InDepth InterView: Susan Stroman Talks PBS Mel Brooks Doc, BIG FISH, BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, SCOTTSBORO BOYS In LA/UK, BLAZING SADDLES & More
Today we are talking to a five-time Tony Award-winning director and choreographer celebrated for her stupendous work on THE PRODUCERS, CRAZY FOR YOU, CONTACT, THE FROGS, THOU SHALT NOT, STEEL PIER, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS and many more - master musicals director Susan Stroman. In discussing a vast array of topics, Stroman and I touch upon many of her past projects as well as look ahead to her current and future endeavors - that is: the forthcoming Broadway bow of the new musical BIG FISH, starring Norbert Leo Butz, as well as the world premiere of Ahrens & Flaherty's LITTLE DANCER at the Kennedy Center next year. Most importantly, Stroman shines a light on her enduring artistic partnership with Mel Brooks in bringing to life the screen-to-stage musical adaptations of both THE PRODUCERS and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, with BLAZING SADDLES on the way - their rich collaboration also being highlighted in this week's AMERICAN MASTERS tribute to Mel Brooks on PBS. Additionally, Stroman reflects on some of her lesser-known entities and casts a light on some of her foremost influences as well as candidly discusses her specialty work for a bevy of major stars - such as SONDHEIM: A CELEBRATION AT Carnegie Hall and Liza Minnelli: LIVE FROM RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL - and the finer points of working with Stephen Sondheim and Nathan Lane in crafting Sondheim's most recent original Broadway musical with a new score, THE FROGS. Plus, Stroman shares first details of her upcoming collaboration with comedy master Woody Allen on the musical stage adaptation of Allen's Academy Award-winning BULLETS OVER BROADWAY and also offers the 411 on the upcoming Los Angeles and West End productions of Kander & Ebb's THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS - including the real-life role the musical has played in the pardoning of the originally accused nine just last month. Stroman also comments on her work with Hal Prince on the career revue PRINCE OF BROADWAY, opening in Japan in 2015, and also touches upon her ongoing desire to pursue a film adaptation of her multi-Tony Award-winning and genre-redefining 2000 Best Musical, CONTACT. All of that and much, much awaits in this wide-ranging conversation with one of Broadway's best!
AMERICAN MASTERS: Mel Brooks - MAKE A NOISE airs this Monday, May 20, at 9 PM on PBS. More information is available here.
The Queen Of Broadway
PC: Can you recount your first meeting with Mel Brooks for me?
SS: Well, I've told this story before, but here goes: I was working on A CHRISTMAS CAROL down at Madison Square Garden - and, I was in rehearsal and I got a call that said, "Mel Brooks wants to meet you," and I said, "Well, maybe I can meet him next Thursday," and they checked and called back and said, "No. Mel said it has to be today," so, I said, "OK..." [Laughs.]
PC: "Now or never," right?
SS: Right! So, I told them I was going to be home around six o'clock. Then, I ran home and soon after there was a knock on the door, and, there he was - he didn't even say hello!
PC: He didn't?
SS: No! He just started singing to me - the song "That Face"; that was the first song he had written for THE PRODUCERS. So, he ran right past me and right down my hallway - I have one of those really long hallways - and he jumped up on the couch just as he finished the song and then he looked down at me and said, "Hello, I'm Mel Brooks." [Laughs.]
PC: That's an entrance fit for the stage!
SS: It was - I know, I know. He did the entire song. So, at that moment, I knew for sure whether the show was going to work or not - I knew it was going to be a great adventure.
PC: And it was.
SS: And it was - it was very important for me, personally, at the time to go on this great adventure with him, I think. And, as Mel would say, it was one of the greatest collaborations - and that was because of Mel and who he is, really.
PC: His spirit.
SS: Yeah - his energy. I don't know anyone who loves being themselves more than Mel Brooks does, you know?
PC: What a way to put it!
SS: He just has a great sense of himself - he is very comfortable in his own skin. He is someone who takes chances - big, big chances - and I think, if anything, that is what he has instilled in me; you know, "There is no reason to live your life doing the same thing - you must take chances."
PC: So, it's been smooth sailing since then for you two, more or less?
SS: Oh, yeah. After that first meeting, we really started to collaborate. You know, what's really amazing to me, as a writer and as he is writing, Mel Becomes these characters right in front of you - he would become Roger DeBris; he would become Bialystock; or, he'd even become Ulla in order to come up with the perfect joke! [Laughs.]
