It’s described as “the perfect musical.” At least that’s how Roundabout Theatre Company’s artistic director, Todd Haimes, feels about Joe Masteroff, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s She Loves Me. The show, which debuted on Broadway in 1963, is an adaptation of Miklos Laszlo’s play Parfumerie, probably better known in the form of the Jimmy Stewart-Margaret Sullivan movie The Shop Around the Corner or that movie’s reboot, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s You’ve Got Mail. In She Loves Me, it’s 1930s Budapest and our star-crossed lovers, Georg Nowak and Amalia Balash, play head-butting clerks at Marazcek’s parfumerie by day and unknowing Lonely Hearts pen pals by evening.
Whether or not it’s a perfect piece, it is certainly the perfect fit to celebrate Roundabout’s 50th anniversary. Back in 1992, then-unknown director Scott Ellis (now Roundabout’s assistant artistic director) wanted to revive the little-known gem at the Roundabout. “I honestly didn’t know She Love Me that well,” says Haimes, “but he was so earnest and so convincing and then I listened to that glorious score and said, ‘Oh, what the hell.’” At the time, it was Roundabout’s first foray into the realm of musicals. “The idea was to do great musicals that are not revived every five or ten years, but are still great musicals,” says Haimes. Still, it was a new process. “We had no idea what we were doing. We just thought that the way to produce a musical was to take a play and add musicians,” Haimes admits. “Turns out it was a little more complicated than that.” But they found their footing and their 1993 revival of She Loves Me went on to earn nine Tony nominations, not only launching Ellis’ directing career but launching musicals at Roundabout, period.
“If She Loves Me had not been successful, Roundabout would have never done a musical again,” says Haimes. “It has incredible, incredible importance to my institution and to me personally, which is why when the 50th anniversary season was approaching, I said, ‘I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than for a new generation to see She Loves Me.’”
But, this time, Ellis needed the convincing. When Haimes asked him to direct this 2016 revival, Ellis said no—more than once. “I felt my experience was such a great experience the first time around,” says Ellis. “It was successful. … I just thought, ‘Why would I go back and revisit it?’” Turns out, Roundabout’s initial mission—to revive musicals that haven’t been done often—was just the reason he needed. Ellis realized, “There’s a whole generation that has never seen a production of She Loves Me, so I want to introduce that to them.”
When Ellis first approached the show as a fledgling director, he surrounded himself with a stellar team, and this time is no different. Armed with his finest soldiers (including choreographer Warren Carlyle, set designer David Rockwell, costume designer Jeff Mahshie, lighting designer Donald Holder) and a cast of all-stars (including Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi, Gavin Creel, Jane Krakowski, Michael McGrath, Byron Jennings and Peter Bartlett), Ellis embarked on a complete overhaul of the production to bring a brand new She Loves Me to the stage at Studio 54.
“When I see a show that’s really done well, by people who are talented people and who understand what they’ve been doing and who are well directed,” says Harnick, “for a writer it’s the most satisfying experience in the world.”
“My wish is that every 30 years, Scott Ellis will direct She Loves Me, and that you will come to see it,” Harnick half-jokes.
It certainly is a company of masters. “I’m humbled by the talents around me,” says Bartlett. “It’s like a master class,” says Levi, who plays Georg. “I get to be at work and learn at the same time.”
Ellis worked hard to assemble such a strong cast, his leading lady in particular. “I think four women can do this show,” says Ellis of the leading role Amalia. Luckily, Benanti (one of those four women) was drawn to the complicated character. “I like playing layers,” she says. “I like playing people who have a dichotomy to them. I don’t think of [Amalia] as sweet [and] soft; I think of her as a really direct person who comes off as a little brittle, and who actually has this soft gooey side to her.”
Creel, who plays the smarmy Steven Kodaly, loves jumping into the role of the cad—adding to his resume of versatility. “That’s the best part about my career so far, and I hope it keeps going, is that each character—though I bring a lot of myself to each of them—I try to find the thing that [makes it] different.” In other words, he likes a challenge, and Roundabout has a reputation for setting the bar high—a reputation not lost on Levi, the relative newcomer. “It’s such an incredible group, and I get to work at Roundabout, which is awesome.”
For supporting actress Krakowski, it’s a milestone she couldn’t miss. “It was important to me to be a part of Roundabout’s 50th anniversary,” she says. “This is my third production with them, and they gave me, I think, a role of a lifetime with Nine, and I will always be forever grateful to them for not only the role of Karla but for the opportunity to win a Tony [for the role in 2003].
“And I really wanted to come with my friends,” says Krakowski of her reunion. “My first production I ever did with the Roundabout was with Scott Ellis. It’s sort of like coming full circle to come back, to work with Scott again, in this anniversary year.”
It’s a full-circle moment for the entire team, really. The show not only birthed Roundabout as a major player in musical theatre, it brought She Loves Me back to life. “After the production in 1963, the show seemed to be dead,” explains Harnick. “The show closed. A year went by, no productions. Those of use who created it were heartsick. We thought, ‘This beautiful show that we’ve done is just lost.’ Then … there were sporadic productions over the years; it became known as a cult show. In 1993, Scott Ellis did it at the Roundabout and the reviews were love letters, and the following year there were 60 productions.” That’s renewed meaning to the word “revival” for you. And that is truly the power of the Roundabout.