SONDHEIM! Lead Producer Ellen Krass Talks SWEENEY x2, Upcoming New COMPANY Concert, FOLLIES & More
Today we are talking to one of the top-tier talents in her field of producing theatre for television, the estimable Ellen Krass who is largely responsible for many of the greatest television captures of theatrical events in the last thirty years, starting with the filming of SWEENEY TODD and continuing with FOLLIES: IN CONCERT in the early 1980s, through to SWEENEY TODD: IN CONCERT, CANDIDE: IN CONCERT, COMPANY, and last year's CYRANO starring Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner. Tonight marks the PBS debut of SONHDEIM! The Birthday Concert and in honor of that momentous occasion, Ms. Krass joined me for a look back at her career that began backstage at the Dick Cavett Show and will continue on into next year with COMPANY: IN CONCERT and far, far beyond that, to be sure!
PC: The SWEENEY TODD filmed in LA is probably the greatest filmed performance of a musical I have ever seen. Tell me about that, your first production as a producer.
EK: I started out working for Dick Cavett when he started. But, as a child, I had gone to see COMPANY. I was so taken with COMPANY that I started writing to Stephen Sondheim saying that I was learning all the lyrics because I wanted to be in the national company.
PC: How sweet!
EK: Yeah. But, I didn't get to know him until we did SWEENEY TODD. He flew out to California and that was my first experience with him.
PC: What was that like?
EK: He was different than he is now. (Pause.) I have to say, he was very naïve about television. But, now, you know, he's quite bright. He knows what he wants. He's very specific. He's very gifted. He's all of the accolades that you can possibly give to someone as an intellectual lyricist, because he certainly is. So, after that, I just made it my life - I guess it was my calling! I wanted to memorialize as much of his work as I could.
PC: Thank goodness you did! Otherwise these shows wouldn't have been recorded.
EK: There's also another doll named Michael Brandman who did INTO THE WOODS and SUNDAY IN THE PARK and PASSION. He doesn't do this anymore, but we're very good friends.
PC: Wow, that's like the entire Sondheim oeuvre!
EK: Between us, we've really captured a lot of his work!
PC: How would you characterize Sondheim?
EK: There's only one Stephen Sondheim. All quirks and all, I just think that if I am ever in awe of anyone - and I liked Leonard Bernstein, I chatted with him over the course of three or four years and he never did the Dick Cavett Show.
PC: What was Bernstein like?
PC: What was Bernstein like?
EK: Well, I finally met him and it was a great meeting. I was certainly in awe of his talent, too - like with Sondheim. (Pause.) You know, I was walking to Starbucks today to talk to you and I was singing "Move On". I just was singing it. I was very, very moved by Mandy and Bernadette on the show [the SONDHEIM! DVD]. (Pause.) It stays with you.
EK: First of all, I was 27, so I was much younger. It was the most exciting job I had. I asked for $150 a week, and I got $160 a week! (Laughs.)
PC: A hard-bargainer from the very beginning!
EK: I couldn't even believe I was lucky enough to make that money. I was the talent coordinator. It was the best job I ever had in my life. When I left there, I made $400 a week!
PC: You certainly rose up through the ranks! Why did you leave?
EK: I eventually got so I didn't want to talk to famous people anymore. But, in the beginning, it was thrilling.
PC: Were you there for the Bowie interview?
EK: I was there for probably everything but when the guy died! (Laughs.)
PC: Looking back, what sticks out?
PC: How fascinating! Frost was famous for that.
EK: Well, Dick went off the air for awhile and David pursued me, but I didn't want to do it. But, then, I went to work for John Lindsay on a gigantic concert with Barbra Streisand, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra and Alan King.
PC: What a line-up!
EK: When that was over, the Dick Cavett Show went back on the air, so I went back. I didn't want to do it with anybody but Dick.
PC: What is your relationship with Barbra like?
EK: Well, I went to school with her! She's not a "friend" of mine - I mean, it's complicated. Barbra's not a girlie girl. But, she's the pinnacle of success and talent. The best thing that could have happened to her was Jim [Brolin] because her life is not so rarified now.
