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BWW EXCLUSIVE: Eric Schaeffer Talks FOLLIES, SUNSET BLVD, Next Shows & A Career Retrospective

BWW EXCLUSIVE: Eric Schaeffer Talks FOLLIES, SUNSET BLVD, Next Shows & A Career RetrospectiveStephen Sondheim to Jerry Herman to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Michael John LaChiusa to Kander & Ebb to Dempsey & Rowe, PUTTING IT TOGETHER to Million Dollar Quartet on Broadway - the phenomenally gifted co-founder of the Signature Theater is one of the brightest lights in directing today - whether in regional theatre or on Broadway or the West End - and a mere glance at his resume reveals many of the reasons why. Discussing the current production of SUNSET BOULEVARD opening later this month at the Signature, plus a complete rundown of the upcoming Kennedy Center production of FOLLIES, in this, his most comprehensive interview to date, Eric Schaeffer bares all and reveals what makes his productions shine so bright on Broadway and beyond.

Make The Most Of Your Musicals

Yesterday, I spoke to co-founder and artistic director of one of the premiere regional theaters in America, the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., and winner of six Helen Hayes awards for Best Direction and six for Best Musical - plus, 2002 recipient of Washingtonian of the Year - director/producer Eric Schaeffer is a very busy man - what, with Million Dollar Quartet a newly christened Broadway smash, SUNSET BOULEVARD opening at the Signature this month and the $6 million production of FOLLIES at the Kennedy Center starring Bernadette Peters and Elaine Paige that he is directing going into rehearsal on April 4th. In this illuminating, exhaustive discussion, Schaeffer offers insightful thoughts on all of those shows, plus the entire oeuvre of Stephen Sondheim - after all, he was the artistic director of the Kennedy Center's SONDHEIM CELEBRATION and directed their spellbinding production of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE starring Raul Esparza - as well as a thorough discussion of the shows of John Kander, John Dempsey & Dana Rowe, Michael John LaChiusa and much, much more. Plus, Schaeffer hints at some upcoming shows he will be tackling soon, such as a revival of one of Jerry Herman's most beloved shows at the Signature and the premiere of a brand new Dempsey/Rowe musical.

PC: The end of Act One in your production of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at the Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration, which you also organized, was one of the most powerful moments I have ever seen in the theatre.

ES: Oh, that's so great!

PC: You somehow made that masterpiece a little more brilliant with your conception of it. Could you tell me how you came to that concept of setting the whole show in the artist's studio with the white drops on the easels and, then, at the end of "Sunday" in Act One when...

ES: ... when Raul [Esparza] just pulls the whole big sheet out.

PC: And Raul? I thought it was impossible to beat Mandy Patinkin. Somehow he did.

ES: Yeah! Totally.

PC: And Melissa Errico? So perfect.

ES: Perfect.

PC: Tell me everything about that production.

ES: Well, I had done SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE before.

PC: At Signature.

ES: Exactly. But, I mean, it was more traditional doing the show there. Then, when we actually decided to do all those shows and we picked SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, James Lapine - who is a pal of mine - he said, "I want you to direct SUNDAY IN THE PARK there." And, I was just like, (Laughs.) "But, I've already done it!" He was like, "I don't care!" So, you know, he really wanted me to do it and Steve [Sondheim] did as well, and so on, so I said, "I'll do it so long as I can think of a whole different way of doing it." Then, I just batted around ideas with Derek McLane, the set designer - who was brilliant on all those shows - and we just thought, "What if we actually put it all in the studio and all these easels have sections of the painting and the audience actually puts it all together?" So, then, it's almost like the same dot motif in the actual painting up-close, where if you see the painting up close you see all the dots and if you step away from it you fill in all the dots. It's the same thing as if you have these sections of easels that make up the park and, then, you step back and, "Oh my God! There's the whole park!"

PC: A "Look, I made a park!" epiphany.

ES: Yeah! So, that's how the whole thing kind of came about - because, you know, I really felt I wanted to do something different and just, also, make the end of the first act this place where we're all of a sudden we're like, "Oh my God! Here we are - in the park!"

