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Michael James Leslie in 1975 production of

Michael James Leslie, Law '76, center, as "Pooh-Bah" in the Cornell Savoyards' 1975 production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado." When Leslie was cast by director James Smith Learned '76, it caused controversy because it was the first time an African-American actor had been cast in a Cornell Savoyards production. The show, a huge success, Leslie says, "was the beginning of me thinking that I might go into show business." Photo: Michael James Leslie/Provided.

Playing against type, Law grad Michael James Leslie has embraced the stage

Michael James Leslie with

Leslie with the "Audrey II" plant during the "Little Shop of Horrors" national tour in 2004. Leslie has played the voice of the plant about 1,600 times in his career, from the L.A. and London West End productions in the 1980s to the national tour in the early 2000s. Photo: Michael James Leslie/Provided.

Michael James Leslie graduated from Cornell Law School in 1976, but it was his breakthrough role in the Cornell Savoyards' 1975 production of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operetta "The Mikado" that set the course of his career as an actor and singer.

Leslie may be best known for a role in which he wasn't even visible, and that he played for more performances (about 1,600) than any other in his long career: the voice of the bloodthirsty plant "Audrey II" in the musical "Little Shop of Horrors." He took on the part when the hit off-Broadway show made its Los Angeles debut in 1983 and continued the role during the show's subsequent London West End run.

Two decades later, Leslie performed as Audrey II again when the show opened for a revival – this time on Broadway – and in the following national tour.

The juxtaposition of his law degree and brief stint as a lawyer with his "Little Shop" experience used to be a prime setup for an easy joke ("I find there is no difference between a man-eating plant and a lawyer," Leslie has said), but he is deeply thoughtful and reflective of his Cornell education and experience. He says it taught him how to think, how to listen to people and how to connect something within himself to an audience.

'A black kid in a white world'

Leslie, who grew up in Brielle, New Jersey, with seven siblings, says he was "a black kid in a white world." His mother exposed him to classical music, Motown, Frank Sinatra and Lena Horne, and took him to Broadway shows. "Bizarrely, my mother actually created the monster," he says with a smile.

He began singing in church and was soon taking on unexpected roles and breaking color barriers: in grade school, dressed in shamrocks and a bowler hat for a St. Patrick's Day production, he sang Irish standards; he was the first African-American lead of a Manasquan High School musical as the king in "The King and I"; and in the school's production of "The Most Happy Fella" he played an Italian postman, who sang "Great Big Italian Sposalizio." ("That should have forewarned my bizarre and varied career," Leslie says.)

Leslie got his undergraduate degree in political science from Rutgers College. Initially, he wasn't completely sold on going to law school, so he only applied to five schools; of those, he was accepted at four and got waitlisted at Cornell. "And then in August that year, they came through and gave me a scholarship, so I had to go," he says.

At Cornell, Leslie found the professors provocative and the coursework challenging; the first year was the toughest. His class was a harbinger of more diverse law school cohorts to come; there were 29 women and 15 African-Americans in the law school at that time – more than the total number of women and African-Americans that had graduated in Cornell Law School's history.

Michael James Leslie in Cornell Savoyards'

An Ithaca Journal review of the 1975 "Mikado" production by Beatrice MacLeod said: "Pooh-Bah, as played by Michael Leslie, very nearly steals the show with his large serenity and self-satisfaction; his control is always focused." Photo: Michael James Leslie/Provided.

Pooh-Bah with the Savoyards

At the Cornell Savoyards, "Mikado" director James Smith Learned '76 "took a great chance on me," Leslie says of being cast as Pooh-Bah (the baritone "Lord High Everything Else"). The choice was controversial, he notes, adding that two people even quit the group because of it, believing a black actor and singer "wouldn't be able to do Gilbert and Sullivan justice." Learned "fought for me and believed I was perfect for the part," he says.

Leslie vividly recalls opening night, and Pooh-Bah's first entrance, where he intoned his first lines, "It is …," in a deep melodic drawl. "The audience exploded in laughter, and then it kept building and building until the end of the show," he says. At the end of the show, "there was an ovation, and I had never had that kind of reaction before.

"I ran off the stage and went into the dressing room and laid down and started to cry. And [Learned] came in and said, 'what's wrong with you?' And I said, 'What was that?' And he said, 'That's love – and you'd better get used to it.'"

Michael James Leslie as the Lion in

Leslie landed another Broadway role as the last Lion of the Broadway production of "The Wiz" with Stephanie Mills; he later played the role again in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's production. Photo: Michael James Leslie/Provided.

