Thank You, Michael Hake

by / Dec. 9, 2015 12am EST

Michael Hake, popular musician, music director, and local theater personality, died suddenly in the early hours of December 3. The community was stunned and saddened by the news. Michael had been a constant presence on the Buffalo theater scene for years, known for his astonishing musicianship, his razor-sharp wit, and the familiar rolling of his eyes when obliged to suffer the foolishness of the world. He was 52 years old. 

Despite his relative youth, memories of Michael go back a long way in the theater community. He served as music director for innumerable productions. For a time, he produced highly admired musicals with his own production company, Cadenza Productions, including a fondly remembered rendition of Sondheim’s Assassins, which won the Artie Award as Outstanding Musical in 1994. Actor Jeanmarie Lally, who now resides in New York City, played Squeaky Fromme in that production. 

“Michael was, without a doubt, one of only a very few real musical geniuses I’ve personally met in my life,” says Lally. “He was the first musical director I had in my first professional music job in Buffalo, after receiving my BFA. We did a show called Cabaret Voltaire at the Cabaret, in which he played while I sang ‘Mon Dieu’ as Edith Piaf, while I was smoking and wearing just a black slip. We ran to rave reviews—let’s face it, because of his direction and talent—and spent many a night in Bacchanalia with Bart Mitchell, Erica Wohl, Robby Takac, Johnny Rzeznik, David Kane, Gina Sully, Paula Makar, David Butler, Tony Billoni, and others. We’d lock down the Cabaret and stay most of the night.

“So many other shows came along. We did Baby and then Assassins, and with SummerFare he music directed Into the Woods.” Lally played Cinderella and won an Artie for her efforts in 1992. “I can’t count the number of eye-rolls and huge sighs that went into our solo rehearsals, but it was always because he was pushing me to do better. But I loved him, in that funny way of love and musical respect and a shared passion for Sondheim, and a good piano bar-style collaboration.

“He’d show up at my door at all hours, drive me mad, not speak to me, and then would, frustratingly, say something so tender I’d melt again. We went round and round over the course of six years, often quietly. I sabotaged many a dating scenario because I couldn’t let Michael go.”

Lally also remembers a pre-Internet time when Michael was at the heart of a theater social life centered around an old bar on Main Street called Flynn’s, now gone. Flynn’s was a bar where theater folk from every venue in town would show up every night of the week. Fight with your boyfriend? Go to Flynn’s. Need a check cashed at midnight? Go to Flynn’s. Need a stage management gig? Go to Flynn’s. Many trace the strong sense of community, bordering on family, that characterizes Buffalo theater to that bar. 

After a show, given a choice to go home or go out, Michael would invariably elect to go out to be among people. “Hake-eoke” was a longstanding event at Q, at which anybody could select a song and step up the microphone to be accompanied by the incomparable Michael Hake. It was designed to recapture some of the fun and social life of Flynn’s. 

 “With Michael’s death,” says Lally, “I think about my old friends and wish I could go back and be with everyone again. Lisa [Ludwig] and Javier [Bustillos], and Moira Keenan, who are not on Facebook, share these memories. [Loraine] O’Donnell and [Kerrykate] Abel know what I am talking about. In the old days, at a time like this, we’d be sitting in Flynn’s, drinking and talking and crying.”

The death of Michael Hake has inspired powerful waves of nostalgia. 

Actor Lisa Ludwig, managing director of Shakespeare in Delaware Park—who played the witch in that long ago production of Into the Woods (and also won an Artie for her performance)—recalls meeting Michael when she was 16 years old and working at the Grain Mill, a restaurant that had singing waiters. 

“I remember that I was entering the Miss Erie County pageant and I needed an accompanist,” recounts Ludwig. “Michael agreed to help me out, and then when I arrived to rehearse, he had assembled a six-piece band for me! For free! I said, ‘Michael, I just need somebody to play the piano,’ and he said, ‘Well, you’ve got a band!’ That’s the kind of guy he was.”

In recent years, singer Katy Miner had become a particular favorite of Michael’s. He enjoyed her voice and accompanied her at the piano often. 

Miner acknowledges with bemusement people’s accounts of Michael’s sometimes temperamental nature, opining that health scares and bypass surgery might have helped alter his outlook on life. 

“Michael had quit smoking and was actually very affirmative and sentimental, especially in recent years,” observes Miner. “He would often find a moment to tell people that he loved them. ‘I love you! I love you dearly!’ He was a very social and loving person.” 

Over the past year, Miner twice traveled to New York City with Michael. 

“We went twice over the summer, in June and in August,” she recalls. “The first time he came with accompany me on an audition. I didn’t want to find someone in New York. I wanted someone who could rehearse with me, and coach me. So we took a bus down to the city and back. The audition went really well and we had a lot of fun. I remember hanging out at a café with Michael, and at a restaurant on a West Side pier, out by the water where it was just gorgeous, eating clams and having a couple of beers. Then we bussed back. 

“The second time was to celebrate the first trip and my birthday,” says Miner. “We saw two shows. He chose Fun Home and I chose Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. We sat in the front row. Everything was Dutch treat. We had a great time. We went to ‘Don’t Tell Mamma’ to listen to the music and talked and laughed. It was wonderful. 

“I always valued Michael’s opinion of my singing,” says Miner. “Singers don’t actually get a whole lot of useful feedback. Michael could provide a wealth of tips about everything from a tempo, to phrasing, to the interpretation of a lyric. He had a great ear for those little habits singers can get into or the liberties we might take with the music. He was super nitpicky. Sometimes he would ask for my opinion—but not very often.”

About Michael’s famously strict process, Miner says, “He might get frustrated, but not generally emotional. He did not like to waste time, and had little patience for pettiness in the rehearsal room. It was an attitude of ‘Look. Let’s get the work done. Here is the goal.’ And then you’d work toward it with Michael. And no matter what they might say, every singer who worked with Michael craved and valued his approval.” 

Jeanmarie Lally echoes Miner’s observation. “I will never forget Michael and all of the love and madness and mutual admiration—which was sometimes a bit begrudging on his part, now that I think about it. What’s the old poem? ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there, I do not sleep.’ And do you know why that is? It’s because he’s somewhere playing the piano, and drinking, and laughing, and making faces and rolling his eyes while we sing. But I say to myself, ‘God bless and keep you, Michael. And thank you.’

While a more formal service will be planned for the future, there will be a “Remember Hake-eoke” celebration at “Q” on Allen Street this Monday, December 14 at 9pm, commemorating the life of a marvelous artist and great friend.