A Conversation with Michelle Lauto
Since moving to Chicago, to say Michelle Lauto has been busy is an understatement. She’s played the iconic Liza Minnelli (The Boy from Oz), the big-city-dreaming Vanessa from In the Heights, and she just finished up a run in a second Lin-Manuel Miranda-related starring role, in Spamilton. Before she jumps into her latest triumph, NYU student-flower-child Sheila in The Mercury Theatre’s Hair, she sat down with us to talk theater, identity, and using Coinstar to get Rent tickets.
Kelly Wallace: How did you come to be in Spamilton?
Michelle Lauto: It was kind of crazy. I had just signed with the agency I’m with now, Stewart Talent, that morning. They told me they wanted to represent me…that night I got an email saying they had an audition for me tomorrow. I left almost in tears and called my dad, like, I need a job; I can’t keep doing this. I was really hoping for a break. I got a callback and they had me come dance, they had me sing and do more material and a few days later I got a call from my agent and he told me I was going to be in Spamilton. They offered me an Equity contract, because I’d been EMC, which meant that I could turn and get my card. It was the fastest thing in the world. It went from me crying under the train tracks saying, Something has got to give; I can’t do this to, My whole life is changing!
I’m doing insane quick changes, going from full Hamilton to 55-year-old Liza Minnelli in 25 seconds. I’m having so much fun. It’s opened a lot of other doors and introduced me to a lot of cool people. It’s insane. I’m having a great time.
KW: Did you go to school for musical theater?
ML: I am a college dropout!
KW: What made you decide to come out here and leave college?
ML: I think anyone’s path is the right path for them. Studying musical theater in a BFA program was not my path. I didn’t feel like I belonged in a program like that. My friends who went to Pace loved it and that’s awesome for them, but I had this urge to be auditioning. So I did. I was also, at that time, getting a bunch of callbacks for things. So, I felt like, “You have Dramatics 101 and this text, or you have a callback for the national tour of Rock of Ages,” so I would go to the callback. After awhile, it started to feel counterintuitive to spend $45,000 a year to do what I was already doing. Again, I’m not dismissing the value of education in theater; it’s just not for everyone.
I thought I was just going to work in the city, live in the city, and audition. But, as you know, living in New York City costs a lot of money. So, when you’re 18-19 years old and bartending until 3 o’clock in the morning, you don’t want to wake up at 6AM to get your name on a list and maybe get seen at 5:30pm. Maybe they’ll let you sing eight bars. It started to feel really taxing. I was craving something else: I always wanted to do comedy; I always loved writing. Living somewhere else started to feel really appealing to me, having grown up in New Jersey and then living in New York…that was all I knew. The only city I knew was New York. To me, there was no other city. You just call it, “the City.” You say, “I’m going to the City” and everyone knows what you mean.
KW: Which I said for months after moving to Chicago, and people would be so confused.
ML: They’re like, “Which city are you referring to? Be specific.” So the plan was to go to Chicago for a year, study and go through the initial program at Second City, and then I was going to leave. I met amazing friends. I also started to vibe with Chicago, I really liked it here, but I still had my plan to move back to New York. I auditioned for conservatory at Second City and got in. I told myself that if I got in, it was a sign that I should stay for a while more. I sort of walked away from musical theater for a while. I had to go back and start auditioning for things. I went to an audition here for a non-equity production of Murder Ballad and it was the very first thing I auditioned for and I got offered the swing track, to cover both women in the show. From there, it was steps and making connections and auditioning and working my tush off.
KW: What do you feel like is the biggest difference between New York and Chicago?
ML: I love my home and I love New York. My dream has not changed since I was five years old. I want to be on Broadway one day. As far as the acting scene goes, Chicago is a city of workers. It’s about the work, not about the ego. I think if you’re not in it to do the work, you won’t last long. That spreads really fast. If you start to garnish a reputation as someone who doesn’t do it for the work or doesn’t do it for the right reasons, that spreads like wildfire.
KW: This city seems to talk more about things. I think that Chicago is having more conversations about the content and direction of theater than New York does.
ML: Absolutely. I was a part of In the Heights at Porchlight, and there was a ton of controversy around it. I don’t regret it at all. I’m very grateful for the conversation it ignited within the theater community. But it’s very interesting to watch the buzz and attention it got, and the huge controversy it caused, and then I see the national tour of something like Aladdin and, great, but is there a single Middle Eastern person in the Broadway production or on the tour? Probably not. Or, if there are, they’re very underrepresented. There’s a tendency to say, “There’s diversity!” in a way that makes people of color interchangeable. Latinos are very different from Middle Eastern people and black people are very different from Latinos. That’s not interchangeable.
KW: How do you think we can go from tossing blame around to actually, constructively working on developing more inclusive talent?
ML: My boyfriend, Nick, and I were talking about this the other day in a broader sense of the political landscape. We’re in – I don’t love this term, but I see it so much – “woke culture.” It’s like, “How woke are you?” Competitive wokeness. While I love that as someone who has been a social justice warrior since I was 10…when we play the blame game too much, it poses risk to alienate people from your cause or your movement. There’s a way of saying, “Hey, that’s not acceptable, we have to do better than that” without coming out with a pitchfork.
