It’s all Bernadette Peters’s fault. If not for the Broadway star’s performance in “A Little Night Music” in 2011, Meagan Michelson might never have acknowledged her own desire to stand on center stage and perform. Alas, the star power of Peters and Elaine Stritch proved too much for Michelson to resist. She had to be a part of it all.
Since then, Michelson has received her MFA from the Boston Conservatory and performed her mother-daughter-inspired cabaret “Mother Mary” at Oberon in Cambridge. At summer’s end, she moved to New York to pursue a new way of life: cattle call auditions in the early mornings, working part-time jobs afternoons and evenings, and planning performances of her show in the city.
“When Peters sang ‘Send in the Clowns,’ with her perfect porcelain skin and one glistening tear down her cheek, I started blubbering in the front row thinking ‘That’s what I should be doing,’ ” Michelson says. “And then I felt completely nauseated because I [had] thought my life was going to be completely different.”
Michelson had known she wanted to work in theater but figured it would be a career behind the scenes. After graduating with an English degree from Harvard in 2010, Michelson moved to New York City for a production internship to become a dramaturg. She had performed all her life, while growing up in Everett and during her years at Harvard, but had been mostly cast in supporting roles. She decided that meant she didn’t have a shot at professional theater, that singing and dancing (clumsily, she says) would have to remain hobbies.
What she realized shortly after starting at the Conservatory was that her nerdiness and sense of humor — traits that were formed back in Everett, with an assist from her brassy mother, Mary — gave her a unique persona.
It was always Meg and Mary. Michelson’s thick-accented single mother is her rock, always has been. Mary also had an edge, which made her brutally honest, one-liner-worthy, and almost always right. But Mary can be a skeptic too, and she’s had her doubts about her daughter’s plans to perform professionally.
“Part of me wants her to just have a stable job and just do it,” Mary says.“But seeing this process she has gone through, regardless of how I once felt, I know it’s what she wants. She told me at 12 she would never work in an office.”
Between her dancing, acting, and singing classes at the Conservatory, Michelson reflected, mostly through journaling, on what got her to this point. Helen Lewis, a professor of acting at the Conservatory, says that Michelson was one of those students every teacher hopes to have in class.
“She wasn’t one of the students that wanted only theater from a young age, not that that’s bad,” Lewis says. “I think it made her appreciate what she was learning more, and her insecurity became thriving curiosity. It worked in her favor.”
Such an abrupt decision toward performance left her with many questions about herself. In preparing for her final, a cabaret of her own creation, she turned to her journals to find a theme that would suit her best.
She reread passages about characters that inspired her, such as Sally Durant Plummer from “Follies” or anyone Liza Minnelli had portrayed. What stuck with Michelson, however, was anecdotes about her life with Mary and the advice her mother had given her through the years.
“I am, for better or for worse, my mother’s daughter,” Michelson says. “The writing [for the cabaret] just came so organically from our relationship.”
“Mother Mary” became a chronology of Michelson’s winding path toward understanding herself and pursuing her dreams, all through the lens of her mother’s sassy commentary and advice. Between songs like “Let It Be,” “Mama Will Provide,” and a cleverly placed “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” Michelson sprinkles her act with Mary’s one-liners, like, “You really wanna wear that shirt, Meg? The girls are hangin’ out.”
The cabaret was a hit among her classmates and professors, and Michelson decided she wanted to perform it elsewhere while she prepared for her move back to New York. Oberon said yes. “Mother Mary” became a true cabaret at the club-theater venue, which has given Michelson the encouragement she needs.
“There were tables and cocktails and room for me to interact with an audience with people I didn’t know,” Michelson says. “That performance was exhilarating. I know everything I felt at [‘A Little Night Music’] was pushing me in the right direction” — a notion that Mary, after seeing her daughter onstage, could understand.