Inspiring People

Michael McElroy

Michael McElroy
Michael came to New York City in May of 1990, after finishing his BFA in Theater from Carnegie Mellon University. His Broadway credits include Big River, The Wild Party, Rent, The Who's Tommy, Miss Saigon, Patti Lupone on Broadway, Hair and The High Rollers Social Pleasure Club. National Tour: Sarafina. Off Broadway: NY Shakespeare Festival's Richard III with Denzel Washington, Violet (Playwright's Horizons: Drama Desk Nomination), Thunder Knocking on the Door, Minetta Reperatory Theater and Blue, Grammercy Theater. Regional credits include Angels in America Pts I and II, Alley Theater; Fences, Riverside Theater; Dreamgirls, Pittsburgh Playhouse; Thunder Knocking on the Door, Trinity Reperatory Theater. He was also a featured vocalist on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." Michael is featured on CD recordings of The Who's Tommy, Blue, Violet, Thunder Knocking on the Door and Leslie Uggams' upcoming CD project. He founded the Broadway Gospel Choir in 1994, then founded the Broadway Inspirational Voices in 1999.

What makes Michael McElroy most inspiring is that he is someone who is unwilling to be a victim of circumstance. He is someone who believes in making a way where there is no way. Opportunity finds him because he doesn't wait around for it. He is busy creating opportunity, not only for himself, but for anybody else who wants to come along for the kind of ride that is all about growth, artistic fulfillment, giving and living life to the fullest.

DR: Michael, tell me about your work.

MM: About my career or about the work that I do with the choir?

DR: Both.

MM: O.K.

I moved here in 1990. I had graduated from Carnegie Melon in Pittsburgh with a major in theater and started pursuing my dream of becoming a professional actor in New York; on Broadway. That was my goal since I was very young and watched my first Tony Awards Show on television.

I grew up in a very musical family. Everybody plays piano. My uncle was a musical director and conductor and he would take me to see all of the shows that came through my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.

I moved here and luckily, got a job right away. I was fortunate to do my first job - Shakespeare in the Park, Shakespeare's Richard III with Denzel Washington. That was two weeks after I graduated. Two months after that I got my Equity card on the national tour of Sarafina which was on the end of its American tour. I went on tour for the first time, with one other American and a cast of people from South Africa...

I was slowly reaching my goal. I was a working actor and doing incredible work in terms of the choice of things that I was able to do. I moved back here and did a quick show Off Broadway and then the day after that closed, I had an audition for Miss Saigon which was now about six months into its run. I got it the next day and went into the ensemble of Miss Saigon. I got my first Broadway show!

I remember that first day, standing on stage after my first show and looking out into the audience after the curtain call and really taking the time to acknowledge that -

I had accomplished what I wanted; one of my dreams.

From then on it's been about maintaining a career in theater. I have done about seven or eight Broadway shows from Miss Saigon to The Who's Tommy. I went into Rent for almost three years. I did The Wild Party with Eartha Kitt and Toni Collette for the time that it ran on Broadway.

Then the last thing that really led to, that was really exciting -

I did the show Big River; the revival of Big River on Broadway in 2003. It was a different take on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because half the cast was deaf and so all of us used American Sign Language to communicate.

It was a great opportunity because I really had no desire to do this role of, "Jim, Runaway Slave". I didn't feel comfortable. I didn't really want to put myself into that mentality; that time in history and that whole experience and yet there was something very exciting about the fact that this was not just another take on a runaway slave but he was a runaway slave that spoke sign language. That opened up the character in a whole other way and it allowed me to give voice to the people that came before me, and to give some kind of respect and honor to the people, the ancestors who went through this experience, and through their sacrifice and their blood and their sweat and their tears - I was able to be here today on Broadway pursuing my dreams.

And with that show, which had a limited run but a great success on Broadway, I was nominated for a Tony in 2004. And then I went on the road with the show for a year, touring all over the United States and in Tokyo, Japan and finally ending up at Ford's Theater in D.C. It lasted until June 2005 and since then I've been home.

The other side of my life and career is this thing that I started in 1994 which is Broadway's version of Voices.

I came to New York at a time which was at the height of the Aids epidemic. It was mind boggling to see all of the performers and directors and choreographers and costume people and musicians who were dying from this disease. And the theater community rally rallied around its own and raised money and awareness and all of these things, but spiritually, we were kind of in a void. Because -- as much as you can do the financial things to make sure that you were comfortable, you still couldn't wrap your mind around why this was happening and how devastating it was.

For me growing up...

Broadway Inspirational Voices

Director, Composer Michael McElroy:
The Man Behind Broadway Inspirational Voices

"Healing, forgiveness, strength, love, patience -- and hope."

Michael McElroy says these are the powerful virtues that listeners can glean from gospel music.

