SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Drink With 2012 Tony Award Nominee Kathleen Marshall

By Robert Simonson
May 28, 2012

At the upstairs bar of Manhattan's famed theatre-district restaurant, three-time Tony Award winner Kathleen Marshall talks about Cole Porter, George Gershwin, leading ladies and new shows.



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Kathleen Marshall lives in two worlds these days, one created by Cole Porter and the other by the Gershwin brothers.

Marshall's revival of the Porter perennial Anything Goes opened in April 2011 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, where it still plays today. Her Nice Work If You Can Get It, a new, Prohibition-era story wrapped around songs by George and Ira, meanwhile, opened this spring at the Imperial Theatre. She was nominated for Tony Awards for Best Direction of a Musical and Best Choreography for both shows.

Though all the concerned parties are long dead, Marshall is diplomatic and won't say which composer's universe she prefers. "Porter's probably a little naughtier than Ira Gershwin," is all she offered. "And Ira, though witty, is more optimistic and romantic."

Staging musical revivals — and that is Marshall's specialty, so far — means having to deal with estates. Porter and the Gershwins had no progeny, so the folks in charge of these vast musical legacies are not necessarily the people you'd expect.

"Neither George nor Ira had kids of their own, so it's done through nieces and nephews and grandnieces and grandnephews," Marshall said. "On the Ira side, there's a gentleman named Mike Strunsky. On the George side, there are several people. The main guy we deal with is Marc Gershwin," the son of Gershwin brother Arthur. With the Porter estate, "It was mostly a lawyer."

Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara in Nice Work If You Can Get It
photo by Joan Marcus

Over the past year or so, Marshall has monopolized the time of two women who are arguably the greatest musical theatre actresses of their generation: Sutton Foster, the original Reno Sweeney of Anything Goes (she left the show in March, for a TV series); and Kelli O'Hara, who plays bootlegger Billie Bendix in Nice Work.

So how do they compare?

"I feel like they both can do anything," said Marshall. "When Kelli and I did The Pajama Game a few years ago, people said, 'Oh, she's an ingenue. Is she right for this?' In Nice Work If You Can Get It, she does some unexpected things, too. She dances a lot in this show. She has a lot of comedy. And people don't always expect that from Kelli. And Sutton is fearless. She'll do anything.

"What I think is similar about them," she continued, "is they are very together, real, normal people in real life, who are very easy-going and unassuming. And yet they somehow have this magic onstage. They have this wonderful, ineffable star quality that's compelling. And I think it's because they both bring a sort of honesty to what they do, and a clarity. It makes an audience connect with them and root for them."

Nice Work is Marshall's 16th Broadway show. Her first was two decades ago, when she assisted her big brother, Rob Marshall, on Kiss of the Spider Woman. She graduated to full-fledged choreographer on 1995's Swinging on a Star, and director-choreographer on 2003's Wonderful Town. Rob's been largely absent from the Broadway scene since making his mark as a film director with "Chicago," but Kathleen continues to keep the Marshall torch burning in Times Square. (Still, Rob's got a Sardi's caricature, but his sis has been kept waiting. Doesn't seem fair, somehow.)

Kathleen Marshall
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Her next assignment as director-choreographer will be a first for her: a new musical with a new score. She will stage Diner, a musical adaptation of Barry Levinson's coming-of-age film from 1982. It will feature a book by Levinson, who directed and wrote the screenplay for the original film, and music and lyrics by pop singer Sheryl Crow. (No estates to deal with this time; everyone's alive.) It will bow in San Francisco in the fall.

Marshall said she'd also like to direct a play one of these days, but hasn't been able to make it happen yet. "I'd love to do a big old Kaufman and Hart play, something with a lot of comedy and physicality to it," she said. "But those are big plays. They're expensive propositions. I'd also love to see some of Wendy Wasserstein's plays get major productions."

The last time Marshall was in Sardi's was the night Nice Work opened, when she and her husband, producer Scott Landis, met guests in the second-floor bar just prior to strolling over to the Imperial for the premiere. "Sometimes, at opening night parties you don't get to see all your guests, so we thought, let's have a pre-party. Since we were doing a sort of classic show, I thought let's go to the classic Broadway place."

The party was amply furnished with homey hors d'oeuvres like mini-quiches and pigs-in-a-blanket. However, Marshall was sorry to learn that the New York health department forced Sardi's to remove the open plates of Ritz crackers and cheese spread from the bar. "That was the best thing," she said, betraying a probable past as an always-hungry theatre performer. "You could come here and practically make a meal out of the Ritz crackers, cheese spread and peanuts. It was great."

Currently, Marshall is running the usual awards-season gauntlet of press appearances, luncheons, dinners and ceremonies. But she doesn't mind it much. "There's a real camaraderie at these events," she said. "We're all members of the Class of 2012. You're with people you've worked with, or will never work with, and you see each other at these events and say, 'Oh, hi, it's us again.' There's something nice about that. We're all going through this together. And we're all inevitably linked in this way."

The events also occasionally give her a change to meet an idol or two or her own. "I remember going up to Ralph Fiennes — we were nominated in the same year — and saying, 'Hi. I think you're great.'"