Tony nominee Michael Berresse is back on Broadway as the legendary designer Bob Mackie in the spectacular, glitzy bio-musical The Cher Show. In addition to Mackie, Michael also plays the Oscar-winning director Robert Altman (who directed Cher on Broadway in Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) and Frank (her director on TV's The Sonny & Cher Show). BroadwayBox caught up with the actor, director, and choreographer to talk about creating Mackie for the stage, the magic of [title of show], and what attracts him to projects.
1. Bob Mackie obviously was around the production as the musical’s costume designer. What did you glean from him during your time that informed your performance? Was there any advice he gave you outright?
People who only know Bob Mackie from his designs might be surprised to know that he is one of the humblest, most attention-shy people I’ve ever met. And unlike the other real life characters in the show, he is not a performer in any way; so from the get go, I knew inhabiting a showy, singing/dancing version of him would be more fantasy than impersonation. And so did he. In fact, he admits he would never wear some of the costumes he designed for his own onstage persona. Nevertheless, when we met it was immediately apparent that all the joy, humor, and sex appeal of his garments is absolutely a part of the private man as well, so more than anything, I have tried to capture and expand that essence through the character. Bob sees the potential for beauty in everything and everyone. One of the great joys of this job is standing center stage at the end of that magnificent parade of Mackie designs in Act I and giving the audience a target for their love and gratitude. And although seeing himself as the center of attention probably makes the real man self-conscious, I hope it also makes him very proud.
2. What was your first introduction to Cher as an artist? Do you remember when she first appeared on your radar?
My very first exposure to Cher was my mom’s sun-bleached Look at Us Sonny and Cher album. As a little boy in Laguna Niguel, California, I remember listening to “I Got You Babe” on the hi-fi and being fascinated with the photo of them on the cover. But it really wasn’t until The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour that I became aware of the person and the artist. Even as a six or seven-year-old, I felt an emotional connection to her. Her appearance, her humor, her voice, and her energy were so unlike anyone else—and though I didn’t yet understand why, I knew I was different too. I clearly recall waiting expectedly through Sonny’s long monologue set-ups for her hilarious come backs. It was the first time I saw how humor and unique self-expression could be powerful and entertaining. I see now that Cher truly helped open a window to my own self-awareness, my pride in being “different”. I also understand how much Mackie’s aesthetic magnified and complemented that “Cher-ness”. To know them both personally now is a surreal full-circle moment!
3. Before The Cher Show, you were last on Broadway in 2008 as the director of [title of show]. How has being a Broadway director changed how you work as an actor?
Funny, I’m usually asked how being an actor changes my work as a director but it most definitely works both ways! I’ve always been fascinated by the moving parts of any mechanism. (Remember that Rube Goldberg-esque game Mousetrap? My childhood obsession!) As a director, it’s my job to work with all departments to help construct and shape each of those moving parts. Whenever I am onstage myself now, I feel a much more conscious connection to all the work that is supporting me. And frankly, the necessity of navigating and nurturing a huge range of personalities as a director has made me even more conscious and respectful of each actors’ unique process, even my own.
4. What was the most moving part of the recent [title of show] reunion performance?
There are so many things that moved me about that experience, both in the rehearsal room and in performance. For one thing, the perspective of ten years really hammered home just how miraculous the entire story really is. And because the show chronicles its own development, we got to experience the whole ride again from beginning to end with a visceral presentness. Above all, because [title of show] was built on love—for each other, for musical theater and for creation in general—it was staggering to take in the breadth of just how many lives our story has influenced. I had this idea to build a montage of images during “Nine People’s Favorite Thing” that included publicity photos and poster art from productions of [title of show] all over the world. Watching those images fill the entirety of the Broadhurst stage was humbling and awe-inspiring.
5. You did seven Broadway shows in the 1990s (including the now legendary revivals Chicago, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, Damn Yankees, and Kiss Me, Kate) . What did you love about that decade on Broadway?
You know as I get older I see the beauty in every chapter of my career and of Broadway in general. I suppose the thing that sticks out most to me about my own career in the ‘90s is the musical revivals. My greatest passion as a director is nurturing new works or at least new perspective on established works. But as a performer in the ‘90s I was a part of this magic window between The Golden Age of Broadway and the more contemporary, digital age of musical theatre. There was a naïveté, a genuine fascination with and lack of cynicism about those masterpieces of The Golden Age that allowed the rediscovery of them to feel so joyful and fresh, even in their more traditional stagings. I felt such a powerful, conscious connection to the past and for that I am so grateful as I look to the future.
6. In the winter of 2020, you will direct the New York premiere of Darling Grenadine at Roundabout Theatre Company. What excites you most about this new musical?
Two things: first, that New York will finally get to witness the magnificent talent of Daniel Zaitchik, who has the potential to be one of the voices that shape the next chapter of American musical theatre. And second, I’m excited to be working on a musical that celebrates nuanced, deeply flawed, ultimately beautiful humans.
7. What do you look for when choosing new work? How does it differ choosing as an actor vs a director or choreographer?
I suppose more than anything else I look for the purity, the singularity of the creators’ voice. It certainly doesn’t have to be a story that I have lived, but it has to be a story that I understand and one that feels risky and personal to the writer. As a director, I look for the ways in which I might help focus and magnify that risk, that specificity. As a choreographer, I love translating that singular voice into a physical vocabulary. As an actor, I love material that allows me to bring my own unique story, my fears, my joys to the piece and the character. And surprise me! Please, please surprise me and I will help you surprise your audience in some meaningful, entertaining way.
Don’t miss Michael Berresse as Bob Mackie & others in The Cher Show at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre.