It’s His Wonderful Life

Michael Tapley appears this month in the musical version of the classic movie about Frank Bailey and his guardian angel. The local performer and teacher chats about this holiday show, working with Debbie Reynolds, and his early love for the theater.

By Eric A.T. Dieckman

Michael Tapley

“My mother gave me my first record player,” recalls Michael Tapley of an early Christmas. “And my grandmother gave me the soundtrack to Thoroughly Modern Millie. I was such a Julie Andrews freak that I wore it out. You couldn’t even play the record after the first few weeks.” These two gifts played a major role in shaping Tapley’s life. Then, when he was only four or five, his mother took him to The Sound of Music (more Julie Andrews) . “I fell in love with the music and every aspect of it. And then I got the record. To this day, the score can make me cry.” The desire to go on stage took root.

Tapley was in his first Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS) show at age 10. At that point, he realized that some people made a living on the stage. “So I decided that that’s what I wanted to do,” he says. Tapley has since acquired a lengthy list of credits, which includes performing in, choreographing, or directing numerous productions for TUTS and other theater companies across the country. Tapley has also performed in the national touring companies of 42nd Street, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Mame. He did a stint on Broadway in the 1993 stage version of The Who’s Tommy as alternate for the title role.

Among the major names with whom Tapley has shared a stage is Debbie Reynolds, with whom he appeared in Molly Brown. “She was very generous and loving,” he says. “She wanted us to call her Mother, long before her movie of that title came out.” At the beginning of the show run, he remembers, Reynolds would hold court with the cast, treating them to fine champagne and stories of the glory days of MGM. “It was fantastic for the first four weeks. And then we started hearing those stories four and five times, so the late nights got shorter and shorter,” he says with obvious affection.

For busy entertainers like Tapley, the holiday season can mean time away from family, performing in a show far from home. Fellow theater people can become one’s surrogate family. One example of that reality for Tapley took place in New Mexico in the late ’80s. A number of theater peers, some with time off between shows, had flown in from around the country to rent a house for the holidays. But the snowfall was particularly heavy that season, and everyone got snowed in for a few days. The group spent that time peacefully sitting about, engaging in arts and crafts. It remains one of Tapley’s fondest memories.

Tapley shares another holiday remembrance, this one a heart-warming tidbit about Frank Young, the TUTS founder and show impressario. Young has a seasonal tradition of his own for artists displaced by holiday shows. He treats out-of-towners to Thanksgiving dinner, either at a restaurant or in his own home. “It’s called the orphans’ supper,” Tapley says. “I’ve spent many a Thanksgiving with Frank.”

For some, spending so much time on the road can take a toll on relationships. When asked if he is single, Tapley promptly answers, “Yes!” He discloses that he is currently in the market for a boyfriend. (So, get those tickets and backstage passes, fellas!)

Tapley was drawn to A Wonderful Life, in which he can be seen this month at the Hobby Center, knowing that the classic story of Frank Bailey would be popular holiday fare. The stage musical is of course an adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 Frank Capra classic that starred Jimmy Stewart as Bailey and Donna Reed as his radiant wife, Mary. Performing in a show about a man who learns what the world would be like had he not been born can make a person wistful about his own existence, Tapley (who plays Bert, the cab driver, in the show) admits. How might the world be different if Michael Tapley were never a part of it? “There’d be some kids out there who wouldn’t know how to tap dance,” muses Tapley, who teaches dance at the Academy at the TUTS Humphreys School of Musical Theatre. He is also artistic director for the annual TUTS Tommy Tune Awards, which recognize excellence in area high-school theater productions. Imparting his love of theater and his talents over the years, Tapley has seen some of his students graduate to performing on Broadway. “It’s really gratifying.”

Perhaps that’s what keeps him in theater. After having surgery done on both feet, Tapley doesn’t dance as much as he once did. But as he explains, “Once you’re in it, it never leaves you.”

Eric A.T. Dieckman wrote about his shaping-up experience”Making Change” at Fitness Exchange (now Crew Health & Fitness) in the October OutSmart.

Wonderful, Wonderful

The Theatre Under The Stars production of A Wonderful Life, the musical version of It’s a Wonderful Life opens on December 11 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. This Texas premiere of the 1986 musical by prolific composer Joe Raposo, whose work enriched several PBS children’s programs, including Sesame Street (two memorable numbers: “Bein’ Green” and “Sing”), and lyricist Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello!) runs through December 23. Tickets: 713/558-8887, www.tuts.com.

The Out @ TUTS night for GLBT musical-theater fans is December 13. OutSmart is the Out @ TUTS media sponsor.


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