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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Graduation

When Broadway producers called, one senior had to change his plans.

Photo: Thad Russell

SCENE CHANGE: Lee expected to go into medicine.

By Laura Shin

In the summer of 1994, Michael K. Lee auditioned for a part—any part—in the second national tour of the blockbuster Broadway musical Miss Saigon. Lee, who was about to start his senior year in psychology at Stanford, had also tried out the previous summer and been called back, but that didn’t give him any edge the second time around. He waited for hours while Equity actors and those with agents went first. Finally, in the third round, when anyone off the street can try out, he sang his songs. He had never taken a singing lesson in his life.

Lee, a modest and friendly Korean-American, says of his audition, “It was a little easier for me to be seen, because the talent pool of Asian-American men is smaller—though I still had to wait five hours.”

A month later, the producers offered him a principal role as the fiancé of the title character.

After that life-changing news, Lee had some fast shuffling to do. He took 23 units in one quarter, graduated two quarters early and quickly arranged four voice lessons for himself. Rehearsals began a few weeks after he left the Farm.

Lee stayed on tour with Miss Saigon for 12 months, then spent five months on Broadway with the show. Since then, he’s managed to avoid selling his blood or waiting tables. He performed in the Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar (he found his role as Simon Zealotes particularly satisfying because it is not traditionally slated for an Asian), toured with Rent as a company member and understudy, and received an L.A. Theater Award nomination for Best Actor for his performance in the rock opera Beijing Spring. In between he’s made a smattering of independent film and television appearances. More recent credits include work in a Barry Manilow revue—Could It Be Magic?—that opened in Chicago and a role last fall in Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures with Palo Alto’s acclaimed regional company TheatreWorks. Next on Lee’s agenda is the Asian-American rock musical Making Tracks, playing in Seattle March 12 through May 12.

He’s done it all with only a little more voice training, but that evidently hasn’t fazed directors or critics. “He has a powerful voice, and his tonal quality is astounding,” wrote Talkin’ Broadway critic Richard Connema. “Mike’s voice, charm and charisma touch everyone who sees him perform,” says East-West Players director Tim Dang. And from Robert Kelley, ’68, artistic director of TheatreWorks: “Michael is a thrilling, intense and charismatic actor and singer on stage. He’s also a wonderful collaborator behind the scenes.”

Lee’s journey to the Great White Way started in Salamanca, N.Y., a small Native American reservation town near Buffalo, where his was the only Asian-American family. From earliest childhood, he liked to perform, Lee recalls. “I loved Grease, and I wanted to be Danny Zuko . . . I loved putting on my brown leather jacket and getting up on my couch and using that as a stage.”

Neither Lee nor his parents took those antics seriously, so instead of taking voice lessons, he learned to play violin and piano, like many Korean-American children. Paradoxically, it was through playing in the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra that he developed his aptitude for singing.

“Most of my voice training comes from driving back and forth between Buffalo and my hometown for orchestra and listening to the scores of Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera and trying to imitate the singers,” Lee says. “Oftentimes, I’d have the windows down, singing my heart out. Unbeknownst to me, I was practicing the whole time.”

Those dry runs served him well as a high school senior, when he revived a nearly defunct drama club and starred in its production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. “It was a big hit at school,” he says. “I mean, as big as hits get in Salamanca, New York.”

People at home joked that they would see him on Broadway someday, but when Lee entered Stanford, he expected to follow his older brother and father and take up the stethoscope, not the stage. So, apart from performing in Gaieties his freshman year, he immersed himself in chemistry and calculus. “I had a miserable, miserable freshman year,” he says.

As a sophomore, Lee auditioned successfully for the campus a cappella group Fleet Street Singers—“one of the pivotal points of my life.” The following summer in Los Angeles, he worked 10- to 15-hour days as an intern on a film crew. His stipend was $75 a week, for making coffee and sweeping cigarette butts. He also telemarketed B-grade pornographic videos. “You don’t know what life is like until you have to pitch interracial pornos to a video store owner in Mississippi,” Lee quips.

What kept him sane that summer was a musical theater class he took at East-West Players, the nation’s foremost Asian-American theater company. At first, however, even that didn’t look so promising.

“I got there, and I had this image of a great theater company in mind, and it looked like a garage. There were 12 people in the class, but no one could really sing, and I was the star of the class,” Lee recalls. “Not what I had envisioned!” Still, he went on to roles in Sweeney Todd, Pacific Overtures, Beijing Spring and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with the Players, and it was a friend from that class who urged him to try out for Miss Saigon.

Despite his accomplishments, Lee, 28, says he still feels as if he is living a dream. In September 2000, his hometown honored him with his own block on its Walk of Fame; he describes the evening, during which he gave a performance, as surreal.

“Seeing how I live day-to-day and 90 percent of the time being unemployed and looking for work—it’s not something that I would deem worth honoring. I still live like a college kid with my college buddy, and we go out for a drink every night. My friends are getting married and having kids, and I’m still playing ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’”

But when he had to go onstage the night after September 11, Lee experienced “something of an epiphany” and recorded his thoughts. “What I do, though I get so much out of it, is not for me, but for others. Sometimes as artists, we lose track. But people come to us—the court jesters, the clowns, the gypsies of the world—to forget about real life. Today, the almost full house was with us so intimately, and they thanked us at the end, with their applause.

“It was the first time I heard it. It was a good day to be an artist.”

Laura Shin, ’97, is a freelance writer in New York.

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