Interview with Director, Richard Maltby Jr.
Ted Sod: When were you bitten by the theatre bug?
Richard Maltby, Jr: I was taken to seeCarousel when I was eight or nine, and that was it. I kept asking my mother when the carousel (that was on the stage in the opening scene) would come back, and she kept saying "Shh, next scene." Of course the carousel never comes back. After that it was the stage shows at the Radio City Music Hall. I thought they were magical. But understand that I come from a family in which my father, who was a great orchestrator, thought the most thrilling thing in the world was to stand in the middle of Times Square and look at the lights.
TS: What made you decide to direct Just Jim Dale?
RM: Jim Dale had for a long time believed that the many stories and anecdotes of his long and incredibly varied career would make a good one-man show. My friend Aaron Gandy had been working with Jim for some time turning those brilliantly funny stories into a full evening, and had tried it out in a few out-of-the-way locations-but, while delightful in pieces, the evening lacked an overall organization and a cohesive shape. Aaron asked me if I might help. I came to Jim's apartment, we talked, and I fell in love with Jim and the life he has led. Well, who wouldn't? I felt instantly that Jim was correct, his life story held the perfect makings of a one-man show, and that audiences everywhere would have the same reaction to Jim and his life story. I decided to join the team right then.
TS: Did you function as a dramaturg on the play? If so, what suggestions did you make to the show's author and star?
RM: Actually dramaturgy was my major contribution to the evening, although that is not a word I like to use. I didn't write any of his stories. I edited them. There were elements common to many of the events in his life that Jim was not emphasizing. One of the first questions you have to ask when attempting to organize any revue-type evening is: is there a bigger theme that is touched on in the component parts, something bigger than just one man's life? In Jim's case, I noticed immediately that many aspects of his early life and indeed much of the comedy in Jim's adult career harked back to his training in British music hall comedy. He mentioned it over and over again. British music hall was the popular entertainment for working class Englishmen for almost 150 years. Every town had a music hall theatre, and vaudeville-type shows traveled around the country year round. Music hall performers were stars, and people went to see them over and over again. They knew all their jokes and wanted to hear them over and over, which is why music hall performers, even comedians, never changed their acts. Television killed off music hall in the years after World War II, but music hall comedy, including the actual jokes, lived on. They are the basis of all modern British comedy. The entire "Carry On" series of films were nothing but old music hall jokes recycled. Peter Sellers, Benny Hill, Noel Coward, Peter Nichols, they all stole freely from the music hall tradition. It was suddenly clear that Jim's life actually embodied the progress of British comedy from its music hall roots to the modern day. I pointed that out to Jim, and he was surprised to realize how true that was. Suddenly we had a defining theme for the evening, and with it a structure. Now all the many stories of his life had a larger context that they fit into, and it was a context that was true, not manufactured. With the structure in hand it was now possible to begin to organize the whole evening. There were always too many wonderful stories to include all of them, but now making the choice as to what to include and what to leave out became easier. The ones that fit into the grand design were the ones that stayed.
TS: What are the challenges of directing a solo show?
RM: A solo show is really no different from any other show. Giving the show an overall design, a shape, a structure is the same process whether it is applied to a one-man show or a large-cast musical. The important part of the process is asking questions. You can't decide up front what you want the show to mean. You have to search to find the meaning, the truth, the point, in the material itself, and once that manifests itself, you have to listen to what that truth is and follow it and enhance it. You have to release the show to be what it wants to be. It may not be what you expected it would be. Jim Dale didn't see at first that his life followed the trajectory of British comedy following the war, he was just living his life. But the truth was there. His life actually had a larger context, and he didn't know it. There are of course traps that an autobiographical solo show presents that other shows don't. Jim's career included a variety of challenges and opportunities, but whatever came along he pretty much always succeeded at, so it was awfully easy for the show to seem like am "and-then-I-wrote" series of triumphs. The show had to stay on the significance of the events and not on the fact that each challenge turned into a personal success. The major trap for a one-person show is not to get too self-congratulatory-which is difficult to avoid since the person on stage is there because his or her career has been filled with success. But with Jim this trap was easy to avoid because the stories he was telling were really there because they were funny, and because they exemplified the theme of the evening.
TS: What did you look for in your musical collaborators, Mark and Aaron?
RM: What I look for in any musical staff is an ability to see the musical elements of a show in the context of the grander theatrical design. Since both Mark and Aaron are writers as well as musicians, with them it was always easy. They came to me to give the show a theatrical structure, and they totally understood anything I would try to say to them. Musicians creating a show have to be dramatists. That is a truth that many musicians don't realize.
TS: How did you collaborate with your set designer, Anna Louizos?
RM: Anna Louizos has come up with a brilliant design for Just Jim Dale. When I saw her set design for the first time I was utterly floored by how perfectly she had solved all of the issues of the piece with one stroke. I told her, "Let's tell everyone that we had repeated meetings and slowly we came to this perfect set so I can take some credit for it." But in truth it was all hers. I showed Anna a video of Jim's show taken at one of his performances at the Long Wharf Theatrein New Haven. I talked about the obligation to keep the set a home for a one-man show while at the same time making everyone realize that it is in fact a totally theatrical evening and not just a concert or a lecture with songs. We talked about Jim's roots in British music hall, and how music hall is present in one way or another in all of Jim's work. We talked about the fact that Jim Dale is one of the great stage entertainers who comes alive on a big stage, one of the few entertainers who knows exactly how to control a large audience, and who therefore needs a context that will release him to have the scale that he deserves. We don't want the set to confine him. I said all of that, and several weeks later Anna produced the set you will soon see-in which she addressed and totally solved every issue. This is the kind of thrill you can get when you have the privilege of working with a world-class artist like Anna Louizos. My advice to young people starting out: get to know the most talented peers you can find and work with them.
TS: Is there a particular anecdote or event that you relate to in the play?
RM: Jim tells a story of being taken to his first show in London, and watching a great comedian do a pratfall and get a giant laugh, and saying to his father "That's what I want to do." I think everyone in the theatre has had a moment like that-when they went to the theatre for the first time and saw the magic, and decided right then, that's what I want to do.
TS: What are you working on now in addition to Just Jim Dale?
RM: I am working on several new musicals with David Shire, as well as productions every now and then of my shows like Ain't Misbehavin'. I have also just directed a production of Closer Than Ever in London.
Click here to visit the Roundabout blog.