Michele Lee, TV Star, Broadway Razzler-Dazzler and One of a Kind, Comes to Kennedy Center

From 1979 to 1993, “Knots Landing,” a hugely popular television melodrama which was itself a spinoff of the even bigger “Dallas,” occupied a major part of the life of triple-threat performer Michele Lee, who headed and starred as part of a large cast playing the part of Karen Fairgate. 

It was a momentous time of change in American life, and the show blocked out the sum and sun of Lee’s professional life, before and after, to some degree.  She appeared in all 334 episodes, the only member of the cast to do so and was considered the focus of the show.  During that time,  she won a Soap Opera Digest Award for Best Lead Actress in a Prime Time Soap Opera and was nominated for an Emmy in 1982 for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Show.  On the show, she lost a husband and in real life, her marriage ended, and she became a single mom, as she did on the show.  In the process, she became nationally and instantly famous and a kind of forever person since the depth and breath of television in modern time is a time machine, a streaming memory vault.

I must admit that— if push came to shove—I do recall the recurring phrase, “Who shot J.R.?” on “Dallas.” Nevertheless, I never quite succumbed to the charms of prime soaps, including the latest reinterpretation, “Blood & Oil,” which is a “Dallas” redux starring Don Johnson. 

Talking with Michele Lee on the telephone, it soon became apparent that soaps were not the main course on the conversation menu. Lee was instantly recognizably as a most honored and vivid member in good and better standing of the tribe of on-stage performer, those razzler-dazzler types who will do almost anything to seduce you, wow you, make you laugh, make you cry, make you want to dance and spend too much money on a Broadway show. She has all the gifts that can dominate a movie and a television series, to be sure. Those same gifts make her unforgettable on stage and — wouldn’t you know it? — over the phone.

Some of those gifts will be on display 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 5, at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, when the two-time Tony Award and Emmy-nominated star brings her show, “Nobody Does It Like Me: The Music of Cy Coleman,” part of the Kennedy Center’s “Barbara Cook’s Spotlight” series of cabaret evenings and singers. What you get instantly is what Lee’s always been first and foremost: a Broadway star long before television made her a household name.

The stage brings out her inner entertainment soul. “I don’t really like the term cabaret,” she says. “I’m an entertainer, that’s always from when I was little that I ever wanted to be. I wanted to entertain people, make them happy, make them pay attention.” 

It’s a funny feeling talking at first in the usual way—ask a question, get an answer, the process. Soon, however, you sense that she’s that person, that performer.  I don’t mean to suggest anything false or phony, not at all. She is, by any definition, down to earth, a lady mensch, if you will. It’s more like a feeling you’re in her dressing room, or living room, or on a small stage and there’s nothing so distant as a television  or computer screen separating you. It’s not the content but the context, the experience of conversation that’s memorable.

Lee started early, gaining almost instant success on television with a role in the sitcom, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” at age 19. But her Broadway musical life truly began in the same year when she made her debut in 1961 in the role of Rosemary Pilkerton in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” a landmark musical which featured Rudy Vallee and Robert Morse. 

It was Cy Coleman’s presence and his unique gift as a composer that left a mark on her life, an influence to which she continues to pay tribute.

“He was a remarkable man,” Lee said. “Everything he did was original. He was my friend and my mentor. He made people laugh.” Lee also starred in “Seesaw,” another Coleman work on which he collaborated with Michael Bennett of “A Chorus Line” fame.”

“I love doing what I’m doing now,” she said. She’s proud of her television and movie work, including a made-for-television film on the life of the star-crossed country singer Dottie West and a much-praised film “The Comic,” directed by Carl Reiner and featuring Dick Van Dyke. She also recently took up the role of Madame Morrible in the Broadway mega-hit “Wicked.”

“What I’m doing now, that was my first love, and being able to sing Cy’s songs, that’s special,” she said. She sang lines from “Hey, Big Spender,” the big number from “Sweet Charity,” another Coleman hit.

Kaitlyn Davidson, who’s starring in the title role of the Disney musical, “Cinderella” — coming to the National Theater Nov.18 through Nov. 29 — recalled working with Lee in a production of “Mame” in Pittsburgh.  “I had a small part and she was awesome,” Davidson said. “Working with her was like having a master class in musical theater.”

It’s a safe bet that you can catch her act online somewhere.  In her show, Lee often includes a song by Joni Mitchell, the mistress of cool sadness. It’s “A Case of You,” a song that’s full of rue, the kind of song that travels and changes through time and to listen to Lee grab it by the heart is to witness a transformation. She makes the song hers, and more importantly , yours, the way we live now. 

You hear and see the affinity with Coleman: one of a kind.

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