Michaels screwed up his courage and the descent did not kill him. In fact, it made him the straw that stirred the stiff drink of this naughty, Tony-winning musical. For 21 performances, Michaels dazzled theatergoers with his audacious and spectacular entrance and continued to woo them through the show with his cunning and sly presence.
“Fearlessness is the No. 1 thing that sets him apart,” said director Peter Rothstein, who put Michaels up to the stunt. “He’s willing to try anything.”
Michaels is more than just a daredevil, though. His skills, charisma and determined ambition have propelled him into the forefront of Twin Cities musical theater. His Emcee in “Cabaret” slapped anyone who hadn’t noticed his previous work in “Spring Awakening” (in which he leapt from the stage and grabbed a light standard on the balcony at Rarig Center), “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Oklahoma!”
He currently performs as Prince Eric in “Disney’s Little Mermaid” at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, which he will leave at the end of May for “My Fair Lady” at the Guthrie. A year from now, he’ll play the title role in Children’s Theatre Company’s “Peter Pan.”
“The dude wants the stage, the lights, the work; he wants the experience,” said Tod Petersen, who created a Fringe Festival show with Michaels last August. “I was always aware that Tyler has golden fairy dust sprinkled all over him, and that I was the lucky one to be working with him.”
Michaels is a lanky whip of a kid, with a face like a stretched-out blueberry pancake — two big eyes on a pale canvas. He’s a curious combination of giddy naif and constant hustler. He’s happy that his career has snowballed and hates it when he doesn’t get a role (that doesn’t happen much anymore). As amused and charmed as he is by the attention, he understands the obligations of climbing the ladder. Yet, he loves to hang out like any 25-year-old, do improv with buddies, play board games with his girlfriend at their apartment, goof off and have fun.
As he surfs this wave of success, Michaels is keenly aware that people are wondering: Is he going to try New York?
Former Denver actor Josh Stenseth, now trying to make it in the big city himself, was asked if he had any advice for his college best friend.
“Yeah, don’t wait,” Stenseth said. “It only gets harder the older you get. And he should make sure he wants it.”
Destined for the stage
“Apples! Apples, two for a nickel!”
Michaels had just those two lines in a middle school production of “Annie” and that was enough to get him off the ball fields of Bloomington (“my dad wanted me to be the best lefthanded pitcher in baseball”) and onto the stage.
“We all knew he was going to go off and do theater,” said Megan Myhre, who sang and acted with Michaels at Jefferson High School. “I don’t remember him ever not having that for a goal.”
Michaels was a goofball — charismatic, friendly and “never known for being quiet,” Myhre said.
That boundless bundle of joy could get to be too much on occasion. Upon winning the role of the Prince in “Cinderella,” Michaels irritated friends by singing over and over, “The Prince is going to the mall!” on a night out at the Mall of America.
“They said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to stop, that’s really annoying,’ ” Michaels recalled recently.
It was a small incident, perhaps, in the greater scheme of things, but Michaels tells it on himself as a reminder to stay humble.
“He doesn’t want to come off as ungrateful or entitled,” said Petersen, who met Michaels in “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Michaels also learned the value of hard work and struggling through frustration at Jefferson. Myhre remembers him getting almost panicky as he struggled to reach the high notes in “Maria,” from “West Side Story.”
“He even cried about it once because he was so determined,” Myhre said. “The music director and I took him by the waist and skipped down the halls of the high school to get his adrenaline up.”
After high school, Michaels attended Minnesota State University, Moorhead. One night he and Stenseth watched a show by Czech performance artist Tomáš Kubínek and were blown away by his physical innovation, imagination and bravery. Inspired, Michaels and Stenseth spent two hours “climbing over each other,” improvising characters and clown tricks. When it came time to perform a scene during a scholarship competition, Michaels’ physical-character-based stuff clearly was inspired by Kubínek.
“That was not what people typically did for that competition,” said Stenseth, who was Michaels’ scene partner. “It got him noticed, for sure.”
Time to get to work, kid
Director Gary Gisselman cast Michaels as Will Parker in Bloomington Civic Theatre’s 2011 “Oklahoma.”
“He sneaks up on you,” Gisselman said. “He’s such a sweet guy, hardworking, generous, but you don’t see how good he is until you start working with him.”
Michaels recalled the experience differently.
“The first day on stage, [Gisselman] broke me down,” Michaels said. “He said, ‘Didn’t you go to school for this?’ I was shocked, I just got yelled at, and it was sort of like ‘I’m not in Kansas anymore.’ I had gotten a lead role and it was time to work my ass off.”
Rothstein saw Michaels in that “Oklahoma” and put him into Theater Latté Da’s “Spring Awakening” in 2012. As they worked, Rothstein came to understand and appreciate Michaels’ physical daring — “a different gear that he has.”
Also taking notice was Michael Brindisi, the Chanhassen artistic director. “I saw him in ‘Spring Awakening,’ and that leap from the stage to the balcony was the scariest thing I’d ever seen,” Brindisi said. “When we did ‘Birdie,’ there’s a scene where his character gets stuck in a garbage can. I told him in rehearsal one day, ‘See that garbage can over there? See how many ways you can get stuck in it.’ He worked on it for an hour.”
It did not take long for Michaels to achieve his dream of making a living as an actor. Brindisi used him in “Fiddler,” Rothstein cast him in “Cabaret” and then Chanhassen got him back for the male lead in “Mermaid.” Shortly after that casting decision, the Guthrie called Michaels in for “My Fair Lady.” He will be spending the summer singing “On the Street Where You Live,” as Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Rothstein was quick to pick him up for “Peter Pan” next spring (“If anyone can fly, it’s Tyler,” Rothstein said).
What will the future bring?
Hanging in the ether for Michaels is that big question of New York.
Yeah, he says, he wants to go, he knows he has to try it and an actor needs to do it when he’s young.
But how to do it? There are hundreds of Tyler Michaelses in New York, and casting directors likely didn’t see him rappelling down the rope to open “Cabaret,” didn’t see him captivate audiences in “Mermaid.” He could go to New York, pound the pavement, work the audition circuit and hope someone notices.
Petersen shakes his head when the scenario is spun out that way. “Some door will open for him, just as it has here,” he said.
Michaels was asked late last year to audition for “Book of Mormon” producers, either for a tour or as a fill-in on Broadway. A callback in February gave him hope, although it could be a while before he hears.
“In a perfect world, something would bring me out to New York,” Michaels says.
Just as important as getting the right chance is the question that Stenseth asked: Does he really want it?
Michaels loves the life he has built. He is 25 and works constantly in theater. He lives happily in the Carleton Artists Lofts in St. Paul with his girlfriend, Emily King. They met working with Live Action Set, the edgy Twin Cities movement-theater troupe. He mentioned doing a show this fall with Seventh House Productions — a small, new company started by his friends Cat Brindisi and David Darrow. He shows up occasionally to do a set of improv at HUGE Theater in Minneapolis.
Simply put, Michaels does not seem eager to put himself into a slot yet — unless “Mormon” comes calling. (“If that happened, that would be a sharp right turn,” he said.)
But no matter the challenge, Tyler Michaels seems up for it. He does whatever it takes for the show to succeed.
And that is why he found himself, heart beating fast, ready to go over the balcony on a thin rope in “Cabaret.” He was scared, but it was a good scared. He felt the buzz from the audience. He knew this was working.
“I’ve always wanted to do that as an actor, something impossible that will surprise people,” he said.