Roundabout Theatre Company’s THE TIN PAN ALLEY RAG begins its final week of performances tomorrow. The limited engagement concludes on Sunday, September 6th at The Laura Pels Theatre.
The Toronto Star
August 29, 2009
Small actor in big demand
Nothing’s diminutive about Michael Therriault, who is charming audiences as Irving Berlin
By Richard Ouzounian
NEW YORK–If you think the same actor couldn’t play Tommy Douglas, Gollum and Irving Berlin, then you haven’t met Michael Therriault.
The 35-year-old Acadian shape-shifter, who has lit up stages and screens across Canada, is charming Manhattan with his performance as Berlin, the iconic songwriter of numbers like “White Christmas” and “God Bless America” in a show called The Tin Pan Alley Rag, which is running at the Roundabout Theatre until Sept. 6.
Canadian director Stafford Arima, who staged Therriault’s latest show and has just been announced as the director of next season’s Stratford production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris, puts his finger on what has made this diminutive artist so in demand: “The great thing about Michael is that he has got such a thirst for discovering the truth about a character. He brings a wonderful collaborative spirit to the room, as well as that unique Canadian modesty, which is so endearing.”
But sitting down with Therriault for a post-theatre supper after a recent performance, he blushingly admits that it’s not modesty he radiates in rehearsals at all. “It’s fear. Sheer terror. I’m crazy about rehearsing, but I always worry that I’m doing something wrong.”
And that’s after a 15-year career that has seen him appear in New York, London and Stratford to rave reviews and audience acclaim.
But the gentle Therriault doesn’t feel those things really matter. “I can’t judge my experience in a show by whether or not the critics or the crowds liked it. I judge it by how much fun it was to do and how much I learned. That’s what’s important to me.”
In a business where actors run around frantically lobbying for roles, Therriault has just quietly gone about his business his own way and the A-list roles have flooded in his direction.
He was only a few years out of Sheridan College’s Musical Theatre Program when he caught the eye of Richard Monette and wound up portraying the villainous Mordred in Camelot on Stratford’s Festival stage.
Over the next seven seasons, he played everything from Ariel in The Tempest opposite William Hutt to Motel in Fiddler on the Roof beside Brent Carver. He later played the same role with Harvey Fierstein on Broadway, and the gravel-voiced he-diva told the Star that, “Michael’s got energy and commitment and talent to spare. If he could only come up with a name Americans could spell, he’d be a big star down here.”
But stardom hasn’t been the major motivator for Therriault. “If I’m working on a project with heart and people connect with it, then you’ve got something great there.”
He certainly feels that way about The Tin Pan Alley Rag, but before arriving there, he had a lot of wildly mixed experiences.
Everyone agreed that his shy, sly accountant, Leo Bloom, was the best thing in the Toronto production of The Producers. It earned him a Dora Award but the show failed – and that made him unhappy.
The same thing happened again with The Lord of the Rings, where Therriault’s surrealistic portrait of Gollum was the only thing that many people enjoyed about that misbegotten behemoth. “It doesn’t make it any better if they like you and don’t like the show,” he says.
Therriault was one of the few people to travel with Rings from Toronto to London, and while he hoped that “we’d all get a chance to make things better,” he finally admits that “in the end, they kind of meld together in my mind: a long rehearsal, a long technical process and a show that kept constantly changing.”
There was one major difference in London, where Therriault got “a fantastic entrance that terrified the hell out of me,” making his initial appearance head down, suspended 15 metres in the air on wires, as he slowly slithered into view.
“It never stopped scaring me, not all through the run,” he now admits. “The technician up in the fly gallery with me was so funny. He knew how scared I was so every day, he’d read the newspaper to find something he could discuss with me while I was hanging there.”
But that didn’t work, either, so Therriault had to take things into his own hands. “My family bought me this giant joke book, so every night I’d learn a couple of jokes and scream them out at the top of my voice while I was upside down. They were the worst jokes. You know, `Your momma’s so fat that…’ kind of jokes. It’s kind of surreal now that I think of it.”
But there has been a lot of that off-the-wall quality in his career. When asked to audition for the CBC-TV miniseries on the life of Tommy Douglas, Therriault “didn’t even know who he was.”
But after some research, he found he had another source of stress. “I had never played a real person before, and I knew there were so many Tommy Douglas fans out there that I didn’t want to disappoint.”
Fortunately, he likely pleased most of them, including Douglas’s daughter, Shirley, who contacted Therriault to tell him how pleased she was with his work.