PC: That concept was so revelatory in the way how you used the same concept with the floating flat-screen Tvs, which in 2002 were very cutting-edge.

ES: Yeah! I'm glad you caught that!

PC: So, the visual syllogism of the two acts was important to you - to go even further back and just have the very essence of art with the easels in Act One and then the ultimate modernity with the LED Tvs in Act Two?

ES: Well, I really went back to the original painting again and again. I have training in graphic design and I was just like, "You know, if we actually blow up the television, there's pixels - which is no different than pointillism. It's just squares of pixels versus the color of light." So, I just thought it made total sense to use that; that a contemporary George would be using technology in the pixilation, just as the old George was doing it by hand with pointillism. So, I really thought the tie of those two things worked really well and you could understand how the new George could associate and come from the old George and what he was doing.

PC: The whole show felt all of one piece in a way the original production did not. Did you really want to find a way to bridge the gap between the two acts, as you ultimately succeeded in doing?

ES: Well, it's so funny because I have a huge fondness for the second act of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. I just think the second act is so brilliant. You know, people are so enamored with the first act and the ending of the first act and I think the second act even tops that with what James and Sondheim did there.

PC: Particularly thematically.

ES: Definitely. So, it was actually really exciting. It wasn't hard to make it one cohesive piece because I think it's there in the writing - we just embraced it. We just did it. It's one of those things, with Sondheim, I think: he's either in your blood or he's not in your blood.

PC: Totally.

ES: Especially as a director: how you direct it and how you respond to it and what it says to you. I've just always had this real visceral connection to his work in a way that I'm really fortunate to have.

PC: Like Shakespeare.

ES: Right! Right. I would never direct a Shakespeare play because I'd be like, "Oh my God! I could never do it!" I would not be good at it.

PC: Never?

ES: No, I would not be good at it so I would not even try to do it.

PC: Could you tell me how you decided on what shows to include in the Sondheim Celebration?

ES: Well, we met with Steve and we sat down and thought about what shows we wanted to do. We had a list of them. We took some off the list that had had recent Broadway revivals since they had just been done.

PC: So, that's why FOLLIES was not a part of the festival since the Roundabout had just revived it in 2001?

ES: Right. It had just had the Roundabout production.

PC: Everyone was clamoring for it, nonetheless.

ES: Yeah, but it had just been done. So, that was a conscious decision on our parts [not to do it].

PC: So, then, once that was crossed off the list...

ES: Then, it was just a matter of putting them together and looking at them; all six of them. You know, the game of "What about this one? What about that?" And, once we knew that the production of PACIFIC OVERTURES from Japan was coming over, we know we weren't going to be doing that [ourselves]. So, then, we ended up with the shows we ended up with because we wanted to do them most. It was great to just be able to have all those shows at your disposal and say, "Hey, what about this?"

PC: I just interviewed Alice Ripley for this column and we spoke extensively about that production of COMPANY and I also spoke to Sondheim himself about what an ideal rendering of the show it was.

ES: It was great. So great. I just think there was such a wonderful cast - John Barrowman at the center of it, he's just so charismatic and, you know, he sings like a bird. He's fantastic. (Pause.) So, yeah, it was a lot of fun.

 

BWW EXCLUSIVE: Eric Schaeffer Talks FOLLIES, SUNSET BLVD, Next Shows & A Career RetrospectivePC: You were just enthralled with it all, the whole festival?

ES: That whole summer was so much fun because everyone - we called it Camp Sondheim - but, you know, everyone who came and worked on the shows were doing it for Steve. We were all doing it for Steve. Everyone was giving their heart and soul and just wanted to make him proud. It was so great that people were in there doing their best work and so enthusiastic about what they were doing. Not one ego came into that building. It was so fantastic. It was an amazing, amazing summer.

PC: There's never been an event in the theatre quite like that.

ES: That's right.

PC: What about another Sondheim festival in 2012?

ES: (Laughs. Pause.) Where?

PC: Anywhere you would do it! Would you do it all again?

ES: (Laughs.) Oh, I love his work. I mean, I'd go wherever to do his work. I think his work is brilliant.

PC: Have you directed all of them at this point?

ES: I haven't done all of them. I actually haven't done A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC.

