The appeal of Lee David Zlotoff’s MacGyver is that he can do seemingly anything—an idea which is being born out in MacGyver: The Musical. The musical successfully translates Angus MacGyver’s ingenuity and adventurous spirit onto the stage, not only in character but in how it casts the title character out of the audience at each performance!
To celebrate Broadway Records’ release of the MacGyver: The Musical concept album, I connected with Lee to find out how his beloved protagonist made the leap from TV to the stage. Plus, we discuss MacGyver star Tristin Mays’ appearance on the record and what it is about the character that audiences still love decades after Richard Dean Anderson originally brought him to life.
Brittany Frederick: The idea of a MacGyver musical is surprising yet also creative. How did you develop the idea of bringing the character into the theater world?
Lee David Zlotoff: I wanted to do the musical because MacGyver turned out to be one of those shows the whole family could watch together. I wanted to create something with MacGyver that the family or community could experience together, instead of sitting and watching it on a screen. That was kind of the genesis for the musical. And a dear friend—who unfortunately has passed—suggested that it might be really MacGyver if we cast the lead out of the audience at every performance.
We did a workshop production in 2020, just before COVID shut everything down, and then we did a world premiere in Houston in 2022. And in that process producers came to me and said, you should do a concept album. They explained you do an album of the songs from the show, both to get exposure and you can actually get revenue from this to help you get to the next stage of the project. I’d never produced a musical before. I’d never produced an album before. But I said, “Well, you know, we’ll just MacGyver our way through this.” And that’s exactly what we did.
BF: Fans of CBS’ recent MacGyver reboot will love that Tristin Mays, who played Riley, appears on the album. It’s a great connection between MacGyver: The Musical and the character’s TV roots. Was that a planned appearance, or how did Tristin become involved?
LDZ: It was one of those accidental things. The head of our social media, who’s called herself RosieGyver, came to me and said “Hey, did you know that Tristin Mays was a singer?” And I had no idea. She sent me stuff that Tristin had put on Instagram and TikTok and other things. I looked at them and sent them to my composer and musical director and producer and said, “What do you think?” And they went, get her. So we reached out to Tristin and said, would you like to do a song on the album? We gave her the choice of a couple of songs and she picked one called “Too Much Future,” which is probably the most punk rock number in the show.
BF: You have some other recognizable names on the album in Hamilton‘s Brandon Victor Dixon and Taylor Louderman from Mean Girls. But you also utilized some of the folks who were in that Houston production. What was it like to get them on the record?
LDZ: Most of the performers we had in Houston had never done an album before, so this was a really a great opportunity for them. And it worked for us because they knew all the music. We didn’t have to spend a lot of time in rehearsals. We had a few quick rehearsals, because obviously when you put a song on an album instead of it being in the show, it gets adjusted a little bit. But they were thrilled. It was like wait a minute, so we don’t have to dance and act and sing at the same time? We can just stand here and sing? They went oh, this is awesome.
BF: What has your experience been transitioning the character of MacGyver into this new medium that you hadn’t worked in before?
LDZ: I’ve been in the film and television business for quite some time. And I thought theater, it’s just another house down the block. I realize now it’s another planet entirely—if it’s not another universe…It’s been a very steep learning curve, in terms of the difference in the forms. But I love to make things, whether it’s with my hands or creating a TV show or a movie, or in this case, a musical, I just love making things. So I said let’s figure out how to make this, and [we] ran into some brick walls and I took my lumps. And then you go okay, now we’ve just got to figure out where we want to go from here and how to fix it.
BF: What attracts you to keep exploring MacGyver? After two TV shows and decades of work, other writers might feel the journey had been completed or simply move on, but you’ve stuck with the idea and made him sort of immortal.
LDZ: The answer to that is kind of destiny. Both Paramount, which produced the show, and I discovered that they had screwed up and all the rights had reverted to me, so I owned MacGyver. Needless to say, they were very upset about this. (laughs) But it gave me the opportunity then to say, “What should I do with this?” I looked at MacGyver and said, why did this become so globally popular?
I think there are three reasons. Number one: he didn’t use a gun. He’s probably the only action-adventure hero out there who simply doesn’t use a gun. I translate that into avoid conflict, because conflict usually just leads to more conflict. Two: he’s innovative, he’s creative, his resourcefulness. How do you turn what you have into what you need? That’s what we have to do now as individuals, as communities, as countries; we’re all connected. The pandemic made that very clear. And then the third thing was, no matter how life-threatening or intractable the situation was, MacGyver always maintained a sense of humor and humility.
So I went, these are great management tools for this century. And if I do nothing else, I’m going to give my children and my grandchildren and everybody else’s grandchildren these tools. Avoid conflict, figure out how to turn what you have into what you need and for God’s sake, try and maintain a sense of humor and humility, because a laughing and open mind is a a whole lot more likely to find a good solution than a frightened or angry mind. These rights came to me really by accident, and I want to give something back to the world because MacGyver has been very good to me.
BF: Is there something in particular you want to leave fans with? Not necessarily with MacGyver: The Musical, but even in general, is there a takeaway you want from this next phase of the character?
LDZ: The reason I’ve been bringing MacGyver back on all these platforms is is not just about making money. Money isn’t all that important to me, to tell you the truth. I know you need money to live and all that stuff, but we are facing a very uncertain future right now. And for young people, I want them to know that they have more resources within themselves and more agency than they think they do.
You don’t have to simply sit and let the leaders of the world say we’ll fix it someday, but we’re not going to worry about it. Now you can say you know what, we’re done hearing that. We’re going to fix it ourselves—and you’re either going to help us or you’re going to get out of the way. That is what, to me, MacGyver is really about. You have the power, you have the agency, you have more resources inside yourself than you may realize. So don’t be afraid. Don’t fear the future; step into it and own it, because it’s yours.