Photo by Lance Tilford
Overnight success stories are mostly the stuff of legend. Actors typically get their ‘big break’ only after years of auditions and rejections and bit parts. Michael Williams, BFA ’15 , however, was among the lucky few to get a head-spinning start to his career. Williams graduated from the Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts with a degree in musical theatre. During spring break of his senior year at Webster, the young actor took part in an acting showcase in New York City. An assistant from a casting agency saw him and asked him to audition on camera. She sent the tape to several directors, and a few weeks later asked Williams to return to NYC to audition for the first touring company of Woody Allen’s musical, “Bullets Over Broadway.” He landed the lead role of David Shayne. “My situation is unique,” he says. “I consider myself very fortunate.” The show began in October 2015 and, during its 8-month run, Williams performed in 207 shows in about 50 cities. Most recently, Williams did a short run as Young Ben in “Follies” at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis.
- I auditioned on Tuesday and got the part on Friday. It was a whirlwind of events. You always dream that it might happen that easily and that things will just fall into place, but it transcended anything I’d even imagined. The only conceivable downside is that now I have a warped sense of how show business works in terms of the timing of the casting process.
- John Cusack played the role in the 1994 movie, which came out the year after I was born. Zach Braff performed it on Broadway. Realizing I was going to be the second person to play the role in the stage version, and the third in any way, made it really sink in for me. Knowing I could give it my personal take was incredible. We were able to build our characters from the ground up. I saw the movie to prepare for auditions, but I decided against watching the Broadway show so I could create my own take.
- Rehearsals started in August at these gorgeous studios on 42nd Street in New York City. We rehearsed in the same building as shows about to go up on Broadway. We were elbow to elbow with some very big names. I met Savion Glover in the lunchroom. A castmate saw Audra McDonald and James Earl Jones in an elevator. We weren’t technically on Broadway, but we were doing the same kind of work in the same space with our idols. It leveled the playing field, in a way, and you realized you might be fortunate enough to work with those people someday.
- The show opened in early October in Cleveland. A tour schedule keeps you on the tips of your toes. The longest stay we had was in L.A., where we were for 3 weeks, and our shortest shows were in March when we were in a different city almost every day. It’s rigorous.
- During the tour, you only work nights. The schedule forces you to be at your peak at a very odd time. I guess you could call it part-time, but for those four hours you’re at the theater, you’re using 100 percent of your faculties to do the show.
- Your life is confined to two suitcases. You never actually go home. You’re always going back to a hotel room and that creates a sense of restlessness, which is helpful for moving from one place to another, but it can start to make you a little antsy.
- One of the best parts of touring is getting to see friends in other parts of the country that I don’t see often. I also got to see places I’d never think to visit. My favorite was Charleston, where we did three days. I spent my days soaking in all of Charleston, riding a bike along the coast and to city markets and the parks. It was the most hipster I’ve ever felt. A close second and third were Nashville for the live music and Los Angeles because there was so much to do, like the beach and Disneyland.
- “There was a long stretch of tour where I got very down on myself because I wanted to always be doing better. That’s not necessarily a mindset you can apply to a show that you have to do 207 times. You have to find a level of happiness with each show or you can get physically, mentally, and emotionally drained.
- Our last show was in Kansas City. It was very bittersweet. We were feeling the exhaustion of being on the road, and we were ready to close it, but it was also very emotional because you become a family for those eight months. Everyone gathered in the wings to watch everyone’s performances and then we commandeered a big room at the hotel and had a party. We still all keep in touch on Facebook and I have full confidence that I’ll see a good number of them again.
- Halfway through tour I realized I’d prefer something that would allow me to come home to the same place after rehearsals or shows. That’s eventually my goal, so I’m home in Houston for a bit and then I’ll make the journey to New York City this winter and set up camp there.
- If you’re an artist, you have to do your work because you love it. It’s very easy to get caught up in who likes your performance, but it won’t go anywhere unless you like it. My biggest advice is to do things for you and not for anyone else, or you’ll find yourself empty and miserable. As an actor, you go gig to gig and deal with unemployment consistently, so you have to do it because it makes you happy and you love doing it.
Photo by Matthew Murphy