The production, which brought Leslie some local fame, "turned into one of the biggest hits in Savoyards history," he says. "It was the beginning of me thinking that I might go into show business. It really changed my life."

Ticket to Broadway

Leslie got his law degree, took the bar and practiced for six months in New Jersey. He was disturbed by a rape case the firm was involved in, representing the defendant, and he began considering applying to work as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

He spent a few months living in New York City, working at a Korvettes department store while studying for the New York bar exam. One day, he happened upon a sign advertising auditions. Even though he "had no picture, no resume, no music," he thought "why not?" and went in – not even knowing what he was auditioning for – and sang "Maybe this Time" from "Cabaret" without accompaniment. He got a call-back and an invitation to the dance tryout. Just three weeks before he had been planning to take the bar exam, he was cast as an ensemble member of the first Broadway revival of the musical "Hair."

'Little Shop' reunion held in NYC

'Little Shop of Horrors' Showbill

This past June, a "Little Shop of Horrors" reunion, dubbed "Little Shop of Horrors: Off-Broadway, Broadway and Beyond" was held at the New York City cabaret 54 Below. The event included two concert performances, with Menken performing additional songs that had been cut from the stage productions.

"There were multiple Audreys, Seymours, [plant puppet] manipulators and Urchins from the various companies, but I was the only Voice," Leslie says.

Watch a clip of Brad Moranz and Leslie singing "Feed Me (Get It)."

A multi-decade and varied career had begun. Leslie landed another Broadway role as the last Lion of the Broadway production of "The Wiz" with Stephanie Mills, and multiple off-Broadway shows, national tours, regional productions, stock and concert performances followed.

When he got the role as the voice of Audrey II for the Los Angeles and London productions of "Little Shop," Leslie had the chance to make the role his own, asking composer Alan Menken if he could kick up the tempo of his songs ("I'm not a blues singer – I'm more rock," he recalls telling Menken), and putting his own personality into line readings.

Seeing 'both sides of everything'

Leslie's mother had always prized education, telling her son that despite the civil rights victories of the 1960s, societal progress would likely recede again and "you must have your intelligence to fight it; to fight them and fight it," he recalls her saying. "White America still doesn't respect us; so what you've got to do is always be able to outthink them, and the way to outthink them is to have as much education as you possibly can."

"So law school is not wasted," Leslie says. "Law school taught me to think. I can look at a lot of material and come up with a common thread.

Michael James Leslie with Leslie Uggams

Leslie with veteran actress and singer Leslie Uggams, a longtime friend. Photo: Michael James Leslie/provided.

"Because of law school, I always try to see both sides of everything. … It's the ability to sort of not respond initially, but to listen to what's being said and then coming up with the best answer to solve the problem," he says.

"You need to listen. I've learned everything I've done by watching [and listening to] great performers. I've watched them on stage – what are they doing that moves that audience? And I've found that the common thread is, they're either connecting to their egos, or to something that is working inside of them, something very inner that makes it connect to the audience.

"As I get further away from it, I view it with much more fondness," Leslie says of his Cornell experience. "It's the basis of who I am and it's the basis of my intelligence."

He also remembers Ithaca's Purity Ice Cream. "They used to make, at one time of the year, candy cane ice cream, and I think 20 of these pounds are still from that," he says with a laugh.

Coming to terms with 'odd'

Inga Ballard and Michael James Leslie in Westchester Broadway Theatre's 2016 production of

Leslie as Joe, right, and Inga Ballard as Queenie in the Westchester Broadway Theater's 2016 production of "Show Boat." A New York Times review of the show stated that in his performance of "the musical's best-known and best-loved song, 'Ol' Man River,'" Leslie's "rich voice easily fills the theater." Photo: Westchester Broadway Theatre/Provided.

Some of Leslie's most recent roles have included Joe in "Show Boat" (at the Asolo Repertory Theater in Sarasota, Florida, and the Westchester Broadway Theater in New York) and two appearances on "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" as part of the gospel singing group for Oliver's "Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption" IRS-sanctioned church.

One role Leslie says he'd still like to play is Sweeney in "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," though he thinks he may now be too old. "I'm in my 60s now – there's not that much for me unless it's created," he says. "And I am odd, I've had to come to terms with that. I mean, what do you do with somebody who walks into an audition, and they are looking for a 'big black man' voice, and my real voice is kind of a smooth, croony baritone? I have received some odd looks.

"That's who I am. And luckily, over my career, some directors have seen it."

Leslie as part of gospel singing group on

In 2015 and 2016, Leslie, top center, appeared twice on HBO's "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" as part of the gospel singing group for Oliver's "Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption" IRS-sanctioned church. Image: Michael James Leslie/Provided.

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