He should know. This Broadway favorite (Rent, The Wild Party, Blue) and Tony Award® nominee (Big River) was raised in the Baptist church founded by his grandfather in Cleveland. “All the musicians in the church were my (biological) family. We played all the instruments and directed the choir.”

A versatile actor, singer and musician, Michael has held fast to his roots by recruiting some of the best voices on Broadway to sing in his renowned choir, The Broadway Inspirational Voices.

Click here to

I grew up in a Baptist Church that my grandfather started before I was born and then my step father took it over when I was a teenager. I grew up with this music; with this Gospel music and I knew how important spirituality was to me and how important its music was to me in terms of something that I could hold on to -- the message, the truth of this message being universal, the truth of this message being beyond religious...and how much it had been a solace to me.

So I decided to start this choir with eleven people. This annual Gospel celebration is a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids. The first year that we did it, it was an amazing success! I wanted to do something that was multi-cultural and have an audience of all different people. It started in 1994 and has grown to over 60 members from different Broadway shows. You know people go in and out of town, people who have moved to L.A., who still fly back for the concert, that kind of thing - its somewhere around 60 or 70 people right now.

We have a guest artist every year. Last year we had Deborah Cox. The year before that it was Patti LaBelle. This is an opportunity for us to bring a sense of community and spirituality without judgment, into the theatrical community of New York; into the city of New York and hopefully beyond that. It's been, for the choir itself...we work pretty much full time now. We are always doing different things through out the city. We just finished doing recordings for the Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks. We have a benefit coming up in April for a theater corporation. We are doing stuff all of the time but the basis of what we do is in Gospel music which has a healing power, a sense of inclusiveness and non-judgment and it's not only been a great source of creative and artistic fulfillment for me, but also a source of spiritual fulfillment for me.

It seems like right now we are living in a time where, in order to be in any kind of religious arena -- its so specific and so non-forgiving that its nice to have an environment where everybody feels that they can come together and, in the truest, purest sense of community and family and connection to a higher power that can be reached with all different people; different races and religious backgrounds. That has also been something that has been a constant source of fulfillment in my life. We have produced and recorded many albums. We did a holiday CD in 2004 that was nominated for a Grammy in 2005 and it's been great! I have been able to balance staying creatively stimulated and fulfilled with the choir when jobs as an actor have been -

not there.

I am really happy and I really feel like there is something that leads and guides my life and it's a matter of being prepared when the opportunities come up. I keep myself creatively active so that when those opportunities do arrive, I am ready and I am there.

DR: What would you say Michael is the source of your inspiration? How would you describe that?

MM: I was raised in a Baptist Church so I have always had an incredibly close connection to God. It has changed over the years because first, it is what you are told it is and then, as you grow as a human being. As you grow as -- for me -- as a Christian person, you begin to define that space based on the road that you walk.

For me, my inspiration has been that light that connection to a higher power. That idea that the truth for me is that --

I am put on this earth for a specific reason and that there is a journey and a life that is set before me and I have to be prepared.

That doesn't mean that there's not forks in the road and all of that, but it does mean that I have free will. I do feel that there is a connection to a higher power that wants me to be happy, that wants me to be complete, that wants me to be fulfilled artistically, creatively, financially...That connection, even in difficult times, gives me solace.

DR: What is that specific reason that you believe you were put here for?

MM: To do exactly what I am doing.

I have been put here, like everyone else to connect to other human beings, to love and to be loved. I think that is a very important thing. I have an incredible family. I have incredible friends. I think that it is important as human beings that we connect to each other. I think that it is important as human beings that we grow and that we look at ourselves honestly and try to be the best person that we can be. Unfortunately sometimes that means that you have to go through difficult situations. I think that I was put here to give of this talent that I have been blessed with. It makes me happy and as long as I know that other people are touched by what I do, I am on the right path.

Those are just some of the things that I think I am put here for.

DR: When you consider the challenges that you have had in your life on the way to "becoming", on the way to fulfilling what it is that you were put here for, what challenge stands out for you and how did you overcome?

MM: I think it's a challenge to be an African-American male in life in general. Just because of the way that our country was born and created on the backs of oppressing people. I think that is something that we don't want to look at as a nation - how much that has informed who we are as a people. You have to be realistic and say

"This is what the situation is, but it is not going to define me."

There have been many set-backs. It's hard. I have gotten to a point in my career now that when there are jobs, there are maybe three or four people that get the phone call to audition...Those jobs for African-American men in their 30's - I don't remember the last time that I had an audition. So the opportunities are not as frequent. It's a challenge! I have talked to a lot of my friends who are African-American in this business and we talk all of the time:

"How do you keep from being frustrated? How do you become wise without becoming bitter?"

I mean wise to the ways in which the world works and the ways in which this business works and be smart about it without becoming bitter and angry about the things that are "unfair".

DR: And how do you do that?

MM: For me, it's about having that connection to that higher power and spirituality and knowing that:

What is meant for me, no one can take from me.