PC: I can only imagine that.
SS: It was something to see! But, the work sessions were just so spectacular because of that - he would be dancing around the living room as these different characters as we were solving how to do the show. I have to say, he is very gracious and a very, very good man - and he is so respectful; totally, totally respectful and kind, too. I think that, out of all the things that Mel has accomplished, I think that writing a Broadway musical was probably his favorite, favorite thing.
PC: Why do you think that is?
SS: Well, if you look at all of his movies, they always give a nod to the theatre or to music - I mean, whether it is a monster singing "Puttin' On The Ritz" or whether it's he and Anne Bancroft doing "Sweet Georgia Brown" in TO BE OR NOT TO BE or whether it's Madeline Kahn in BLAZING SADDLES. He always takes a nod to musicals. It was meant to be, I think - it was meant to be that Mel Brooks would write a Broadway show someday; and, with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, he has now written two Broadway shows.
PC: Have you two ever discussed bringing ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS to the stage? No one has ever gotten ROBIN HOOD quite right as a musical - at least not yet. It's one of my personal favorites.
SS: I know! I know. That movie is so funny - I love it, too. At the Kennedy Center Honors, I did a big medley of numbers for him and I got Jack Black to do "Men In Tights" and it was hysterical.
PC: What a great tribute it was!
SS: Oh, it was so much fun to do. I love working there - of course, I'll be working there again soon with LITTLE DANCER, the new musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty...
PC: In talking of Mel, I was curious if you could comment on Sutton Foster? Did you find it particularly amicable and fun working with her on YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN? She is a Broadway star of the first order, is she not?
SS: Oh, she really, really is - Sutton is the real deal, I tell you. She is a hard worker and she is so funny, too - she really understands comedy, I think. She has it all - she can sing, she can dance, she can act; she will really end up being one of our greatest musical theatre stars. And, I mean, she is so young - she will end up being a legend to us.
PC: And, who knows, maybe a damn good Ulla in THE PRODUCERS someday, too!
SS: Oh, yeah! I never thought of that - she would be! I'd love to see that.
PC: How does working with a co-director like Hal Prince or a regular full-time director like Mel Brooks work for you - particularly in the case of THE PRODUCERS film version?
SS: Well, in the case of Mel and THE PRODUCERS movie, it was the musical that I had already directed and choreographed, and, then, I was, of course, then, directing the movie musical. So, you know, he was always concentrated on performances and the story being told on film more than anything else when we were doing that - as the writer would be. It was actually quite natural. He was wonderful - in every way.
PC: Act I of BLAZING SADDLES: THE MUSICAL is done, I've heard. Can you tell me anything more than that?
SS: Yes - Mel is doing really great with it! I am going to see him out in LA when I go do THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS out there and we will get some time to work on it a little bit.
PC: How exciting.
SS: Yeah, he is working away at it. He loves it - he really loves doing it. He just loved doing the musical version of THE PRODUCERS and the musical version of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, too - he loves to sing and he loves music and really understands it. Mel loves to create, non-stop - he has such a spontaneous brain. It's a such a total privelege to watch it happen - whatever it is he writes.
PC: And we all eagerly anticipate how you will tackle staging "I'm Tired"!
SS: [Laughs.] Of course! Of course.
PC: Hopefully, with Megan Mullally!
SS: Hopefully! That would be great.
PC: And what about a baked bean scene - a baked bean ballet?
SS: [Big Laugh.] Well, there will certainly be that scene in it - I can promise you that! I don't know if there will be a ballet there, but there will be beans, I am sure...
PC: There have not been many cowboy musicals on Broadway, so this will be treat for modern audiences. A country-themed score, I assume?
SS: Oh, yeah - absolutely. Absolutely. We are really looking forward to working more on it.
PC: Having worked one-on-one creating new musicals with Mel Brooks, Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, and, now, Woody Allen, is there any way to even compare utter brilliance like that?
SS: Oh, well, for one, I can tell you that they are all very, very different - very different. [Pause.] You know, I am working with Woody right now and it is absolutely wonderful, but it is totally different from working with Mel...
PC: In what way?
SS: I mean, the script for BULLETS is just so, so funny - Woody is just tweaking away at it and is very collaborative. They are alike in that way. But, I have to say, getting to work with Woody now on a musical is beyond dreams realized for me - I mean, he is an iconic New Yorker that I always thought someday I would run into or maybe meet but I never thought that I would get to be actually sitting in his living room and writing a musical with him.
