Drew’s Friendship Folio #4: Michelle Cohen

Posted: May 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

As many know about me, I spent three of the most blissful summers of my life, from 1981 through 1983, as a student in the Musical Theatre department at the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, which is located in Wheatley Heights, a small suburb of Huntington very close to the Nassau-Suffolk border. Usdan’s logo is, or was at the time, “Where you lose yourself for a summer and find yourself for a lifetime,” and in my case they certainly made good on that promise. Not just in my case, either; other Usdanites include Mariah Carey, Deborah Gibson, the television actress Felice Schachter, the jazz singer Jane Monheit, the entertainment authoress Eila Mell, the entertainment producer Richie Jackson, standup comedians Eddie Sarfaty and Frank Liotti, and such Broadway personalities as Seth Rudetsky, Lorraine Goodman, Jordan Leeds and David Josefsberg besides several dancers and musicians working in professional companies and symphony orchestras all over the world, and a healthy plethora of studio artists who show in galleries and museums on a global scale. Not all of us chose to go into whichever art form we studied during those summers, but with few exceptions we’ve all found success wherever life happened to take us. And I’m happy to say that I’m still deep friends with a great big bunch of my fellow theatre students and even some of the teachers and staff, with whom I stay in constant touch and try to see as often as I can. I’m not even going to try to list them all here because it’s well over a hundred people, and I’ll feel terrible if I forget to name someone. But there’s one I want to discuss in particular, a lovely gal named Michelle Cohen. Let me first explain the Usdan experience, however.

The way Usdan’s Musical Theatre department was structured at the time was that for the first two weeks, we all took classes all day long, with a lunch break in between (and a ghastly activity they called Assembly, which was where renowned guest artists in various media were invited to perform for the campers. Assembly was very largely avoided by the Theatre kids, who most often skipped it altogether, and that was fine with the kids from the other departments, because they thought that WE thought we were superior to them. The truth is, we didn’t think we were superior to them, we just knew that we worked more intensively; they didn’t have to spend all day concentrating on one area of the arts–they chose a major subject and a minor subject–and received a swimming period, which we didn’t).

But I digress. The classes included Acting, Voice, Movement, Improvisation, Musical Style, and anything else they thought to toss our way. And there were three or four different groups of about twenty who would have a rotating schedule; while twenty of us were in Voice class, another twenty were in Movement class, etc. After those two weeks, and once the teachers had a solid sense of our strong points and weaknesses and who had talent and who didn’t, they decided which two musicals would be presented at the end of the season, cast us all in appropriate roles from the leads to the chorus, and we rehearsed ourselves half-dead for the next six weeks until the performances, on the last days of camp. In retrospect, and from what I now know having done real summer stock, I suppose it was probably as close to a stock experience as we could get as teenagers; there were costume fittings, separate vocal rehearsals for those who had solos or intricate harmonies to master, separate monologue sessions, et al. And it was murder at times, but we loved every minute of it.

So, in 1981, the two musicals chosen were Babes in Arms and an original revue of Broadway hits, contrived by our teachers, called Broadway Rainbow. Well, it was pretty obvious which would be the glossier show; all of the kids who were better dancers got cast in Babes, and the rest of us were in Rainbow. And don’t get me wrong; Rainbow was tremendous fun and had some extremely talented singers and actors AND kids who could dance well, but it lacked the luster of what the Babes company was turning out and we all knew it. The good thing about the casting of the shows was that we suddenly got to meet and work with about sixty other kids from the department with whom we hadn’t been in class, and the bad thing was that it ripped all the classes in half, so that half of the people we’d been seeing every day and getting to know so well in class were suddenly in the other show and we were thrown together with sixty strangers, and the case of first-day butterflies started all over again. Albeit, this too would pass.

