Mr. Show Busy
Michael McKelvey's just a guy who cain't say no (to musicals)
You gotta figure that in Austin's arts community there must be a quintet of McKelvey brothers, all of them, like the sons of George Foreman, boasting the same first name (in this case, Michael). How else to explain the fact that at any given moment in a season you can have a Michael McKelvey directing a musical here, a Michael McKelvey music directing a musical there, one composing music for some play, another performing in a concert, and yet another conducting a choral program?
Well, as difficult as it may be to believe, no band of brothers is shouldering all these musical responsibilities, nor has Dr. McKelvey figured out a way to clone himself. He's doing all this all by his lonesome. An octuple threat (you can add educator and producer to his credit line of singer/actor/director/music director/composer/conductor), McKelvey has for years been making use of his copious talents in, I kid you not, dozens of projects per season, across the length and breadth of the community: St. Stephen's Episcopal School, St. Edward's University, Austin Playhouse, Austin Shakespeare, Zilker Theatre Productions, TexARTS, Penfold Theatre Company, his own Doctuh Mistuh Productions, and the youth theatre training program he co-founded with Ginger Morris, Summer Stock Austin.
This summer provides a classic case study in just how crazy busy McKelvey keeps himself. In June, he directed and music directed Penfold's charming chamber musical I Love You Because. He then directed and music directed the Zilker Summer Musical, Footloose, which opened July 8. Since then, he's been hard at work on the three Summer Stock musicals that open this week and the next: Urinetown: The Musical and A Year With Frog and Toad, both of which he's directing and music directing, and The Producers, which he's just music directing (unless, that is, you factor in that he's co-producing all three shows).
What's crazier than his schedule, though, is that McKelvey somehow manages to match quantity with quality. You can count on his work to be recognized with nominations and awards, and that will no doubt be true with this summer's shows. And that's no doubt why the powers that be at Point Park University in Pittsburgh were so hot to hire McKelvey to run the voice program at its Conservatory of Performing Arts, home to one of the nation's finest musical theatre training programs. Yes, after 17 years and scores of musicals, McKelvey is leaving Austin. The new job is a major step up for him, one richly deserved, and being hired for such a prestigious post just confirms what we've known about the level of his talent. Still, his departure will leave a void in Austin's arts scene that will take at least five masterful musical artists to fill.
In a brief break from Summer Stock rehearsals, McKelvey reflected on his Austin career.
Austin Chronicle: How did the vision of what you wanted to do evolve through your time here?
Michael McKelvey: I moved to Austin to become a director – it was here or Chicago, and I turned down an opera at Northwestern to come here. I started out as an opera directing major at the University of Texas. But it was really through experiences with companies like Austin Musical Theatre and the State Theatre and teaching at Zach Theatre that I realized musical theatre is where I started and it's what I wanted [to do].
I feel like my life is always in transition; it's always in flux, and that's a good thing. Any new experience that presents itself I see as a potential to grow in another way. Before I moved here, I'd choral directed and things like that, and I've always taught voice, but I never thought I'd be a music director. I think it was being in Austin that made that possible. In Dallas, I was a performer, I was doing opera and some musical theatre and things like that, but it was really hard to find my way around that town. But Austin seems to be this very accepting, open, let-yourself-go place. Find out where you are artistically and give it a shot. If that doesn't work, try something else, and pretty soon you'll figure it out.
I look at people who came before me who are inspirations to me, like Allen Robertson – and he doesn't realize that he was this to me, but – Allen was the musical director of Austin. Not that he's not now, because he still is, but here's a guy who was working as a music director and then doing compositions for other people on the side and doing commercial work and vocal coaching here and there, kind of doing whatever he could to pay the rent. He just seemed to be doing everything, and I watched this guy and I said, "I kinda like what's going on with this guy and what he does, and he doesn't seem to have any parameters on what he does with his life, so why can't I be more like that?" And I had people encouraging me to direct, but they were saying, "No, you really gotta really learn to direct." So people like Susan Threadgill were saying: "Come out and stage-manage. Learn it that way. Work for the opera. Work for this." And I just started doing a lot of assistant work and finding out where I wanted to be in the city and who I wanted to work with. And before I knew it, I was working with Don Toner a lot. He gave me my first real music directing job. He gave me my first real stage directing job. I don't know how successful that was, but he gave me that chance. I think that this is a place where you can try, and that is what I love about this town, and this is why I'm going to try to keep doing things in this town. I love that about Austin.
AC: But you take on project after project and in so many different roles: music director, director, producer, teacher. Why do you do so much?
MM: This is the actor in me. Actors are afraid to say no, because they're always afraid that if they turn something down, it will be the last time somebody ever gives them work.
