Joe Mantello’s hideaway at the Belasco Theatre looks like someplace you’d keep a hostage. The walls are bare and, as to furniture, there are only two uncomfortable chairs and a cot that resembles a hospital stretcher. While it’s unusual for a Broadway director to have a dressing room at all, Mantello is in an unusual position, directing two plays on Broadway simultaneously, Blackbird and The Humans.
“It’s been thrilling and invigorating,” says Mantello, his voice rising from the gravel pit where it customarily lives. “I’m really aware of how fortunate I am. For me to come in and whine about my long day would just be pathetic.” So despite just completing an insane two-week period in which both shows were in previews (hence the need for the cot), Mantello’s wide, dark eyes shine. “I’m from Rockford, Illinois,” he explains, “and to have two plays on the same street on Broadway—that sense of awe has not left.”
Mantello began his theatrical career doing two things at once. Starting off as an actor at the North Carolina School of the Arts, his ambition to direct came not from watching the work of directors, but for his admiration of playwrights. “I was always the person in our class who was fascinated by new plays,” he says. “I would go to the library all the time as new plays would come out.”
Those passions converged in a major way when, in 1994, he went from acting in the original Broadway run of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—for which he received his first Tony nomination—to directing Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! The latter was the first of seven collaborations with McNally, including the 1997 film version of Love! Valour! Compassion!
Within five years, Mantello grew restless. “I was no longer frightened to walk into a room to rehearse a new play; I had a pretty good idea of what it was going to take,” he explains. “I had to do something that I didn’t know how to do. I had to figure something out to recharge.”
So he took on his first musical, a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, in part because he felt it was “closer to a play than a musical.” But in the wake of 9/11, the show was postponed. Instead, his first musical was a new—and a much bigger—one: Wicked.
“I was really naïve, blindly jumping into it.”
As you may have heard, Wicked worked out okay. This past March the megamusical, currently in its 12th year on Broadway, surpassed the billion-dollar mark at the box office.
Indeed, 2003 proved to be another annus mirabilis for him, with Wicked opening less than six months after Mantello won the Tony for his direction of Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out. The following season he picked up another Tony for finally directing Asssasins.
Another five years and Mantello once again grew dissatisfied. After a string of commercial failures, including Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, he “felt something slipping away… I wasn’t at my best, solving challenges by throwing money from the budget at it.
“[I] made a conscious choice to go back to where I started, which is Off-Broadway in little theatres, where you sort of have more restrictions, to see if I could get back in touch with something.”
Mantello also returned to acting, earning another Tony nomination for his performance as Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart, an experience he found “liberating.” He revisited the play for the 2014 HBO film adaptation.
In the five seasons since then, Mantello has directed nine shows on Broadway, bringing his total to 25. To put that in context, consider the 21 shows directed by Mike Nichols, the variety of whose career Mantello’s resembles.
This season Mantello has once again challenged himself—and his actors—to dig deeper in both David Harrower’s Blackbird, a disturbing examination of sexual molestation, and with the psychological realism of the everyday in Stephen Karam’s The Humans.
Mantello first directed Blackbird in 2007 at Manhattan Theatre Club, starring Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill. “It’s one of the only plays I’ve ever directed that I didn’t feel I was finished with,” he says. “I kept thinking about it. I wanted another crack at it.”
Daniels feels the same way. “I didn’t go far enough,” the Emmy winner for The Newsroom says. “From the first page on, Joe and I just turned up the volume on everything—raising the stakes.”
That approach continues nightly as Daniels leaves co-star Michelle Williams onstage alone and engages in an offstage scene for which his understudy, Tony Ward, comes up with a different improvisation every performance.
Mantello was equally demanding of the cast of The Humans. “He’s unrelenting,” says Reed Birney, “prodding in that Italian way of his.”
“I do have a side of me that’s like a terrier,” Mantello admits.
When An Act of God returns to Broadway later this month, Mantello will have four shows running simultaneously on Broadway. He ties director Casey Nicholaw with this feat, the first of its kind since Susan Stroman did it in 2001.
Still, the prolific Mantello has no plans once God is open. In fact, it’s been five years since his last “time out.” It’s not very surprising when he says, “I want to do something very surprising next. I don’t know what that is; something that has a high degree of risk.”
Would he act again? “Sure,” he says. “If something terrifying came along.”
How about directing another film? As it turns out, he has been talking with author Hanya Yanagihara about developing A Little Life, her bestselling novel, as a miniseries or a film. “It’s the one thing that’s piqued my interest,” he says. “Talk about harrowing… talk about truthful.”