The initial outline for Rainbow was drawn up on the first day of rehearsal, basically presenting it with the notion that this was a bunch of people auditioning for a Broadway show, and some would make it and some would not (I guess it was a take on A Chorus Line). A girl had one through character as the stage manager, a boy had one through character as her assistant, and the rest of us basically played ourselves except when we were in scenes or songs or group numbers. It was established right from the start that I wouldn’t be receiving a solo (not a big surprise, since I was a little too shy to really show the prowess of my singing voice in class, but also frustrating when I realized that others were getting solos and I could sing a lot better than they could). By the fifth day, after putting a lot of numbers together and sort of throwing us into group songs at random, they had it whittled down to an official script, and we ran through it all for the first time. At one point, near the beginning of the second half, a girl named Michelle Cohen (whom I hadn’t really met yet) got up and delivered her solo, “Dream Babies,” from The Me Nobody Knows. And none of us could believe what we were hearing. This chick had a depth to her voice, such a phenomenal natural talent, that most of us were left panting. We just wanted to hear it again and again and again. And that is NOT an easy song to sing; it’s extremely rangy, and requires an inherent precision. She really nailed it on every level, and I was among the very first to go up to her after that day, chills running down my back, and tell her how absolutely brilliant she was, for which she thanked me profusely. Gradually over the rest of the summer, we got more friendly; I found out she lived in Greenlawn, had a younger brother Daniel (who later also became a Usdanite after my time), and had every intention of working in entertainment for the rest of her life if she could possibly make it happen. In the last week, we were all exchanging phone numbers and she gave me hers, which made me happy.

Before I continue, I want to explain about the last day of camp, because this was a Usdan tradition. At the end of the afternoon show (one musical was the morning show and one was the afternoon show and we always traded off, so that the cast of each show could see the other show), and on the last day the afternoon show happened to be Rainbow, after which the chairman of the department (Ronald Marquette, a lovely man) gave a speech and then we all gathered upon the stage to hug each other and cry our eyes out. I couldn’t imagine crying about the last day of camp, but I guess once the pressure was off from doing the shows and we all knew we wouldn’t see each other again until the following summer (if any of us were returning), it just made sense to turn on the water works. And I held it together until my friend Francesca Klein came running towards me with tears streaming down her face, and then I lost it but good. But I’ll never forget that hug with Michelle; we were crying like we were off to the showers at Auschwitz.

Michelle and I spoke on the phone a few times during the year, and it became obvious that she and I were both returning for the summer of ’82. To which I very much looked forward. Once again we weren’t in classes together, but it made me happy to see her at lunch and say hello. Then came the end of the two weeks, the shows were chosen and cast, and they turned out to be Once Upon A Mattress and Guys and Dolls. Now, I knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t getting cast in Guys and Dolls because they probably needed all the really good dancers for that. I also didn’t know anything about Mattress or that it also needed good dancers. They announced the casting, it turned out that I’d be playing the Wizard in Mattress (which I was thrilled to learn was a REALLY good supporting role) and then…and then…they announced that Michelle would be playing the lead as Princess Winifred. We were all overjoyed, and she knocked it out of the park in rehearsals and performance and sang “Shy” like nobody’s business, besides being an utter joy to work with and having no attitude whatsoever about starring in the show. Mattress actually turned out to be the better show that season, although, to be fair, it was a wonderful production of Guys and Dolls and they all worked like dogs to make it as perfect as possible. Last performance came, we all hugged, we all cried, yadda yadda. Michelle and I spoke a few more times during the year and looked forward to the summer of ’83.

That season, they changed things up on us a little; this time, we were being cast based on actual auditions as opposed to the teachers deciding who should get which role. So they ran it like an open audition. There were sixty-three of us in the company, and we all had to watch everybody else audition. Which was fun, to be truthful. The first day was dance, where they put us up on the stage in eight groups of eight to do a combination (and which I failed miserably, if memory serves). The second day was vocal, and I’d gotten a LOT more brave about my voice and showing what it could do, so I got up there and sang “Macavity” and brought the house down, which felt fantastic. However, Michael Lamb also brought the house down with a heartwrenching and celestial “On the Street Where You Live,” and then Michelle took her place on stage. She opened that mouth of hers and one of the most beautiful, strong, incredible versions of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” burst forth, and by the third line I couldn’t even see because my eyes were brimming so heavily. The third day was monologues, and I did the mouthwash commercial from Christopher Hampton’s When Did You Last See My Mother?, which also got a great response. The shows were announced as Li’l Abner and Grease, and once again I was certain I wouldn’t be in Grease because I figured that would need the dancers. Sure enough, they cast me in Abner as Pappy Yokum, which is a decent role although he barely sings other than to sing along, which didn’t make me happy. But the bigger surprise was that Michelle was cast in Grease as Frenchy. This caused a rash of immediate whispering. “Why would they cast her as Frenchy? Frenchy doesn’t sing! Why on earth…?” But she seemed very happy with it, and she played the part with her customary aplomb. Final day, hugging, crying, the whole she-bam, and then she and I lost touch, because she didn’t return in ’84 and neither did I (I was busy that summer doing my first professional show in the city as a founding member of the TADA! Youth Theater, although the show ended a week before Usdan did, so for the final week of camp I stowed away and snuck in to watch them do that summer’s musicals, which were Pippin and The Boy Friend. And Pippin was not only the better of the two, to this day it’s still being talked about as legendary).

