Stage Directions: What Is Jerry Mitchell’s No. 1 Rule of Directing?

Interview   Stage Directions: What Is Jerry Mitchell’s No. 1 Rule of Directing?
Having learned from legends like Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins, the director-choreographer shares the philosophy that led him to hits like Hairspray, Kinky Boots, and this summer’s Pretty Woman.
Jerry Mitchell
Jerry Mitchell Christopher DeVargas - Greenspun Media Group

“It was a 30-year love affair,” director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell begins. “I saw the movie when I was still a dancer on Broadway in The Will Rogers Follies and I fell in love with the Cinderella story of it all. That was the immediate reaction from a very young dancer waiting to become a choreographer/director and looking for things that excited me and that—maybe even before I knew it—I viscerally responded to. I had the same response to Hairspray when I saw that film. Both films that I attempted to get the rights to when I was a dancer on Broadway. I failed.”

Jerry Mitchell Marc J. Franklin

The Cinderella story Mitchell fell in love with is Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman, the basis for his latest Broadway outing. Based on the 1990 movie of the same name that starred Richard Gere as the rich businessman Edward and Julia Roberts as the Hollywood hooker Vivian, whose relationship transitions from professional to romantic, Pretty Woman The Musical marks the third movie-to-musical adaptation Mitchell has directed for Broadway.

The Broadway version, with Mitchell as choreographer as well as director, officially opened August 16 at the Nederlander Theatre. It stars Samantha Barks (Eponine in the movie version of Les Misérables) and three-time Tony nominee Andy Karl (Groundhog Day, On the Twentieth Century, Rocky). Music and lyrics are by Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter Bryan Adams and Adams’ songwriting partner, Jim Vallance; the book is by the late Garry Marshall (who directed the movie) and J.F. Lawton (who wrote the original screenplay).

Mitchell, 58, won Tony Awards in 2013 for his choreography of Kinky Boots (for which he was also nominated for his direction) and for his choreography of the 2004 revival of La Cage aux Folles. He has also received Tony nominations for his choreography of Legally Blonde, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Never Gonna Dance, Hairspray, and The Full Monty. Prior to Pretty Woman, Mitchell most recently directed On Your Feet!, bringing the biography of Gloria and Emilion Estefan to the stage. Here, Mitchell speaks about his career, how he directs and choreographs, Pretty Woman, and the future.

How he became a director/choreographer:
“I grew up in love with musicals and in love with dance. I wanted to be a director and a choreographer. And I thought that the best way to do that was to surround myself with the best and be as close to those people as possible. So as I started my career in New York as a dancer—Agnes de Mille, Ron Field, Michael Bennett, Jerome Robbins—I’d say that I was very fortunate to be with the very best and learn from the very best. I assisted all those people, danced for all those people, and ultimately, when I started choreographing on my own, found my first real longtime collaboration with Jack O’Brien, a great director. We spent several shows together working very closely and I learned from Jack as a director. I knew that I would probably end up being a director/choreographer, but I wasn’t in a hurry to jump the ladder. I was willing to take one step at a time and continue to grow.”

His directing and choreographing principles:
“The number one principle is come with passion and come full out. That’s the number one principle. If I’m going to be there and I’m going to be full out, I expect everyone else to be there and be full out. Number 2 is that I like to sketch it in pencil. I like to get it up as quickly as possible and put it on its feet. When I say ‘in pencil’ I mean I like to look, see, tinker, go back, add a darker layer, go back, start to color it in, go back, and finally when it’s finished spray it. Spray it with hairspray and it’s set. I work in stages because I know how much time it takes to get it right, and I don’t like to waste the time or energy of myself or my other collaborators on something I simply don’t believe is going to work. So the quicker I can get a pencil sketch of it, the quicker I can make a decision of how I feel it might play, how I feel it might work in the overall story I’m trying to build.

“I’m there an hour before the rehearsal starts and I’m there to have a good time. I guess I follow in Michael Bennett’s footsteps where I don’t think I ever pick the script up. When I come into the room it’s already memorized, it’s already in my head, the music I’ve been listening to for weeks, for months, for years, and I’m pretty much ready to go full out from the first downbeat of the music.”