Unfortunately, what wound up happening was that our cast was comprised of 15 or 16 people of color who were black or Latino, and we all felt really alienated from our community. Our show was a sold-out run for four-and-a-half months. That doesn’t happen in Chicago and it certainly doesn’t happen for shows full of brown people.
KW: The audience and the ticket sales say something, in terms of the wider reaction.
ML: Absolutely. And I got to have conversations with students who came in from primarily Latino neighborhoods to see our show, we had talkbacks with them…I don’t regret a minute of that process. It was taxing, and that’s part of what comes with it. I say that from a place of privilege. If that’s the most taxing thing in my life, then I’m a very fortunate person. I love the accountability of Chicago theater, I think we need to hold each other accountable. What upset me the most was when I see casting announcements day after day for non-race-specific shows, for revues even, with all white people. No one is saying anything about that. Misrepresentation onstage is a problem and shouldn’t be accepted or dismissed, but why is it only exclusive to our stories? Why can’t representation mean this cool new piece that doesn’t have anything to base itself on, casting wise? Can’t we agree that it would be cool to have those opportunities too?
KW: As an actor, what do you think your responsibility is to be engaged politically or as an activist, both in the industry and in the broader world? A lot of people would say, “Oh, well, you’re an entertainer, stick to entertaining. We don’t need your political opinion.”
ML: Ugh! When people tell actors to stick to acting, I want to tell them that art has never just been about entertainment, ever. Plays and musicals and films and books have all come from a place of people writing what they know or making social commentary. You can’t separate the two almost ever, in my opinion. How can you possibly embody the essence of someone else if you’re not putting yourself in other people’s shoes? That means doing your research about all different cultures. It means advocating. Don’t just slide into someone’s skin and use it. What can you do to advocate on the part of communities you’re representing? I think it’s really important to put your money where your mouth is.
KW: When did you become interested in musical theater?
ML: I think I was interested in musical theater before I really knew what it was. My mom likes to say I was singing before I could speak. I always loved singing and performing. The moment that I felt like, This is going down, this is what I have to do for the rest of my life — and it’s so corny and so clichéd – but I was a freshman in high school and my choir’s class trip was to see Wicked and I was just in tears the whole time. My best friend from high school was sitting next to me and clutching my arm. Elphaba and Glinda came out to take their bows and did a kind of princess wave and I was up in the mezzanine, but I was waving back to them. I thought they were doing this for me. And then I saw Rent. It was really special. I grew up listening to pop and rock, so I didn’t have a traditional musical theater voice at that age. I thought I should just belt everything, which at 14 is just screaming. But Rent was the first rock musical I ever saw, so it changed my world. The women were unconventionally pretty, they sounded unconventional, and that really spoke to me. It made me feel like I could be on Broadway.
The first professional Broadway show I auditioned for was Spiderman, for Mary Jane. And this was at least four years before it even wound up opening. It’s hilarious to think that at 16 I thought I could sing “Come to Your Senses” and surely if I just scream through this Jonathan Larson song, I’ll be in the Spiderman musical. But actually from that I wound up getting a callback for Next to Normal on Broadway, for Natalie. I remember being really excited. That was kind of the start of everything. Ultimately, it’s my favorite thing. I have a love/hate relationship with it sometimes, but I think that’s any person/actor’s relationship with it.
KW: You’ve talked about this before — you’re Puerto Rican; you feel you white-pass sometimes.
ML: Definitely. I’m mixed, my dad is Italian and stuff, and I have fair skin. So I’m afforded privileges. That’s just obvious. I think I’ve found a good balance in the last year or so.
KW: Was that confusing for you? To figure out where you fit on the spectrum?
ML: Definitely, big time. Even auditioning for In the Heights, there was a part of me that was tentative to audition because of the way I look. But I’ve gotta say, somebody who kept coming back into my mind was Krysta Rodriguez. When I saw her in In the Heights, I saw her go on as Vanessa, and it made me think I could play that part. Mandy Gonzalez is half-Jewish. Those experiences really changed me, in terms of how I saw myself. I needed to just be Michelle. I’m very lucky in that I got to play an iconic Italian woman, Liza Minelli.That’s something I’m very grateful for. It’s also been exciting to embrace different sides of myself. Ethnicity, even voice type. I’ve stopped saying, I’m not this enough, I’m not an ingenue enough, I’m not Latino enough, I’m not white enough. I think one of the reasons I’ve always felt like I don’t belong in certain situations is that I can’t tell you how many times in the audition room people ask what I am or say I’m ambiguous looking. I’m a human being. Yes, I know what you’re saying, but it makes me feel kind of weird about myself. It makes me think about what people perceive me as and I wonder what people see me as and what I’m allowed to own. Even when I signed with my agency, my one friend was like, “Make sure they don’t just send you in for Latino roles, show them that you want everything”.
KW: You’ve been working here for awhile, but I imagine you’d consider In the Heights to be one of the bigger shows you’ve done in terms of publicity and visibility.