Now, here’s where things get interesting. By ’90 I was established as an entertainment journalist besides an entertainer and a cabaret personality. And I’ve always been a huge fan of Schoolhouse Rock, the animated Saturday morning series on ABC-TV that educates about grammar and math and history. I’m still such a fan that I have the entire series on DVD. So in ’92, I suddenly get a message on my machine, saying, “Hi, Mr. Martin. I’m one of the producers of a very exciting musical revue coming Off-Broadway to the Atlantic Theatre in two weeks. It’s called Schoolhouse Rock Live, we have a very exciting cast and what I think are marvelous orchestrations of the music, and it’s all based on the series. I’ve seen your magazine and I think you’d probably enjoy it very much, so I’d be very happy if you’d like to come to opening night and review it, and to join us at the party afterwards. Please call me, my name is Michelle Cohen and my number is (insert number).  Thanks so much in advance whatever the answer.”

I blinked. It can’t be. It just can’t be. But it has to be. It sounds just like her. So I called her and was very businesslike, said that yes, I’d love to come to opening night, I’d be coming alone, I was a huge fan of the show and I’m sure I’d enjoy it thoroughly. And then, as we were winding down, I said, “I have to ask you something. I realize that Michelle Cohen is a common name, but do you happen to be from Long Island?” There was a pause and she said, “Ummm…yes. Yes, I am.” I said, “Did you happen to grow up in Greenlawn?” She said, “Ummm…yes, I certainly did,” now sounding utterly confused. I said, “Would you happen to be the same Michelle Cohen who played Winifred in Mattress in the summer of ’82 at Usdan, when I played the Wizard? I had a different last name then.” There was a pause, and then she squealed, “Oh, my GOD!!! ANDREW!!! I know EXACTLY who you are!!! Oh, what a funny coincidence!!!” And we laughed, and we cried, and we reminisced, and then it turned out that she was co-producing the show with another girl with whom we’d gone to Usdan, a wonderful gal named Nina Lynn who played Miss Lynch in Grease. So of course I had to come see the show on opening night, and loved it, and then saw it again a few times when it moved to the Lamb’s on 43rd Street. But in the meantime, because I was booking musical acts into Le Max on 43rd Street just down the block from the Lamb’s, she met me there a few times for a drink and a bite and we had a complete blast.

Then the show closed and we lost touch, until (and this is the only time anyone will catch me publicly thanking Marc Zuckerberg) the magic of Facebook brought us back together once and again. I found a marvelous group on Facebook specifically designed for Usdan alumni who attended for theatre in the ’80s, and threw myself into it so enthusiastically and recruited so many new members (people I had kept in touch with or found through careful research) that they made me the Membership Director. By the time Michelle joined, we were a united team yet again. And we were all delighted to learn that not only had she produced the short film Beyond Belief and the Mary Pickford biopic The Girl Behind Hollywood, but was also still our same good ol’ Michelle, thrilled to be our friend with the gentle humility but strength of character that has always served as her hallmark. As we speak, and at the risk of turning this into a commercial (because that’s not the point), she’s also just published the book Of Course You Can Sing!, which is now available on Amazon Kindle and is absolutely brilliant.

But whether or not she’s done any of this, she’ll still always stand forever in my memory as my sweet Michelle from Greenlawn. And I couldn’t wish her stronger success in whatever she chooses to pursue. I know now that she’ll always be my friend, and I couldn’t be happier.

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Comments
  1. Sarah Kellman says:

    Nice post! It warms the cockles of this broadway broad’s heart 😉

    My sister was at USDAN with Felice Schachter btw, 10 years before my maiden summer there in ’78

  2. Sharon Jochnau says:

    All I can say is, thanks for writing this Andrew. Those days were the “Best of Times”; the memories created at USDAN will unite us all for a lifetime!

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