PC: Really? That's surprising, since it's so audience-friendly.

ES: Nope. I've never directed A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and we've never done SATURDAY NIGHT at Signature. We haven't done DO I HEAR A WALTZ? either. But, everything else we have produced here.

PC: ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, too. That's rarely done.

ES: Yeah, we did. We did it as a concert. We didn't do a full production, but we did a concert of it.

PC: Do you think that show is viable?

ES: I do. I do, actually. I mean, I actually have a way to do it and I have a concept in my head of how to actually tackle that.

PC: What is it?

ES: (Laughs.)

PC: Can you give me a hint at least?

ES: (Laughs.) Yeah... actually, no! We're going to do it at some point, totally, because I definitely do have a way to do it. It would be really great to see a full production of that onstage.

PC: Did you see and love it at Encores!?

ES: Oh, yeah! Totally. Donna [Murphy] and Raul.

PC: Continuing on the Sondheim route, could you tell me about directing PUTTING IT TOGETHER on Broadway? I interviewed Bob Avian awhile back and he spoke so favorably of the experience. I loved that show, and I love that it's on DVD.

ES: Oh, yeah! It was great. First of all, I love working with Bob. He's just, like, fantastic. He's old school Broadway in the best way - he's all about the work. We had a great time putting it (Laughs.), putting PUTTING IT TOGETHER together. It was actually a lot of fun to do because, if anything, the show was a little ahead of its time - you know, where it was taking the songs and putting them in a different context.

PC: Sort of Sondheim GLEE, before GLEE.

ES: (Laughs.) Carol Burnett was so great in it, too. Her relationship with George Hearn in the show and their partnership was really fantastic.

PC: Indeed. And Tony-nominated.

ES: You know, revues are really tricky and they are so hard to put together and I thought that how the songs were re-interpreted and, working with Bob on it, and always keeping the show moving, in a way - and, actually, getting to rediscover songs that you kind of thought you knew but then you hear them in a different context and you're like, "Oh my God! This is like a brand new Sondheim song!" You know, like rediscovering an old friend.

PC: Or "Old Friends". Or, "My Friends".

ES: (Laughs.) Exactly. It was a really great experience. We really had a great time working on it.

PC: Ruthie Henshall spoke so well of it in my interview with her this summer.

ES: Oh, yeah! Ruthie and I had a great time. Plus, John Barrowman and Bronson Pinchot were in it. It was a really fantastic company and a really great experience. The cast really loved doing the show and loved each other. You know, it's so great when you do a show and everyone is so excited to come to work every night! It's so great.

PC: Kathie Lee Gifford was so shockingly good in that show. I loved her "Like It Was". It is definitive.

ES: Oh, Kathie Lee is so great. She worked like a dog! She was so great and so prepared and so professional. She was absolutely wonderful.

PC: Did you see the original production with Julie Andrews?

ES: I did, actually. I went to the opening of that. That was actually the first time I met Steve Sondheim in person.

PC: What was that like?

ES: Well, we had been writing back and forth and stuff like that but that was the first time we actually met.

PC: What did he say to you?

ES: Oh, let me try to remember... Cameron Mackintosh was there and he said, "I want to introduce you to him, Eric! He knows you're here and he's all excited to meet you!" Actually, I do remember, because I remember I just said to Steve, "Oh my God. It's such an honor and a pleasure to meet you." And, he's like, "No, it's a pleasure to meet you!" It was so funny. I started laughing.

PC: He always has the best lines. Such a quick wit, even in his eighties.

ES: Oh, yeah! Totally. Totally.

PC: Do you think he will complete a new musical soon? He told me he was working on something.

ES: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. The thing that is great is that I think his work is so layered that I think what we've been seeing in the last decade is that it can be rediscovered in all different ways. It's so exciting to have his work being done like that and out there. I think what's hard with someone like him is that they put the standard so high that I think it's hard for anyone in that position to go back and come out with a new show because everyone's expectations were just unreal.

PC: Speaking of expectations, you have your work cut out for you with FOLLIES. Everyone is hoping this will be the great FOLLIES we have been waiting for, as I'm sure you know.

ES: I know.