PC: You're virtually a modern-day Helen Sinclair!
SS: [Big Laugh.]
PC: What a character - what casting possibilities! Patti LuPone is being considered, I assume?
SS: We are actually having auditions for that when I am back from Chicago, so that is something I am looking forward to doing next week. Unfortunately, I can't say who we are considering yet, though...
PC: Can you give me any hints about what songs will be included?
SS: No, I can't tell you that, either! [Laughs.]
PC: It is a work-in-progress, after all!
SS: I can tell you that they are all songs from the Great American Songbook - the show takes place in 1929, so it is all songs from that era. I'll tell you, what I have found to be just wonderful is to sit with Woody and go through all of these ideas and songbooks. He is such a brilliant musician.
PC: People often forget about that quite important facet of his career.
SS: Yeah, I think maybe they do - it's really been so wonderful to put this show together with somebody who is so knowledgeable about music and loves music like Woody does.
PC: So, would a closer comparison to BULLETS now be that of you and Harry Connick Jr. on THOU SHALT NOT? Or, is it totally unique?
SS: Oh, yeah - I think BULLETS is unique in its own way. I mean, THOU SHALT NOT was based on a novel and BULLETS is based on a movie, so it's all a little different working on something depending on what it's based on. For instance, if you are working with a movie script and you are turning into a musical, you just have to leave the original behind because you are creating a new animal.
PC: Is CRAZY FOR YOU or THE PRODUCERS the type of feel for BULLETS, then, generally - a screwball comedy with heart?
SS: Oh, yeah - it's so, so funny and it's going to be so much fun. And, Santo Loquasto is designing the sets and William Ivey Long is doing the costumes - it's going to have a terrific look to it; very, very stylish. We have been working a lot on the look of it all.
PC: Marvin Hamlisch was originally going to write a new score for it when it was first announced a decade ago, I believe, isn't that true?
SS: Yes, I think about ten or twelve years ago he was involved, but, to be honest with you, I don't know what ever happened with that. I just don't know what happened. I know that he wanted to write it, but I don't know that he ever did actually write anything for it.
PC: Premiering after BULLETS and BIG FISH, what can you tell me about LITTLE DANCER at the Kennedy Center?
SS: Well, it's based on a very famous statue of a dancer at 14 by Degas. It's about the little girl and her relationship with Degas and that statue.
PC: What, in particular, about it?
SS: Well, when Degas debuted that statue he got the worst reviews of his life and it was put away for forty years and not recognized until he died. So, the whole show is really about art not recognized in its own time.
PC: What a rich topic for a musical - particularly considering your team.
SS: And, also: now, the statue is recognized as one of the ten greatest statues ever - and, it inspires little girls to dance. So, it has a very profound effect on young dancers, that statue. It's going to be a wonderful show, I think.
PC: What has been the most recent development it?
SS: Well, we did a workshop of it and then the Kennedy Center picked it right up for their Fall Season in 2014. What's really wonderful about the Kennedy Center, too, is that the statue is at the National Gallery down there.
PC: What a wonderful happenstance to occur.
SS: It is - it's wonderful. Lynn and Stephen have done a really, really beautiful score for it - it's absolutely beautiful. People will really enjoy it, I think.
PC: Is this the first time you have worked with Lynn since A CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE MUSICAL?
SS: I think so - and, I'll tell you, it's particularly wonderful because Lynn and I see each other all the time because we live across the courtyard from each other. We live very close to each other and we are constantly seeing each other, so it is going to be great to be back together working on something again.
PC: The movie of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is quite wonderful as well - and very faithful to the stage musical, too.
SS: Oh, thanks - it's a great little musical, I think, too.
PC: CENTER STAGE was another film that had such wonderful choreography from you, as well - do you field offers for film projects or do your interests lie with theatre mostly?
SS: I do. You know, I do consider offers, but I really prefer to do only pieces that I create myself. So, hopefully, CONTACT will be getting a movie someday.
PC: Is there any progress to report on a CONTACT movie?
SS: Oh, well, we keep working on it and there is a studio that is interested, but it would have to be developed in a little bit different way even though it is basically the same story. I think that it is such a different animal making a film that I really have to believe in something passionately in order to enjoy doing it, so I do consider offers when I get them, but I always try to make sure I only do things that I really feel close to, in my heart - like I did with THE PRODUCERS and with CENTER STAGE, too.
