2010 Tony Award Special Honors: Preston Whiteway of the Eugene O'Neill Theater
Today we are talking Preston Whiteway, Executive Director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, which is the recipient of the 2010 Regional Theatre Tony Award. We discuss the various plays and musicals begun there - NINE, AVENUE Q, IN THE HEIGHTS, the forthcoming TALES OF THE CITY by the Scissor Sisters, as well as the first plays by three-time Pultizer-prize winner August Wilson and much, much more! Michael Douglas will be presenting the award on Tony night as an accreditation to the legacy and accomplishment of the theater with particular, singular focus aimed at Mr. Whiteway himself. We also discuss the plays musicals on the horizon such as a new show called CLEAR by Paul Oakley Stovall in collaboration with PASSING STRANGE's Stew and others.
The Eugene O'Neill Theater Lab can count among its accomplishments the sheparding of such successful and accomplished musicals as AVENUE Q, IN THE HEIGHTS, NINE and many, many, more - and as far as plays are concerned, they are the very foundation of the start of August Wilson's incredibly significant career in the theatre - a shining example of that being the ten-time Tony-nominated revival of FENCES which is discussed in this interview with the charismatic and committed president of the Eugene O'Neill Theater as he discusses what winning a Tony means to him personally, what shows have begun at the Theater Lab as well as the exciting new projects that have recently had their start there and, of course, the summer festival entailing the premiere of more than a dozen new plays and musicals collectively. Even with all these exciting entrees on his plate he was kind enough to set aside time on two separate occasions to speak to me about the incredible legacy of the theater he runs and the award Michael Douglas will be presenting to him as a personal statement of his faith and entrustment in the theater in which he - alongside fellow alum Danny DeVito - got their start in acting and entertainment. We also discuss working with Scissor Sisters's frontman Jake Shears and AVENUE Q bookwriter Jeff Whitty on the new musical version of TALES OF THE CITY by Armistead Maupin and Jim Henson's involvement with the O'Neill and all of the exciting plays, puppetry, cabaret and musicals coming up - such as the new rock musical CLEAR with a score by Paul Oakley Stovall (with additional material by Stew and Tom Kitt)! You read it here!
PC: Could you tell me what receiving the Tony means to not only you, as a theatergoer and a member of the community, but also, what it means to the organization?
PW: Well, the organization, the O'Neill, it's incredibly humbling and incredibly affirming and a big stamp of approval for the values and the necessity for development for the future of American theater. The O'Neill has been a pioneer for decades preparing and developing new plays and musicals for the stage that then go on to great things around the country, in New York and London, around the world and it's incredibly to now be the receiver, to be on the receiving side of the Tony Award itself, and wonderful. The O'Neill won a special Tony Award back in '79 for - I think the term used was Theatrical Achievement in Regional Theater.
PC: Oh really?
PW: So now here's our second and it's really just wonderful. It's hard to put into words, it's the highest achievement possible in our field and to be voted on by our peers and by the American Theater Critics Association for inclusion this year, it's just incredibly humbling and incredibly affirming.
PC: It's wonderful, and also, what are some of your thoughts on some of the previous Tony-winning musicals that started under the O'Neill workshop, NINE and AVENUE Q?
PW: Of course. Those shows have all come into the national consciousness along with IN THE HEIGHTS which is another one of ours in the last three or four years with the runs in New York - and, also, NINE's revival and film version. So the O'Neill's profile has risen recently as well and I'm so pleased that the process that the O'Neill has honed for decades is so valuable to these shows that the O'Neill's process works in helping to promote these shows; helping shows to get on their feet and launch themselves successfully. I believe that their success speaks for itself and many high-profile musicals that have come through and other plays have come
PC: What are some of your favorite lesser-known shows that might've come through that we might not be aware of quite yet? I know in our last conversation we spoke about TALES OF THE CITY: THE MUSICAL and some of the unique stuff that's been coming through recently.
PW: That came through recently, TALES OF THE CITY, thank you for that reminder. And that was just this last summer, Summer of 2009 and I think it's just been announced for San Francisco, which is perfect.
PC: San Francisco, TALES OF THE CITY: THE MUSICAL? Great!
PW: San Francisco and A.C.T., then hopefully coming into New York the following Fall.
PC: What was it like working with rock stars like Jake Shears and Babydaddy?
PW: Of course, well, you have Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters and John Garden with Jeff Whitty as the book writer, so, you know, that creative team was just such a joy to work with, they were so much fun and yet also professional and disciplined. I think they would be the first to say that they honed their show here, that they discovered so much of what worked and what didn't work in front of an audience here, and I think it will pay enormous dividends in the future.
