Michele Lee Breathes ‘Cy’ of Relief

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All Michele Lee knew was that she wanted to sing.

“I never thought I was going to be an actress,” the Tony- and Emmy-nominated actress admitted. “From the time I was a little girl, I wanted to be a singer. My mom said I sang in the crib. I started singing when I was a little girl. If company came over, I’d say [to my parents], ‘Can I sing?’ and they’d say, ‘No,’ and I’d say, ‘OK, here I go!’”

When she grew up, she started performing in musicals and, all of a sudden, she had to act, too, she said.


She made her debut in Vintage ’60, and went on to other shows like Seesaw, which earned her a Tony Award nomination. She starred on Broadway and later in the film version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying as Rosemary Pilkington.

She also appeared in films like Along Came Polly as Ben Stiller’s character’s mother, although you probably know her from her turn as Karen Fairgate in a whopping 344 episodes of Knots Landing.

Recently, she took a turn as Madame Morrible in Wicked, which was exciting because “everyone knows Wicked — hello!”

What many may not know is that Lee is Jewish.

“You start with my name: Michele Lee. Nobody knows what the hell I am,” she laughed. People ask her if she’s Eurasian. “I say, ‘Well, I’m Jewish,’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s Michele Leibowitz.’ I say, ‘No, Michele Lee is my first and middle name, and I was named after a Leah, Moshe Leah. My real last name is Dusick.’”

Her lineage traces back to Poland and England, and her parents, both Jewish, are from New York. Lee was conceived in New York and born in Los Angeles, which she said led her to be bicoastal her whole life. She still lives in both cities.

Her father worked as a makeup artist in L.A., but Lee started flying to New York when she auditioned for shows like Bravo Giovanni, in which she starred with Italian opera singer Cesare Siepi.

That role added to everyone’s surprise in discovering her Jewish heritage.

“So there I am with Metropolitan Opera singer Cesare Siepi, who was Italian, and my first husband — I was married twice — was James Farentino, the actor, so everybody thought I was Italian,” she recalled.

Farentino, who was Catholic, had promised they could raise their children Jewish, Lee said, so son David was raised Jewish and had a Bar Mitzvah.

Judaism has played a role in Lee’s life as far as informing her views and values. She tries to celebrate all of the holidays, even if she can’t make it to synagogue services; this year, she’s looking forward to spending Yom Kippur with comedian Sandra Bernhard.

“God only knows we should all be respectful, and it ain’t happening to all religions,” she said. “I know the Jews are, to all religions and embrace all people of all kinds at all times, and that’s why I’m proud to be a Jew. In the world today with the dissention we have and spewing of hate in a famed manner and sometimes not so famed — it’s an ugly, frightening way to live and think, and that’s one of the reasons I am happy I was taught Jewish values.”

While Madame Morrible wasn’t Jewish, some of Lee’s other roles were Jewish women.

Her favorite role, Gittel Mosca in Seesaw, was a Jewish dancer who fell in love with a “very gentile, just-separated lawyer from Nebraska.” Playing Gittel earned her a Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical in 1974.

Lee will return to Gittel this weekend when she’ll sing songs from shows she’s been in, including Seesaw, during two performances of Nobody Does It Like Me: The Music of Cy Coleman — one at the Bucks County Playhouse on Oct. 14 and the other at the RRazz Room at the Prince Theater on Oct. 15.

Coleman was also Jewish, though, as with Lee, you wouldn’t know it from his name.

Coleman was born Seymour Kaufman and is known for writing the music for theater hits like Sweet Charity and City of Angels. When he was just starting out as a jazz pianist in the 1950s, an agent recommended he change his name.

“One of his agents said, ‘You can’t be the Seymour Kaufman Trio. You don’t want to hide that you’re Jewish, but change it enough that it sounds like a jazz band,’” Lee said.

So he changed Seymour to Cy and Kaufman to Coleman, and when he told his mother, as Lee will recount in her show, “she said, ‘OK, if that’s what you wish.’ And from that day on, every time she’d introduce him to a friend or someone, she’d say, ‘This is Sylvia, Sigmund, Yetta — and this is Cy Coleman.’”

(It’s funnier when Lee says it.)

Lee will share other stories from Coleman’s background along with his work the audience may not know. For instance, Coleman also wrote “Playboy’s Theme” at Hugh Hefner’s request.

“I have so much fun doing this show, I cannot tell you,” Lee enthused. “I’ve done it around the country, here and there, but never went on a traditional tour with it. This one is my favorites because, well, first of all, I loved him, really, so I’ve got great Broadway stories I tell in the show — a lot of the stuff that he wrote, including Sweet Charity, and some of the backstage stories and the greatest songs. Ron Abel, who is my music director, wrote a lot of these arrangements, and they are brilliant. I love this show.”

Lee hopes the audience enjoys the music as much as she does.

“I have a sense of humor,” she said. “I just love having fun and with a smaller audience — you feel that you’re in your living room. And so to use another Yiddish expression, I love to kibbitz with them. I talk to the audience, and we have a good time.”

For tickets to the performances, visit princetheater.org and bcptheater.org.

Contact: [email protected]onent.com; 215-832-0740

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