PC: You worked with Nora Ephron on YOU'VE GOT MAIL, as well, did you not? Do you have any memories of her in particular?
SS: Oh, yes, I do - she was wonderful. I loved Nora. It was a big scene. You see, the Parker Posey character in YOU'VE GOT MAIL had a boyfriend originally - she met him in a Jewish temple and they dated. And, so, I did, like, three big numbers for Nora - for those characters.
PC: I did not know any of this, actually, myself.
SS: Yeah, it's not something a lot of people know about. I remember I even did this Busby Berkeley-style number that was a hora and couples picked each other up and stuff. There was a lot of choreography in it, actually - it was a big number. But, then, they ended up cutting that whole character out of the movie!
PC: What a shame.
SS: Yeah, when they got to the editing they realized that they really wanted the movie to just be about Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, so they cut the character and they ended up cutting all those musical numbers out. Nora was wonderful to me, though - she sent me a DVD of just my work and said how sorry she was that it didn't get in. She explained that once they cut that character they had to remove all of that choreography, too. But, I really loved working with her on that anyway and we socialized quite a bit since then - it was always great to see her out at different events and things like that. It was a shock to me - a real shock - when she passed away recently.
PC: What are your thoughts on women directors rising up the ranks in a number of mediums recently - Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar, Diane Paulus has had so much success on Broadway with HAIR and PIPPIN, et cetera?
SS: Oh, it's absolutely wonderful! You know, it was very male-dominated in the theatre when I started, but, now, it is different. I think that it has changed a lot in the last few years, too; even the last two or three - and, oh, my gosh, I am thrilled about it! I try to be very supportive of other women as much as I can - you know, in my union, we have an observership and I usually choose a woman to be part of that so they can have the chance to see what I do. So, I am very, very supportive of women directing and choreographing and I hope to see it even more in the future.
PC: Is another CONTACT on the horizon for you - an evening of dance? An original revue of dances?
SS: Oh, absolutely - absolutely. You know, I have lots of short stories of dances in my brain and I would love to bring some of them to the stage. I think it will definitely happen again. I have some ideas that I think would be good for a sort of evening like that. So, to answer your question: yes, I would like to have another situation like CONTACT and have a group of dancers to create an evening with; that was a very special time for all of us, working on that show.
PC: THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS was absolutely stunning, as well - one of the most important musicals of the 21st century, I have to say.
SS: Oh, thank you so much for saying that! Yes, we start rehearsals again on Monday for the LA production, actually.
PC: How exciting!
SS: Yes, we are so excited. Josh Henry is coming back to do it in Los Angeles, too, which is so great.
PC: What a talented and nice guy he is.
SS: Oh, he's wonderful - so talented. Christian Dante White is in it, too - we have about seven of the original Broadway guys in it, as a matter of fact.
PC: LA will certainly be getting a first-rate production.
SS: They will. You know, SCOTTSBORO has had really great runs at The Old Globe and at A.C.T. - it's having this marvelous, marvelous regional theatre life.
PC: Which it richly deserves.
SS: It does. So, after LA, we going to the Young Vic in London right afterwards. I have to say, it has been great that it has been embraced like it has - and, since we are talking about it now, did you know that the original nine Scottsboro boys just got pardoned?
PC: A story that should certainly be garnering more coverage than it is, clearly.
SS: I know! The musical is what really stirred that all up, though, I think - which is amazing.
PC: How so?
SS: Well, we were involved with the museum down there in Alabama and all of a sudden the story and everything got stirred all up again by the musical and people were talking about it again - one of our producers on Broadway and the sole producer of the London production went down there and flew up people involved in the museum so that the case would be brought up again and everything. And it was. And, now, they finally just got pardoned! It's amazing - so amazing - albeit late. The fact that it happened after all these years is just astounding to all of us. We couldn't be happier about it happening, though.
PC: It is a remarkable moment for musical theatre history to have happen, as well.
SS: Yeah, John couldn't believe when he found out about it last week - of course, John Kander remembers being a little boy and reading about the case in the papers!
PC: Both Josh and he spoke so movingly to me about some of the families involved with the trial coming to see the show and how much the show meant to them.
SS: Oh, yeah - a lot of them came to see the show. It was great - so great.
