by Jim Baehler
“I think I could sing before I could talk. I don’t remember ever not singing.” So says Anita Michael, another of the talented people who call Roosevelt Island home. Anita has two brothers and a sister, but she’s the only one who sings. “I had my first recital at age three, when I sang and tap-danced to the delight of my parents.” Growing up in New York City, it was all but inevitable that she would attend the High School for Performing Arts, on 46th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.
“My teachers encouraged me, and at first I had no fear of performing in public. When you’re a child, everything seems so natural. To me, performing was playing What if?, where you get to pretend to be someone else. I sang and danced all through school, from kindergarten on, and I loved every minute of it.”
Not satisfied with school performances, Anita and a friend, Anna, would stage their own productions for the neighborhood children. “Anna was a soprano and I was an alto, and our roles never changed. We never did duets; after all, we were soloists.” Movies provided the inspiration for some of their productions. “We would go to the movies, learn the songs, and then produce them. We would sing in our apartments or in the hallways of our apartment buildings. There was a great sound in the hallway, like an echo chamber.” The reaction of the neighbors to two little girls singing their hearts out just outside their doors is not known.
“In high school, we very seldom put on complete productions. Instead, we would work on scenes that were mostly straight drama. As a result, I don’t consider myself a singer who acts – I think of myself as an actress who sings.”
Unlike most of us who sing and are content to hit the right notes, Anita goes beyond the notes to find the person in the song. “Why is she singing? What is she singing about? Who is she? Where is this taking place? What does the song say about this person? In a musical production, songs heighten the reality of the scenes.”
This type of critical analysis allows Anita to penetrate to the heart of the character she’s playing before she even sings a note. It’s a painstaking approach to a song, but anyone who’s seen her in a role at the Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance (MST&DA) can attest to its effectiveness. For many years, she was an MST&DA mainstay, appearing in such productions as Sweet Charity, Li’l Abner, Cabaret, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Follies, Fiddler on the Roof (“Ron Roth was the finest Tevye I’ve ever seen”), and many others. “The character I enjoyed the most was Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret, who ran the boarding house and was the conscience of the play.”
Eventually, Anita became so involved with MST&DA that she became a member of the board. She worked closely with Nancy and Worth Howe, the theatre’s creative directors. “I was especially supportive of the children’s theatre group that Nancy taught. I worked very hard to raise money for our scholarship program, so that every child could attend regardless of the family-income level. Our annual productions with adults and children in the casts were big money-makers, and well received by audiences on the Island.”
Anita remembers the effect that the children’s program had on many of its participants. “It was magical. I watched children who were shy, self-conscious, uncertain in social situations, emerge after a few years in the program as confident, poised, and confident in any social situation. Only one or two went on to become professional performers, but all benefited enormously from their experiences with the theatre. Nancy Howe did more for this Island than almost anyone else I can name, and it was a sad day when she and Worth left for Los Angeles to follow their own dreams.”
In a break from the performing arts, Anita married, had two children, and concentrated on being a mother and wife. After her marriage ended in divorce, she attended beauty school for two years to become a licensed hair stylist. She is now a hair stylist at the Dousoki Townhouse, on East 62nd Street (917-597-9759). She applies the same analytical approach to styling hair as she did to performing. “Before I begin to work on the hair of a new client, I sit down with her and get to know her. What is she like? What is her family situation? What are her interests and activities? I study her face, its angles and curves and features. Only after all that can I make a recommendation as to how her hair should be styled. Most of my clients have been coming to me for years, and I consider them friends, not just customers.”
Eventually, the performing urge returned, and Anita began a career as a cabaret performer in various New York City clubs. She also began a series of one-woman shows. The latest, I Never Know When To Say When, is scheduled for October 1-3 at the Louise Beechman Theatre, 407 West 42nd Street (212-352-3101). The title shows us that she mixes humor and drama in her shows, which makes for an entertaining and absorbing evening.
Anita Michael is one of the fortunate few who can say, “I’m doing exactly what I want to in my life.” Her smiling, upbeat personality attests to that statement’s validity.