Jonathan Silverstein possesses both Midas aspirations and a deep-seated theatrical background and has used both, for the past five years, as the artistic director of the Keen Company. A 17-year-old Off-Broadway outfit, Keen is committed to creating theatre that is synonymous with their name:
keen (adj): ardent, avid, devoted, eager, earnest, enthusiastic, fervent, fierce, intense, passionate, spirited, wholehearted.
Filling that bill (October 4-November 20) is Tick, Tick…BOOM! at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre, a 100-seat improvement over the company’s usual stand, the 99-seat Clurman. “There was so much interest in this show, we decided to move it upstairs to a larger space,” Silverstein says. “That’s a big step for us, and we hope eventually to do all our shows in a larger space. This’ll be a nice test-run for us to see how it goes.”
Jonathan Larson wrote—and actually performed—the piece as a one-man rock rant, hewn along the autobiographical lines of a composer on the brink of 30, questioning his life choice of waiting on tables while writing the great American musical—only he was. Jeffrey Seller, the Hamilton producer, caught that club act and produced his work-in-progress, Rent, which began previews the day after Larson died at age 35.
Tick, Tick…BOOM! is Larson’s second (and not necessarily his last) posthumous musical. After all, it was written in response to the rejection of an even earlier show, Superbia, which won a Richard Rodgers Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but never got a full production. “One of the songs from that show, ‘Come to Your Senses,’ found its way into our show,” Silverstein notes, “but I don’t think they’ve really put Superbia together yet. It’s a crazy futuristic show, loosely based on 1984.”
Silverstein’s directing career began with a Tick, Tick…BOOM!—for Brewster’s Cape Rep in 2004. “I wanted to bring it to Keen because I felt it was a real Keen story. It’s about a guy trying to decide whether to stay with his art or to move away from it. I think so many artists—so many people, anyone who has a dream—often face this struggle. So there was always a real emotional connection for me to this piece.”
He came to Keen in 2004, leading with The Hasty Heart. “I loved the experience,” he admits. “It was a real challenge for me to direct an older play without throwing a concept on top of it. I just fell in love with the kind of honest way of presenting stories that Keen Company was known for, and I was blown away by the fact that the audience, every night, was so emotionally moved by the story. It really changed my aesthetic in the way I was working with actors and, also, in the types of material I was doing. I started working more and more for Keen from that point forward.”
It was his idea to do a Keen revival of Tea and Sympathy—and his idea to throw the sympathy to the play’s forgotten man, the cuckolded husband. “That actually came about in rehearsal,” he recalls. “It just became clear that the story was less about whether or not the kid was gay and more about these ideas of masculinity, so therefore the husband sort of popped out more than most productions permit.”
He likes reviving well-crafted plays that aren’t seen much anymore like The Old Boy, I Never Sang for My Father, The Dining Room, Lemon Sky. “Lately, I’ve been looking at more modern ‘revivables’ like Side Man. This election season I wanted to revive A Bright Room Called Day, but it didn’t work out with Tony Kushner’s schedule. Marvin’s Room was on our list—I’m happy to see it’s being revived on Broadway.”
When company founder Carl Forsman went from Keen to Dean of Drama at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Silverstein rose from resident director to artistic director—a bloodless coup that came with Forsman’s blessing.
Save for last season’s controversial hit, Boy, he has directed every Keen show since. He’s proudest of tuning up the company—literally. “When I interviewed for the position, I told the board I wanted to bring musicals to Keen. I feel musicals really speak to the Keen mission of identification and emotional connection in a new way.
“Marry Me a Little was the first musical we did, and it was the biggest hit we’d ever had. It was well received and really changed the way people thought about Keen.
“Something else I wanted to bring to Keen was new work. We brought new plays to the Keen stage, but my dream is to bring a new musical there, too.” To that end, he has been working with a songwriting team, Joel Derfner and Dan Marshall, on a musical about a gay man finding himself—his true self. It feels very Keen to me.”
But the next new thing will be a play: Courtney Baron’s When It’s You, which will bow March 9 back at the Clurman. “It’s a beautiful play for one woman that came out of our Playwrights Lab last year. It’s about gun violence and loneliness in America.”