PC: You're using the original book, right?

ES: Yes, we are. We are.

PC: "The Story of Lucy & Jessie" for sure?

ES: "Lucy & Jessie" is going to be in there. Yep.

PC: It will be using a 28 piece orchestra, correct?

ES: Right.

PC: What version of "Loveland" are you going to use?

ES: The original.

PC: And no "Country House", as was rumored, right?

ES: No, no "Country House". Don't listen to internet rumors! (Laughs.)

PC: What do you think of the London version?

ES: I think Steve wrote them for a specific reason. I think "Country House" is a brilliant song - we did in PUTTING IT TOGETHER. It's just a tour-de-force for two actors. It's a whole one act play in a song.

PC: Did you ever consider "Ah, But Underneath" or, perhaps, "Make The Most of Your Music" for this version since Sondheim is so closely involved with it?

ES: No, we always wanted to stick as closely to the original as possible. We really did.

PC: Did you go back and look at any of the archives of the show? The early versions?

ES: We really just wanted to create the world that the play lives in that is more unique than what has been done in the past. We wanted the production to feel more environmental. I think it's going to be really, really hauntingly beautiful. There's a whole different look to "Loveland" and it's going to be a really, really special production.

PC: I think it's the greatest musical ever written, myself. So, will there be any changes whatsoever?

ES: I think it's a really well-constructed show so there's not a lot of stuff that really needs to be done to it. You know, I'm talking to Steve right now, and also and Bobbi Goldman, and we're in great shape. We just finished all the set designs, which are really, really exciting and new and different. We're chugging along and I think we've gotten a great cast together and we are really, really, really excited about it.

PC: I spoke to Elaine Paige a few months ago and she hinted that a Sondheim show was in her future. It's such a coup to cast her as Carlotta.

ES: I know! I know! She'll be singing "I'm Still Here". That's gonna be kinda great, isn't it?

 

BWW EXCLUSIVE: Eric Schaeffer Talks FOLLIES, SUNSET BLVD, Next Shows & A Career RetrospectivePC: Oh, without question. She always highlights Sondheim on her radio show on the BBC, too. She's a huge fan.

ES: Oh, yeah. Right. Right.

PC: Did you intentionally cast an international icon versus a purely American star since Carlotta is meant to be a bit exotic, or at least pretending to be?

ES: The thing is, what I wanted to do was go back to the original and do what they wrote. You know, it's someone who had it all and is kind of not around so much anymore. It's not about so much being that old - you know, you could get a great old Broadway diva to do "I'm Still Here", but it kind of takes the context out of what was originally written and intended for that character. The age ranges in the show go everywhere from late-seventies/early-eighties down to fifties, so I really paid attention to that detail and wanted it to be real - you know, not the spectacle of "Names! Names! Names!" but who was right for the part.

PC: Did you see the original?

ES: No. No. I never saw it.

PC: But, you've seen the forty-five minutes of the original and original tour on YouTube, right?

ES: Oh, yeah. I saw that. It's amazing, isn't it?

PC: Everyone must see the opening and "Loveland" and "Lucy & Jessie" once in their lives.

ES: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I totally agree. Brilliant.

PC: Where do you place Michael Bennett in the pantheon of Broadway directors?

ES: Brilliant. Just brilliant.

PC: Do you feel you come more from the text-based side, like Hal Prince, more than the choreographic side, like Bennett?

ES: Well, I think that they all - someone like Harold Price, Michael Bennett - they are all inspirations. Even directors who are my contemporaries are my inspiration, where I see someone's work and I go, "That's great work."

PC: What have you seen recently that you really responded to?

ES: I thought Michael Mayer's work on AMERICAN IDIOT was really pretty brilliant. I love the direction. When you see something like that, you are reminded, "Oh, yeah. That's why I work in the theatre." It's really kind of great where you have that kind of experience. It's great when you can have that.

PC: I'm a bit surprised you cited that show out of all, since it is so unlike anything else on Broadway. Plus, it's punk music. It says a lot about the power of the show.

ES: I think that's the great thing about the theatre: it can be anything. You know, I love AMERICAN IDIOT as much as I love LA CAGE as much as, I don't know, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS. Theatre can just take you and submerse you in another world and you can just go on a ride. When it does that, it's really wonderful.

