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STAGE : The Tenor of His Career : With his starring role in “Falsettos” on Broadway, Michael Rupert has moved to the top ranks of the musical comedy field

<i> Patrick Pacheco is a free-lance writer based in New York</i>

Bad boys have their appeal. And Marvin is badder than most. The protagonist of the Broadway musical “Falsettos” is a real piece of work. Sweet, maybe, but also self-involved, petulant and manipulative. For example, Marvin leaves his wife and son for a male lover, but when she has the temerity to fall for his shrink, he slaps her in a jealous fury. Not since Billy Bigelow in “Carousel” has such a cad graced the musical comedy stage.

“I guess I’m just attracted to playing neurotic, selfish, spoiled characters,” said actor Michael Rupert recently, adding with a sheepish smile that the challenge of creating roles like Marvin hasn’t been all that much of a stretch for him.

Indeed, the 40-year-old Broadway star of the musical “Falsettos” gives the distinct impression that he isn’t far removed from the difficult characters on his resume. Since his 1968 Broadway debut, at age 16 in “The Happy Time,” Rupert has risen to the top ranks of a diminishing breed--musical comedy leading man--in roles rife with emotional confusion.

At 22, he returned to New York from his home in San Marino, Calif., to take over the title role in the musical “Pippin,” Charlemagne’s adolescent heir impaled on his ambition. Later, Rupert won a Tony Award for his edgy, but ingratiating, portrayal of the emotionally blocked Oscar in the 1986 revival of “Sweet Charity.” More recently, he assayed Stine, the frustrated screenwriter in “City of Angels,” who is as quick to melt into self-pity as vault into adultery.

The conundrums of these men, however, barely compete with the minefields Rupert navigates in “Falsettos,” the highly-acclaimed musical that opened on Broadway last April. (A national tour is scheduled to begin on the West Coast in early 1993.) The show, directed by James Lapine, won a couple of Tony awards for its creator, William Finn, and numerous nominations, including one for Rupert. Arguably, “Falsettos” takes the Broadway musical theater into uncharted territory. With the first act set in 1979, it begins with the male cast members describing themselves in song as “four Jews in a room bitching.”

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It only gets stickier from there. As much as Marvin tries to re-stitch his family into a new-age sampler of togetherness, he can’t leave his fingers off a wound. Thus, he drives his lover to the door, his little boy back to his chessboard, and his long-suffering wife into the arms of his overworked analyst. Trapped in the arrested development implied by the show’s title, Marvin pouts, fumes and stamps his foot. To no avail. Two years later, it is AIDS and the wisdom of a child--along with the lesbians next door--which ultimately brings the family back together. It’s a long way from “The Happy Time.”

“But this is the way people and relationships really are,” said Rupert, chowing down on a late-night meal at a sleek midtown restaurant. “They’re complex. They’re confusing and contradictory. Not simple. Not at all. Besides, it’s just so much more interesting to sing, ‘I left my son, I left my wife, to be insulted by such handsome men,’ than ‘I love you, you’re so pretty . . . ‘ “

In fact, Rupert said he’s never been much interested in playing the unencumbered heroes of musical theater, even though as a child growing up in the San Fernando Valley his ambition was engendered by repeated listening of original cast albums like “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma!”

“I’m not sure I could do what Harry Groener does, or what Peter Gallagher does,” he said, referring to the respective stars of the old-fashioned musicals “Crazy for You” and “Guys and Dolls.”

“It simply doesn’t interest me. What interests me is what Gregory Hines is doing in ‘Jelly’s Last Jam,’ ” he added, pointing to the unsavory portrait of jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton currently on Broadway. “What’s the point if you’re not going to explore a character with as many levels as possible? That’s what gets you to the theater eight times a week.”

Even measured against those exacting standards, the role of Marvin appears to be daunting, physically if not emotionally. In a musical that is entirely sung, Rupert is rarely offstage except to change costumes. Yet his character remains something of an enigma. For example, we never know what he does for a living (“My stage son says that he’s either a bank robber or a weather broadcaster,” quipped the actor.) We are told he’s rich (and mean and sweet) and we see that he’s demanding, a poor loser and someone capable of slapping his wife. Even so, much of how the audience feels about Marvin stems largely from the actor who plays him. The retentive force of Rupert’s charm and presence is challenged early on when the audience learns that Marvin’s philandering may have passed syphilis and hepatitis onto his wife.

