"I don't direct revivals," says Alex Timbers. "I've never directed a revival before."
There's a first time for everything.
This spring, Timbers (Rocky) tackles the first revival of The Robber Bridegroom for Roundabout Theatre Company's 50th anniversary season. The show is nearly as old, having debuted on Broadway in 1976.
Twenty-five years after that, the director saw a production on a squash court at Yale University that grabbed him and thrust him into the realm of musicals. "I totally fell in love with it," he says. "I wasn't really interested in musicals, and I just didn't know musicals could be like this, could have this really playful actor/audience relationship … could be so irreverent, so naughty, so mischievous." Now, The Robber Bridegroom has thrust Timbers into the next uncharted realm: revivals. Looking at the man who created such edgy pieces as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Here Lies Love and Peter and the Starcatcher, the grit of Robber Bridegroom fits Timbers' M.O.
Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman's story centers around Jamie Lockhart, a gentleman by day and clever bandit by night who prefers to "Steal With Style" than stoop to the level of common muggers. The 40-year gap — and subsequent fact that most audiences have no idea what to expect — makes this process feel more like the launch of an original than the revival it is. Timbers wants a 2016 audience to fall in love with this show.
"The task has really been to investigate every scene again," says Timbers, "and we've moved around certain songs … Alfred's written new things." Of course, Timbers needed a leader for this exploration; he couldn't have just anybody in the title role. "You can't just go and audition Jamie Lockhart," he says. "You actually need someone of amazing intelligence, wit and that has charisma about them.
"The people that have played this role are Raul Julia, Kevin Kline and Barry Bostwick. … You think about these people who are incredible musical theatre actors, but they're also incredible straight play actors and people of incredible talent, intelligence and creativity," says Timbers. He sees that in Steven Pasquale.
Pasquale and eight other actors actually play a troop of performers. According to Pasquale, ever the bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold, Timbers' instructed the cast to make "the audience feel like they're stepping into this barn in the south where we put on this pageant every year and we tell the story of the Robber Bridegroom." So, in a twist, Pasquale is both our leading man and an ensemblist.
It's Pasquale's favorite part about working on this show. "I'm finding the spirit of the ensemble one of the more fulfilling rehearsal rooms I've ever been in," he says. Part of that energy derives from the people Timbers chose to be in that room. "If you're a smart director, you assemble nine really smart minds amongst the actors, and they have lots of opinions and ideas," says Timbers. "And so you wanna just sort of help corral them, and those [ideas] are a part of the piece now."
"It feels very collaborative in a way that new work would be," says Timbers. "We want the piece to feel sexy and aspirational and exciting and for audiences to have a real way into the show."
It's "really imaginative, very DIY, all the act of doing essential storytelling." The rehearsal space suggests the same resourcefulness as Timbers' Starcatcher — a wooden crate here, a stray floorboard there — with the contemporary-take-on-history feel of Bloody Bloody. Pasquale calls it "the Timbersian effect."
"We've taken a very DIY approach to storytelling because it's about a bunch of people making a show, in which parallels a bunch of people sort of making a country from scratch," says Timbers. "We've gotten rid of this idea of any sort of representational scenery and the actors, actually, are making up these environments as they go."
To Timbers and Pasquale, this esthetic delivers what today's audiences are looking for in a theatrical experience. "These days audiences would prefer, rather than a $15 million set piece, two actors and a rope and being really creative," says Pasquale. He's not wrong, and Timbers is known for impact, making his audience feel like part of the thrill.
It's that risky creativity that made Uhry eager to hand the keys to the castle over to Timbers. "Alex may not know this," says Pasquale, "but Alfred saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and his first thought was 'Oh my God, I wish there was a universe in which Alex Timbers could visit Robber Bridegroom.'"
Still, Timbers is the one who feels like his dreams are coming true. "I love this show, and the idea that it's happening with the best cast, such an incredible lead, at the Roundabout — so its [in] such a prominent way — it feels almost improbable to me," he says. "This has been one of my favorite rehearsal processes I've ever been a part of, I love these actors and I love how imaginative they are, and how funny they are and how much fun it is to come to rehearsal."
"This collection of artists is why I do [this]," says Pasquale. "I'm sure it's why Alex does it. We so often have to make our living doing other things, and so to get the opportunity to do this is what it's all about."
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. Follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.