PC: Theatre can sustain that, but can Broadway sustain that these days?

ES: Wow, that's a good question. (Pause.) I don't know that it can when you see something like SCOTTSBORO BOYS close already - which it shouldn't be, it should still be running. So, I don't know. I guess I don't have an answer for that, unfortunately.

PC: In my opinion, you directed the one great, fun musical that hasn't made it to Broadway yet: THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK.

ES: Oh, yeah! That was pretty great.

PC: But, you did THE FIX before that, as far as Dempsey/Rowe goes...

ES: Yeah, I did THE FIX. I love THE FIX.

PC: Do you think in another age they would be Kander & Ebb or Rodgers & Hammerstein?

ES: They could still do it!

PC: Marc Kudisch just told me yesterday that this week he recorded the demo for their new show. It's a Russian musical of some sort, I hear?

ES: Oh, yeah, yeah. We're going to do it here at the Signature.

PC: What can you tell me about it?

ES: That's all I can say! I'm not going to say any more about it. But, yeah, we are working with them on it right now. After we did THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK and THE FIX, we went out for a drink in New York and I was talking to them and I was just like, "Guys, we need another show. Writer another show and I'll do it. Whatever you want to write. Let's come up with it and let's do it."

PC: What a generous offer!

ES: It was great because it got them going like, "OK. Great!" You know? They are such an amazing songwriting team and they do such wonderful stuff. The new show is really, really exciting and I am really, really psyched about it. So psyched.

PC: I think THE FIX is the best musical of the 1990s.

ES: THE FIX is brilliant. It was just... the problem that happened with THE FIX was that it was this fictitious story and then the whole presidency with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky happened and what was happening in real life was happening onstage. People were just like, "I can't even believe this that this is happening in real life!" People just got scared of it - about moving it on or anything, all because of that. It's such a great show and such a great score and so, so brilliant. Such a great story. Our audiences went absolutely crazy for it.

PC: What do you think the future holds for that show?

ES: I think it's going to come back. The funny thing is, we have people here asking us to do it. They're like, "You've gotta bring back THE FIX!" and "Bring back THE FIX!" And, I'm sure we will because it's a great show and it was such an amazing time doing it. So, I'm sure we will.

PC: We still have a chance to see it onstage again before it's rendered a period piece.

ES: Totally. Totally. We have some time.

PC: Linda Balgord was so good in that.

ES: She was Violet. Love her.

PC: So, you agree that Dempsey/Rowe haven't gotten the visibility they deserve?

ES: No, their time is coming. I'm sure of it! They deserve it.

PC: Speaking of composers who aren't given their due, you've directed some Michael John LaChiusa pieces, as well. Most recently, you did his Van Gogh musical THE HIGHEST YELLOW.

ES: Right. I did FIRST LADY SUITE, too.

PC: Where do you place LaChiusa in the pantheon? Sort of the modern-day Frank Loesser in that he writes book, music and lyrics?

ES: Well, that's interesting. I think on GIANT he only wrote the music and lyrics.

PC: On a four hour musical!

ES: (Laughs.) Yeah, only a four hour musical. (Laughs.) But, the great thing is, with all three that we've been talking about - Steve, Dempsey/Rowe and Michael John - their musicianship is amazing. But, what's also great is they come from all different places. So, they have all different subjects that they're writing about and they have all different styles that they are writing in and that's what's so wonderful about it; that we can have something like that, and those three major talents doing it.

PC: Sondheim's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE vs. LaChiusa's THE HIGHEST YELLOW vs. Dempsey/Rowe's JULIAN KEYES - all three have tackled an artist-subject musical.

ES: Yeah, yeah. I don't really know JULIAN KEYES, but I know a few songs from it that they've played for me. It's really interesting stuff.

PC: What inspires you? Is something like JULIAN KEYES, about an artist selling his body parts nailed to canvases, too impossible to stage? Too outlandish?

ES: No. I don't think there should ever be any restrictions, you know what I mean? I think there's always a way. You just have to be smart and ask questions and just go, "What if? What if? What if?" I don't think I could ever get to a place where I'd say, "Oh, that could never be done."