PC: She's better than ever.
EK: I went to Sandy Gallin's 70th birthday and Barbra sang and Hugh Jackman sang and Patti LaBelle sang and Joan Rivers did a riff, and I just have to say - I mean, I know Sandy from college, since I was 16 and a half years old - it was quite thrilling to think of someone who, maybe, nobody in the world knows - you know, the whole industry knows Sandy, but not the whole world - and he could gather a group like that and have them celebrate his birthday. It was quite thrilling, I must say.
PC: So, how do you sum up your experience on the Dick Cavett Show? You booked hundreds of amazing guests.
EK: Look, it was rarified on Dick Cavett because I was the talent coordinator and I could pick all the people in the world that I wanted to talk to.
PC: Who was at the top of your list?
EK: I became very close to Truman Capote.
PC: What was he like?
EK: I hung up on him! He called me and I hung up on him because I was so nervous! (Laughs.)
PC: That's hilarious!
EK: It was July 3rd that the show was supposed to be. And, I said, "Would you like to do the Dick Cavett Show?" And, he said, "Yes." So, when I went to pick him up he even introduced me to his editor! (Pause.) So, I had a long relationship with Truman and I really adored him.
PC: How do you place your experience on the Dick Cavett Show in your life?
EK: The Dick Cavett Show, in one way, made my horizons so much larger. But, in the other way, it became about so many choices and so many people that you'd never usually get to meet that normal became not as interesting. So, I don't know if I had to do it all over again would I choose that life.
PC: Was the whole FOLLIES concert filmed? That's been a pervasive rumor.
EK: No. No. You know, it was insane. It was $330,000 that I had to raise.
PC: That was a huge amount back then.
EK: It was a lot. A lot. You know, I never had enough money to pay the orchestra. The rules have just changed, last year, that you don't have to pay the orchestra for more than one performance. You can do two performances now. See, back then, it was $80,000 to pay the orchestra. I didn't have enough money and, so, I didn't shoot it all.
PC: What a huge shame.
EK: I wasn't even wise enough at the time to shoot the whole thing and then not use it all. It was just one of those things. (Pause.) You know, if it ever happened again - that I was doing the documentary - I would only shoot the whole concert, period, now. Even if I never used it, whatever it is - memorable or unmemorable - in the age of digital cinema and cameras and small HD cameras: the fact that everything isn't memorialized...
PC: It's a huge missed opportunity.
EK: I have to say, if not for Lonny Price none of these things would have happened. He's a genius. He's a quick study and he has a terrific demeanor and a terrific personality.
PC: He made that CANDIDE concert work better than any other production I've seen or read or heard of the show.
EK: It was just great. We did it once; we shot it once, just once - that's all we had the money before!
PC: FOLLIES to CANDIDE, twenty years apart - nothing changes!
EK: At the time, the head of Great Performances looked over at me while we were in the control room during the performance, he said, "Ellen, are we crazy?" and, I said, "Yes. We are." (Laughs.)
PC: In a good way!
EK: It came out great. It came out great.
PC: Kristin Chenoweth spoke so favorably of it in my interview with her a few weeks ago.
EK: She's so, so great. You know, I'll tell you something: it's interesting that when you do these shows that the music shines in a way. You know, CANDIDE was always one of those shows that you either loved it or you didn't like it, but, here, I think, you could just love it because the music was so prevalent.
PC: What was your favorite part of that production?
EK: Paul Groves was just so stunning.
PC: It was a great rendering of the show.
EK: You know, if I could do this - and make a living (Laughs.) - I'd be very happy! But, you can't make a living!
PC: Thank goodness you do it when you can!
EK: Listen, GREAT PERFORMANCES is the only place on television on America that airs these. There is only one place. (Pause.) It's scary to me.
PC: These telecasts are the lifeblood of theatre outside New York City.
EK: Capturing it as it is is so complicated. The stage hands get paid so much money! They get more money than the orchestra!
