Gay Broadway actor brings Quasimodo to town
By Monica Medina
Michael Arden seems very comfortable and laid-back, as if he has all the time in the world to chat, which, somehow, completely belies the eventful year he’s been having.
The actor is currently in rehearsal as the lead role of Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a new musical featuring music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz set to premier at La Jolla Playhouse Oct. 26.
On his days off from rehearsals, Arden heads to Los Angeles to film episodes of “Anger Management,” the FX series in which he plays opposite Charlie Sheen.
He’s also been busy directing a Deaf West Theatre production of “Spring Awakening.” Currently on stage in Los Angeles, the musical has received much critical acclaim, and compelled the Los Angeles Times to call Arden “the real star of the evening … whose staging involves a mind-bogglingly intricate meld of the show’s many disparate elements.”
Amidst all this activity, Arden became engaged in June to fellow actor Andy Mientus, currently starring on Broadway as Marius in “Les Miserables.”
Announcing the engagement on Instagram, Mientus posted a playful photo of himself and a very joyful Arden. Taking a page from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” Mientus wrote, “Come, woo me, woo me, for now I am in a holiday humour and like enough to consent.”
The two are set to marry next fall.
“We met at the opening night of a show I did on Broadway,” Arden recalled. “It was ‘The Times They Are A-Changin,’ which had its premiere in San Diego [at the Old Globe Theatre]. One of the cast members brought his roommate and it happened to be Andy. We were friends first, so we got to know how crazy we each are before we started dating. A lot of times you try to pretend to be the person you think they want you to be. We got to skip all that, which was nice.”
With Arden in Southern California and Mientus in New York, making time for each other has been tricky.
“Finding balance is hard,” Arden admitted. “We Skype a lot and get to see each other maybe a day or two at a time, relishing the moments we get. He’ll be here for opening night, but after the ‘Hunchback’ run, I hopefully will be able to spend time with him. I look forward to that.”
Arden, whose father died when he was young and whose mother had issues with substance abuse, was raised by his grandparents in Midland, Texas. He can remember the moment he caught the acting bug: He was four years old.
“My grandparents took me to see Sesame Street Live,” said the 31 year old. “And there’s a picture of me in which I’m just on the edge of my seat, absolutely mesmerized. It’s almost as if I’m trying to get on the stage.”
A few years later, he saw his first musical, “Big River,” at a local community theater and that experience sealed his fate.
“I was just blown away by it and knew I had to do that,” Arden said. “Whether it was to make it on stage or build the sets or lighting, I just wanted to be involved. It’s beautiful and ironic that ‘Big River’ was not only the first play I ever saw, but it was also the first Broadway show I appeared in. So that was a great turn of events and very special for me.”
Arden said Midland gave him just the support and encouragement he needed to help him succeed.
“In a place where you wouldn’t imagine a big prevalence of art, there was an incredible youth theater company called the Pickwick Players,” he said. “I learned so much and had such a great group of friends. I feel lucky and thankful to have had a great theatrical outlet through our community theater.”
Arden also found a mentor at the Episcopal school he attended — his English teacher, Shelly Wright.
“I realized in ninth grade [that I was] gay, and strangely I never was concerned that it was a problem,” he said. “Obviously, there were moments of fear, but I never felt ashamed of it. The first person I ever came out to was my English teacher. Freshman year, first day of school, she gave us an assignment in class to write about what we learned about ourselves that summer and I wrote that I learned that I’m a gay man. She pulled me aside later on and said, ‘Just so you know, I’m here for you and I support you.’ She’s been a dear friend and mentor to me to this day.”
Arden took longer to tell his very religious Southern Baptist grandparents, who both passed away earlier this year.
“I didn’t think it was helpful to tell them, but then I did and they were wonderful,” he said. “I’m glad they got to see me in a lot of plays and when I did a European tour with Barbra Streisand, singing duets of ‘Evergreen’ and ‘Somewhere.’”
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” has been in rehearsals since mid-September, and Arden is feeling good about the show and its cast.
“I’m really excited to be back in San Diego, creating this piece with people I love and writers I admire,” he said. “The cast is phenomenal — Ciara Renee as Esmeralda, Patrick Page as Frollo, Andrew Samonsky as Phoebus and Erik Liberman as Clopin — and the ensemble, they’re all fantastic.”
“Hunchback” is produced by special arrangement with Disney Theatrical Productions, though outside of the basic structure, Arden said it is more true to the Victor Hugo novel than it is to the 1996 Disney animated film.
“There are new songs … it’s a lot sadder than the Disney movie and much more of an adult treatment,” he explained. “The story takes place in 1483, and we’re using a lot of techniques that would’ve been used theatrically in plays of the time. Much of it is set inside the Notre Dame Cathedral, and we use our bodies and furniture to create these worlds. There are 17 in the cast, but what’s truly exciting is that there’s a 32-person choral ensemble that will be on stage every night. It’s thrilling to hear this score sung with that many voices. I would venture to say it’s Alan Menken’s finest score.”
Arden’s favorite Disney film is “The Little Mermaid,” another Menken musical, co-authored with the late Howard Ashman. Arden sees parallels between the two stories and his own life.
“The song, ‘Part of Your World,’ sung by Ariel is about wishing to be part of something,” he said. “Quasimodo also feels removed from living the life other people have. There have been times in my life I felt like, ‘Oh, I’m not allowed to marry. How great it would be to be part of their world.’”
For this reason, Arden believes the themes in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” will resonate for the LGBT community.
“Quasimodo has been hidden away and put on the outside because of religion, specifically, Catholicism,” he said. “Yet ultimately, it’s a story about love and how love can conquer everything.
“What attracted me most to the project is that it inspires faith, which I feel is so lacking in the world right now, but it’s incredibly important to me. Love and faith go hand in hand, and that’s incredibly life affirming.”
As he headed back to rehearsal, Arden paused for a moment to take stock of his career.
“What I have is a dream job,” he said. “As long as I can keep working and keep creating new works, I think that’s the greatest thing I can accomplish.”