PC: So, when you look at a script, what are you looking for?

ES: I think, for me, if I am going to be directing it myself, it has to be something that I connect with. I have to be passionate about something that I do because, you know, the brainwaves; and, with all the effort you are gonna put into it, you better really love it. You don't spend just four weeks with it, you spend twelve months with it before you start working on it and all that.

PC: It lives in the mind long before it reveals itself onstage.

ES: Right. You know, in the beginning, I did a bunch of shows just to do the shows. You can tell when your heart and soul isn't in it. At least I can tell [from the audience], anyway. Sometimes, they are actually harder to direct because you are not enamored with the project. So, I really, now - literally, in the last ten years - I really only do stuff that I love and really want to do.

PC: Is there any show you've wanted to do in theory and couldn't figure out a concept for it? I mean, you've done THE RINK!

ES: (Laughs.) Yes, we did. But, the thing is, it's usually just like, with some shows, you wish you had a bigger budget or more resources here or there but, no. It's really kind of lucky to have Signature as my playground because I can say, "Oh, I want to do this show, so let's do it!"

PC: Total artistic freedom.

ES: Totally. You know, we're going to do a Jerry Herman musical next year - I can't tell you which one - but, we're never done a Jerry Herman musical at the Signature Theater and it's something I've wanted to do for a long, long time. It's exciting to be able to do something like that because I learn from those shows, like his, that are so well-constructed. When you are working on a new musical, you see all that. You remember those tools. You remember that stuff. It actually helps you when you are developing new work, too.

PC: Is there a way to fix MACK & MABEL? Do you have a way?

ES: I do!

PC: Just make sure you keep "Tap Your Troubles Away" if you do it!

ES: They cut that? How could they! I love that show.

PC: What do you think of SUNSET BOULEVARD?

ES: I love SUNSET. I just think it's one of the best pieces Andrew [Lloyd Webber] has ever written. I think the score is just really wonderful. When you listen to it, though, it is really rich and really romantic so, I thought, "You can't do this with an eight piece orchestra." It would be like bastardizing the show.

PC: I agree. The score needs to sound somewhat sumptuous - it's a melodrama, really, after all.

ES: Right. I felt really strongly about that. I was like, "If we are going to do this, we are going to do it the right way." You know, the orchestra and all of their music is a character, so it would be like cutting characters out of the show. And, I was like, "We cannot do that." So, that was really the driving force behind that decision. I really felt strongly that that was what the show needed, and, as a producer, that's what you have to do; you have to do what's best for the show and honors the authors' intentions.

PC: If only all producers thought that way!

ES: I have to say, it is simply stunning to sit in a theatre as intimate as this and just hear Florence Lacey belt these songs with that orchestra.

PC: Had you seen her in EVITA, ever?

ES: No, I didn't see her! But, I've seen a bunch of clips of her in it on YouTube. This is the ninth show Flo and I have done together, though. We were doing a show two or three years ago, back when I was trying to get SUNSET all together here, and I said, "Flo, you've got to do this part!" And, she said, "I'm dying to do this part. But, I'm not too old?" And, I said, "No! You're perfect." I just thought she would be amazing for it, and she is. She sings the role like it's never quite been sung before because she sings every note exactly as it's written.

PC: Did you consider other actresses for the role?

ES: No. I've really always seen Flo doing it in my head. I never really even thought of anyone else.

PC: Did you ask Elaine Paige to give her some pointers, since she did the role so amazingly well?

ES: No, because, you know what, this production is very different. We never wanted to recreate the New York or the touring production. It's very different because, A) the size of the theatre makes it so much different and B) there have been like three other productions in this country and they all rented the Broadway costumes and we didn't do that. Once again, those costumes were designed for that huge, opulent set so, unless you have that, it's not going to work.

PC: So, a clean slate? Back to the film - if that?

ES: Yeah, I really wanted to create a whole different production that was really more about the characters in that love trial of Norma and Joe and Norma and Max. I think, because of that, the show is: A) more real, you actually see the stakes that each of these people is up against, and; B) it's more haunting because you get to look inside the souls of these people that have this emotional connection and it's sad how no one wins. You feel so much for the show because of it. It's just a totally different experience.

