Michael Greif was 32 years old when he was first approached to direct Rent. Up until then he had been enmeshed in the world of straight plays, thinking he’d spend his career in that realm. Yet this season alone, he’s directed two new Broadway musicals, War Paint and Dear Evan Hansen—the latter for which he just earned his fourth Tony nomination.
Rent marked Greif’s Broadway directorial debut and first nomination in 1996. The show went on to win the Tony for Best Musical and is one of nine musicals to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (Next to Normal, also directed by Greif, is another in that elite club.) Though, contrary to popular belief, Greif has not yet taken home the statue.
And while the Pulitzer Prize is awarded to the author of a piece of theatre, there’s no doubt that as a director, Greif helped shape these pieces into theatre that speaks to the American psyche. With two of these musicals on his resume, it’s clear Greif is the connecting thread between two landmark works of theatre.
Like Rent’s portrait of friends grappling with the AIDS crisis and Next to Normal’s confrontation of bipolar disorder and the effects of mental illness on family, this season Dear Evan Hansen also taps into an emotionally fraught world—this time spotlighting social anxiety, depression, overwhelming isolation, forgiveness, and teen suicide. Greif recognizes his affinity for stories of emotional depth and social relevance. “I feel I have more to give to a musical like this,” he said at a Times Talk earlier this season. “I’m generally drawn to musicals that at some point get invested in difficult journeys for their characters.”
But Greif is also able to draw out these yarns from his creators. In the interest of emotional credibility, he urges his writers to “be careful not to be writing about the themes,” Greif tells Playbill. “Write about the characters and then the themes reverberate.”
Greif climbs into the trenches with his writers during development. “One of Michael’s earliest contributions to the development of Dear Evan Hansen, and I think one of his most profound, was to understand Evan’s journey—at its core—as a desperate, misguided search for family,” says Tony-nominated book writer Levenson. “That insight informed so many of the creative decisions moving forward, and really opened up an entirely new way of looking at Evan as a character.”
The director’s gift exists in his ability to hone material while remaining “a fierce protector of the writer’s vision,” according to Levenson. Not one to ever take credit for words his writers put on the page or performances his actors create onstage, Greif describes himself like a woodworker. “I can edit, and I can shape, and I can help define,” he says. “I can help carve—is the best term.”
Just as Greif guards his writers, he cares for his actors—from casting to the rehearsal room. The atmosphere of security he cultivates, say Tony nominees Ben Platt and Rachel Bay Jones, plus Greif’s personal warmth allows them to scale the dangers of vulnerability and truth—and that’s what the audience ultimately senses.
To purchase Dear Evan Hansen tickets, click here.
“Even when you’re not heading in the direction he wants, he allows you to indulge in your senses and then very carefully guides you towards his vision,” says Jennifer Laura Thompson, who plays Evan Hansen’s Cynthia Murphy.
“I want to be clear about how I share or don’t share in the creation of those characters,” Greif says. “It’s more like maintenance and upkeep. Though I don’t mean to minimize that either, and a lot of great people can go awry in the wrong hands.”
To keep the ship on course, Greif etches minutia while molding the big picture. “Michael’s mastery of shaping the finest details with the show’s entire arc in mind is what I call genius,” says Thompson. Rent’s original Mimi, Daphne Rubin-Vega, agrees “his focus will cut glass,” and that balance is the secret to Greif’s brilliance.
Still, Greif calibrates more than lofty perspective and his eagle eye. “Michael is able to approach material with both an astonishing intellectual, dramaturgical rigor as well as a remarkable sense of empathy and emotion,” Levenson marvels. “There’s no dichotomy in Michael’s work between his head and his heart. It’s all one and the same.”
Rubin-Vega compares him to a maestro. (“I learned a lot about my own instrument working with Michael [because] he truly played us like a band, sometimes like a symphony.”) Thompson likens him to a master chef, who “continuously aims to perfect the recipe so the end result is complex and satisfying.” But Greif thinks of himself first and foremost as a link to the audience.
When his shows resonate with audiences (Rentheads anyone?) and start social movements (#YouWillBeFound) it means they resonated with Greif first, making him a defining voice of the musical theatre canon, Tony Award or not.