PC: Yeah, and what a great score, right?
PW: I mean, so much fun, for the time period of the show and the disco seventies and San Francisco - you couldn't come up with a better creative team, composer, composing team than the Scissor Sisters.
PC: Exactly. I'm so glad they have a new album coming out too in a few weeks - maybe there will be a song from there on it.
PW: I hope so.
PC: I hope they bring some mainstream voices to the theater. It will be nice to have some music on the radio besides GLEE, GLEE is the only true theater-related music that's crossed over on the radio/mainstream in the past 30 years.
PW: Exactly, and that's wonderful to see but I hope that that is only the first step.
PC: And the O'Neill has worked so much in shepherding talent, you've had Maury Yeston with NINE, and also IN THE BEGINNING began at the O'Neill, as well as - much more recently - eventual Tony-winners Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez and also Lin-Manuel Miranda with AVENUE Q and IN THE HEIGHTS.
PW: Sure. Each of those folks were very early in their career at the point when they came to the O'Neill. They did so well. We help launch writers and composers and lyricists onto the national scene, thanks to the platform the O'Neill is able to provide and it is so wonderful that those three groups, those three teams - or, in Lin's case, the individual - they leveraged it. But, more importantly, their shows were so good it leveraged itself into now - you know, brand names on Broadway and around the world.
PC: Exactly. And August Wilson.
PW: I just wanted to mention, so many other brand names have come to the O'Neill including August Wilson. Six of his ten shows were developed at the O'Neill. He was a short-order cook from St. Paul, Minnesota and totally unknown when we discovered him. He sent in a play, I should say, MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM for consideration, 1981-82, and the summer of '82 was when we developed it, with Lloyd Richards, and launched him into a career and now into American literature - quite frankly, world literature, as it turns out. And FENCES, it's so great to see back on Broadway but originally the O'Neill developed the show in 1985.
PC: Yes. I actually conducted and wrote a three part interview series with the creative team and Viola Davis (available below) a few weeks ago.
PW: It's wonderful. It's a great show and I heard it just recouped.
PC: Yes, it did, that set couldn‘t have come too cheap, though! What's next?
PW: This summer, like always, we develop new plays and musicals, and puppetry and cabaret. Next week we kick off with The National Puppetry Conference which is June 18 and 19. The week following that is the National Musical Theatre Conference.
PC: Could you tell me about Jim Henson's involvement starting that?
PW: With the puppetry conference, Jim and Jane Henson - his wife and now, widow - actually they helped set it up twenty years ago. This is its twentieth season. Since then, it's premiered works of puppetry in every discipline you could imagine - shadow, marionette, Muppet-type puppets, rod - every kind of puppetry. In America it's considered children's entertainment but it is much more political in nature in Europe.
PC: Like Poppagigio.
PW: Exactly. The O'Neill is one of the leading puppetry centers of the world. People come from France, Iceland, Japan, Australia, to come and learn.
PC: And the new musicals premiering?
PW: The National Musical Theatre conference is premiering three musicals. BUDDY'S TAVERN, a musical comedy; CLEAR; and EDEN.
PC: Are any of them in a modern idiom?
PW: Absolutely. CLEAR and EDEN are modern. CLEAR is written by mostly a performer, but also a songwriter: Paul Oakley Stovall. He's collaborated with Stew and Tom Kitt on the music. It's very much in-the-moment. A totally modern score.
PC: Wow! PASSING STRANGE meets NEXT TO NORMAL!
PW: It's mainly written by Paul Oakley Stovall, but they collaborated with each other on a number of songs.
PC: How exciting!
PW: Both Stew and Tom have said Paul should definitely get credited first.
PC: And the Playwrights Conference?
PW: We have seven new plays. On top of that, we have three writers in residence. Alfred Uhry is one of writers in resident. Also, the writer of ROCK OF AGES, Chris D'Arienzo. The other writer in residence is a Russian writer who's won just about every award in Moscow.
PC: Define collaboration.
PC: What has been your proudest accomplishment at the O'Neill? AVENUE Q winning the Tony doesn't count!
PW: (Long Pause.) Honestly, I am continually proud when I see a writer see their own work onstage for the first time. That is an amazing experience. To be leading the institution that provides that opportunity is incredibly inspiring.
PC: You're certainly an inspiration to this writer. Thanks a lot.
PW: It's been great.