NEW YORK – Michael Lee Scott is a painter, sculptor, dancer and choreographer, in addition to being the art director for “The Wendy Williams Show.” Whether it is a pirouette or trompe l’oeil, he is gifted with the rare ability to visualize what does not yet exist. He has performed on countless stages including Broadway, the Tony Awards and “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” before transitioning to television, and he has worked with many of the greats throughout his career. He is a southwestern native who majored in applied voice at Texas A&M Kingsville, and has lived in New York City since 1985.
Q: Where did you grow up?
Michael Lee: Kingsville, TX
Q: You attended Texas A&I University (now called Texas A&M University-Kingsville). What was your major?
Michael Lee: My major was applied voice.
Q: How old were you when you decided on a career in entertainment, and why? Was there a pivotal moment in your life, or an experience, when you knew this was something you were meant to do?
Michael Lee: My father was an opera teacher, and my mother was a costume designer, so I didn’t stand a chance. They always said that if they could have vaccinated me, they would have. I just remember sitting through rehearsals, with my dad conducting, and staring at the red curtain while listening to the overture, knowing that one day I wanted to be on the other side of that same curtain.
Q: You are currently the art director for “The Wendy Williams Show,” but you’re also a painter, sculptor, dancer, choreographer and show director, and you’ve performed on Broadway. What has been your favorite role/job to date?
Michael Lee: Being a trompe l’oeil painter is extremely gratifying, but it is solitary work. As the art director of “The Wendy Williams Show,” I am able to utilize many of my skills, which encompass many of my talents, and because of that, it has probably become my favorite job. On a personal level, however, being a choreographer for “Broadway Bares” every year brings me such joy because it provides a rare opportunity where I am told to create a piece with very few limitations. It is truly an opportunity to let my creativity run wild.
Q: What types of projects are you responsible for producing for “The Wendy Williams Show”? What is a typical day like for you?
Michael Lee: No two days at “The Wendy Williams Show” have ever been the same. This job requires me to utilize all of my talents, and utilize them quickly. One day I can be asked to whip up a costume, while the next I may be asked to create art for the greenrooms, and the day after that I may be asked to design a themed set for an upcoming show. A perfect example of this would be when I was asked at 1 p.m. on Tuesday to have an entire Thanksgiving dining room, walls and all, built for Wednesday at noon. It was television-ready by 11 a.m.
See Michael Lee’s Art Corner on Wendyshow.com.
Q: How did the opportunity with TWWS come about? Did you interview? Did you submit samples? How long have you been working for the show?
Michael Lee: I knew someone who assisted the previous art director, and so when they were looking for a replacement, he called me and told me that I should be doing this job because it was a creative job that needed a jack of all trades.
I produced a 1940’s vintage-style newspaper to serve as my résumé, which had articles about the projects I have created, along with letters of recommendation from people I have worked for, as well as photographs showing my work in all of its capacities. The executive producer later told me that it was that newspaper that got me the interview because even without any television credits, my creativity was so apparent. Cut to five years later and I am still the art director of a nationally syndicated talk show!
Q: Was there ever a time when you presented an idea that didn’t get approved? How did you handle the rejection?
Michael Lee: Absolutely. You quickly realize, especially in television, there are a lot of people involved in any given project. My job is to uphold the Wendy Williams aesthetic, so I never think of it as a rejection, rather a different direction. There are many ways to skin a cat.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Michael Lee: The downtime. I find that working in television keeps me at a frenetic pace. It is like being a pinball in a pinball machine. It is only exciting to play when all the bells and whistles are going. The second the ball returns to the lane, it is the anticipation of the next blow that sends you back into the game that can be challenging. I would prefer to keep the game going every day. There is only so much social media you can scroll through while sitting at your desk.
Q: How many years have you been a professional artist, and what was your first professional gig?
Michael Lee: I have always dabbled in painting, but in 1996 I was working on “Easter Parade” with Tommy Tune and Sandy Duncan, when Sandy asked me to paint the door to her garage. I painted the metal fire door to look like a wooden Dutch door. It took me about four days, and on the fourth day Sandy looked at me and said, “You need to be doing this for a living.” A month or two later, Sandy’s home was filmed for “Celebrity Homes,” and she mentioned that I painted the door, and from there I got more gigs and became a working artist.
Q: Where did you make your theater debut? If in a show, what role did you play, and at what venue?
Michael Lee: It was at the Harbor Playhouse in Corpus Christi, Texas. I was Joseph in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” I was 18 years old.
Q: Did you take art classes while growing up? Who were your teachers?
Michael Lee: I took art in seventh grade, and Mrs. Harrison gave me a C. That ended my art class experience. I am a self-taught artist.
Q: You say you do not use reference materials to conjure up artistic ideas, and that the images appear as flashes of inspiration. Has this always been the case?
Michael Lee: Yes, when painting for clients, I sit with them and discuss what they want. By the end of the meeting I can visualize exactly what I am going to make. It then becomes pulling the image out of my head and into reality.
Q: Do you still create art in a freelance capacity?
Michael Lee: Working on “The Wendy Williams Show” is a full-time job, which leaves little time for freelance projects. I am also hired to design sets for other television shows, so it is likely that during my off time from Wendy, I am working on another show. I do miss painting, though.
Q: You’re involved in several other Broadway theater-related projects as well. What are they, and what causes do they support? How can people get involved?
Michael Lee: “Broadway Bares” is an annual Burlesque-style Broadway show with about 200 dancers. I was a performer in the show for about 11 years before becoming a choreographer as well as a member of the creative team. You would think it is easy to get beautiful people naked on stage, but the challenge becomes using creativity so the show never feels stale or dull.
