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Decades after the Monkees, Dolenz drums up a new stage role

NEW YORK -- Micky Dolenz studied architecture in college and was fully prepared for a life planning buildings, and not rock 'n' roll immortality, though he was auditioning for television shows between classes.

"I figured if architecture didn't work out, I could fall back on show biz," Dolenz says. "That was Plan B: acting and singing."

Plan A, though, faded when he nailed an audition in 1966 to join "The Monkees," the TV comedy based on the antics of a rock group modeled after the Beatles.

"I'm not a fool," Dolenz says. "I knew the power and possibility of a series on television. And the train just took off."

Still, there's more than a little architecture in his latest project: The role of the scheming Prime Minister Zoser in "Aida," Disney's cartoony take on the Verdi opera. Zoser, after all, has a thing for building pyramids.

"Yeah," Dolenz says after considering the matter. "I guess in the end I've managed to combine both those dreams."

Dolenz, 58, joins Michelle T. Williams (of Destiny's Child), Will Chase, and Lisa Brescia, among others, in the Broadway version of "Aida," the Tony-winning musical with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice.

The rock musical tells the story of a love triangle involving Aida, a Nubian princess forced into slavery; Amneris, an Egyptian princess; and Radames, the soldier they both love.

Dolenz, who has been with a touring version of the show for six months, plays Radames's father and contributes songs like "Another Pyramid" and "Like Father Like Son."

"It's been an incredible opportunity for me to do something that is so -- I mean, God love the Monkees -- different," Dolenz says. "There is nothing like getting out there on a legitimate stage and having to really pull it off."

Dolenz, who as a child starred in the TV show "Circus Boy," is no stranger to the musical stage, having toured with companies of "Grease," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "The Point," and "Tom Sawyer." He also wrote the book for, and directed, "Bugsy Malone" for the London stage.

Yet even some of his friends didn't know he had the musical chops for "Aida."

"No one does," he replies cheerily. "And to some degree I didn't know. There wasn't anything that I did in my life professionally that demanded that kind of singing."

Paul J. Smith, the show's production stage manager who worked with Dolenz in "Grease," says the performer has a voice as powerful as his ego is small.

"There's no question he wants to be part of the company. He doesn't want to be Micky Dolenz in `Aida.' He wants to be right in the character," Smith says. "He is not at all a diva."

Dolenz sees a connection between his current work and the one that forever will be linked with his name -- the Monkees, whose albums and TV show were chart toppers in the late 1960s.

"The Monkees, in a way, was a musical on television," he says. "Like a Broadway show, you can't fake it on stage -- you actually have to sing and you actually have to play."

Well, not at the beginning. The Monkees -- or Prefab Four, as they were called -- were the brainchild of Columbia Pictures producers who were inspired to create a television show after the success of the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night."

Open auditions were held and four strangers were cast: Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones.

Dolenz (who performed Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" on guitar for the casting directors) found himself cast as a drummer, though he had never truly hit the skins professionally.

At first, the band's songs -- like "I'm a Believer" and "Last Train to Clarksville" -- were written by the likes of Neil Diamond and Carole King, and other musicians played the instruments.

Americans loved watching the quartet's zany antics each week, whether it was baby-sitting a horse in a house or unwittingly becoming foreign agents to recover microfilm hidden in maracas. But by 1967, the band had had enough of the make-believe and began insisting on playing and singing their own songs. Dolenz had become proficient on the drums by then, and the four began a battle with producers and NBC.

"It wasn't that we didn't want to play or couldn't play. They would not allow us to play -- literally," Dolenz says. "Our side was saying it was more important that it was legitimate, even if it's not as good. That ultimately is what happened."

What had been fake gave way to fact. The band went on tour (Jimi Hendrix was the opening act) and supplied the soundtrack to the 1968 psychedelic movie "Head," co-written by Jack Nicholson.

"The Monkees really becoming a band was like the equivalent of Leonard Nimoy really becoming a Vulcan," Dolenz says.

Not everyone was happy, particularly those critics who felt cheated when word spread that the four young men had not initially been the musical talents behind the songs.

"I was disturbed and hurt and bothered -- and have been over the years at different times -- because of the unjustified animosity directed at me personally," Dolenz says. "Like it was my fault!"

He points out that he was in his early 20s at the time.

Dolenz also says it's high time that the Monkees were given their due for what they did for popular culture, far beyond goofing around: In fact, they sanitized the counterculture for the mainstream of the era.

"I equate it to Will Smith bringing rap into American living rooms with `The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.' That was very similar. Before that, the only time you'd see people with long hair on television they were getting arrested or at protests or smoking dope at love-ins. And then all of a sudden the Monkees come along with long hair representing, in a way, all those millions of kids out there who were good kids."

After the Monkees dissolved, Dolenz found it difficult to get work again. He narrowly missed landing the role of the Fonz on "Happy Days," a part that would make Henry Winkler famous.

"I remember going to some audition for an acting part and someone said, `What are you doing here? We don't need any drummer!' " -- proof, perhaps, that his long search for legitimacy as a Monkee had come full circle.

Dolenz went to England and began a career directing TV shows and commercials. The British newspapers began referring to him not as Micky Dolenz, the ex-Monkee, but as Michael Dolenz, director and producer for the BBC.

He no longer fights the incessant questions about the Monkees and has embraced his fame. Members of the band periodically reunite for concerts and Dolenz is happy to play the old songs.

"I have no regrets," he says. "I love `The Monkees.' I'm very proud of the work I did on that show, like I'm proud of the work I did on `Circus Boy.' The Monkee train is gonna go on, with or without me, forever. Long after I'm gone they're going to be playing those songs."

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