“I seem to be in a medieval musical mode,” it hazily dawns on Michael Urie as he starts evolving these days from Sir Robin of Spamalot at the St. James into Prince Dauntless the Drab of Once Upon a Mattress, the new Encores! entry at the New York City Center, running until February 4.
As late as last week, he was drawing double duty with both—rehearsing Dauntless by day and playing Sir Robin by night. “I don’t want to leave at all,” he says—but these shows must go on.
Urie—perhaps best know for his TV roles on Ugly Betty, Younger, and Shrinking—signed up for the Spamalot revival, directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes, when it played the Kennedy Center last May and left that to try out a stage version of Dan Brown’s bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. It needed more work, so it was back to Spamalot on Broadway.
In Spamalot—a.k.a. Monty Python’s Spamalot, A Musical (Lovingly) Ripped Off from the 1975 Motion Picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail—a former Aladdin, James Monroe Iglehart, plays King Arthur, rounding up worthies to be knights for his Round Table. Sir Robin, a certified scaredy-cat and collector of plague corpses (not all are dead yet), somehow qualifies. “That’s my day job,” Urie quips. “I really want to sing and dance.”
He gets his wish in spades. “I did not train to dance, I did not train to sing, and here I am in the middle of this huge production number that’s really three numbers in one, ‘We Won’t Succeed on Broadway (If We Don’t Have Any Jews).’ Josh, our director, has created something huge and spectacular, beautiful, and hilarious—hilarious! Big, show-stopping numbers like that don’t often get laughs the way this number does. It’s really a dream job, and I feel crazy to leave it.”
What tears him away from this eccentric musical is another eccentric musical, Once Upon a Mattress, which is getting a 14-performance revival at New York City Center, helmed by Lear deBessonet, the new artistic director of Encores! It, too, has a medieval kingdom.
Once Upon a Mattress is a zany retelling of the 1835 Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, with music by Mary Rodgers and lyrics by Marshall Barer, who worked on the book with Jay Thompson and Dean Fuller.
Urie plays Prince Dauntless the Drab, the super-sheltered son of the devious Queen Aggravain (Harriet Harris) and the mute King Sextimus the Silent (David Patrick Kelly). The Queen has run through a dozen damsels to see if any are sensitive enough for her son. None are, so she creates a new law of the land: “Throughout the land no one may wed, ‘till Dauntless shares his wedding bed.”
Enter a very wild card: Princess Winnifred the Woebegone (Sutton Foster), an unrefined candidate from the marshlands who swims the castle moat and charms Dauntless. Right away, she’s put to the test: can she fall asleep on a pile of 20 mattresses, one containing a single pea? The “lump” keeps her awake a while, but eventually she drifts off and wins her dream prince. Winnifred’s triumph is that of an unapologetic free spirit turned loose on a repressed kingdom.
Urie gives high points to deBessonet. “She’s not the normal artistic director,” he says. “Artistic directors are often powerful, very alpha—and very scary. Sometimes gurus, more like silent figure heads. She’s earthy, sweet, very focused—and really easy to talk to.” He gives high marks to deBessonet’s world building: “She created this world of a kingdom in Mattress. I’ve loved musicals forever, but I’ve been in enough now to understand in my own way why a musical exists and why people sing and dance. Lear talks of it in an organic way. There’s really a beautiful inevitability about it.”
But he vividly recalls the angst and nervousness of rehearsing Once Upon a Mattress the first day, especially the dancing part. “There was a rehearsal hour scheduled from two to three p.m.—‘Choreo with Lorin Latarro,’ the choreographer—an hour choreography with Sutton Foster!” The two had worked together on Younger, but there was no singing or dancing there. Now he was with the two-time Tony Award winner on her home turf. “Who am I? What’s happened to my life? I’m her Prince, her leading man! Can it be?
“Height-wise, we look great next to each other. I have to tell you, having a dance rehearsal with her is heaven. First of all, she is the kindest, cleverest person. Every ounce of her is lovely. It’s as thrilling—and as nerve-wracking!—as having to do a scene on Shrinking with Harrison Ford.”
After Encores!, Urie is L.A.-bound to do the second season of his Apple+ TV show, Shrinking, in which he plays Jason Segal’s best friend and Harrison Ford’s lawyer. “I was supposed to do it in June right after the Kennedy Center run of Spamalot, but the writers’ strike happened—but if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to open Spamalot on Broadway. I’ll take it up again in July.”
Prior to his Sir Robin stint, Urie filmed a fleeting cameo for the Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro as choreographer-director Jerome Robbins. He now finds Robbins’ spirit haunting the fifth-floor rehearsal spaces where Robbins did his City Ballet pieces and where Urie has been working on Mattress. It’s not the first time this has happened, Urie says: “My first Encores! was High Button Shoes in 2019, and we did the original Robbins choreography—The Bathing Beauties Ballet—all of it doors and doors and doors, and, behind one, was a gorilla taking a shower.”
Bradley Cooper, who’s up for Oscar honors as producer and performer of Maestro Bernstein, was a suitable case for study for Urie during the filming: “He was captivating practically from the moment I first saw him. I was never on set when he wasn’t in full costume and makeup and, basically, character. A maestro. A leader. He understands film so articulately. It was thrilling. When I watch the film, it feels like a French film or an Altman film. Something very glamorous and yet very real. Even if he’s playing a larger-than-life guy, there are other larger-than-life guys around. Conversations feel like they’re happening organically. I felt like a grown-up.”
But what of those post-Middle Age musicals, the ones that Urie craves to do and hasn’t yet? It’s a subject he’s given considerable thought to—“fer sure,” he says—and he can rattle off the titles at the slightest provocation: “I’d love to be in Bye Bye Birdie. I’d love to do The Producers. And there’s Urinetown—and Big The Musical. I’d love doing ’em all. Whatever they have for me, I’ll do.”