Mark Lamos gave up one of the great jobs in American theatre when he resigned after 17 years as artistic director of the Hartford Stage in 1997. The director of many classical and American revivals at the resident company wanted to pursue free-lance theatre and opera directing assignments. With a resume that includes the recent Tiny Alice revival starring Richard Thomas, Our Country's Good and The Deep Blue Sea on Broadway, Lincoln Center's Measure for Measure and work everywhere from the San Francisco Opera to the LaJolla Playhouse to the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Lamos's latest assignment might be his most populist and audience-friendly yet: The Broadway musical revue, The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm. Director Lamos and co conceiver Mel Marvin developed the show at Hartford Stage, took it to the Arizona Theatre Company and honed it for its current new staging at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway. Lamos talked to Playbill On-Line about leaving Hartford behind, and singing a new song.
Playbill On-Line: The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm is described as a hip and sexy young take on the old standards by George and Ira Gershwin. Did you know from the beginning, when it was developed at Hartford Stage that it would be "contemporary"?
Mark Lamos: That was actually the mandate from the Gershwins when we met with them. They said, "It's the centennial of Ira and George, we're doing a lot of albums with rock stars, we don't want to do the sort of 'Audra McDonald at Carnegie Hall' stuff because that's always there. We'd like a stage show that has a modern feel to it." It's much more that now than it was at Hartford, because in Hartford it was more of a cabaret atmosphere... much more of a club act feeling, less choreographed and less staged because we had a thrust stage and the band had to be on stage. You felt as if you were in a club the whole time.
PBOL: What are the seeds of the show?
ML: It began with Steve Albert, who was [Hartford Stage's] managing director at that time, who was, bluntly, looking for a project for us to develop with commercial producers. He had just come on board as managing director and he knew I was keen on looking for a musical project and so he began a conversation with the producers at CAMI [Columbia Artists], who were interested in developing this project. I met with them, and said I would like to work with [arranger and music director] Mel Marvin, and they knew Mel. Mel and I go way back: Mel has done a lot of incidental music and songs for productions of mine at Hartford Stage. He had also done cabaret nights for us for fundraising events, nights of Cole Porter or Gershwin that were felicitously put together. Of all the people I know who have an amazing overview of the Gershwin ouevre, Mel was the best.
PBOL: Are you a Gershwin fan, did you grow up with Gershwin music?
ML: I grew up as a musician. I was a violinist. I knew the big classical pieces, "Concerto in F," "An American in Paris," "Rhapsody in Blue," the Porgy and Bess score. [But of] the songs, up until just a few years ago, I only knew the standards, and then I really began to fall in love with Gershwin when I met my partner 20 years ago or so and he played a Joan Morris-William Bolcom CD for me. That was the first time I heard "Isn't it a Pity."
PBOL: Bolcom and Morris do it all very cleanly, uncluttered.
ML: Really cleanly done, very straightforwardly. That's, I think, when I began to fall in love with the output. Then, when we began working on the show, to be honest, I fell madly in love with Ira. I hadn't given Ira a second thought, until I found myself studying his lyrics and reading about his life and reading about how he worked with his brother. I became enamored of his work, and his work with other composers. PBOL: I love the obscure stuff, but there is not a lot of obscure stuff in Fascinating Rhythm, except perhaps "I Love to Rhyme" and "Home Blues." Did you know you wanted the show to be a kind of "greatest hits" Gershwin?
ML: We added "Just Another Rhumba" this time around, which isn't that obscure because it's on [Ella Fitzgerald's] songbook. It's so funny with Gershwin: One man's obscure number is the other man's favorite song. We put a couple of them in a couple medleys which we discarded before we did this incarnation because we weren't crazy about the medley idea.
PBOL: The show is very different for you...
PBOL: It's like nothing you've ever done as a director.
ML: It's funny, it's kind of a throwback to my very early days when I was at Northwestern University, I wrote a lot for the WAA-MU [student] show which was this sort of musical comedy event there, year after year, lots of material, as did [director] Frank Galati, actually. And then during college I spent all my summers in summer stock, everything from Cabaret to I Do! I Do!, performing in them, and thought probably that was the route I was going to take -- be a musical comedy performer. I came to New York, did a musical on Broadway as a performer, and then my life starting turning around and going in a different direction. Fascinating Rhythm sticks out on the list of things I've done.
PBOL: It's not Cymbeline.
ML: (Laughs.) It's not Cymbeline.
PBOL: Do you miss the structure of a place like Hartford Stage?
ML: I don't miss it for a moment. It gave me a lot for many years and I was really ready to take off and fly on my own.
PBOL: You have artistic director friends and colleagues all over the country. Do they come to you and ask what interests you when they are planning their upcoming seasons?
ML: Yes, it's very nice at the moment. (Laughs.) That could all end tomorrow.
PBOL: One of your many upcoming projects is the new John Harbison opera, The Great Gatsby, at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1999. Will it use a Jazz Age idiom?
ML: Yes it does. John's very very into jazz in a big way, though it hasn't influenced his work as obviously as it will now with Gatsby. The amazing thing about the score, among many other amazing things, is that he's written pop tunes of his own into the score with lyrics by F. Scott Fitzgerald; some lyrics were helped out by Murray Horwitz, but essentially most of them are by Fitzgerald. It's very complicated stuff with off-stage bands and on-stage jazz bands pianos playing in the distance.
PBOL: Does it walk the line between musical theatre and opera?
ML: No, it's quite definitely opera. It's a very serious take on the book, it's very elegiac, there are two rather spectacular party sequences. It's an intimate story about lost illusions, very economically done.
PBOL: You made an impressive film acting debut in 1990's "Longtime Companion." Why have you not acted in more films?
ML: I haven't been asked, dear. (Laughs.) Right after that came out, I was asked to audition for a couple of pictures and I did and interest was growing, but I had such a tremendous workload as a director and couldn't just go to an audition and hope that a film would start shooting within a month. Hartford Stage having a subscription season commitment which stretches 12 months in advance, and opera which is sometimes 2-3 years in advance, it was next to impossible for me to even think about having that sort of [film] schedule in my life. So I stopped going to [auditions], and they stopped calling me. (Laughs.)
PBOL: Is there talk your Hartford staging of Edward Albee's Tiny Alice with Richard Thomas will resurface? It was aimed toward Broadway.
ML: Yeah, lots. We nearly came in this spring, and that didn't work out, though not for lack of everyone trying -- Edward and a group of very devoted producers. With everybody's commitments, it sort of slipped off the table and we're all still working on it. Everybody would like it to happen, and [Albee] would, too."
PBOL: What are your first memories of going to the theatre?
ML: I have two, from growing up in Chicago. One, when my parents took me to see The Nutcracker, which was then performed by the New York City Ballet on tour, at the Lyric Opera House. The biggest memory that sits in my head is going over and over to the Shubert Theatre in Chicago to see How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the national tour after Broadway. I think I saw it four times. It was magic.
-- By Kenneth Jones