PC: That's ridiculous.
EK: It's the way it is.
PC: So, it's gotten worse from SWEENEY TODD and FOLLIES to SONDHEIM! now?
EK: It hasn't gotten any easier! Listen, Lonny is the one who develops these and creates them. He's so talented and so lovely.
PC: You should get him to do a MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG concert.
EK: Ugh. You know they're doing it again in England. Boy, does that have beautiful music.
PC: Bernadette in the concert is incredible.
EK: "Not A Day Goes By". Oh, my God! What a song!
EK: Oh, great! That's so great! (Pause.) OK, I have two favorite moments: I told you before that I was really, really moved by Mandy and Bernadette. I was moved by Mandy's ability to be - all these years later - so heart-wrenching. Also, I was moved by the entire Ladies in Red.
PC: The best concert sequence I've ever seen! So perfect.
EK: You think it was easy getting those red dresses? (Laughs.)
PC: Not at all. Who designed them?
EK: Diane Von Furstenberg. Lonny said to me, "Do you think you could get six red dresses?" and I said, "Well, let me try and see what I can do." And, I got them.
PC: Take me through the process.
EK: Well, number one on the list: Marin Mazzie. The easiest.
EK: And, just the greatest, too! Then, number two: Donna Murphy. Although she was easy, we had to kind of do something to pick up the dress - and she didn't want to take it off, so we had to practically do it while it was on her. But, she was very sweet. Elaine was Elaine, I don't even need to say that!
PC: Of course not. She looked great, though!
EK: And Patti didn't want to wear our dresses, so she went out and got her own. I don't know what she got, but whatever it was... she sings to her own drummer, let's put it that way! (Laughs.)
PC: Everyone looked so great. Audra and Bernadette, too.
EK: I got this gorgeous jewelry. You could see it on Audra's ears, these earrings - and on Marin Mazzie, they both wore the diamond earrings. Some wore the bracelets. Patti wore a little something, too.
PC: Did you have any input into the song selection?
EK: No. We talk about it, but it's Lonny. I am only the person who makes it possible for other people to see it. You can say that that's big or whatever, but as far as I am concerned: Lonny is the star of this.
PC: Especially in this SONDHEIM! Concert. The direction is spot-on - from the FOLLIES-esque opening to the fill-the-theatre ending.
EK: I just think he has got a fabulous eye and a fabulous disposition. You know, those two things are very important when working with other people. He's not a prima donna.
PC: Could you define collaboration in terms of your relationship with him?
EK: (Long Pause.) I'll tell you what it is: he gives me credit all the time for what I do. It's not like I'm there to embellish anything he does. "Without you, Ellen, it could never happen." But, for me, I felt, clearly: without Chase Mishkin it would not have happened with SWEENEY TODD in San Francisco. She made that happen.
PC: So, she brought you two together.
EK: That was the beginning. She came to me and said, "Do you want to do this?" And, I said, "Oh, absolutely! I've already done it once before!" But, without her money it would never have happened. The people who finance this stuff - and she was three-quarters of the financial help on SWEENEY TODD - are so important. They are so important.
EK: Stewart Lane was the idea and the money behind CYRANO. He loved theatre. It wouldn't happen, it just wouldn't happen without them. Each production has someone new in it. Mort Swinsky is another one, but he has passed away. He sent me a $150,000 check in the mail. He was a friend of Chase's. Image Entertainment is another one who makes all these things happen.
PC: COMPANY is the first theatre production on Blu-Ray, and now we have SONDHEIM! to go with it, thanks to Image.
EK: Pat, I have to tell you: we played it on the big screen earlier this week. Now, I've seen it many, many times, but it was like I saw it for the first time. It was so gorgeous. It was like every lyric was enunciated in a way that you had never heard before. It was unbelievable. And the sound! It was like you were sitting in the second row of the orchestra.
PC: It's really like you're there if you have the right set-up. It's so great it's being broadcast in HD, as well.
EK: It's so great in HD.
PC: What do you think of Broadway today?
