Tony Winner Kathleen Marshall Gets Her Act Together for City Center
By Carey Purcell
Tony-winning director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall talks about the upcoming production of I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road.
Marshall is leaving the tap shoes behind — temporarily.
The Tony-winning director and choreographer, who has spent the past two seasons revisioning old-fashioned productions of Anything Goes and Nice Work If You Can Get It by adding some sex appeal to a classic style, is revisiting a rock-and-roll favorite of her past – I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road.
Featured in the new Off-Center season of the City Center Encores! program, which mounts productions of Off-Broadway musicals, I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road casts Renée Elise Goldsberry as Heather, a 39-year-old pop star revising the content of her act while simultaneously re-evaluating the content of her life. Performances run July 24-27.
I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road premiered at the Public Theater in 1978, produced by Joe Pap. With music by Nancy Ford and book and lyrics by Gretchen Cryer, the show follows Heather, who, on her 39th birthday, revises her act to represent her authentic self. This revision includes singing songs about the emancipation of women. Joe, her long-time manager, is surprised by the changes in Heather's act and her attitude, and the two attempt to find common ground in their professional and personal relationships.
Marshall, who saw the original production of I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking it On the Road when it was in performances at the Circle in the Square Theatre downtown, loved the music and listened to the recording so many times she memorized every lyric. She said the show contained a personal and political message that resonated strongly with the audience.
"I think it was such a specific show at a specific time that meant so much to so many people," she said. "I just loved the chance to try to bring that back."
While more than 30 years have passed since the show's premiere, Marshall thinks many of its themes regarding gender roles and popular entertainment are still relevant to today's culture.
While the main character is a woman, the themes of I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road are issues that both men and women can identify with, Marshall said.
"It deals with a lot of things about expectations for women and gender roles. She's a single mother," she said. "I think those are issues that anybody can relate to. And men as well can relate to getting to a certain point in life where she says, 'I want to do something for me, as opposed to what other people expect me to be.' That had a boldness at the time."
It is this boldness that can help to defy gender stereotypes that exist within entertainment regarding the types of movies, plays or music men and women enjoy.
"As if only women are interested in stories about romance or family, and men aren't, which is sort of ridiculous," Marshall said. "This music and Heather's act within the show, and the show itself, may have a sort of central female character, but it doesn't mean it only speaks to women. Both then and now, it can speak to a wider range of people."
One aspect of I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road that remains relevant in today's culture is the stigma of age, especially regarding female performers.
As a result, Marshall said, many women alter their appearances and contribute to a false illusion of what age looks like. The result, she said, is "we're not allowing 50 and 60-year-old women to look like 50 and 60-year-old women."
Heather's attitude towards her age is a courageous one, Marshall said, because she is determined to dictate the content of her act rather than perform what is expected of someone her age.
"For Heather, being an actor and a performer, it's a bold thing to say, 'I'm not going to do what the market dictates,'" Marshall said.
I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road is not Marshall's first foray into rock and roll. She also directed and choreographed Hair at City Center in 2001 and Two Gentlemen of Verona for Shakespeare in the Park in 2005. Her two most recent musicals, Anything Goes and Nice Work If You Can Get It, however, featured large ensemble dance numbers. Marshall said she is enjoying the opportunity to focus on the personalities and relationships within a smaller ensemble.
Directing at Encores! marks a homecoming for Marshall, who was the program's artistic director from 1996-2000.
"City Center — that's one of my theatrical homes,” she said. "There's a great crew there, a great staff, and they're also bringing in new people. It's all those wonderful familiar people, and [Jeanine] Tesori is bringing this new energy and new approach, and bringing in new designers who haven't worked at City Center before."
Some new work Marshall has in her future includes the musical adaptation of the film "Diner," featuring music by Sheryl Crow, as well as the musical adaptation of the real-life Cinderella film "Ever After," which she workshopped recently. Cinderella is a family affair for Marshall, as her brother Rob is currently directing the film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods.
While Marshall has the two new musicals ahead of her, she is enjoying the blast from the past that I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road provides.
"The music is so beautiful and emotional and the lyrics are so truthful," she said. "I think it really is powerful in its own right, and not just as a sort of look back at a specific time and place in history."
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