Over the 25 years of the show’s existence, it has raised millions of dollars for Broadway Cares Equity Fights Aids. To help the cause, you can come see the show in June. Details are at broadwaycares.org, and all proceeds go to charity.
Q: You’ve performed for countless shows. Do any stand out as favorite moments? Did you ever encounter a bad experience for these?
Michael Lee: Favorite show was the 1997 Tony Awards, the first time it was shot at Radio City Music Hall. Rosie O’Donnell was hosting, and she hired two men to perform with her for the opening. I was one of those two men. I remember the specific moment I turned around and saw 6,000 people sitting in the crowd, mostly celebrities, and seeing the red light of the camera in the back of the theater filming us.
I realized in that moment, that my mom and dad back in Kingsville were watching the Tonys, as we did every year together, except this year they were seeing me on the show.
Q: Have you ever made a mistake during a live performance? What happened? How did you handle it?
Michael Lee: Yes, I was a swing for “Radio City Christmas Spectacular,” and covered 11 men. In the middle of the show there was a New York City Shoppers scene that mimicked the chaos of Fifth Avenue during the holiday season. As we busted through the revolving door, I was supposed to turn left, but I turned right with great conviction.
My buddy, Lee, who was slightly bigger than me, physically grabbed me, picked me up and turned me in the right direction. We all giggled for the remainder of the number. I chalked the mistake up to having to cover so many different roles, which I am sure any swing can relate to.
Q: When you moved to New York City, did you have a job lined up, or were you taking a chance? How long were you living in NYC before you were cast in a show?
Michael Lee: I moved to New York City in 1985 to go to the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, where I studied method acting for four years. As soon as I finished I went back to musical theater, because it was where I felt most comfortable. In 1989, I was cast as Fred Astaire in a production called “Ziegfeld Night of the Follies.”
Q: At what point did you transition from performing full time to earning an income from your art?
Michael Lee: I started getting paid for my artwork in 1996, but I still performed. I would balance the two careers, and whenever I did not have a performing job, I would paint.
Q: Do you have an agent or a manager, or both? How important is it for artists to have one?
Michael Lee: I never had an agent or anyone represent me. Any job I had, I got on my own. I do think having an agent is great for some people, but it really does depend on the performer.
Q: Do you still audition or perform for shows?
Michael Lee: I do not audition for shows. I still perform once or twice a year on The Broadway Cruise, and with R Family Vacations, working with the likes of Seth Rudetsky and Audra McDonald. Those performances are enough to keep me happy.
Q: Do you have any pet peeves in rehearsals, onstage, backstage or on set?
Michael Lee: I was raised in a professional family, so I pride myself on being a professional from rehearsals through performance. My father taught me at a young age that this is a hard business, and you have to make it fun. Be kind to everyone, be alert to your surroundings and you will love it. So I guess what bothers me most is condescension or unprofessionalism in this business.
Q: How important is it to network in the NYC entertainment community?
Michael Lee: Networking in New York City is more a perk than a necessity. It is a privilege to be able to work with all of these talented people. At any given moment I can call on someone to help design a costume, assist on a set installation, or pull together one hundred of New York City’s best dancers for a flash mob.
Q: What has been the highlight(s) of your career?
Michael Lee: One of the most prominent highlights of my career was opening night of my first Broadway Show. It was 1996, at the Music Box Theater, and I was in “State Fair.” Everything from coming through the stage door, to having my family in the house, to hearing the overture from backstage, was a dream come true. There was never a night performing on Broadway that I did not cherish. The entire experience was one giant highlight.
Q: What is next for you? What goals have you not reached yet?
Michael Lee: There would be a fun challenge in getting in front of the camera more regularly.
Q: To what or whom would you credit for your success?
Yet again, I defer to my mom and dad. They were both such pillars of support, and granted me the abilities to be kind to everyone, to remain calm in any situation and to use humor to keep my life positive.
Q: Who were your mentors and what did they teach you?
Michael Lee: Many years ago I was a choreographer for “The Big Gay Sketch Show,” on Logo. That was my first job in television. The stage manager for the show was Doug Fogel. Imagine my delight when I walked into “The Wendy Williams Show” studio to find Doug stage managing! Coming from the theater world, where everything is such a large-scale spectacle, Doug taught me how to focus the work for the specifics of television. Camera angles can only be so wide, so all that matters is what is in that frame.
Q: Do you have a favorite book, movie, song or artist?
- “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” is an illustrated alphabet created by Edward Gorey. If you don’t know it, look it up … it’s hilarious.
- My favorite movie is “Amelie,” a French movie starring Audrey Tautou.
- My favorite song is “Land of Make Believe,” by Chuck Mangione.
- My favorite artist is John Singer Sargent. When I was at Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, I catered at Sullaby’s, the art auction house. I was in the board of trustees dining room, and spent many an hour alone with Sargent’s paintings. I guess you could say he taught me how to paint.
Q: What advice do you have for anyone wishing to pursue a career in entertainment in NYC?
Michael Lee: For Broadway performers, persistence pays off. I have always looked at Broadway like high school: You start out as a meek freshman, but if you stick with it, you will end up a confident senior. Once you have worked with enough people, on enough projects, you get called for more work. As for television, I came into this job out of left field. No real planning got me here. It was a plot twist of my life that culminated from all of my various talents, connections and passions.
Keep working and challenging yourself, and trust that the work pays off.
Your turn! What questions do you have for Michael Lee?
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Connect with and follow Michael Lee on his journey:
- Twitter: @TVMichaelLee
- Instagram: @TVMichaelLee
- Michael Lee’s Art Corner