“What we responded to so strongly in Merrily We Roll Along was its story of theatre artists who are working together and whose lives are intertwined over a long period of time—their creative lives, their professional lives, their personal lives,” director Noah Brody says. “At Fiasco Theater, we’re a group of people who have been working together now for 15 years. We’ve known each other since school. We have three co-artistic directors, Jessie Austrian, Ben Steinfeld, and me. Jesse and I are married and have a son. That story, those challenges, those moments of decision that inevitably lead down paths, that have consequences, intentional and unintentional, the cautionary tale of that, all that spoke very deeply to us. So we thought that with all of its challenges it was a story we could stand behind and want to take on.”
Brody is talking about the Fiasco Theater revival of the 1981 Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, which he has directed at the Laura Pels Theatre, the Off Broadway playhouse of the Roundabout Theatre Company, where Fiasco is company-in-residence. The musical, based on the eponymous 1934 George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play, tells of the falling in-falling out relationship over two decades of three show business friends. Told in reverse chronological order, as was the original play, the musical was a Broadway flop, running for only 44 previews and 16 performances, but it has been often revived and revised, in part because of Sondheim’s renowned and revered score.
Brody, an actor and teacher as well as a director, co-directed and performed in Fiasco’s successful revival of Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods, which Roundabout presented in 2014 and 2015. His other co-directing and acting credits include Fiasco’s productions of The Imaginary Invalid, Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, and Cymbeline. He spoke about his directing career, Merrily, Into the Woods, and his future plans.
Why he became a director:
“I don’t know that I ever really articulated for myself the desire to be a director. There have been people in my life who’ve said, ‘Maybe you should be a director.’ I enjoy the process of communicating with actors and with collaborators and in leading the collaborative room in which a lot of really smart people are trying to work toward a common goal.”
His directing principles:
“One strength I may have is to provide an organizing principle and an organizing influence that allows everyone to have a strong voice and agency in the room, but that I can point and say, ‘We go this way now.’ My job is to not come up with all the ideas but to create a firm ground in which ideas can sprout up. I like that. I like setting the temperature for that, the real art of the communication of that. That’s the aspect of directing that I thrive in and find enjoyable.
“What I might have thought some years back was that a director’s job was to have all the ideas or to tell people what to do, or to say this is what the lights should look like. As opposed to what I now think is much more both my style and helps the really smart people around me do their best work, which is to say, ‘Here are the ideas we’re pursuing, here are the values of this production,’ and try to articulate those as clearly as possible and let them have their individualistic and artistic responses to that set of ideas.”
In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“In Fiasco, we use the word ‘event’ a lot. We try to be very clear about identifying events and themes. It can be the plot, but sometimes an event has to do with speaking the unspeakable and then saying, ‘If that is the event, what does it mean to take responsibility in the room for that event? What is the social contract under which that’s happening? What are the expectations? What’s the response to that?’
“[Perhaps] they’re speaking and saying, ‘You never loved me,’ and then [we discuss] how that is meant to land in the room. I try to articulate those things and let them have their responses. And then we can be in conversation about whether that event landed, is it happening, is it not happening, what could help make it happen in a larger, fuller, more released way?
“What I don’t do is say, ‘Cross down right.’ I think anytime you start telling actors where to go, you’re not talking about what’s at the heart of interactions between people. If you’re trying to solve interactions between humans with blocking, that’s a bad place to be. In our productions, what’s happening is the actors do the things they have chosen to do in the way they have chosen to do them. They have agency. My job is to try to get them to pursue [their choices] as fully and specifically as possible.”
A mistake he made that he learned from:
“Merrily We Roll Along is an attempt not to make the same mistake twice. In the history of Fiasco, we have almost always—this is the first time we have not—had co-directors on a show. Almost always those co-directors have also been actors inside the show. When we did Into the Woods, I just felt as though I were drowning the whole time. I was an actor, and a co-director, and I was a co-artistic director. And it wasn’t as if I was doing each of those things a third of the time—I was doing all of them poorly. I had reached my saturation point and I was just not effective as any one of them. As successful as that production was, and as proud of it as we all are, one lesson we learned was that it wasn’t an advantage to have co-directors inside the production. So in Merrily, we said let’s not do that again.
