't wait anymore after seeing it on film and in his dreams--- and insists, "It WAS like it seemed in the movies. It lived up to and went beyond my fantasies. Even the sidewalks sparked, I remembered. And I asked myself then, 'Why am I not living here?'"
"THESE LITTLE TOWN BLUES ARE MELTING AWAY. I'LL MAKE A BRAND NEW START OF IT IN OLD NEW YORK..."
He came back a few times to visit and audition and see shows. The classic musical saga about show business and becoming a star, 42nd Street, was the first musical he saw on Broadway. "Chita Rivera's was the first cabaret act I saw here, at Birdland. Of course, I was sitting at the bar, where it doesn't cost as much as at a table, and so when she entered from the dressing room, she passed right by me and she looked right at me and winked at me. We had a 'moment.' I loved it."
On his 2009 autumn trip to Manhattan, after starring as Gilbert in the Canadian musical Anne and Gilbert (based on the Anne of Green Gables stories), he found himself in a group showcase at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, also on 42nd Street. That's where I first saw him and was dazzled by his talent, as he did three contrasting numbers, including "Maria," which brings us full circle to his Feinstein's moment in the sun (or stage lights at midnight). Writing a review at the time in Cabaret Scenes Magazine, I had said,
"The gem of the night was charismatic Michael Hughes. Wow! Bursting with focused energy protesting 'What Do I Need with Love?' and antidoting with a doting 'Maria' embracing romance, he glowed. Patter showed a winsome personality and heart. Closing with pop polish on 'Where Did I Go Wrong?' the answer was 'Nowhere.'"
I complimented him in person that night and he gave me a copy of his self-titled CD of pop songs, which is superb and, like everything he does, shows much care, thought, professionalism, and skill. I promised him an interview when he came back to New York, which he assured me he was eager to do very soon. Who knew it would take three years? Shortly after that NYC night, he was cast in a rockin' regional Canadian production as Dean in All Shook Up. Around the same time, record producer extraordinaire and songwriter/performer David Foster, who's worked with Celine Dion, Michael Bublé, Andrea Bocelli, Barbra Streisand and signed and discovered Josh Groban, was touring with some stars and looking for new performers to add for a song in a featured spot, through a submit-your-video talent contest. He submitted. He stood out. Michael was asked to come meet Foster and participate at a benefit, but was not allowed out of his theatre commitment for this golden opportunity with a superstar of the music world --- much to his chagrin. He was not happy with his agent. He was, indeed, all shook up. Thinking he'd lost a big chance, his hopes were dashed, destroyed, diminished, dead—for about 24 hours. Another phone call then came, and he was invited to be in a performance during the David Foster and Friends tour in Vancouver one night and he secured some time off and off he flew, in more ways than one. In one afternoon, he had to learn and rehearse a special arrangement of the pop classic "Save the Last Dance for Me" and the same night was on the huge stage at a sold-out 8,000-seat theatre, singing it to a cheering, whooping crowd. Sharing the bill were two American Idol stars, Peter Cetera of the group Chicago and Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind and Fire, and he was in the wings watching and chatting with pop star Sarah McLachlan.
As exciting as that was, he still longed for the intimacy of cabaret-style work, which he'd only become really familiar with in recent years. He was inspired by the work of Sharron Matthews who was doing a close-up style performance of talk and songs in the bar at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto. "It's all about the connection with the audience for me. If they're bored for a second, you're failing. You get an immediate reaction." He also experienced this when studying the art of clowning ("Red Nose" work style). He guested in shows, he put together his own act of songs and commentary, he performed a cabaret-style performance on a cruise ship. "I like it when an audience can leave and feel they've gotten to know the performer." And, willing to put himself out there, with an autobiographical sharing inspired by his new perspective on his childhood experiences and reflecting on that, he thought maybe he "had a show" and began writing furiously. Sharron Matthews read it and watched him run through it in his living room and he'd asked Ari Weinberg, whom he'd met at school, to be his dramaturg. Mickey & Judy developed --- quickly. Through social networking, "friends put peer pressure on me to submit it to the two-week-long Toronto Fringe Festival" of 400 productions of all kinds. He did. And he got in, got reviewed, got nominated, and won Best of Fringe last year. Then, this summer, he was accepted into the legendary Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland and was booked at the Leicester Square Theatre in London. More good notices followed to add to the reviews of Hughes. But New York still was on his mind. He got himself booked for three September dates at The Duplex, the historic cabaret space, and I got one of my occasional e-mails from him, telling me so. I looked forward to a seeing the guy who impressed me so much 35 months ago – whom I remembered so well. Especially once Mickey made it clear that he very much wants to relocate to New York permanently, and would linger this fall and then be back very soon, green card application in progress, I decided he'd be the right – and serious --- and seriously gifted and ambitious --- cabaret person for the kind of "follow the star on his New York journey" I'd been wanting to write for a long time. It would be a detailed, chatty, opinionated, fly-on-the-wall look at what it takes to make it in New York.