PC: Have you contemplated filming either the LA or UK production for posterity? It is such an anomalous show.
SS: Well, it was filmed for the Lincoln Center Archives, of course, but I don't know - since you've brought it up, I'll tell you that some people have investigated the possibility of turning it into a film, actually. I don't know if it will happen, of course - the reality of all that. But, people have thought about it...
PC: Having directed the movie musical of THE PRODUCERS yourself and having had CONTACT filmed and broadcast on PBS, what are your thoughts on the trend of filming musicals and live broadcasts in general? Additionally, do you support movie theater showings?
SS: Oh, I think it's totally wonderful! I know that the Met does them all the time - the movie theatre showings - and I think it's just amazing that people can go and see shows from the Met live at their local movie theater. That is a genius idea!
PC: It really is.
SS: You know, a lot of people cannot afford those tickets - and the same is true for Broadway - but they still crave culture. So, this new idea that is available because of the new technology available might be able to bring in people who would not be able to afford an opera ticket or a theatre ticket - I think that's just genius.
PC: Is that the new model? Is this part of what Broadway will become in the future?
SS: I think so. I think it is the way it is going to go.
PC: Do you think theatre and the performing arts being reflected more in entertainment via TV shows like GLEE and the popularity of movie musicals is part of the transition into that?
SS: I do. I think that there has been a newfound admiration for people who can really sing and people who can really dance - the performing arts, really - and I think that that is shown by all these new TV shows about dancing and about singing. People realize that it is much more difficult than it seems and that you really have to have the chops to be a star in these fields - in all of the performing arts. It's especially true for Broadway performers - you know, they are like athletes to do what they do eight times a week!
PC: You can say that again.
SS: They really are. The training, too, is different than for any other art form - the people who can do it are really almost one-of-a-kinds. I have a real appreciation for that - and I think other people have a new appreciation for it, too.
PC: In remarking upon appreciation: I remember seeing THOU SHALT NOT and loving it, but knowing that it was unlike anything I was likely to see again.
SS: [Big Laugh.]
PC: Did you feel like you were creating something unabashedly idiosyncratic?
SS: I did. It was something very, very special. The thing is, that show happened at a difficult time in New York - we were in technical rehearsals when the Twin Towers fell.
PC: An impossible situation to be in.
SS: It was. [Pause. Sighs.] It was probably one of the hardest times I've gone through in the theatre - trying to rally a group of actors and a group of stagehands to do this very dark piece after the Towers had fallen and everything that had happened in New York at the time. In fact, no one wanted to see anyone do anything wrong onstage or onscreen, I don't think - so, it was very difficult to be doing a musical that had any dark themes or that had characters who were involved with murder. It was a very, very difficult time for me - for all of us.
PC: Perhaps the show will live again someday - with better timing.
SS: I hope so, too. I do think that THOU SHALT NOT could be done again and could be done well - and that the show could be shown to a whole new audience. It's interesting that, when musicals appear, what is happening in society at the time can have such an effect on how that musical is perceived and determine what the success of the show will be. I do think that Harry Connick Jr.'s score is fantastic and gorgeous - and, as for me, I had three turntables! [Laughs.]
PC: A rare indulgence - and you made amazing use of them during "The Thou Shalt Not Ballet", among other moments, I might add.
SS: Yes - exactly. Very rare. And, I have to say, three turntables were very artistically fulfilling for me as a choreographer - but, I understand that what was happening outside was not conducive to what the storytelling was onstage.
PC: Did you cut anything from the show because it was too dark and you wanted to appease sensibilities given the atmophere at the time in New York? "Dumb Luck" with the gurneys?
SS: No, I don't remember cutting anything for any other reason than just for time and pacing, really. It was never for any other reason - like I am doing in Chicago with BIG FISH; it's all about time and sticking to the storytelling.
PC: BIG FISH is your first time working with Norbert Leo Butz since THOU SHALT NOT, which was his first time creating a role on Broadway, is it not?
SS: Yes! It is! And I could not be happier about it. He is so spectacular - spectacular - especially in BIG FISH.
PC: How did you get involved with BIG FISH in the first place? Did you inquire?
SS: Actually, the producers of the film came to me - they called me. And, I knew who they both were because they produce very profound films like AMERICAN BEAUTY and Harvey Milk and BIG FISH. So, when they called and asked for a meeting, I said, "Absolutely!" because I knew they were different in their choices and I really admired them for that.