“I fought with Bill about that line,” said Rupert. “I warned him, ‘Syphilis? Hepatitis? In the age of AIDS? They’re going to hate my guts!’ But Bill just said that’s the way it was in 1979. Guys were bringing home these diseases. Lapine fought Bill about Marvin slapping Trina. He hated that. But Bill held firm on that, too. He just thought this is who the character is and too bad if they don’t like it.”

“Falsettos” actually began in 1981 as an Off-Broadway production called “March of the Falsettos.” A companion piece, “Falsettoland,” followed in 1990. Rupert starred in the respective productions (including the 1982 Los Angeles production of “March”) and re-created the role of Marvin when both were welded together into “Falsettos” and mounted on Broadway at the Golden Theatre. Since the actor was involved from the inception of the project, Finn drew the character of Marvin as much from Rupert as from himself.

“Marvin has not been hard for me to tap into because I’m very much like him,” admitted Rupert. “I’ve hurt people very deeply in my life. And I can also be the greatest guy you’ll every want to be around. I can be a real jerk but I don’t think I could ever hit anyone I loved in anger. I’d hurt myself first. I’d get really angry, slam the door and go and wreck my car.”

Like Marvin, Rupert has spent most of his life trying to accommodate those contradictions, making peace within himself, controlling the damage, shoring up the defenses, channeling them whenever possible into his art. But when he was 22, the pressure of holding it all together reached critical mass. He had just returned to New York from California to play in “Pippin.” It was a dream come true. Working for Bob Fosse, making lots of money, living in New York. He was handsome, young, gifted . . . and utterly miserable.

“I’d be coming home on the bus from the theater and start crying, for no reason, for all sorts of reasons,” recalled Rupert, who by then was drinking heavily, popping tranquilizers in order to sleep and subsisting on caffeine. “I was just so lonely and so out of place. I called a friend at 1:30 in the morning and he said, ‘Boy, you really need help.’ ”

Then, one step away from being hospitalized, Rupert went into analysis for seven years. Many of the problems, he said, stemmed from having been a child actor. At the age of 12, he had made his theater debut at the Pasadena Playhouse in Jean Kerr’s “King of Hearts” and never looked back. A headstrong child, it had been his idea to go on the stage. “My parents never pushed,” he said. “They weren’t too keen on the theater. Even now. I’ve been nominated three times for a Tony, won one, had a lot of success and still I think they’d rather that I was Scott Bakula on ‘Quantum Leap.’ That they could understand.”

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Born in Colorado, Rupert was adopted as a baby by his parents who later also adopted a baby girl. When he was 9, his father, a newspaper production manager, moved the family first to Topanga Canyon, then to Sylmar and finally to San Marino. His mother worked as a secretary to a USC medical school dean and gamely went along with her son’s show-business aspirations. They took off shortly after he attended a musical theater workshop for high school students at Valley State College in San Fernando. “The Happy Time,” a new musical about a French-Canadian family starring Robert Goulet, was then slated to try out at the new Ahmanson Theatre prior to a Broadway opening. The director, Gower Champion, was in Los Angeles auditioning juveniles. Rupert won the casting call for the role of Goulet’s nephew and soon found himself appearing on Broadway.

“When you’re a child actor in theater, you’re always ‘the kid,’ “Rupert said. “But you’re also just one of the cast. You have adult pressures, but people also cater to you. I had a hard time balancing the two, I was so eager to be loved.”

After the run of “Happy Time” ended, Rupert returned to Los Angeles and continued working in local theater while attending high school. He also did movies--appearing in “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” with Kurt Russell, and the cult film, “A Boy and his Dog"--as well as television, including guest shots on “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “The Waltons.” His classmates at San Marino High tended to treat him as both a celebrity and an outcast. The actor recalled: “The first day in gym, a jock said to me, ‘You’re an actor, huh? So what are you, a homo?’ ”

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Those feelings of loneliness and alienation were never very far away, even within the theater itself. “I was always a loner,” he recalled. “Like Jason (Marvin’s child in “Falsettos”), I was always locked in my room listening to records or playing piano for hours on end. Even when I was in ‘Pippin,’ I didn’t have many friends in the cast. I was this ‘Hollywood actor’ who didn’t do it the way John (Rubinstein) did it. I was just so young--California young, which is different from New York young. It’s sheltered and protected young.”

