"Hiring me to appear in Aida was not simply a stunt." So asserts Micky Dolenz, former lead singer and drummer of the Monkees. "Of course the producers hoped I would bring in more audiences, but I auditioned for this role, and then I had a callback before I got it."
That's quite an admission from a man pushing 60 who has auditioned for virtually nothing in close to 40 years. Indeed, Aida, which marks his Broadway debut, represents only the second Main Stem show he has ever auditioned for.
Dolenz's first auditioning experience was for Mamma Mia!. "I knew I was totally wrong for the part. I viewed the audition as a practice run. Afterwards, my agent was called and told, 'He was wonderful,'" says Dolenz, impersonating a refined, cautious voice. "'But we have never cast anyone in it, well, quite so ma-ture.'" Dolenz laughs. "They thought I was too fuckin' old!"
Undoubtedly, Dolenz's three-year Monkees stint (1966-'68)—two years on the TV series and one year on the road—has cast a long shadow, paving the way for a turn in the national touring company of Grease and a six-month gig in a Canadian production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (both without auditioning), among other shows.
Indeed, the Los Angeles native, sporting a jaunty straw hat, is greeted with enthusiastic shouts of "Micky! Micky!" from legions of old Monkees fans as he and I stroll through a Midtown restaurant near the Palace Theatre, where Aida is playing. At various points throughout the interview, he is interrupted by requests for autographs and picture-taking. Aging and not-so-aging groupies are eager to pose alongside a Monkee. He accommodates them graciously.
"Being a Monkee was wonderful, but there are problems when you want to move on. Fame can become a train that eventually leaves the station without you. I appreciate what the Monkees were, but I don't want to rest on my laurels. I want to be acknowledged as an ex-Monkee."
Dolenz has a goal: It's to be taken seriously as a Broadway musical actor. As an example, he points out how his interpretation of the harsh Zoser in Aida is different from that of his predecessors. Dolenz came on in January and will be performing through September.
"In the past, Zoser has been played as a debauched rock 'n' roller who sees himself as a pal to his son. I see Zoser as a father who treats his son like a little toy soldier whom he has groomed for the throne. He is patronizing and condescending and absolutely convinced that he is doing the right thing," says the actor.
Set in ancient Egypt, Aida recounts the doomed love story of a young Egyptian (Zoser's son) and a Nubian princess he has captured in battle and enslaved. Zoser is determined to see his son marry an Egyptian princess to whom he was promised at birth; he will go to any lengths to make that happen.
Dolenz underscores that Zoser is a big departure for him as an actor. "It's a real dramatic role. The other parts I've played, like Vinnie in Grease, have been goofy. Still, the big challenge in playing Zoser is fighting boredom. I have only two songs and four scenes that are far apart. That means that I have to warm up twice.
"When I do my solo concerts, I'm used to being on the stage for two hours solid, singing 16 songs. And when I did Funny Thing, I was on the stage the whole time. This is much more difficult. It's the difference between racing and sprinting. This is sprinting. And I have to learn to pace myself."
The son of performers, Dolenz was in showbiz from childhood. He took his first screen test at the age of 6 and was a regular on the children's show Circus Boy when he was 10. But The Monkees put him on the map. In many ways, he likens the experience to performing musical theatre on television, starting with the casting process.
"This was not a talent contest," he insists. "They were looking for actors—real actors—who could play instruments. There was a lot of improvisation and scene work involved in addition to the music. The auditions went on for a long time."
Dolenz suggests that the program was unprecedented on several fronts. He cites John Lennon's observation that the show was inspired by the Marx Brothers. But more relevant, "It was a comic story about a struggling band who wished they were the Beatles. And then the band takes on a life of its own outside the sitcom. We were a fictional band that became a real band. At one point Jimi Hendrix was opening for us. We still have reunion concerts, and we're all playing our TV characters. I'm playing me, but it's a cartoon version of me."
Dolenz suggests that it's much harder to launch a career on TV today than it was when he was starting out. "It's true that there used to be fewer channels, but there were also fewer actors out there. There was a greater chance of getting noticed. Now, with 150 channels, some going 24 hours a day, how do you have a hit? How do you break out?
"It's even worse for the music industry," he continues. "Thanks to the downloading of music from websites, producers are losing millions of dollars and are hesitant to invest money in any new band. As Ringo has said, 'Years ago, all you had to do was show up with your drums.' That's no longer the case."
Dolenz maintains that he was fortunate to be able to pursue work behind the scenes. In the early '70s, he went to London to appear in a play. Fifteen years later, he was still in London, having spent most of that time producing and directing in theatre and on television, in addition to scripting and staging the musical Bugsy Malone. He believes he had opportunities there that would not have been forthcoming in the States, where it was almost impossible to break away from his Monkee persona.
"Of course, my being a Monkee was an entrée in London, too, but I don't think they're as fascinated with celebrity as we are here. They were more willing to take a chance on my doing something besides a Monkee stint, although I had to prove myself. The experience in London opened some doors in the States, as well. When I got back to Los Angeles, people in the business were taking meetings with me. But mostly, I suspect, they wanted to see if I were still alive."
Dolenz is very much alive and contends he has just scratched the surface of his new career; he is looking forward to appearing in many more Broadway musicals and even some straight plays. He talks about his artistic influences—Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, and Red Skelton—who combine "comedy with pathos," and he has relocated to New York City, where he is taking acting lessons for the first time.
"I've been acting my whole life," he quips. "I'm now learning how to distinguish when I'm acting and when I'm not acting offstage as well as onstage." BSW