PC: It's a truly anomalous musical in so many ways.

ES: It's interesting, because people who have seen the show said, "Oh my God. I never realized how great this book is; it was always about the house." He said, "Here, finally, it's about the people in the show." I mean, the set that we have is really extravagant but it's in the right ways and it's really balanced. It's all about the people at the forefront driving the story. It makes a huge, huge difference. So, it's about them and those emotions and when the emotions get big enough for them to sing, then they have that twenty piece orchestra behind them supporting them.

PC: Did you see the recent John Doyle production?

ES: No, I didn't. They played their own instruments.

PC: Would you ever do it with almost no set like he did?

ES: I don't know that you can really do it like that. It's larger than life and the characters are larger than life and it's almost operatic - not only in the music, but also in the storytelling. We just have to be smart about how to do it.

PC: In what ways?

ES: Well, one thing we did is we added five film sequences which are part of the show. I think they are really, really interesting and I think they really help to tell the story and keep the whole idea of Hollywood with people hungry and climbing up the ladder. It really brings that through.

PC: Frank Rich originally pointed out that SUNSET BOULEVARD has such a cynicism to some of the songs - like "Let's Have Lunch".

ES: Oh, yeah. There's a lot of undercurrents to other emotions constantly happening in the music.

PC: It's THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL in music.

ES: Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah. It's so Hollywood. It's the fake on top and the real underneath. It's plastic surgery - you know, trying to hide what's really happening. I think that's what's really brilliant about the show. Also, what I think is really smart is that they stuck with Billy Wilder's screenplay because it is so brilliant and it works really, really well with the music, somehow.

PC: Did you go back and look at the original film prologue for inspiration on how to stage the opening?

ES: For the pool, we actually did an underwater photo shoot. We took the guy playing Joe Gillis and put him in his clothes and threw him in the water and we took the camera underwater and we did all this whole videoshoot underwater and people pulling him out of the water with the press and cameras there and everything. It's just fantastic. And, we also bring that video back - I'm not going to spoil it!

PC: Those last ten minutes are so tense. What a great use of those reprises.

ES: It's breakneck. He uses them really, really well. The whole show really, really moves. It never stops. It's like you get on a roller coaster and you never stop. Poor Flo keeps running up those stairs and down those stairs. It's like a machine, but in a good way.

PC: A well-oiled machine.

ES: Yeah, it's a machine in the sense that it is just moving all the time and it just never stops - which is exciting for an audience because we're doing it on a thrust, and SUNSET has never been done on a thrust. You know, the whole theater is decorated and designed to look like a movie studio, so you have sandbags and catwalks hanging over your head and you just feel like you are in it. So, you just can't escape the world of Hollywood.

PC: SUNSET BOULEVARD on a thrust? You have balls!

ES: (Laughs.)

PC: And, SUNSET BOULEVARD has a 20 piece orchestra?

ES: Yes!

PC: How did you swing that? The article in the Washington Post this week said it would cost upwards of $100,000.

ES: The funny thing is, we have a person in the orchestra for every fourteen people in the audience. It's kind of mind-blowing.

PC: What are some of your fondest theatrical memories?

ES: Well, I grew up in Pennsylvania, so I was like two hours from Broadway. I remember the first Broadway show I saw was WEST SIDE STORY, the Debbie Allen revival. I still remember the ribbons dropping. I saw SWEENEY TODD when I was in high school. I mean, SUNDAY IN THE PARK at the Booth was amazing. There are a lot that left a big impression. I mean, I was at the American premiere of LES MIZ when it opened at the Kennedy Center. So, I have a lot of memories that I cherish.

PC: Congratulations on Million Dollar Quartet being such a huge hit!

ES: Thank you so much! It's great, isn't it?

PC: I interviewed Lesley Gore when she did it a few months back and she was so thrilled to be in it.

ES: She was so great. She's lovely.

PC: How did you become involved with the show? You did it first at the Goodman in Chicago, right?

