Last June, he won a Tony Award for Best Orchestrations for his work on Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas' The Light in the Piazza. Rather than take on another orchestrating or musical director gig (he's worked as musical director on such shows as The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), Sperling quickly graduated to the director's chair. Michael John LaChiusa's See What I Wanna See, at the Public Theater, will be his New York directing debut (he has directed productions regionally). It's a high profile assignment at that, given the established name of its composer and star, the Tony-winning Wicked witch Idina Menzel. Meanwhile, his handiwork on Piazza is still on display at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Sperling talked to Playbill.com about the new chapter in his career.
Playbill.com: This is your first full New York production as director. How did it come about?
Ted Sperling: Michael John [LaChiusa] and I have known each other a very long time. I did a reading of his in 1984. He invited me to come see table reading of this musical in 1997. I just came as a friend. I told him hold much I loved it afterwards and somehow it became my piece and he decided he would save it for me. I was just on the cusp of starting to direct at that point. I did a lot of work outside New York. When I was ready I got in touch with Michael John and then we did a production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Playbill.com: How different was that piece from what we will see at the Public Theater?
TS: There have of course been refinements and writing changes, and the cast is half new. And the title changed to See What I Wanna See, which is the title of the whole thing, from R Shomon, which is really the title of only one of the acts.
Playbill.com: There is quite a difference in tone between the two acts. Can you talk about that?
TS: The first is based on the well-known story of Ryonosuke Akutagawa's that inspired the Kurosawa film, "Rashomon." Here it's transposed to New York in 1951 and it's film noir. When Michael John invited me to that first reading, he already knew he wanted to write a second act, a companion piece, and he knew which Japanese short story he wanted to base it on, and he knew he wanted the tone to be complementary. The first act is film noir and rather dark. He wanted something sunnier, daytime-y, for the second piece; to have it explore similar themes but from the other side.
Playbill.com: Idina Menzel has the role Audra McDonald played in Williamstown. They're very different performers.
TS: We haven't had to change the writing at all for her. In the R Shomon piece, she plays three very different sides of the same person. She's found her own version of that. In terms of singing style, you'd be surprised how little we actually had to change the keys for her. Also, she'ssinging in a variety of styles, not just big belting. Playbill.com: In the second act, there are references to Sept. 11.
TS: Nobody actually says World Trade Center or 9/11, but it certainly takes place in some big city where a big tragedy has occurred. And it talks about Central Park, so it's pretty clear. But it was all sort of in place before 9/11 happened—the structure of the story, and the idea of a miracle. But, of course, Michael John couldn't help responding to 9/11 and absorb that.
Playbill.com: Since Sept. 11, there have been a number of plays that addressed the tragedy, but few musicals.
TS: Often it takes times. Musicals take more time to put together. We are four years out now. Also, it's a delicate subject. Probably people want to make sure they have some perspective on it. The impulse here was not to write a 9/11 piece. It was to write a piece on faith.
Playbill.com: Will the show be recorded?
TS: Yes. We'll go into the studio the day after we open. It will be on Ghostlight Records.
Playbill.com: You were orchestrator of The Light in the Piazza. Are you surprised that it's been as successful as it has been?
TS: I was always a big champion of the piece, from the first workshop at Sundance to the premiere in Seattle.
Playbill.com: During rehearsals in New York, some additional strings were added to the orchestra. Why did that happen?
TS: Yes. That happened during rehearsal. We started orchestrating the show for the production in Seattle, which was supposed to have just four instruments: piano, violin, cello and harp. Adam and I felt we could handle this ourselves, since it was such a small group. We ended up adding bass during previews, because we missed having the anchor at the bottom. When we knew we were doing the show at the Beaumont, we knew we wanted to add some more instruments. Adam really missed having guitar for a few crucial numbers, and we decided to add percussion and two woodwinds, to have more colors to draw on. Early on in rehearsal, we went into the recording studio to record three radio ads with this group of nine, and Adam felt like we were missing a sense of sweep and lyricism. At the same time, Jonathan Butterell, who did the musical staging, was whispering in my ear that the show was no longer the chamber piece we had done in Chicago and Seattle, and that he felt the orchestra should grow to match the scale of the new production. Adam decided to be brave and approached Andre Bishop and Bernie Gersten about adding six string players: five more violins and one more cello. They were supportive, even though it meant raising a lot more money, and just asked that we do a little demonstration of the difference, so that everyone could be sure it was the right thing. So we did a rehearsal with the extra strings, and everyone could tell that it was a good idea.
Playbill.com: How did the show end up having three orchestrators?
TS: Now, by the time [this instrumentation] was settled, we were deep into rehearsals, with the first official band rehearsal less than a week away. Adam was needing to concentrate on being the composer-lyricist and couldn't tackle more orchestration work, and I was leading rehearsals with the cast and scribbling away constantly. We both thought of asking Bruce Coughlin to come aboard to help us finish everything in time, and he graciously stepped in to help. So that's the story.