When Scott Ellis directed the first-ever revival of She Loves Me at Roundabout Theatre Company in 1993, it was the first musical the company had ever produced. There was a lot riding on it. If the show had not been a success, Roundabout probably would have never done a musical again. Instead, the Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, Joe Masteroff work, originally on Broadway in 1963, garnered nine Tony nominations (and a win for leading actor Boyd Gaines). The show launched Roundabout's musical theatre arm and Ellis’ career and re-introduced She Loves Me into the canon. The story follows Amalia Balash and Georg Nowak co-workers at Maraczek’s Parfumerie who are also, uknowlingly, Lonely Hearts pen pals. They hate each other by day and write love letters to each other by night.
After debuting in 1963, there were about five productions of the show done in America; after Ellis’ 1993 revival, over 60 theatres nationwide produced the show. Now, Ellis revisits the beloved work for Roundabout's 50th Anniversary season, starring Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi, Jane Krakowski, Gavin Creel and Michael McGrath. He explains how his two productions are nothing alike and why he finally agreed to take on the same show for the second time.
Scott Ellis: Did you know the show? Did you know the show at all?
I did not know the show.
SE: Oh, really? Well, you know what? It’s funny. Ultimately, you are exactly the reason why I decided to do it again because I thought, “You know what? There’s a whole generation that has never seen a production of She Loves Me.”
It’s true. You first revived the show in 1993. At that time, what made you want to bring it back?
SE: I had had a meeting with Todd Haimes [artistic director of Roundabout Theatre Company]; he had seen a production of The World Goes ‘Round that I did Off-Broadway. He was wanting to say, “We’d love to have you work here,” and She Loves Me is a show that I had known growing up. People always talk about it sort of [being] a perfect musical, and I just thought it was a really terrific musical, and [with] what Roundabout was doing—they do revivals—I just thought this would be a really good match.
Did you think about it at all in terms of “This is going to be my first Broadway musical outing?”
SE: Listen, I was really smart—young and smart, I think—only because I thought, “I’m going to surround myself with really great people,” and so I approached Tony Walton, at that time, and Jane Greenwood … and Rob Marshall. … There was certainly some pressure on it just because it was my first shot—
—and Roundabout’s first musical.
SE: It was very, very clear when I first started that they didn’t really know anything about doing a musical. I hadn’t done that many, but I knew more than they did. They were just asking questions like, “Well, why do we need two rehearsal rooms? Why do we need two piano players?” Todd says they sort of budgeted as a play with some songs in it, and you can’t do a musical with that. So it was a huge, huge show for them, and I knew they were nervous. Todd has said many times [that] if it hadn’t worked, Roundabout never would have continued on musical theatre. It was probably pressure on a lot of us, although the show was so joyous that once you were in rehearsal, I never thought about that.
Now we fast-forward to this production, and Todd Haimes approaches you to direct the show for Roundabout’s 50th Anniversary, but you initially said no. Why is that?
SE: I said no a couple times. I felt my experience was such a great experience the first time around. It was successful. It really started my career. I just thought why would I go back and revisit it? There’s no reason. I only thought of it as: It’s only a possibility of down [from here] for me. I just thought, “Why would I even take the chance?” Then finally I said to them, “You know what? I’ll do a benefit for you.” At the end of the benefit, I just sort of fell in love with She Loves Me all over again.
If I was going to do it again, I told myself, “I won’t, I cannot, and I will not repeat one thing that I did in the original production.” I was happy with the original production, but for me, the challenge was: Could I look at this with a fresh eye? The only way to starting [with] a fresh eye is to wipe the slate clean and start again, and that meant sets, lighting, costumes, orchestrations, choreography, dance arrangements, sound, every single thing on that show. There’s not one thing that they’re doing that is repeating the first show.
I want to know more about this 2016 vision. How do you wipe the slate clean? How do you block out what was?
SE: It’s been an incredibly wonderful journey and, yet, challenging for me. … This is the first time I’ve ever gone back knowing a piece, and I know it very, very well. It’s in my bones. So much for me was pushing that away and saying, “That was then, this is now. What’s coming fresh? What’s being new?” It was hard a lot of times. I didn’t think it would be so hard to let that first one go.
But [for example], things even as simple as in the shop: I put the door, the entrance of the shop, in a different place. I took a door that was upstairs and put it downstairs. That made me go, “Well, even if I wanted to block it the same way, I couldn’t block it the same way.” Nothing could be the same.
