"If you were to tell this kid who was infatuated with community theater and didn't have any formal training that twenty-five years later, he'd be doing two original musicals on Broadway in the same year, would he have believed you?"
Michael Park ponders this question just a few days after he opened in Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Steven Levenson's new musical Dear Evan Hansen at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway. Park's role as Larry Murphy, which he originated at Arena Stage in 2015, is his second Broadway role this year. The first was Angus Tuck in Chris Miller, Nathan Tysen, Claudia Shear, and Tim Federle's short-lived musical adaptation of Tuck Everlasting at the Broadhurst.
Despite perhaps being best known for a long-running television gig, Park is a self-described theater guy. "My big break was Hello Again at Lincoln Center in 1993. A couple shows after that led me to Smokey Joe's Café. I want to say it was my honest-to-goodness Broadway debut, but I understudied Billy Bigelow in Carousel prior to that, and I never got to go on, so I don't consider that my debut."
As Park's Broadway theatrical résumé grew, he started expanding his horizons. "I set a goal for myself. I wanted to continue to get better at television auditions and maybe land something." An initial screen test for the soap opera As the World Turns at first resulted in a rejection, but upon a second shot, he got it. In April 1997, he began what ended up being a 13-year run as Jack Snyder on the soap opera, finishing his time with the show when it ended in 2010.
His performance on As the World Turns netted him a pair of back-to-back Daytime Emmy Awards for the show's final seasons. "That was a special gift," Park says. "I'm most proud of the fact that not only did I receive an Emmy for our final season, but that my costar, Maura West, did too."
Not that he disappeared from the theater during his soap tenure. In fact, his experiences working on television, acting in hundreds of episodes in a single year, were just as vital as his theater jobs. "I studied more doing that show than I ever did in high school or college. Take notes, apply the notes, move on, get over yourself, you have another day tomorrow. When I was doing my first year and a half of As the World Turns, I did Little Me at Roundabout. I was amazed by how much they fed each other. It was a completely different rehearsal process, but at the same time, it was a beautiful thing to have them both."
When As the World Turns ended, Park returned to the stage in earnest. He appeared in The Burnt Part Boys, written by Tuck scribes Miller and Tysen, at Playwrights Horizons (where he originated the role of Monty in Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's musical Violet in 1997). He played opposite Daniel Radcliffe, Darren Criss, and Nick Jonas in How to Succeed in Business Without Realy Trying. And he was Gooper to Scarlett Johansson's Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
"I've been blessed," Park notes, but there is perhaps no greater blessing than playing grieving father Larry Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen. It's a role Park performed at the show's first table read, opposite Ben Platt, Jennifer Laura Thompson, and Rachel Bay Jones, and played in Washington, D.C., but missed out on earlier this year when the show ran off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre while he was on Broadway in Tuck Everlasting.
It was a strange experience for him. "There was a part of me that was missing it, knowing that they were doing it without me," he says. But the theater is full of magic. John Dossett, who replaced Park off-Broadway and appeared with him in Hello Again, went on to star in War Paint this past summer and will repeat his work on Broadway in the winter. Park, who attended the Dear Evan Hansen off-Broadway opening as a guest, came back into the company for its Broadway run. Michael Greif directs both musicals.
While in Dear Evan Hansen Larry Murphy is a man accused of taking a blind eye to the struggles of his eldest son, Connor (played by Mike Faist), one can't accuse Park of doing the same thing in the real world. He says that perhaps the most important thing he's learned about himself through this process is how to be a better dad to his own children, ages nineteen, sixteen, and twelve.
"One really heartbreaking thing for me every night is knowing that my sixteen-year-old at one point was having a tough time last year," Park remembers. "And I said, 'Sit down, let's have a conversation.' I said, 'This isn't like you at all. What's going on?' It went on for five minutes with her not having the guts to tell me that sometimes she feels like Connor. That was a big wake-up call for me as a father. That conversation changed my life and it really opened my eyes to what these kids go through on a daily basis, doing anything to get out of bed [and to believe that] today will be a different day than the day before somehow."
That moment has proved to be the biggest reward Park earns from Dear Evan Hansen. "It lets you know in the best possible way, and sometimes in the worst case, that you are not alone in this fight to keep going." It's something he still gets emotional over. "I go home and hug my children every night because of [realizing] what this man goes through. Larry Murphy, as disconnected and aloof and taciturn as he is at times, has made me such a better parent."
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