In the rehearsal room with an actor/dancer:
“I like to keep the room light, I like to keep it creative, and I like to keep it collaborative. If an actor has a suggestion, an idea, I always welcome it, and try to find the best way to tell the story. The idea can come from the actor, it can come from me, it can come from a cleaner who just came in to mop the floor. I really don’t care where the idea comes from, if it’s the right idea.”

A mistake he made that he learned from:
“I learn from every mistake I make. Let’s talk about Pretty Woman, most recently. We had a wonderful song that was in all of the readings. It was sung by Jason Danieley [Edward’s lawyer, Philip Stuckey] – ‘Money Makes the Man.’ It was the second song in the show. And I made the mistake of wanting that song and wanting that song for Jason when I knew intrinsically that it might be stopping the action of the storytelling. Sometimes you want things to work out for certain actors because you love them and you think they deserve it. But, ultimately, at the end of the day, the story wins. The audience for the Chicago tryout, where we had the song, clearly told me after three performances that they didn’t want that song, they wanted to get back to Edward and Vivian.

“So I had to do the terrible task of telling an actor I love tremendously that I think I’m going to have to cut his song. The actor was feeling the same thing, so it wasn’t as painful as it could have been. Jason is a mensch, and he understands the business and how it works.”

A good decision he made that he learned from:

Broadway's Hairspray is one of several shows that will be off for the 4th of July.
Broadway's Hairspray is one of several shows that will be off for the 4th of July.

“In Hairspray, there was a song sung after ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat.’ I believe it was called ‘It Ain’t Over ’Til the Fat Lady Sings.’ And we never put that song in the show. If my memory serves me, ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’ was divided into an A section and a B section. Two parts: Tracy [Turnblad] wins the dance contest with the first section, and the second section wraps up the show. And I thought that was the way to do that. That was the way to end that show. I think Jack O’Brien thought that. I think we all thought that. But it took some thought process, and some ‘killing of your babies,’ as they say, in order to get to that point. I think it was a very good decision.”

About Pretty Woman:
“It’s not different from the movie. It’s a Cinderella story. I think the way we tell it is a little bit different. I think we were able to bring the character of Edward much more to life onstage. I don’t think he has as much growth in the film as he has in the stage production. In any good love story, you need to hear both sides of that story. Especially this one, where the prince is asleep and needs to be kissed and woken up, and the princess doesn’t need rescuing. He’s the one that needs rescuing.

“What I found most exciting about the movie Pretty Woman, my memory of it, was that the character Vivian was an incredibly strong woman, and the love story was two polar opposites overcoming their opposition, and love wins. One of the themes in the film that I love was at the very end when she turns him down when he offers her the keys, the money, the apartment, and everything; she says that ‘six days ago, I might have said yes, but not now, I’ve changed, and I want more, I want the fairy tale.’

“And I thought that today, how do we make that sing? And of course, Bryan and Jim wrote ‘I Can’t Go Back,’ which is her [earlier] statement that begins the journey that ends with her statement when he makes that offer. We’ve tracked that feeling back two or three scenes prior to that scene, before he makes that offer, and that’s the beginning of her character’s awakening and realization that she is going to be defining her own worth from here on in, and no one else will do that for her.”

His future:
“I have a set meeting tomorrow morning with David Rockwell on one of our next two musicals, My Very Own British Invasion, which tells the coming of age story of Peter Noone [Herman of the pop group Herman’s Hermits] and his 17-year-old self in a club called the Bag of Nails [set during the 1960s rock scene, and opening in January at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey]. I also have a casting meeting on a new musical called Becoming Nancy [by Terry Ronald], which goes into a full lab in October, based on an English book I bought the rights to where a young boy auditions for a school musical of Oliver! and gets cast as Nancy.

“I’m trying to spend my time and effort looking at new work, as opposed to revivals. Not that I don’t love revivals. I absolutely love them, and I’ve done a few. It takes a long time to do a musical, doesn’t it? You don’t have a lot of time, and you have to be careful about where you spend that time. And I want to spend my time on new work, and creating new stories.”

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