PC: Had you seen the film prior to receiving that call?
SS: Yes, I had seen the film once and I remember being very moved by it. You know, for all of us in the theatre - if you create for the theatre or love the theatre, it is probably because somebody told you big stories; and, so, you love storytelling. This is a story about storytelling and someone who tells big fish stories. It's about the possibilities of the theatre - the possibilities of telling a story. So, I just knew that I wanted to do it right away.
PC: I've heard there are some incredible effects in the show. Do you enjoy working to create coup de theatre-type moments with the possibilities of new technology? Can you give us any hints?
SS: Yes, in BIG FISH, there are some very magical moments in the show that people have really been responding to. That's the thing about it, though - with BIG FISH it's all a combination of arts and crafts with modern technology to create something unique.
PC: A gumbo.
SS: Yeah - a stew. It's got a combination of both - which I love; there is some real, basic, theatre-making going on and then there is some stuff that is really testing what we can do technically in the theatre right now. I love that - I love having both. It's not one or the other.
PC: The best of both worlds.
SS: Yes. You know, it's as simple as a guy shoves a pot of flowers off the edge of a windowsill with a broomstick or it can be projections and lights and big effects. It's a fusion of old-fashioned theatre craft and hi-tech, brand new technology. It's a wonderful balance, I think, in BIG FISH.
PC: Michael C. Hall was considered before Norbert for the central role, correct?
SS: Yes, Michael did one of our readings, but Norbert was born to play this part, I think. You know, a lot of the time when you do readings it is really for you to work on the material, yourself, so that you are not reading the material to yourself any longer. [Laughs.]
PC: A fresh perspective.
SS: Yeah. So, when we knew we were going in for the big moment - for the real deal Broadway show - we knew Norbert would be the choice for the part.
PC: Why, in particular?
SS: Well, Norbert is authentically Southern, and, of course, he can just do it all - he can sing and he can dance and everything - and he is so perfect for the part in this piece. So, my relationship with him is very, very good and we are very creative when we work together.
PC: Is that an essential element of your collaborations? After all, Mel Brooks, Nathan Lane and Norbert are all big personalities - do you enjoy that kind of dynamic?
SS: Yes, they are - and, yes, I do. I think it is important. You know, they have big personalities because they are so talented, so to have these sort of larger-than-life performers and personalities who are so passionate about what they do - I mean, this is all that they can do; this is what they do. So, when you are creating, you want to just surround yourself with people like that - people who were born to do what they are doing, whatever it might be. So, I think that makes it a very safe room to create in - because these kinds of people, they are going to give you 100% and they are not afraid to try things out and fail or fall on their faces a few times if that's what it takes. They are always searching to make things better - always.
PC: What has changed the most in BIG FISH over the course of the Chicago run? Is the show in good shape for New York now, do you think?
SS: I do. I really do. We got some really good reviews and I have been tweaking away ever since. As we were talking about earlier, it's all about the storytelling and making the story as clear as possible for the audience to follow. So, that is what we have been doing in Chicago - every performance. We have been trying a lot of different little jokes out and the clarification of certain plot points and how they are revealed - and the actors are all up for it and they roll with all the punches. It's exciting! It's exciting to put new changes into a show every night.
PC: The work is never done.
SS: Well, that's the reason to go out of town - you don't just go out of town and leave after it opens! [Laughs.]
PC: Some do anyway!
SS: I know. But, you know, you have an audience there and you want to try out as much as you possibly can before an audience. So, we are just having a fantastic time out here.
PC: Will you hopefully be among the 2014 Tony Award nominees, then, may we assume? BIG FISH is still on schedule for Broadway, I take it?
SS: Oh, absolutely - absolutely. We are heading for the Neil Simon Theater in October.
PC: Am I correct in thinking BULLETS OVER BROADWAY is scheduled to premiere next season as well? A musical drama and a musical comedy both in the same season?
SS: Yes, you are correct. It's crazy! It's crazy. But, you know, that's just the way that these things happen. When you work on these projects, you work on them for two or three years and then you never know when they will actually be produced, so, if you are lucky, you work on several things at the same time with the hopes that someone will pick one of them up and produce it. But, I have to say: this has happened to me before, so it's something I can handle - you just try to make the best show possible and hope the audience responds to it; you don't do it for awards or anything like that.
PC: You directed Sondheim's THE FROGS on Broadway almost concurrently with filming THE PRODUCERS movie, did you not?
