The 2018 Tony Award category for Direction of a Musical is a hallmark of theatrical variety, a category diverse in style and discipline that proves that a musical is no one thing. Tina Landau (SpongeBob SquarePants, The Broadway Musical), Bartlett Sher (My Fair Lady), Michael Arden (Once On This Island), Casey Nicholaw (Mean Girls), and David Cromer (The Band’s Visit) represent everything from the biggest, most audacious musicals on Broadway to one so quiet that a critic called it the anti-musical.
Two of their shows are revivals—Once On This Island and My Fair Lady—but even within those you have completely disparate entities; My Fair Lady is a 1956 classic, whereas this is the first revival of the 1990 Ahrens and Flaherty musical, now re-envisioned for an immersive experience. Of the three original musicals— Band’s Visit, Mean Girls, and SpongeBob—all are based on known quantities, with the latter two already boasting strong fandoms.
As for the directors themselves, they come with a range of Broadway experience, from Tony-winning veterans like Sher and Nicholaw, to Arden to Cromer, who counts himself as the least experienced, since this is his first Broadway musical.
But what do they all have in common as directors? No matter how different the shows, what does a director of a musical actually do? And what draws them to a particular piece of work? The five sat down at the Algonquin Hotel’s Blue Bar in Midtown Manhattan May 23 to tell all in this year’s Directors’ Roundtable.
(An edited excerpt from the conversation begins below, but watch the full roundtable in the video above.)
There is such a misconception about what the director of a musical does. What is your job?
Tina Landau: It’s a little different for on this particular project because it is something I conceived. I didn’t conceive the characters or the world of Bikini Bottom, but the project was brought to me as start from scratch. I was able to do a series of workshops that really were about discovering whether this material could even live onstage in a live form. First it was movement, second it was book, third it was score, fourth it was design, and I really felt like my job was to edit a lot of choices from other people who I invited into the party to say “yay” or “nay.” Anne Bogart, a [fellow] director, told me a story a long time ago about the old show Miami Vice. She said that there is a person on that show whose job is to be a liaison between location scouting and casting and that person was to walk around and look at things and say “Vice” or “Not Vice.” That always stayed with me.
David Cromer: Mostly I direct plays and it’s a giant difference just in terms of supervising departments. Supervising a choreographer, a music director, more than one author, often, in a musical. I found it was just really useful to learn to let them do their job and relinquish what I’m used to, which is a little more oversight with everything. What was fascinating to me was letting them do their thing.
Casey Nicholaw: I think the misconception is that somebody—especially on an original musical—brings you a script. That Tina Fey brings you a script and says, “Here’s the script, here’s everything, now direct it.” You’re involved with it from the beginning. It was five years of our lives. That’s the norm. It’s like dominoes. You go “We gotta find this” and then you find it and you go “Sh*t now that doesn’t work now!” You’re also everybody’s therapist. You’re in charge of everyone and collaborating with everyone. It’s also really lonely.
TL: I agree.
CN: You’re working with people all the time, except nobody except the five of us and everybody who does this really understands what a director does. Even my associates go, “I’m watching you and I cannot believe what you go through every day.” And I love it but it’s tough and also really exciting.
Bartlett Sher: But I also think there’s a distinction between a revival and a new musical. When you’re guiding a new musical, you have so much pressure. You’re creating every day a structure that’s never existed, as opposed to being in relationship to an object that’s existed for 50 years and you’re now re-imagining it for now. Your function is completely different when it’s a new piece versus some revival of an old piece and the pressure is very different.
Michael Arden: There’s an element of keeping a bunch of plates spinning so people don’t know how close you are to having a nervous breakdown. [Laughs] You have to set, like Tina said, that tone which is a little bit of acting, too. You have to fake it for a lot of people in a way in order that they can feel comfortable to do their best work. Overcoming obstacles is what we all do. You’re looking at what does the show mean and what is the initial spark of why this story is being told, while also making them feel like they’re doing their best work.
When you see theatre, what are you looking for that makes good direction?
CN: I think you just have to serve the show. And I think every single show asks for something different. Sometimes you don’t even know what it is, it reveals itself as it goes. You’re thinking of the story all the time and other people have all these agendas around you. I think what’s key is to watch it as an audience member. Sometimes I’m in audience mode and sometimes I’m a scientist.