ML: Definitely. It was my first time leading an Equity show. I’ve been in some great shows in Chicago, but I loved doing In the Heights more than anything in this whole world. I’m spoiled in a way, and I don’t take it for granted that I had this opportunity, but it’s a whole other thing to literally not be able to get a ticket to an Equity storefront theater in Chicago. It was wild. In any show, you wonder how the house is going to be. That’s the nature of the game.
KW: Right, and it doesn’t inherently say anything about the quality of the show or you personally or anything like that.
ML: And hey, I’ll give 20 people the same show as I would give 500 people. You paid money to be here; we entered into a contract when you walked into this building. You’re here to be entertained and I’m here to entertain you and move you. But to just walk out every night and it was a sold out crowd that was losing their shit every night for us…wow.
You go from, “Please come see my show in Wicker Park, this is a beautiful piece of art,” and unfortunately, a beautiful piece of art doesn’t always sell tickets. I wish it did. I really wish it did. But to go from that to this school bus of 16-year-old girls whose class trip was to see our show, messaging me on Instagram…it’s a pinch me moment.
KW: Is that something you care a lot about? Being a role model for young people who come see your shows, engaging with young people?
ML: Yes! I love teaching too. In New York I worked at The Broadway Workshop which offers professional theatrical experiences to young kids. I was a teacher last summer for Emerald City. I’ll be teaching at Porchlight this summer. I think that’s something that I still hang onto – I was a nanny for so long. I love kids. And I love watching kids get so excited over musicals, because I was the 14 year old seeing Wicked and waving to Elphaba and Glinda.
KW: Who are some of the people you looked up to who inspired you to get into this business?
ML: I think, like any young girl, I saw Idina Menzel for the first time and was like, “Woah.” I remember taking the kids I watched to see Frozen and being so emotional to hear her voice as a Disney princess. It felt like everything came full circle. Alice Ripley. I’m thinking about people who mesmerized me. Watching Alice Ripley…that’s how you act. There were also shows that expanded my mind. The Drowsy Chaperone really got me. I think it was the Man in Chair’s monologue at the end. I just remember thinking, Oh, there’s a piece of my soul. Karen Olivo is another one. When I’m feeling down, I watch her Tonys’ speech. For one, I love that she was not a dancer and won a Tony playing Anita in West Side Story. She became a dancer for that show, but the point being that she worked her ass off and made the impossible possible.
KW: Well, she didn’t say, “I’m not going to audition for this; I’m not a dancer.”
ML: Exactly. That’s something I need to learn how to do. Just also the career Karen has had is so inspiring to me, and taking space when you need space. I know how that works.
KW: It’s a tough business. Especially right now. Where do you want to see theater go in the next five or ten years? Taking into account, even, the political environment we’re in, the way the world is changing, where do you feel like we need to go to continue to be relevant?
ML: That’s been my comforting thought since November, that maybe, just maybe, some really incredible art will be made. It will happen. I don’t know if it makes the medicine go down that much better, because we don’t have that art right now. Let’s not limit ourselves to who can be the protagonist in a story. That’s where I think we still have a lot of room to grow even with more “diverse” shows and stuff. We lack in certain ways within that. Porchlight is doing Marry Me a Little and we get to see Bethany Thomas in that, who’s amazing. She’s unbelievable. We get to see a tall black woman leading a Sondheim show. And guess what? No one blinks an eye at that. Because whatever construct people have made in their head about who can play certain parts…it’s just a construct. It’s made up.
I think we can do more. I think we have a construct of what a leading man looks like. It doesn’t have to be like that. I want to see all different bodies and voices being represented. More than anything, writing. I was just saying this at lunch, they announced the Carousel revival, and that’s cool. I personally don’t think Carousel should be done in 2017. I don’t think it has any place being done in 2017. It has beautiful music. I love some of the actors who were announced. Do I think it’s problematic that they’re putting a white woman onstage and having her beaten by a black man? Yes. I think it’s problematic as hell. I don’t feel good about it. It makes me feel icky.
KW: It’s one thing to say we want diversity, we want “color blind” casting, but we need to look at which roles we’re casting and why.
ML: It matters what stories we’re giving people. “Oh, we’re doing a diverse production of this…” Okay, is it still a traditionally white story that in no way relates to the community? The beauty of In the Heights is a story about a group of people we don’t hear stories about. Hamilton, despite it being about the American Revolution, they related to a place that’s about what it means to scrappy and an immigrant. To me, that means we need to be behind the table writing. We need to be casting. We need to be in every aspect of this, behind the scenes. I think we have to continue on a quest to make inclusivity a priority. That means people with different body types, people of different races, people with different abilities, people with different gender identities. The list goes on and on. I think we’re getting there. I feel it, I feel us and the community as a whole wanting more. That’s what I want to see.
Michelle Lauto is a Chicago based actor, singer, writer, and improviser. Michelle grew up in the Jersey suburbs of New York. She began acting in and around the city at the age of 16. At 21 she moved to Chicago to study her other love: comedy. Michelle is a 2014 graduate of The Second City Training Center’s Conservatory program. She loves crafting, watching true crime shows, and talking about pizza.