Meet Michael Mayer, the multifaceted director of "Thoroughly Modern Millie."
Special to the Jewish News
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irector Michael Mayer recog-
nized that Thoroughly Modern
Millie, which opens a three-
week run at Detroit's Fisher Theatre
Oct. 12, had the makings of a hit early
on in the creative process.
"When I first started working on the
show, I knew that it had the potential to
be hugely successful," Mayer said. "Of
course, there are no guarantees in this
business or we'd all be wealthy and have
shelves of Tony Awards to show of
"But the central story of a young girl
coming from Kansas to make her new
life in the city in the 1920s was irre-
sistible to me. Everyone can relate to it,
and that moment in American history
has been under-explored in musicals in
an honest way."
Ironically, the show's theme became a
reality of sorts. While the play was being
put together at California's La Jolla
Playhouse, the lead dropped out. An
unknown named Sutton Foster — who
attended high school in Troy, Mich. —
stepped in and became an overnight sen-
sation. "When Sutton Foster first audi-
tioned for us, I knew she had a mar-
velous voice and seemed like a very nice
girl," said Mayer. "But I had no clue
about the real star quality and amazing
gifts she had. It was only when she
stepped in for the actress in our tryout
in La Jolla that she demonstrated what
she was capable of. She ended up taking
over the role, and while we were still in
La Jolla, I told the Broadway producers
that I wanted her to play Millie in New
The rest is theater history. Thoroughly
Modern Millie went on to win six Tonys
— including Best Musical and Best
Actress in a Musical for Foster — and
had a long, successful run on Broadway
before beginning its national tour.
But don't ask Mayer what the critics
thought of the play. He hasn't read a
review in almost 10 years.
Back then, one of his productions —
he doesn't mention the name —
received really good reviews, even in the
New York Times. In fact, the critic "sin-
gled out several of my own personal
contributions." But Mayer wasn't men-
tioned by name.
"So I thought [it] would be a good
time to stop reading reviews. If my
work can be praised like this without
my name attached to it, then the
reviews really have no meaning for me.
And I just thought, '[Expletive] them!"'
He can now afford to "expletive
them." Mayer's been on quite a roll late-
ly, including his helming a production
of Arthur Miller's After the Fall that just
played in New York and a recent film, A
Home at the End of the World (starring
Colin Farrell, Robin Wright Penn and
Sissy Spacek), which opened over the
And while reviewers noted that World
was Mayer's first film, he quickly points
out that it's not true. He made his first
film with a Super-8 camera he received
as a bar mitzvah gift from his parents.
Mayer, 44, was born in Washington,
D.C., but raised in Rockville, Md. His
father, Joseph, was "a hippie version of
the old-fashioned Jewish socialist. He
was anti-organized religion. He was a
Philip Roth-type. In fact, Roth was his
favorite writer. He also liked Henry
"My father was a big reader. He was
always encouraging me to read, interest-
ingly enough a lot of Jewish writers: Saul
Bellow, Singer and the two Roths."
Mayer's mother, Louise, was more
connected to her faith — her parents
spoke Yiddish at home. But her son's
upbringing was basically secular. The
family celebrated Passover and
Chanukah, but also Christmas.
"We had a Christmas tree, but I
thought of it as a secular holiday. To me,
it was Santa Claus and Rudolph; it had
nothing to do with Jesus," said Mayer.
"I had no idea who Jesus was.
Christmas was as American as
Like most kids growing up in the late
`60s and early '70s, he rebelled. How?
By insisting he go to Hebrew school. "I
had to beg," he remembered. "It's hilari-
ous. It's such a good story."
Hence the bar mitzvah, the Super-8
camera and a production of The Night
the Lights Went Out in Georgia. Not the
big screen version. The Michael Mayer
Mayer grew up in an era before video-
tapes made films ubiquitous. Movies ran
on the screens in the local movie house
for months at a time.
As a result, Mayer got most of his film
"Thoroughly Modern Millie"
director Michael Mayer:
"I don't care if my work is
loved or hated. I just want
a passionate response."
education from television and was par-
ticularly moved by the annual showings
of The Wizard of Oz.
"I was obsessed with Judy Garland,"
an early sign, he later realized, that he
was gay. It was another one of her
films, Babes in Arms, the Busby
Berkeley musical about young people
putting on a show, that got him started
in the theater.
"I learned what theater was through
the movies. Theater was going into the
back yard and doing a show. So I took
that at face value and started making
plays. Really, I was a director from the
beginning, even though I thought what
I wanted to be was an actor."
Mayer headed to the University of
Wisconsin, his first experience with
people who'd never seen a Jew before.
"I was dating a girl at the time, because
I was still trying to be straight. At one
point, she said to me, 'My roommate
told me you were Jewish. What are you
"I said, 'Brenda, we've been dating six
weeks. Don't you know what I'm like?"'
Shortly thereafter, Mayer switched to
the safer confines of New York
University, where he studied acting and
lived briefly with his father's cousin,
Barbara Ribakove Gordon, a founder of
the North American Conference on
Ethiopian Jewry. "I got the largest part
Darcie Roberts and Company in the National Touring Company of "Thoroughly
Modern Millie," a Jazz Age musical set in New York City