SS: Yeah, I did. It was crazy! [Laughs.]
PC: Speaking of THE FROGS, what was it like for you to receive brand new Sondheim songs in rehearsal like that? "Ariadne" and some others are absolutely glorious.
SS: Oh, it was great! It was totally amazing. Of course. And, you know, I think that THE FROGS was the last Broadway musical that he wrote a new score for, so that was just so, so thrilling to have happen and be a part of that. "Ariadne", for instance, he wrote especially for Nathan - and that was thrilling to witness being created.
PC: So, you look back fondly on your collaboration with Lane and Sondheim on that show?
SS: Oh, it was a total thrill - I loved working with them. Previously, I had done A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the New York City Opera with him, and, I had done SONDHEIM: A CONCERT AT Carnegie Hall, as well, for PBS. So, to create something new with him in the room was a special kind of thrill. It really was. It was a rare thrill. I will never forget it.
PC: THE FROGS employed some revolutionary use of aerial choreography, as well. Will you be using that again in BIG FISH in any capacity?
SS: That's interesting that you mention that - I think that in THE FROGS it was the first time it had been done on Broadway. We brought that to the theatre, I think. I thought it lended itself so well to THE FROGS and the costumes - these Grecian women coming out of the sky. When I first started the show, I actually pulled the girls aside and said, "Would you mind doing this? It is quite a task to do," and they were all up for it. So, once I knew that they were up for doing it, we would have these silk classes everyday - and their bodies got so toned and they got so fit doing it that they just got hooked on it! [Laughs.]
PC: A surprise benefit.
SS: I actually think some of them still do it to this day! They go out to New Jersey and hang around - literally - in some gymnasium out there. But, yes, I think it was just beautiful - for me, it added to the whole look of the Dionysian idea with the fabric everywhere and everything.
PC: Supposedly Bob Fosse would not hire muscular dancers because he did not like the line they created. What are your thoughts on the body types of dancers changing so radically since the 1970s? Do you enjoy using different body types whenever possible?
SS: Well, I think that, for me, every show I do is a different style, so it requires a different style dancer - I think that is different for a Fosse show, though, because he was like Picasso and mostly stuck to the same style; but, that style is so, so brilliant. For me, because I do so many different stories and different style shows, I need different body types for each one...
PC: For example?
SS: For example: OKLAHOMA! For that, I needed balletic dancers - balletic men and balletic women who could pull off the dream ballet. For something like CONTACT, the dancers have to be more sensual and understand partner dancing and be sexy in some way and also rhythmic. Something like THE PRODUCERS, the dancers had to be funny. You know, in the auditions for the chorus of THE PRODUCERS, they not only had to sing and dance and act, but they also had to tell a joke!
PC: No way!
SS: It's true. And, not only that, but they had to tell a joke to Mel Brooks! [Laughs.]
PC: How daunting!
SS: Indeed. So, to answer your question: every show is different - every audition is different. So, now, for BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, for instance, we are looking for men with an Italian-American look. For BIG FISH, we are looking for the more Southern, character-y all-American look. Like we were discussing before, I am about to do another show coming up soon for the Kennedy Center written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, LITTLE DANCER, and, for that show, those dancers are going to have to be trained ballerina dancers, en pointe.
PC: Every show is different.
SS: Yes. For me, every show usually has very different requirements. Also, like, for THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, even though they are in their 20s and 30s, they have to act like they are teenagers - 18, 19 years old; because, if you remember, the original Scottsboro Boys were 13 to 19 and I want to keep that youthful look as much as possible. So, honestly, it is different for every single show I do - it is never the same. It's more important for the actor to dance in the role of the character and strengthen the story with how that character will dance over anything else for me when I am casting something. It's always about the telling the story - that is always the most important thing to me, as we have been saying all along.
PC: CRAZY FOR YOU had such a unique original ensemble, as well - each one was their own character. You did it again in THE PRODUCERS. You don't want anonymity, clearly.
SS: Absolutely not. In the end, it is always about the storytelling and you want to make it all as believable as possible and always be as true to the characters as you can be.
PC: To return to the subject of Sondheim for a moment, I must say that the 1992 Sondheim Carnegie Hall concert is spectacular, too - it's one of my personal favorite concerts.
SS: Oh, thank you! That was such a great night - we loved doing that. You know, since we're talking about it, I have to say that that DVD is still very, very popular - we still sell a lot of them, year after year, still, after all of this time. It was a really wonderful time.
