Best known for his direction and Tony-nominated choreography for the hit 1994 revival of Grease!, Jeff Calhoun has another promising revival as well as a brand-new musical in the works, and both, the Philadelphia native reports, are New York bound.
A former protégé of Tommy Tune — he collaborated with Tune on The Will Rogers Follies and The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public — Calhoun will serve as co-producer (with John McDaniel) and director for Brooklyn, a new five-person musical that will receive a month-long workshop production this August at New York's Signature Theatre. He is also behind a revival of the 1985 Tony-winning musical Big River.
In an interview for Playbill On-Line, Calhoun, who made his Broadway directorial debut with Tommy Tune Tonite!, discussed his love for and the genesis of Brooklyn. "I really believe I've been waiting and training my whole life for this project," he said. "It is that amazing mix of commerce with high artistry, and it's hard to find something that can deliver both."
Calhoun explained that the piece was initially brought to him by Paula Holt, who was the President and Artistic Director of Los Angeles' Tiffany Theatres. "It's written by this amazing man [Mark Schoenfeld] who was homeless, who survived on the kindness of strangers. That inspired him to write this story, and it's written from a homeless point of view about the homeless. [Schoenfeld] wrote everything — book, music and lyrics — [with his writing partner] Barri McPherson." Described as a morality tale of a "beautiful, young Parisian songstress, whose fame and fortune could not fill the emptiness of her soul," the new musical is set in Brooklyn, New York, and will transport audiences from the New York City borough to Paris and back.
An eclectic mix of soul and pop music with a bit of classic American tunes and opera thrown into the stew, Brooklyn possesses "the best score I've heard since Dreamgirls," Calhoun said. "It's a remarkable score, and I love when shows feel like they have their finger on the pulse of what's happening. I love the music of yesteryear, I really do, but I also like it when [there is music] you could actually listen to in your apartment and not have to be in the business to enjoy. I would love kids who do not live in New York and are not interested into going into show business to want to listen to this at home in their rooms. The music is just incredibly accessible. Certainly, my generation is going to love it, and I think younger people as well." Calhoun is equally excited about his other new project, a revival of the 1985 Tony-winning musical Big River that he first directed last season for the Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles. That production was honored with the L.A. Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, and Calhoun picked up a Best Director of a Musical trophy as well.
His production of Big River followed another acclaimed revival for the L.A. theatre, Oliver!, both of which cast deaf and hearing actors in the same production. "What I'm most proud of [with these musicals]," Calhoun explained, "is it's sort of a new form of art, a new form of storytelling. Every moment of the show is voiced as well as signed. Not only is it a chance for deaf actors to do something they've never done before — which is being cast in a musical — it's a chance for a deaf audience to see a musical they'd never go to.
"You know, when we think we're doing [deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences] a favor by having somebody stand on the side of the stage signing, the truth is they have to watch the signing, so they miss the show. This is integrated, so they are looking at where the action's happening. It's really for them, but the remarkable aspect is it's turning out the hearing people are as mesmerized if not more so."
In fact, word-of-mouth was so good on the production that Rocco Landesman, who produced the original Broadway mounting of Big River, has become interested in the project and has committed to bring the musical to New York next season. Before that, however, the Mark Taper Forum will present the show this November. The Forum cast will include Rufus Bonds, the current Mufasa in the Los Angeles production of The Lion King, and Phyllis Frelich, the hearing-impaired actress who nabbed a 1980 Tony Award for her dazzling work in Children of a Lesser God.
Calhoun, who was most recently represented on Broadway with the choreography for the Faith Prince revival of Bells Are Ringing, also takes pride in the many performers he has cast over the years and emphasizes the importance of choosing the right actor for the right role. "It's so important when you're casting a new show, especially — it's so much harder to cast, particularly in Brooklyn, it's only five actors. It's really like we're looking for five stars, but yet we're not looking for stars, but they have to be good enough to carry a show. You want to find people who you want to build the show on because you're going to ask them to bring as much to the table as you are. So it's different than just cloning a show [for a tour]."
Among the performers Calhoun cast to make their Broadway debuts are this season's Tony-winning Best Actress in a Musical, Sutton Foster, and the upcoming star of Hairspray, Marissa Jaret Winokur. "Watching Sutton get her Tony was really thrilling because I gave her her Equity card," Calhoun revealed.
"I was going out looking for girls for the tour of Will Rogers Follies. So, she started out as a Will Rogers Follies Girl for me, and then when I did Grease!, I had her in the chorus, and that didn't last too long before she was moved up to Sandy."
Does Calhoun remember her initial audition? "I do indeed, absolutely," he said, "and she was wearing clogs! And Patty, my associate, had to lecture her that you don't show up for an audition in clogs. [Laughs] But we all fell in love with her. And I couldn't be more proud of her. I am thrilled." Similarly, his Grease! revival provided Broadway debuts for several stars: Sam Harris, Megan Mullally, Billy Porter, and, of course, Rosie O'Donnell.
Although he is no longer in contact with Tommy Tune — "it's very odd and sad" — Calhoun said, "I have to say that you could not have had a better teacher than I had in Tommy Tune. For what I wanted to do with my life, he was for 21 years of my life, next to my parents, the most influential person in my life, and I will always be grateful for that."