If people look at my résumé, it makes no sense, and I like that about it. It turned off some colleges that I've applied to because they think, "This guy doesn't know who he is." No, I very much know who I am. But every job I take overlaps with another job that's completely different. Producing Evil Dead: The Musical, for instance, was something that I wanted to do because I just felt there was a void there to fill. I just wanted to do that show. My same production company was the one that did [the Stephen Sondheim musical] Company. Well, that doesn't follow any stream of normality for any theatre company. But that's my company, and I want to do shows that I want to do and that I think people want to see. Just because I like Evil Dead doesn't mean that I can't like Company, and vice versa.
AC: Or that audiences can't like them both.
MM: But also the things that I've chosen to do with Summer Stock and working with a different level of actor – that's the educator in me that wants to do that. That educator will always win out over everything with me. Because I want to show people: Don't take for granted our youth or what they can achieve. Since my first teaching job, I've felt this way. My Austin Musical Theatre days taught me that, and [so did] my eight years at St. Stephen's as a middle school drama teacher, which I still think is a crazy thing, doing things like Medea with eighth graders. These were things that just said: We need to appreciate our youth. We need not to take them for granted. And we can't stop trying with them. Even though we're losing to the media age, we can't stop showing them that the live experience, the printed word, should be the superior [mediums].
AC: Okay, a big part of what you do as an educator is to take emotionally complicated, artistically challenging roles for adults and hand them over to teens and say, "Go for it." Medea. Sweeney Todd. The Producers. Urinetown. Tough shows for actors of any age but especially for actors with less experience. What's behind your philosophy of letting young performers take on that challenge?
MM: For me, it's showing them that you shouldn't be scared of this literature. The reason we're afraid of Shakespeare is that we put it on this pedestal. Well, Shakespeare didn't put it on a pedestal. The groundlings didn't put it on a pedestal. It was there for all of us. And to take a piece like Medea or Sweeney or Urinetown, I'm saying: "Let's talk about it. First, let's talk about why we put it on a pedestal or why we think it's 'hard,' and let's just break it down. And let's do your production of Urinetown or your production of Medea with the truth that you've developed to this point in your life." I don't expect that an eighth-grade Medea is going to experience everything that a great actress who's played that role [has], but those students know what death means. They know betrayal, because they've been betrayed by their school friends. We can discuss that. I think they all become learning tools for us. But maybe a lot of educators don't want to spend that time. They just want to get a show up. To me, it's not about getting a show up. It's about us having an experience that then maybe we can all [use to] develop a common language. And I think that's true whether you're talking about middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students, or professional actors. It's when you're not developing that conversation that you're not really making the art. You're putting something up onstage, but to me, that's not interesting. For me, it's not about the number of productions I do, it's that every time I walk into rehearsal, I'm just having an experience of some kind.
Like a lot of my friends in town, I just want to be stimulated on an hourly basis, so maybe I have to have three different projects at the same time just to feel some different stimulation. Maybe that's what it is. In fact, [former artistic director of Austin Musical Theatre] Scott Thompson said to me, "I don't know how you can work on two shows at the same time." I said, "Well, this is how my mind works." I like to be in one room for three hours and do that one thing, and then when I leave that room, I want to leave that room, but I still have to go somewhere. So I can go to a sports bar and watch a football game and get a different kind of stimulation. The guy I never want to be, whether it's as a performer, a director, or a producer, is that guy who's with this 16 hours a day and can't let go of that one thing. Because when that one thing closes, you feel like a part of you has died. I want to revel in the fact that I got to live with a lot of people for a two- to six- to 12-week experience and have those life experiences with those people and then let's move on to another one and have another life experience.
AC: What's the biggest risk you've taken here?
MM: One of the biggest risks was moving away from opera completely, because I still love the genre. I still support it. I still love to sing it when I get a chance. But being labeled as this musical theatre guy and everything that went with that, that was hard because I was still a doctoral student at UT in the opera department. Having some of my colleagues look at me funny. Having some of my teachers look at me funny. But I honestly love my genre. As much as any opera professor loves his opera, I love my American musical theatre. I kept wanting to turn back and prove to them that I was a classical musician. But a couple of years ago, I finally told myself, "No, you're just a musician." The type of music I choose to perform, that's my business. But then I look at friends of mine like Michelle Schumann or Graham Reynolds, and they don't seem to care about the labels, so why should I?
Footloose runs through Aug. 13, Thursday-Sunday, 8:30pm, at the Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theatre, 2206 William Barton Dr. For more information, visit www.zilker.org.
Summer Stock Austin's production of The Producers runs Thursday-Sunday, July 21-24, 7:30pm; Tuesday-Wednesday, Aug. 2-3, 7:30pm; and Saturday, Aug. 6, 7:30pm.
A Year With Frog and Toad runs July 23-Aug. 7, Saturdays, 10am; Sundays, 2pm; and Thursday, Aug. 4, 10am.
Urinetown: The Musical runs Thursday-Sunday, July 28-31; Thursday-Friday, Aug. 4-5; and Sunday, Aug. 7. All performances are at 7:30pm in the Rollins Studio Theatre of the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information: www.summerstockaustin.org.