BS: We’re also building vocabulary, so a lot of the early decisions you make—whether they’re design decisions or what have you—have a lot of artistic impact on how agile the machine is that you built. I always think we build these elaborate machines so we can change anything on a dime and you end up artistically making these interesting choices about what kind of operating system you have this time. So when you get to the really complicated things where you make a huge discovery in the last week of previews after five years of working at it—because the weird part is sometimes the most critical decisions don’t happen until the very last week of previews—
BS: But you’re so agile the door opens gracefully into the final choice.
TL: When you ask what do I see or not see when I watch the work of other it’s: “Is it a playworld that’s replete in and of itself with a consistency, as opposed to those actors are in different shows.” We’re the ones ultimately that need to make sure that happens.
BS: Every work of art has its own autonomous logic and its own set of rules. The difference is you don’t know the rules when you start.
When it comes to revivals, are you looking to completely re-invent? Are you looking to smooth things that you believe didn’t work the first time around?
MA: I really wanted to treat it as a new piece of writing. I treated it like I had found some old text. I don’t know if I set out to [re-invent], but with both [Spring Awakening and Once On This Island] I said, “What is this really about? What are people struggling with?” Because that’s what’s going to be interesting to stage. What do they overcome? With Spring Awakening it led me to the door of oralism and how Deaf people were treated at a certain point in history and how that connected to the idea of wanting to communicate and not being able to. And that one door leads you to another door and another door and you just keep digging. And I’ve been lucky that it’s led me outside.
BS: I think the word “revival” is a weird word. At some point everything is a “revival.” I think the significant difference is between interpreting and creating.
With a revival, the question that always arises is “Why now?” Are you excited by that question? Are you tired of that question?
BS: I think the question is not asked by me but the piece asks me: What the hell are you doing here now? Instead of looking at it like I have to come up with my [idea] I just get in there and see what happens. I think [shows] come around when you want them to or when you need them. You inevitably are inside the time you are and going to ask questions.
DC: On different days, different things come out. It’s like reading Chekhov from the point of view of the 20-year-old characters to the 40-year-old characters to the 60-year-old characters.
BS: We have this weird task as directors where we get to ask all these questions about our place in the world through our work. We don’t know the answers but we get this very active, beautiful opportunity to say, "What is this about now and what does it mean to me now?" And that’s not a job everybody gets.
TL: And to learn about ourselves.
Speaking of learning about yourselves, have you found you have an affinity for a specific feeling or topic? What is the thing that draws you to the work you’re drawn to?
DC: An artist’s preoccupation is revealed eventually by trends we can see in their work.
CN: I’m drawn to comedy and I’m drawn to have people be entertained, which is why the combination of director-choreographer I like. I’m drawn to something that has people laughing and then suddenly they’re like, “When did I get a tear in my eye?” I also like doing something that has different characters that everyone can relate to one person or another.
MA: I’m attracted to morality plays and consequence of action and how that can inform faith. It’s what I’m interested in when I go to theatre, it’s in the stories I want to tell. I’m always looking for how we can learn from our mistakes.
TL: For me, it has to do with stories of the outsider and the misfit and the marginalized. A playwright I work with frequently, Tarrell McCraney, calls it giving voice to the voiceless. I’m also drawn to unusual, surprising theatrical worlds and vocabulary. I like doing something that asks one to be awake in the theatre. I’m very interested in live-ness and spontaneity.
DC: I find myself drawn to a kind of grudging hope. We think ‘hope!’ It’s this positive thing. I think hope without an understanding of hopelessness, or an experience of hopelessness, or possibly the prevalence of hopelessness, is just being privileged. Things might look overwhelming hopeless, but there is some sort of beat or life force. I’m going to misquote the line from Perestroika but it’s, “If I can find hope anywhere that’s the best I can do” about the addiction of being alive.
TL: But you find your way towards moments of hope and tenderness they’re so deep and real and that’s why your work is so great.
BS: I think it’s about rhythm. Directors read a piece and somewhere in the piece they feel a rhythm emerge or something happen in it that operates on some level of who they are and they start to seek who that rhythm is. I think you’re ultimately hoping to crack open the universe with some moment in the show—like in a sunset, the transition between day and night and suddenly the whole world opens up for 25 seconds and closes back again. That’s how I see directing. You’re always looking for those places where everybody in the room opens up and they all head in together and they all come back.
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