I am the only person that can take it from me by, like for example, not being prepared when the opportunities arise.

Do you know what I mean?

DR: Yeah.

MM: For me, having this choir and having something that is something that I started that it belongs to me - I don't mean that in a possessive way but in the fact that this is something that I created that gives me a creative outlet. So that when those jobs are not there, I don't feel like I am at someone else's beckon call or disposal.

I am not waiting for someone to give me license to be creative.

That is something that I talk a lot about with my friends -

"What do you do during those times between jobs? What do you do? Do you write? Do you record music? What do you do to keep yourself artistically challenged and artistically fulfilled?"

That helps me when I see my white male counter-parts moving from job to job to job, without stop and without fail. It helps me look at it and go "That's the business! That's what it is!"

I can change that by being the performer and the actor that I am, or I can change by writing my own stuff, or I can change it by getting the money together to be a producer so that I have power to change things. There are all kinds of different things that you can do. That keeps me from being frustrated, and I do get frustrated. I am a human being. But I try to keep away from the edge of bitterness.

I think that having friends who are going through what you are going through and being able to talk to them and support each other, knowing that you are not in this by yourself, is a big part of what keeps me kind of grounded and centered.

DR: What do you consider your greatest triumph so far?

MM: Wow. I think, for me, it's my growth as a human being.

When you talk about challenges and pain, I think that we all have personal experiences and personal stories that threaten to make us want to just quit, to just stop and give up and I am no different than anybody else in that. But, it's the fact that I have always wanted to be a stronger person, a better person, a clearer person and it's not a journey that ever ends. The fact that I can look at myself today and look at myself two years ago and know that I am not that person, who was a wonderful person, but I have allowed the situations that have come into my life that have challenged me or have really caused me emotional turmoil, not to defeat me but to go:

"This is an opportunity for me to learn something."

Those scars, those are the things that you know, {they are} how you learn and how you grow as a human being -- not that I am asking for any...

DR: No! No!

MM: (Laughing) I am not asking for it! But when those opportunities do come it's like a big fire in front of you and it's like "I have a choice. I can stand here and be stationary. I can try to get around this or I can walk through it knowing that once I get to the other side, it's going to be behind me.

DR: Is there a mountain on your horizon that you want to conquer next?

MM: Oh yes! I have many mountains.

Career-wise, I am starting to feel a transition into another part of that career, but before I go from the place where I am now, I would like to do more in other areas of being a performer.

Even when I was younger, I have always known that I wasn't going to be an actor; a performer forever. That wasn't my final goal. My final goal is something different. In the same vain, in terms of the performing arts, I want to start to move on to "that". So I am starting to do things in my life that I have control over to make "that" start to happen.

DR: Have you defined the "that" for yourself?

MM: Have I defined the "what"?

DR: The "that". You said that you want move on to "that", whatever that mountain is. What is that mountain?

MM: Well it's just putting myself in a creative venue where I have more control, one, and two, where I can then turn around and help somebody else.

Being an actor or being a performer, you are at the beckon call of the show - is it a show that you are right for, the producer or the director who wants to work with you not want to work with you - there are so many things that are not in your control. I want to get to a place where, in that field, I have more control and also I am able to turn around and help somebody else.

And personally, I want to get to a place of another level of financial security and another level of emotional security, another level of relationship, all of those things. As I have gotten older - you know, your priorities change and shift. Where before for me it was always that next show, that next Broadway show, that next job - I still want those things but for me, having a relationship, having a family, those things have started to come stronger in terms of not being long range goals, but coming closer and closer to the present.

DR: Hey Michael? Do you have a secret passion?

MM: I'm pretty vocal about my passions.

DR: I kinda get that.

MM: Yeah, because I am in the arts so its like, you know -

we tell it all.

I think that I am living my passions. I am lucky enough to be one of those people that my jobs are not nine-to-five kind of jobs. It's always changing. That's fun but it also lacks a certain security.

But my work is my passion!

I am writing now al lot more and that is a passion that I love and we will see what happens from there.

DR: A hundred years from now, what co you want to be remembered for.

MM: I want to be remembered as a person who contributed to society. If that means artistically, that's one part of it - that people can look back and say "This song that you wrote", or "This play that you wrote" or "This musical that you wrote", this in some way illuminated a part of society that still holds true today.

As a person I want to be remembered as someone who was a good friend, a good partner, a good family member, a good son, a good brother, who contributed to the community and the civilization in which I lived. If that means in terms of financially, in terms of giving of my time and my talent...Those are the kinds of principles on which my religious structure was built. It was built on you giving of your time, your tithes and your talents. It is something that I believe strongly in.

When you are in a place of certain financial freedoms, you turn around and you contribute to things that you believe in and you also give of your time to help those people who have the same goals and dreams that you have and you help those people who maybe don't, in a different way.

Those are things that I want to be remembered my time and in my commitment to helping people.

Thanks Michael!

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