ES: Yeah, I did it at the Goodman before it moved to the Apollo. I knew the producers and they asked me to come on. I read the script and I just loved the story. I didn't know anything about that story or it ever happening.

PC: What a great iconic American story!

ES: Oh, yeah! So, so great. We just finished casting it in London and we go into rehearsal January 4th. We start previews in February and open on the 28th.

PC: When is the cast going to be announced?

ES: Probably later this week, which is exciting. We've got a great cast for London.

PC: Moving to Kander & Ebb, what version of THE RINK did you do?

ES: It was a one act version that Terrance [McNally] and Fred and John came down and worked on. It was that version. I just love that show.

PC: So where did "Colored Lights" go in the one act?

ES: It was in the middle of the show.

PC: Did you do "All The Children In A Row" or the new song?

ES: No, it had "All The Children In A Row". We didn't do the song about... research... or whatever.

PC: Did you see it on Broadway?

ES: Oh yeah. I'll never forge the ending.

PC: John and I were talking about so many of his shows have those great, iconic opening songs and ending moments.

ES: Yeah, but more than that, they just write great stuff and find such great, great subject matter.

PC: One of my favorite Kander & Ebb scores is OVER & OVER, based on THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH by Thorton Wilder. Could you tell me about doing the premiere version of that show?

ES: It was just so fantastic to have, you know, John Kander and Fred Ebb and Joe Stein sitting here working on the show and changing it and seeing what worked and what didn't work. It was hard, because we were figuring out what the show was, but that score is so great.

PC: One of their very best - and that says it all!

ES: Yeah, one of my favorite songs that they ever wrote is in there, called "At The Rialto". It's this brilliant, brilliant song that Sabina sings at the end of the show.

PC: Sabina gets all the best songs! "This Life" is my favorite Kander & Ebb song, actually - or one of them.

ES: "This Life" is a great, great song. I love it, too.

PC: What's the future for that show?

ES: I don't think they have the rights from the Wilder Estate, so they have to figure all that out.

PC: Apparently, they aren't going to get the rights back to the original play, so they're moving ahead with a Wilder-less version. Do you think that's possible, having directed a Wilder-heavy version of the show?

ES: It depends on what they are going to do with it, you know what I mean? Some of those songs are very specific, but John Kander is a wonderful human being a very smart man and he will know exactly what to do! (Laughs.)

PC: Speaking of Kander & Ebb, FIRST YOU DREAM was a glorious night.

ES: Wasn't it amazing? I loved it.

PC: How did you devise the song list for that show? You made great, great choices.

ES: I did it with David Loud. Together, we went through it and really conceived the whole thing. Then, we met with John and made sure he was happy with everything. That just a joy to work on and hopefully we will be working on it again very soon.

PC: Hopefully, on Broadway!

ES: Hopefully! (Laughs.)

PC: They just did "Nowadays" on GLEE, actually. Did you see that?

ES: I saw that, actually! I actually really liked it!

PC: What do you think of GLEE?

ES: I don't really watch it that much. I mean, I was sick at home getting my gallbladder out so I was home three Mondays when I am never home, so I got to catch it. (Laughs.) But, yeah, I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it. Just the fact that that kind of musical theatre is being exposed on the television is just wonderful.

PC: Define collaboration.

ES: I think it's just people getting in a room together and giving and taking and throwing the ideas out there, leaving their egos at the door. It's not about ego, it's about the work. It's about the work.

PC: It's all about the work... and you work a lot! Some might say, too much!

ES: I know! (Laughs.)

PC: What's next?

ES: SUNSET BOULVEVARD now, then I go to London to direct Million Dollar Quartet, then I come back to do FOLLIES. Rehearsals begin April 5th.

PC: This has been absolutely awesome. Thank you so much for giving me so much of your very valuable time, Eric! Break a leg with all your shows!

ES: Thank you so much, Pat. This was so fantastic. Bye bye.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Walter McBride/WM Photos

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Pat Cerasaro Pat Cerasaro is BroadwayWorld's Chief Interviewer and Senior Editor, contributing exclusive columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Flash Fridays as well as additional special features and extensive news coverage. His work for the site has appeared in The New York Times, US Weekly, The Biography Channel, NBC and more.