Michael Arden, John Doyle and Scott Ellis all went into the rehearsal room for the show they were directing not knowing what to do.
“Just so everyone knows, I have no idea what I'm doing,” Arden said as he walked into his rehearsal room. Doyle told his cast, “I can’t be one of you. I have white skin, and it’s compounded by the fact that I’m Scottish, so I’m as far away from this story as you can be.” Ellis actually turned down his project multiple times, thinking to himself, “Why would I even take the chance?”
Yet, all three are nominated for Best Direction of a Musical: Arden for re-envisioning Spring Awakening to include hearing, Deaf and hard-of-hearing actors for Deaf West Theatre; Doyle for stripping down The Color Purple; and Ellis for taking his second (successful) stab at She Loves Me. And, all three productions are nominated for Best Revival of a Musical.
How did they take work that was previously triumphant and completely reshape it to be acclaimed again this season?
NEVER LOOK BACK
“I didn’t reference any of it,” said Doyle, talking about the original 2005 production of The Color Purple. “I just looked at the text and saw what I needed to see from it. I treat it as a new play or a new piece.”
Doyle took it a step further and even cut some text in The Color Purple to get to the heart of the story in his stripped-down revival, originally mounted at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in July 2013.
“In absolute fairness, I had the full support and permission of [book writer] Marsha Norman,” he explained. “First of all, she’s a force, and she’s a very experienced Tony-winning artist… I said to her, ‘It’s possibly 40 minutes too long, and I don’t know what the 40 minutes are yet.’ This was before I did it in London. I asked, ‘Are you okay with me having a go? You can come and look at it and you can go, ‘No, that’s got to go back in.’ She was completely supportive and said, ‘You just do what you need to do. We didn’t finish [by the time it opened on Broadway the first time],’ because you don’t! It’s so hard putting on new musicals.”
It was a bit harder, however, for Ellis, who directed the first-ever revival of She Loves Me in 1993. That was the first musical Roundabout Theatre Company ever produced, and its success paved the way for RTC’s future in musicals.
“If I was going to do it again,” Ellis explained, “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 start [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.
“This is the first time I’ve ever gone back knowing a piece, and I know it very, very well,” said Ellis. “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.”
TELL A NEW STORY
“It certainly wasn’t easy,” admitted Arden, “but I knew that there was a story to be told about Deaf culture and about parenting and about how we view people with different abilities.”
Arden, typically seen onstage instead of behind the scenes, was first introduced to Deaf culture when he was cast in the 2003 Roundabout Theatre Company and Deaf West production of Big River. His fiancé, Andy Mientus, had the idea to bring Spring Awakening to Deaf West.
Mientus told Arden, “You know, you should do Spring Awakening because it's about a group of people who are silenced and who are desperate for a voice. To be heard and understood, what better parallel than the Deaf community and culture, who have, for years, been trying to be understood…?”
In the history of Deaf education, during the late 1800s (when the musical is set), schools began to use the oral method, which only allowed the use of speech as opposed to ASL, and students were often punished for signing.
“It was just such a gift to me to be able to work with these talented individuals who are so often overlooked,” Arden continued. “Their not ‘dis-’ but different abilities are what made this story blossom in a whole new way, and I think we told a completely different story than the first production. It was actually about something different, so to be able to do a revival… It wasn’t a revival; it was a rebirth for it and for material that I so love.”
In Doyle’s case, he aimed to be as authentic as possible with the current Color Purple. Although he says there are four factors working against him to be at the helm—“I’m white, I’m male, I’m middle-aged, and I’m not American”—he did go to school in Georgia in the early ’70s and felt that would help guide his process.
“What I do know is that when I was in school in Georgia in the early ’70s, which was not all that far away from desegregation, I saw people who had never seen a musical, many of them because they couldn’t afford to go, so they couldn’t possibly know what the clichés of musical theatre were,” he told his cast. “So I don’t want to see any clichés of musical theatre. I want to see people that I believe genuinely go to church every Sunday and behave in a certain way and their egos will not get in the way of telling the story that we’re telling.’”
TAKE A RISK
“You could tell [it was a] challenge,” Ellis explained, “because it wasn’t like I’m looking back and going, ‘Sh*t, that didn’t work.’ [The original revival] worked. There was nothing that didn’t work.”
His original production of She Loves Me was a success, so how could he possibly fix something that was not broken?
“I was young. I’m older now,” he said. “I was not in love at the time. I had not gone through any relationships, deep relationships. I now have two children.”
Unlike Ellis, who risked being repetitive—having previously directed She Loves Me in the past—Arden was taking chances with a cast with which he could not always communicate. However, his risk paid off, and a show originally intended for a brief run in Los Angeles was fast-tracked to Broadway and earned three Tony nominations.
“I think I learned about myself that I tend to panic a little bit too soon,” said Arden. “The lesson that I learned is that anytime you are beset by an obstacle, that doesn’t mean that all is lost. It just means that there is a better way waiting to be found, and I think that was the lesson that I learned not only from the process, but from my incredible company.
“[Broadway] was never the plan. The plan was to give an opportunity to these incredible kids and let these Deaf and hard-of-hearing and the different-ability actors be rock stars, and that was it. So the fact that we came to Broadway, and by doing so, began a conversation about inclusivity and about accessibility is thrilling. I think what has ended up happening is that we’ve presented both a conversation about not only the opportunity but the responsibility of theatre-makers to reflect the world in casting and in how we tell stories.”
How we tell stories is up to interpretation—and, this time around, Arden, Doyle and Ellis have done it right.
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.