EK: It's funny, I used to go to just everything. Everything. But, now, I kind of just say, "You know, I don't think I want to see that". I'll tell you, I loved PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT. And, I'll tell you what I think is maybe the best entertainment I have ever seen, world-wide, anywhere: War Horse.
PC: Steven Spielberg is directing the film version.
EK: Yeah, but I don't understand how. You see, the beauty of the play is that it's four wooden horses with people in them. There's three people in each horse. These horses come alive and they evoke emotion from the audience - at least me. To do the story flat - about the boy and the horses and their relationship - is OK, but the unbelievable beauty of the play is that they are inanimate but you are still so involved with them. So, it seems odd to do that story. I don't know, we'll see!
PC: There will always be the stage version, too.
PC: Since you are the queen of theatre on TV, what do you think of GLEE?
EK: Isn't it great? I love it. I love GLEE. But, you know what I'm surprised they haven't done? Stephen Sondheim!
PC: Yeah, they haven't approached him as far as he told me.
PC: Of course! "Poker Face" was the best moment of Season One.
EK: Oh, my God! It was so great. I love it so much. But, you know, Ryan Murphy is the right kind of guy - it couldn't be just any guy to do that - he's very dark, he's very creative, he's very interesting - and Fox loves him. That wouldn't be on a network otherwise. NIP/TUCK was so dark! It made HBO look like baby steps! (Laughs.)
PC: GLEE is edgy and it has the theatre element.
PC: Television is theatre's last hope.
EK: I remember seeing Jean Stapleton in a play a few years before ALL IN THE FAMILY. I wish I had gone in and touched her on the arm and said, "Jean, do you know that in about ten years you'll be the most famous woman in the world?" She'd say (Jean Stapleton Voice.) "What, are you crazy?!" That's what television does. It is an amazing medium for women.
PC: Why women? You sort of had to be a pioneer to make it back when you did.
EK: Sometimes I wonder from my upbringing where I got where I am. I didn't come from driven parents, but I was driven. As soon as I got into show business and started producing, I was driven. I think it didn't matter. At that time, I was a deal-maker and I think because of my stronger, masculine side I could do it. I can raise money and I am a salesperson and I do the job that has to be done.
PC: Tell me about producing the Tony Awards.
EK: That's all when I worked for Alexander Cohen. One of the first shows I did was HUGHIE with Jason Robards, and then I did YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU with Jason and Colleen back, a million years ago, in '82.
PC: What was Jason Robards like?
EK: Ugh. I loved Jason. I really got to know him on HUGHIE. Did you ever see Al Pacino do HUGHIE?
PC: No, but I wish I did!
EK: Ugh. I have to tell you, I went backstage and said to him, "You know, I shot this with Jason, but..." he just made it so different. His interpretation was so funny and so different. I had only seen Jason's interpretation. He was great, just great.
PC: Pacino is the actor of our generation.
EK: He is. He is. I loved him as Jack Kevorkian [in YOU DON‘T KNOW JACK]. I'm seeing MERCHANT OF VENICE on Sunday!
PC: What's next for you?
EK: You know what I want to do next? There's going to be a new COMPANY concert with the New York Philharmonic in April. I want to do that - again. I want to see if I can pull it off.
PC: Can you give me any details? Who's Bobby?
EK: I can't tell you yet! But the lead is a great guy. I don't want to announce it before it's definite. When it's all signed I will tell you!
PC: There can never be too many filmed COMPANY productions!
EK: How about when Raul sang "Being Alive"? Ugh. So great.
EK: I can only do two of each show, though! Two is enough.
PC: I hope we can look forward to a complete FOLLIES someday, then!
EK: Oh, I hope so! I want to do the ultimate FOLLIES. The one I did before, though Steve loved it, I didn't love it as much as him. Don't worry, we'll do it.
PC: What a cast you can get together! I can't wait! This has been great.
EK: It will be, honey! Thank you so much. Have a great day!
Photos Joseph Sinnott, WNET.ORG 2010