Where do you begin in bringing this vision to life?
SE: So the process started with A) Who is your cast? Then it was really the design team. I asked David Rockwell [to do set design]. I worked with him several times now. We have a great collaboration. I needed someone to help me push away from the first visual I had for this, and I knew David was strong enough to do that, to collaborate, and yet bring in ideas that would push me away from…what I had originally.
That set is obviously such a huge piece of this production, and it’s just gorgeous.
SE: It’s pretty spectacular.
How much of your vision was linked to that set?
SE: He comes in with ideas. Originally, he came up with a turntable, and I didn’t want to do a turntable because I wanted to try something different.
The set is choreographed. As you’ll see, that set dances.
I love the idea of Budapest actually. You always see Budapest on the stage. Those buildings are so beautiful, and that was so new, but I loved that that environment is there from the moment [the curtain] rises and color! Everything is lighter and colorful and very, very, very, very detailed. Very detailed. People can’t even see. I mean, you know, every single thing in that shop has a label. Denise [J. Grillo, production props] did such a great job. They created labels for Marazcek [the parfumerie]. They created little metal things that go over the bottles with M on them. Then we collaborated with Jeff Mahshie; he’s the costumer. It has to have life and color.
There were clearly a lot of factors in making it new across the board.
SE: You could tell [it was a] challenge, because it wasn’t like I’m looking back and going, “Shit, that didn’t work.” [The original revival] worked. There was nothing that didn’t work.
But how is it for you 23 years after your revival?
SE: I was young. I’m older now. I was not in love at the time. I had not gone through any relationships, deep relationships. I now have two children. My partner and I are going to get married the day after She Loves Me opens. We’re just going to the courthouse with the kids and getting married for two reasons. It’s a celebration of the show, but it also is…whatever happens with She Loves Me, and I hope it does well, but [my wedding day] will also remind me about what the show says: the most important thing is family. The most important things are relationships and who’s in your life, and that is a family in She Loves Me. That story is about family, and it’s about two people finding each other. I found my partner, and I have children, so I’m a very different person than I was 23 years ago, so today, to come back and look at a love story…. It’s falling in love later in life. It’s not young love. This is love where this might be the last shot, you know? That’s very different. I’m not sure how much I related to that then. I certainly relate to it now.
You say before curating your design team, you thought of the cast. This company is phenomenal. Did you audition these roles?
SE: No. Jane [Krakowski] did the reading, Gavin [Creel] did the reading, Peter Bartlett did the reading. So those people, after doing the reading, I said, “Ok, I want them to do it.” Everyone knows Kelli O’Hara did [the reading] ... I’ve known Laura for ages. It is a [role] that I think [only] four women can do. I don’t think there are too many more who can, and I know the four, and I thought, “If you don’t get one of them, I don’t think you can do the show.” Obviously, you have to have the chops to sing it. You have to have a sense of comedy with it because it’s funny. It’s not an ingénue role—you have to have a certain age. That’s a big old challenge. So that list is very, very small.
I was lucky that [Laura] said yes because I knew I could build around that. I asked Zach, I had seen some tape of him doing First Date. [Georg] is a tough role. You sort of want a leading man, but it’s not your typical leading man. That’s why in the movie, Jimmy Stewart was so brilliant. I think Zach does an incredibly wonderful job, and I couldn’t be happier, you know, so that was great. Nicholas Barasch … Byron Jennings … There’s not a weak one in there.
Of course, none of your cast did the 1993 production, so was your approach in rehearsals any different or was it more internal for you?
SE: I had this long talk with Zach—with literally the five shows last year, Can’t Take It With You, Elephant Man, Twentieth Century, The Shakespeare I did at the Old Globe and Dada Woof Papa Hot at Lincoln Center—because we were talking about how one works. I said, “I didn’t approach any of them any differently.” It was all approached the same way, finding the truth, what’s going on with these characters, and what’s in the way? It’s those basic questions that one always has to come back to, so my approach to this was no different.
When you watch She Loves Me now, what are you feeling when you watch it?
SE: It’s exactly what I had hoped. It’s a new production. I didn’t repeat myself. You feel audiences come in either rediscovering it or discovering it for the first time. The story can work in this way of approaching, in ’93 and the original, and that’s what makes a great story and a great musical—that you can approach it differently, and yet if the story is a great story, it holds. To have given myself a challenge of going back to something and can I do it differently and can I find something new to it, and that, that I’m happy about. I’m proud I gave myself that challenge.