PC: The Liza Minnelli numbers are totally on fire, I must say. "Back In Business" is one of your career best.
SS: Aww, thank you! Well, the story behind how I got to do that was Liza and I had previously worked together before that on her Radio City Musical Hall show, so we knew each other already. That was a very good time for her in her life, I think - she was really just dancing and singing like nobody else then. She was - and is - incredible.
PC: A revue you are currently working on is with Sondheim's frequent collaborator, Hal Prince - PRINCE OF BROADWAY, which is now opening in Japan coming up in 2015. So, why the delay?
SS: I know! Well, you know, everybody's schedules got messed up here and all of a sudden the Japanese producers called and offered to do it in 2015 and so we agreed to do it then. I mean, Japan? Talk about out of town! [Laughs.]
PC: That's hilarious.
SS: I think it's exciting, though. I think it will be a wonderful piece - I really believe in it. We've created a very entertaining and very unique evening. We hope to do it in the Spring of 2015 there if all goes as planned. And, I mean, you have to remember: we are all pretty much here because of Hal Prince.
PC: He is the true king of modern Broadway.
SS: Just the list of all the legendary shows he has produced and/or directed on Broadway... [Pause.] it's staggering. And, he has so much to do with who we are today as a theatre community, too. So, putting this show together with the man himself has just been spectacular and I can't wait to do it.
PC: The concept for the show is quite interesting and the weaving of the material together is quite intriguing, I have to say. I've seen the prospectus.
SS: Yes, I think it is going to really be something, too. It's a very, very special project.
PC: Speaking of another of the great directors of all time, did you ever know Michael Bennett at all or did you arrive on the theatre scene after he had passed away?
SS: Well, I didn't know Michael Bennett personally, but I can tell you that I certainly admired him.
PC: Who would you cite as your major influences overall?
SS: I think that my major influences are Fred Astaire, of course, and also Jerome Robbins and Balanchine - they are the people that I am inspired by most. Of course, the ideas behind the numbers Michael Bennett created were just spectacular and I admire his work greatly, but I never got the chance to meet him.
PC: You are a choreographic chameleon in much the same way he was - you create a whole dance language for each individual show, it seems.
SS: Yes, I do. I think that is very important for choreography.
PC: You are the master director/choreographer of the modern musical - do you feel daunted at all given your reputation, particularly with four new shows coming up?
SS: Oh, that is so kind of you to say, Pat - thank you so much for saying that. I honestly really love what I do and I have a great passion for it and I love actors and I love dancers and I do know how fortunate I am to love what I do and I do know how lucky I am to be working in the theatre. I have such passion for the theatre and the fact that it has all worked out somehow is a true dream realized.
PC: Do you think it is a risky time for adult musicals on Broadway right now?
SS: Yes, I think that is a tough time because of the economic climate out there. I think that that's why we see so many revivals - they seem safe. People don't want to take risks anymore. I think we really need to get back to doing more new works in the theatre.
PC: Do you think a more artistic sensibility will arise sometime soon following this very commercial period we are currently in?
SS: I absolutely think so - and I definitely think that it goes in cycles. As I said before, I think that it goes with what is happening in society right now - I think that once we get through this economic strain that we are going through right now that we will see more people taking chances on new musicals by new artists. But, unfortunately, I think we are still there in that scared place for people to justify investing right now.
PC: Would you be open to doing a totally contemporary show someday - maybe a rock or even a rap-based musical?
SS: Oh, I would love to do something totally contemporary - I think that would be really thrilling to do. Yeah, it would be a lot of fun for me to do something very, very contemporary.
PC: One last question: what is with Ina Garten and Broadway directors? Isn't she good friends with both you and Rob Marshall? You've both been shown on her TV show from time to time, I believe.
SS: [Big Laugh.] She is! She is! I know! I know! It's so funny, isn't it? Yes, it's true, though. She is close to Rob and she and I are very close, too. I'll tell you that she is very personable and she is a good, good person with a beautiful heart and I really love her. And, you might like to know that she absolutely loves the theatre, too!
PC: Wow! Good to know. You are the best - thank you so much for this today, Stro.
SS: This was amazing! This was spectacular. I loved it. Thank you so much, Pat. Bye.
Photo Credits: Walter McBride, Lincoln Center, Goodman Theater, etc.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro