Michael Hartney never wanted to perform on Broadway -- but starting tonight (November 9), he'll be showing up on stage every night as a cast member of the stage adaptation of "School of Rock." And not only that, he's the understudy for lead actor Alex Brightman... So one case of the sniffles, and the guy who never planned on belting out Andrew Lloyd Webber will be singing for hundreds.
"Broadway was never in the game plan," Hartney told MTV News over the phone, mere days before previews kick off at the Winter Garden Theatre, former home to the long running classic "Cats," among other Broadway mainstays. "I majored in theater in college and did musicals, but it was all to have an acting background so I can go do comedy."
And that's what Hartney has been doing for the past few years, performing, teaching and directing at the famed Upright Citizens Brigade comedy theater, and aiming to jump start a career making people laugh -- just not on the Great White Way.
Which of course is probably infuriating to the hundreds, if not thousands of actors struggling to make it into an Off-Broadway show, let alone Broadway itself every year. But Hartney's story proves that there's no straight path to your dream job; and sometimes that dream job isn't your dream until it actually happens.
Stepping back to his younger days, Hartney's first experience (or recalled experience, at least) with theater was seeing "The Pajama Game" at Fredonia State University with his grandmother. He only first made it to see a Broadway show the summer before his senior year of high school -- specifically "Rent," in case you couldn't guess.
But all the while, he wasn't particularly inspired to audition for theater shows, until "Avenue Q" -- the puppet-focused skewering of shows like "Sesame Street" -- held open auditions. With some skill in puppetry, and an ability to wait on long lines for hours, Hartney camped out for a chance to audition... Only to find the casting directors took one look at his headshot and resume, and that was it.
"I was sent out of the room without having sung a single note or saying a single word," Hartney recalled. "And I was like, I don’t need this in my life!"
Instead, Hartney concentrated on comedy, building up a reputation as a fearless performer and all around good guy with long runs of his solo show, "So I Like Superman: A One-Nerd Show," as well as appearances on "30 Rock," IFC, and multiple commercials for everything from Yahoo! to Visa/NFL.
Most importantly to our story, though, Hartney continued to plug away at his first love, comedy. Performing around town in long-form improv, sketch comedy and more, Hartney was one of the names submitted by UCB when Merri Sugarman of Tara Rubin Casting went looking for comedians -- not Broadway actors -- to put in the ensemble of the upcoming "School of Rock."
This, by the way, is where Hartney's lack of Broadway audition experience turned out to be a not-entirely-fatal double-edged sword. Along with preparing scenes from the show and a few favorite songs, the form e-mail sent to auditioners requested a "book."
For those not in the know, that's a songbook, a collection of tried and true standards that an auditioner can pull out at a moment's notice. Hartney, of course, didn't have that. So he prepared a song from "Pippin."
"I did the musical 'Pippin' in High school," Hartney remembered, "but it’s one of those musicals that you don’t audition with songs from, ever. And even I know that and I don’t know anything. It’s just so overdone."
Luckily though, this theater gaffe played out in his favor. Sugarman introduced Hartney as part of her comedy outreach program to the director, which took some of the pressure off -- and then when Hartney pulled out his "Pippin" song book, he was able to make a joke of the basicness of his selection -- something that helped break the ice in the room.
Twenty minutes later -- "I was going out the door and the girl [waiting outside] was like, whoa, you were in there a while." -- Hartney was officially in the running. By the end of his second call back for the role (Hartney at this point was in the mix for the lead role of Dewey, originated by Jack Black on screen), he was already a lock for a final callback.
On Super Bowl Sunday, Hartney headed back to a room filled with the whole team, including Lloyd Webber. Just like the Seattle Seahawks later that night, though, Hartney fumbled. Hartney left the room, put on his coat... And then was promptly called back in.
"Somebody, I think [the director] Lawrence, believed in me and was like, 'let’s get him back in here.' And so I felt really good," Hartney said.
The next day, Hartney's manager called him: he had been offered a role in the ensemble, and the understudy position for Dewey.
"He said it in a way like, 'would you even be interested in such a thing?' " Hartney said, laughing. "I was like, 'yeah dude! Yeah I would.' "
Then came the hard decisions. Going on Broadway, which had never been Hartney's dream, meant giving up his first love, comedy. He stepped down from his improv team at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and stopped coaching another improv team he'd been working with for more than two and a half years.
But at the end of the day, "it’s an awesome job, good salary, good benefits; it would have been crazy to say no. And it’s just beyond amazing... [Broadway is] a thing that very few people get to do."
Oh, and also he didn't need to give up comedy. For the first few weeks of rehearsals, once the excitement started to fade (though not that much; anyone who follows Hartney on social media knows he's been freaking out for months), Hartney began to wonder whether he was the right choice for the show.
Versus his "two hours" of rehearsals for a UCB show, a Broadway show is a massive undertaking that lasts all day, and all night right up until opening (and often beyond). Add in a seven-week-long workshop the spring before moving to Broadway, and you have a working situation the relatively green Hartney wasn't used to.
It was during one of those workshop sessions, a "rough stitch-together" for Lloyd Webber, that everything crystallized for Hartney. During a scene where "all these people crap on Dewey," every character -- Dewey's girlfriend, boss, parents -- had a joke to tag their scene, except Hartney. Right before the rough performance, the director asked Hartney to tag his scene with a joke, too -- something that would terrify most people, but played right into Hartney's improv training.
"I said the line as it was written, and I tagged it with something I thought could work," Hartney noted, "and everyone watching went bananas laughing. I walked off stage and I went, 'I think this is why I was hired, because they know I can do stuff like this.' The next day we got a script revision and sure enough that line was in the script."
Though it's still a long road (and one sick lead actor) until Hartney fronts a Broadway show himself, he's gone from never really wanting to appear on the "legitimate" stage, to performing multiple characters and sometimes writing parts of an Andrew Lloyd Webber script. That's pretty big stuff for a guy used to performing in the basement of a Gristedes supermarket (that's where the UCB Theater is located, if you don't know).
And just because he never planned it... Well, that's all part of the plan.
"Just follow the thing that excites you most," Hartney said when asked for advice to anyone looking to pursue a career in any sort of performance. "And whatever that thing happens to be, commit to it fully. If something comes up that wasn’t necessarily part of the plan... If that exact dream that you had in your head didn’t come true, it doesn’t meant that a dream of yours isn’t coming true -- you just might have not known that was your dream."
"School of Rock" begins previews today (November 9) in New York City, and officially opens on December 6.