His near-nervous breakdown at the time signaled Rupert’s need to assert himself, to emerge from the shell of “the kid.” It also tested his commitment to the theater. Before that, he’d always considered acting as something of a lark. Roles had just always materialized. He’d never had to scramble for a job, never had a hungry period where he had to wait tables to pay the rent. By the time he’d reached 30, he said, he was bored. “I consciously made a decision to turn down jobs and concentrate on writing,” said Rupert. “I knew that if I didn’t I’d burn out.”

The result was a successful 1985 Off-Broadway musical about stand-up comics, “Three Guys Naked From the Waist Down,” for which he composed the music. In 1988, he wrote and starred in the musical “Mail,” which sold-out for seven months at the Pasadena Playhouse. The show moved to New York, but was dismissed by the critics and folded quickly. Rupert went off to William and Mary College in Virginia to lick his wounds and move into yet another field, directing a dramatic production of Arthur Giron’s “Becoming Memories.”

“That was one of the greatest pleasures of my life,” said Rupert, leaving no doubt that he intends to do more of the same. That is, if he has time. Like most overachievers, the indefatigable actor is juggling a number of different projects while appearing in “Falsettos.” He’s working on a film script, “Radiant Boy,” modeled after the dark and cynical vision of the German Expressionist cinema of F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. He’s also collaborating on two new musicals: one with Allan Heinberg called “Strange Vacation,” about two college students who get caught up in a surrealistic adventure in New York City; and “Machiavelli,” with Jerry Colker, about the protagonist’s simultaneous attempt to bed the virgin wife of an impotent friend while also trying to prevent Cesar Borgia from invading 1501 Florence.

All three projects appear to be opportunities to explore the double helix of romanticism and cynicism that envelops him both professionally and personally. “I’m smack in the middle of it,” Rupert admitted. “I can be incredibly romantic, but I’m absolutely fascinated by my dark side.”

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So apparently are a lot of other people. Rupert said that while playing Marvin he’s gotten more mash notes, propositions, backstage billet-doux, as well as simple heartfelt thank-yous, than any other of his previous roles.

“I’ve gotten my share of letters from people who want to marry me and take me home to mother,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a powerfully moving show. It touches a lot of people.

“But I’ve also gotten letters from people who’ve hated the show,” he said, adding that it has stirred up some controversy, particularly among gay political activists. “Some have attacked it as stereotypical and accuse it of showing gay men in a bad light. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but they’re captive to such a narrow point of view. Do they want us just to show gay people as happy little homemakers? It just isn’t true. There are neurotic gay people, neurotic straight people, neurotic Eskimos. I mean, get a grip!”

Rupert welcomes the controversy, accepting it as a compliment for a show which is pushing against the traditional boundaries of Broadway musical theater. “There’ve been so many revivals, lately, so many rehashes,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed them a great deal, but if I see one more revival, I think I’m going to puke. At least with ‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ and ‘Falsettos,’ we’ve got writers who are trying to do something new and daring and producers who are backing them up. That’s incredibly important for Broadway.”

For now, the professional demands on Rupert’s time are preempting any sort of adventures in intimacy, the kind so exhaustively explored in “Falsettos.” The actor, who has never married, lives alone in a terraced Greenwich Village apartment overlooking the Hudson River. He said that he’s had relationships in the past, both with men and women, all short-lived, none very successful.

“I keep so busy that people just don’t want to know from that,” Rupert said with a sigh and some detectable regret. “Everybody wants and deserves their quota of attention and I’m afraid I’m not very good at giving that. I want to be in love and I want to be in left alone, too,” he added wistfully, with Marvin-like ambivalence.

“Everything I do, both in my personal life and in my work, is love-hate, love-hate. I think in a way, I’m missing something. But it makes for a life that is a bit more passionate than most.”


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