It's not unusual that New York director Michael Mayer is so busy with project after project, but it's the variety that catches your eye: Side Man, Warren Leight's Tony Award winning tale of a jazz musician so lost in his music that his family disappears in a haze a cigarette smoke; A View From the Bridge, a gripping, Tony-winning revival of Arthur Miller's muscular play; Thoroughly Modern Millie, the new-fashioned, old-fashioned musical comedy that just picked up the 2002 Best Musical Tony Award; the developing Spring Awakening, a rock musical about teens and parents, inspired by Wedekind's expressionistic work (it plays New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre in January 2003 prior to the Roundabout Theatre Company); a possible revised revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, the Lerner-Lane show about ESP and reincarnation; An Almost Holy Picture, the solo play about a grieving ex-clergyman. Mayer, Tony-nommed this year for Best Direction of a Musical for Millie, will never be accused of being one kind of director attracted to one kind of work. A possible revised version of Arthur Miller's After the Fall and a film are on his horizon. He spoke to Playbill On-Line's Kenneth Jones about surprises underneath Millie, a stage show inspired by a 1967 movie musical.
Playbill On-Line: What attracted you to Millie? Were you with it from the beginning?
Michael Mayer: Not from the very, very beginning. This show is [librettist-lyricist] Dick Scanlan's brainchild, and he's an old friend. He and I go back to a production of West Side Story in 1978 at Wildwood Summer Theatre. Dick's been working on this for quite some time and I came on board about six years ago. I found taking material that could seem very dopey and making a real first-class entertainment out of it a wonderful challenge — taking an idea that had promise and that wasn't realized [in the movie] and improving on it. I think that one of the advantages that we had was that we were taking a film that wasn't entirely successful, artistically, and we were able to improve on it as opposed to putting the film on stage. Dick had a very clear notion that that was the task, and I like a challenge. Once I figured out my way into dealing with the Asian characters and the white slavery subplot, then I knew I was the right director for the show.
PBOL: The plot has two Chinese men helping an evil landlady abduct girls.
MM: It's extremely offensive in the movie: They are Oriental No. 1 and Oriental No. 2. They speak pidgin English. They are meant to represent the "Yellow Threat" — it's really offensive. Once I got the idea that the Chinese characters could be fully dimensional characters — who weren't just evil, scary henchman to Mrs. Meers — I thought that was the way into this story from a stylistic point of view. Everyone's an immigrant to New York City. Everyone in the play is looking to New York as the means to an end for them. This is the land of opportunity for everyone. Obviously, Millie's the lead, but everyone has that goal — and everyone is perceived one way and then revealed to be some something other. The idea of perception and race is really interesting to me. The fact that that kind of conversation can happen in what is ostensibly a light-hearted, bland musical comedy, that's really exciting. You've got a scene at the end of Act Two where you've got an African American woman in a blonde wig pretending to be Swedish and confronting a Caucasian woman doing the most grotesque "Yellowface" that you can imagine. They both represent the powers of good and evil coming at each other. To me, that's just so — wacky. And unexpected. You just don't expect that kind of presentation in a musical comedy. That's exciting — the opportunity to surprise an audience.
PBOL: I love that the show is brave enough to be old fashioned, physically: Sets come down from the fly space and the actors do "in one" numbers. And Harriet Harris, as landlady Mrs. Meers, comes down stage and sings in front of a drop. It's not modern — they're not in a black box, like in Les Miz. There's something wonderfully phony about it.
MM: That was a real choice. We tried doing that in La Jolla and it didn't work. We tried treating this like "the new musical." What we realized is that the story itself demands to be treated at least in some areas like a "classic musical." The classic musical comedy is probably the hardest form to get right and the most delicious to experience. The whole "in one" thing, and the way the book scenes lead to the songs: In some ways it's very conventional. Structurally, it's extremely conventional. It celebrates the history of that. It could be [the Gershwins'] Oh, Kay! or Girl Crazy — structurally, it's that form. Yet I feel the sensibility is completely modern. I'm really attracted to the tension between that hoary old form that has such charm to it...with a completely contemporary sensibility.
PBOL: Was making it funny a major concern?
MM: This isn't a play about jokes and that's where it really does differ from those Gershwin shows: It's not about gags and leading up to songs. Almost all of the humor comes from character and situation. PBOL: You grew up in Maryland? Bethesda?
PBOL: Was theatre always a part of your life?
MM: Always. High school and junior high and grammar school, the whole thing. I studied acting. I came to New York. I was in the graduate acting program at NYU.
PBOL: Were you a good actor?
MM: You know, I don't know. I think sometimes I was and sometimes I wasn't. I had some talent, but I don't think I was special enough — I wasn't that good, I was adequate.
PBOL: Were you more of a Big Picture guy? Did you want to direct early?
MM: Yeah. I didn't know I did, but looking back on it, that's, I think, the reality. I always loved theatre and making plays. When I was a kid, I used to write and direct and star in my little family plays that I would put on.