An hour or so after director Scott Ellis had A Thousand Clowns up and officially running around the Roundabout Theatre stage, he was passed a handful of new script changes for Steel Pier," an ambitious dance-marathon musical currently (the third week in July) in its fifth week of an eight-week workshop at 890 Broadway.
The Depression-age show--which has songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, choreography by Susan Stroman, book by David Thomson and musical direction by David Loud--is projected for Broadway in the spring by its producer Roger Berlind, quite possibly at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where it would follow the limited-run concert revival of a Kander and Ebb's 1975 Chicago.
Marc Kudisch (the current Gaston from Beauty and the Beast), Kristin Cheoweth from the recent Seattle revival of Babes in Arms and a Williamstown recruit, John Havens, have been added to the previously announced workshop cast. Gregory Harrison plays the dance-marathan emcee (a role not unlike Gig Young's Oscar-winning one in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), and Ron Carroll manages the event. The rest of the cast you'll find on the dance floor: Karen Ziemba, Daniel McDonald, Tony-winner Debra Monk and Joel Blum.
Monk, who worked for Ellis in Picnic and Company, was one of the Steel Pier well-wishers who showed up at the opening of A Thousand Clowns. "I'm having a wonderful time," Monk is quick to admit. "It's a great group of people. Scott & Susan & David Loud & 'Tommy' Thomson & John & Fred--they all know each other, they've all worked together before, they're a terrific team."
Describing the role she's work out brings out Monk's delicate, deliberating side: "Shelby is a--what can I say?--'looser,' middle-aged dancer who's on the sassy side. She's a funny character, and I get to sing two wonderful songs." "I'm really enjoying being in New York this summer, working on these plays."
By "these," Monk includes a week of readings on another Kander and Ebb musical, this one adapted from Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth by Joseph Stein and directed by Jerry Zaks. Bernadette Peters, James Naughton, Monk and Greg Germann. Monk was the musical Mrs. Antrobus--a maternal archetype in sharp and stark contrast to the runaround Shelby of Steel Pier.
"It's the perfect story to be told as a musical because it's set during the dance marathon," says Loud. "We have a chorus of 16 dancers. Stroman has been doing all this ballroom work with different period dances--fox-trot, samba, rhumba, two-step and turkey-trot. It's a great world to set a musical in."
"It's an almost completely different play. She brings so much vitality and flashiness to it. This has been energizing. It's the kind of play that will be totally different no matter what actress attacks it. I'm sure there'll be many."