“I like to think of myself as an actor who sings,” Michael Winther ’85 said in a succinct self-description.
Winther is one of the relatively few Williams College graduates who have succeeded in the theater industry and beyond. Despite his success, he returns to Williams College from time to time. On Friday and Saturday in the ’62 Center, Winther will star in The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard.
In addition to making appearances in a number of Broadway musicals (1776, Damn Yankees), Winther has given a solo concert in the Lincoln Center and worked in both television and film. Though most might glance at his credentials, raise an impressed eyebrow and move on, Winther is the first to admit the road has been bumpy at times.
Passionate about singing and eager to be involved, Winther appeared to “have it all” during sophomore year at Williams College. He was a member of the Octet and head of Cap and Bells; he was considering a future career in opera.
“I was doing all the things I wanted to do,” Winter said. “[But] people would ask, ‘You’re the head of Cap and Bells now, what should we do? And I said, ‘I don’t know, I just wanted to be the head of Cap and Bells. I don’t know what to do with it.’” After his “existential crisis,” Winther decided to take time off from school. He spent it in New York City at an off-Broadway theater repertory company, selling tickets by day and taking part in shows by night.
The result? He came back to Williams College a year later with a renewed passion for theater and a determination to make the most of his education (even calculating the exact tuition he paid for each class). It was at Williams College, Winther said, that he learned how to take initiative. “If I didn’t get cast in the MainStage show, instead of sulking I just did something else,” Winther said.
His take-charge attitude paid off. A few years after he graduated, he and a group of fellow actors – all “tired of not being hired” – started putting on shows. One of them, Tony and Tina’s Wedding, is still running today and is the longest running off-Broadway show 18 years later.
Though Winther has had (and taken) dozens of opportunities since then, including TV and film, he can’t seem to stay away from the theater for long. One of his favorite comparisons is that of baking: “I have to show up every day and make the bread, make sure it’s fresh every day for the audience. In theater, it’s definitely handmade – it’s made every day by a bunch of people who get together to make it.”
Winther went on to explain the differences he perceives between stage and screen.
“In film it’s handmade too, but in a different way,” he said. “Once it’s finished, it’s done. You go off and do something else. As an actor in the film world, my experience has been that you feel disconnected from the whole; you’re a small part of an entity. In the theater it’s much more integral to the whole experience the audience has.”
One aspect of theater Winther particularly enjoys and has benefited from is the mentoring process in theater. Despite his “very unusual career,” which has included projects ranging from yearly music concerts in Pittsfield to “Coma Dreams,” a piece composed by jazz musician Fred Hirsch in the aftermath of his three-month-long coma, Winther continues to search out new voices from the music and theater communities.
He also has taken part in the Williamstown Theater Festival by leading “Music Project” – classes for theater students in singing original music. Singing, Winther claims, is a far more practical and necessary skill in the modern theater world than classical acting. Yet potential theater students shouldn’t be discouraged if they aren’t the next Renée Fleming or Luciano Pavarotti. “Some of the best performers in musicals aren’t the best voices, but they have a profound need to communicate. Besides, people with really pretty voices aren’t particularly compelling on stage,” Winther said.
As for the work itself, he jokes with his out-of-work Wall Street friends, “Well, welcome to our world – this is the way it always with us.” Regardless, Winther advises future actors, “You can’t count on how famous you’re going to be, or how much money you’re going to make. If you enjoy it and you like the process, you can’t really lose. You have the joy of doing it.”