"IF I CAN MAKE IT THERE, I'LL MAKE IT ANYWHERE"
To perform Mickey & Judy here in the city where Garland had her triumphs at the Palace Theatre on Broadway (as Liza also did recently, with the aforementioned Jim Caruso of Birdland in the cast) and her legendary Carnegie Hall concert, is especially exciting. Hughes is genuine, disarmingly direct, so I asked him a direct question: Why Judy Garland? His reply was powerful and encapsulates a major element of the one-man performance he brings to town now: "That's a question I ask myself and other fans of hers as well. How can this singer, who died decades before I was born, have such an influence on my life? Growing up I had no idea what a cliché loving Judy Garland was. All I knew was that when I heard her singing, I felt like she was singing for ME. And, whenever I was hurting in a way I couldn't understand, there was a Judy song that could help. And I would put on one of her records and I would sing along. And that got me through some of the darkest times in my life. So, when telling the story of my life, of course a lot of her songs are going to play a big part. Her music was the soundtrack to my life."
"COME ON, COME THROUGH, NEW YORK, NEW YORK"
So, I invited the singer, who was eager to drink in New York's cabaret world and its many facets, to come along with me as I went to shows I was reviewing this week and give me his perspective and see how he'd react and relate other artists' work to the very personal act he was doing. Those experiences are detailed in the companion piece to this article called Come to the Cabaret: Hughes and his Views. Meanwhile, here's the promised contest and the info on the Duplex presentations and links to more Michael (Mickey).
JUDY GARLAND NYC TRIVIA QUESTIONS (3 OR MORE CORRECT ANSWERS OUT OF 5 PUTS YOU IN THE RUNNING FOR 2 FREE ADMISSIONS)
1. A Manhattan CABARET ROOM is named after a SONG from a musical, the film version of which did NOT include that song, but had Liza Minnelli in the cast. This cabaret room features a regular show with performers whose initials are T.F. and R.S. playing Judy and Liza. What is the name of this cabaret club?
2. A great FILM musical starring Judy Garland a famous dancer/singer/actor features (and ends with the scene at) a parade along Fifth Avenue in New York City on a holiday. The score is by Irving Berlin. What's the name of the movie?
3. A popular, award-winning open mic in Manhattan, on the same street as Birdland's open mic, is run by two people: one was born on Judy Garland's birthday and the other on Liza Minnelli's birthday. Name any of these: the series, its location, the two people, or the awards it won, etc., etc.
4. Michael Hughes's nickname is Mickey, but he isn't playing Judy Garland's friend and co-star Mickey Rooney in Mickey and Judy. Can you name the famous song about Manhattan that Rooney sang in a movie bio about its famous songwriting team OR, since Judy happened to like New York, can you name the song she sang by Cole Porter expressing that sentiment?
5. Two Bistro Award-winning entertainers who work almost every month at the Duplex, where Michael Hughes will be performing on September 10, 15, and 20 also have had Judy shows on their calendars. Our "Calendar Girl" (whose last name begins with the same letter as Judy's second husband) has done a June show for Garland's birthday and a guy (whose first name starts with J as in "Judy") holds his meetings there does an annual benefit called Night of A Thousand Judys. Can you name either performer? (Hint: The Duplex website's calendar is very lovely.)
OK, if that's too difficult, just email your answer to the OPINION CONTEST. Simply tell us YOUR opinion on why Judy Garland remains so popular today? Free admission to the most thoughtful answer and the funniest one and one random winner.
See www.MickeHughes.com for much info and clips of the singer and the show-specific site www.mickeyandjudy.ca
The show is at The Duplex, 61 Christopher Street (corner of Seventh Avenue), Greenwich Village. Monday, September 10; Saturday, September 15; Thursday, September 20. All performances are at 7 PM. Phone number is (212) 255-5438. Regular admission is $10 plus a two-beverage minimum. Make reservations at www.TheDuplex.com or go right to the online calendar page where it's a click away –just click on the date you want: http://www.theduplex.com/~thedup/webcalendar/month.php?year=2012&month=09
Photos from Feinstein's at Loews Regency by Russ Weatherford