“Initially, I didn’t want to direct it. I wanted to act in it and I didn’t believe I had the skill set to direct it. Partly that was based on the trauma I was still living with coming out of Into the Woods—feeling like I wasn’t a very good collaborator, I wasn’t a very good director, I wasn’t a very good actor. Ultimately, I decided to take on the challenge and I’ve been enormously grateful for the opportunity, because I’ve enjoyed every last moment of it.”
A good decision that paid off:
“Easy. I can’t claim it as a sole decision, but a really good decision Fiasco made was bringing on Alex Gemignani as music director, bringing in Lorin Latarro as the choreographer, along with the other members of our creative team. Alex and Lorin have been indispensable to the development of this show and to a lot of what is successful about it. Their work is integral to the production.”
“When we were looking for another musical to take on, Sondheim was one of the composers we thought of, because we enjoyed working on his Into the Woods so much, and it’s always enormously gratifying to work on his lyrics and music. As we are really classical theatre actors, that initial experiment [of Into the Woods] was: Did we have the skill set that applied to musical theatre in any way? He—being sort of a Shakespearean composer—we felt that we had something to offer, and it wasn’t going to expose our lack of musical theatre chops on a certain level.
“So we thought about Sondheim, and Roundabout actually brought Merrily to us. Developing the production was a long process – about three-and-a-half years. One of the first things we did was meet with Steve [Sondheim], after reading the libretto and listening to the music, which we had known beforehand to some degree. Asked him what its origins were for him, what was important, what they tried to do – starting to have a conversation with him about what our responses were. We felt we needed to do some work on it in order to bring ourselves to it and we wanted to see how open Steve was.
“He was very open to continue those conversations, to collaboration, to work on the musical. He was open to our process. And he made all of his archives available to us – the rehearsal drafts from 1981, the production draft, the licensable version, the musical archives, the things that hadn’t been put on stage or hadn’t been put onstage since 1981, and he said, go forth, and work and play. Those drafts were very instrumental to us in tracking through what they were initially attempting, and their responses as they went through a rehearsal process, and after the Broadway production, how they were then responding again to what they felt was working and what they felt wasn’t.
“Then we did a reading of the original Kaufman and Hart play, and that deeply influenced us both structurally and in tracking the relationships. It’s a memory play, and the question being asked is who gets to define history. The [main] characters—Mary, Charley, and Frank—are wrestling over what’s the truth of history.
“We had a number of those [workshops], and ultimately we realized that for us what was at the heart of the play was this triumvirate of Mary, Charley, and Frank and the other three characters who primarily affect their relationships, Gussie and Beth [Frank’s second and first wives], and Joe [their producer]. We thought that those six characters are really the heart of the story, so what if our production was about those six characters and whatever it took to support that highly personal, highly domestic story, and not take responsibility for what I think Steve and George Furth and Hal Prince [the 1981 director] were doing in their response to the original play, which famously had something like 93 actors in it—a gigantic play that was not just about those three characters but almost about an entire generation, and tracking through an entire generation’s experience, in reverse order, but from post-World War I through to the middle of the Depression.
“For us, those extra characters, those arcs, the little inventions, were added information but they didn’t necessarily deepen our experience to either the piece or the [main] characters. Our organizing principle was both let’s just support these six characters and their story, and also let ourselves respond to the things both the play and the original musical in the 1981 draft were doing, which was to be highly, highly experimental.
“It was a series of very experimental almost one-act plays that go back in time. And so we let ourselves say, what if they were just one-act plays? What if we weren’t looking for a total consistency? What if we said, OK, Act 1 takes place in the world of film, in L.A., what if it were very filmic, very artificial, very maximalist? And we really blow it out with lighting and props and let it be a world of film? And a scene further into the musical feels more like a scene from a straight play. And we let ourselves use the storytelling modalities and techniques to tell a straight play. So that our characters have a through line and are identifiable, but we’re responding to whatever the text is telling us is the way to tell that story.
“That let us be in the place to say, this is an experimental musical. Let’s use physical theatre; let’s use some avant-gardist techniques; let’s engage with this thing on its own terms and not try to craft it into something that is trying compete with, say, Wicked.”
“We’re going to be doing a big world premiere in New York, but I can’t reveal the title. It’s a stage adaptation of a beloved piece of children’s literature—and of course we’re hoping to do another Sondheim musical.”