In just 10 years, director Eric D. Schaeffer and his seat, Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, have enjoyed the sort of awards, media attention, sellout audiences, extended runs and world premieres usually reserved for the more established regional theatres. His thoughtful, passionate revivals and reconsiderations of such Stephen Sondheim musicals as Passion, Sweeney Todd, Company, Assassins and Sunday in the Park With George earned him attention from Sondheim, The New York Times, producer Cameron Mackintosh and others. Now, he's making his Broadway directorial debut with the Sondheim "review," Putting It Together, starring Carol Burnett and produced by Mackintosh, opening Nov. 21 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. He spoke to Playbill On-Line from Arlington in between Broadway rehearsals.
Playbill On-Line: You must have been a kid in a candy store trying to figure out which Sondheim songs to use in Putting It Together. Or was it all pre-picked, drawing from previous stagings of the revue?
Eric D. Schaeffer: We made a lot of the choices. [Choreographer] Bob Avian and myself and Cameron and Steve, we sat down and we basically started with a clean slate. It was great: We had a list of all of Steve's songs and went through and put the evening together, modeled after the concept Steve and Julia [McKenzie] came up with [in London]. We expanded on that.
PBOL: The concept of the show when it played Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1993 was a cocktail party, with furniture and all the trappings. Is what you've devised for Broadway more loose?
ES: Yes. Whereas before there was a specific maid, played by Rachel York, there are two couples now, the older couple [Burnett and George Hearn] and the younger couple [John Barrowman and Ruthie Henshall]. The Bronson Pinchot character, we call him "Puck," is the Observer, who really strings the whole evening along and pulls the strings of what's happening. We used the framework that was devised for Manhattan Theatre Club and kept the idea of that for the first act. In the second act, we totally went in a different direction. I like to think of the show in two parts: The first act is really the story, the second act is the emotion. The first thing [designer] Bob Crowley and I talked about is that we wanted to go totally abstract, so that it focuses not so much on the setting or storyline, but on Steve's work because that's what the evening is about. It's about letting people go and rediscovering these songs.
PBOL: Less than two weeks before the official opening, are you still making cuts and additions?
ES: We're doing some minor changes yet. We're changing one song in the first act and tightening it up. We're gonna take out "Come Play Wiz Me" [from Anyone Can Whistle] and we're gonna put in "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" [from A Funny Thing Happened...].
PBOL: The first act includes an obscure song called "Do I Hear a Waltz?" from an unproduced TV musical called "Do You Hear a Waltz?," not to be confused with the Sondheim-Richard Rodgers stage musical, Do I Hear a Waltz? Was there other arcana you considered?
ES: When we were in L.A. [in 1998], we did a lot of changes of moving material around and getting the format down. We had a song in from Saturday Night, "What More Do I Need?," at one point, and we had a medley that was done for Manhattan Theatre Club, called "The Night Waltz Medley" that had a little bit of A Little Night Music and "Ah, But Underneath" and a piece from Forum in it. We...took that out in L.A. and put "Sooner or Later" in. We had L.A. to work out the material. PBOL: The show is sure to lure Carol Burnett fans who may not be familiar with Sondheim's work.
ES: With having someone like Carol Burnett, it does become appealing to a broader mass of people. People get to see Carol being crazy Carol, yet they also get to see her be very moving and touching and very emotional -- [going] places where they never thought she would go.
PBOL: She is playing a lot of dark material: "Could I Leave You?," "The Ladies Who Lunch," "Country House." She and Ruthie Henshall singing "Every Day a Little Death" is one of the most emotional moments I've seen on Broadway this year.
ES: She's great in it, and she's worked really hard doing those numbers. With a comedian, people always say they're funny, they're funny, but they never realize how hard it is to go to the opposite end of the spectrum. When you see the broad range of colors she has, it's really terrific.
PBOL: Did she ever say, "Do can we lighten up here, guys?"
ES: [Laughs.] There were some songs where she said, "Oh, I wish we didn't have to do this. Do we really have to do this song, Eric?" [Laughs.] And I'd be, "Yeah, we do and this is why..." For instance, "Every Day a Little Death" is one you were touched by, and at first when we said we wanted to do it, she said, "Oh, it's so sad...it's gonna take us to a place..." It's hard also for a performer to expose themself like that on stage, especially in a revue format. You're not playing a character, per se.
PBOL: In case anyone was plunged into despair during the show, there is a slapsticky, comedic bows sequence that recalls "The Carol Burnett Show."
ES: We didn't do it L.A. We were sitting around talking and getting ready to do the Broadway bows and Bob Avian asked, "What are we gonna do? We have to something funny." One day we came in with a road map [of ideas] and we played with it and it evolved through the rehearsal process. It was actually twice as long. They've been a huge hit. You go through this journey with these people, and then you wanna go out on a high.
PBOL: Your next show for Cameron Mackintosh is a musical version of The Witches of Eastwick in spring 2000 in London. Is there a cast yet?
ES: No. On Nov. 22, the day after we open, I'm getting on a plane and going to London to really work on the casting.
PBOL: And after Witches? What's the progress on Swing Alley, the musical that was bumped from Signature's current season?
ES: That's actually in full swing and we'll probably be announcing something soon about it. It's gonna happen. It looks like it'll start at Signature in the fall, in August 2000. Witches is a huge show, so I really wanted to give all my attention to that. Once that opens, I take a six-week break and come back and work on Swing Alley.
PBOL: Beyond your guiding spirit, why is the Signature such a hit in Arlington?
ES: There was not a professional theatre here in Arlington. I really felt there was a niche here for a professional theatre where we could do cutting edge stuff that an audience would come an support. It's not just myself. The staff here at Signature is really terrific.
PBOL: But what ingredient made it so right? Was it the musical theatre revivals?
ES: I think that was a big thing because there was not any theatre in Washington committed to working on musical theatre. A lot of the other theatres are now doing it, which I think is terrific. And we really have made a commitment to local playwrights, of developing and producing on our mainstage. We do that once a year and we're getting ready to announce a grant program; we've just commissioned four new plays. Also, I do think it's just the programming of what we do here: We'll take a chance. They haven't all been successes,and it's OK to fail.
PBOL: Did your folks take you to the theatre as a kid?
ES: Never! It's kinda funny. We had two musical albums at home, the show album of Cabaret and the Julie Andrews "Sound of Music" album. That was it. My parents never went to the theatre. Now they go all the time, and they take their grandkids with them, all my nieces and nephews. They train them well.
PBOL: What's the first professional show you saw? Was it magical?
ES: Yeah. The first thing I ever saw on Broadway was the West Side Story revival with Debbie Allen. I can still see those ribbons falling from the ceiling for "The Dance at the Gym." It's one of those images you never forget. I grew up in this little town in Pennsylvania called Fleetwood. I grew up in Amish country. I did school plays. There was a teacher who loved the theatre. He and his wife would take two or three kids to New York for the day, to a show and out to eat and drive us home. He was a huge influence.
PBOL: You rose so quickly in prominence I assumed you were in theatre from age three.
ES: No, I never studied theatre, even in college. I have a degree in advertising. I was an art director at an ad agency and just did theatre as a hobby.