BWW Interviews: Director Larry Landsman of BCP MUSIC MAN
New Jersey has numerous theaters in the Garden State and many of those community theaters have witnessed their very own to cross over the river and end up on Broadway. Bergen County Players (BCP) has been entertaining audiences for years and celebrates their 80th season this year. (They also have their own alum with Chaplin’s Rob McClure.) Larry Landsman is at the helm for the season opener which started on September 8th. BWW was able to speak to him now that the wonderful show THE MUSIC MAN is up and running.
Welcome to BroadwayWorld, Larry. 80 years is a wonderful legacy for the theater. Can you first tell us how long you have been involved with the group?
Lary Landsman: I've been involved with BCP since 1981. Its reputation as a quality local theater was widespread even back then and I was looking to get involved in a theater company. BCP was the obvious choice. We have nearly 300 volunteer members who keep the theater running from box office to backstage. Of course, The Players welcome new members who are interested in acting (we hold open auditions), as well as behind the scenes. You have aspiring professionals (many of our members have gone on to attain professional success), as well as doctors, lawyers, housewives and students. There's something for everyone at BCP. In fact, nine couples have met and married after joining BCP, myself included. Soon after I joined, I appeared onstage in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying when I met and ultimately married our "Smitty." In fact, both my sons have appeared on the stage at BCP (my youngest son is in THE MUSIC MAN right now). Besides directing, I've appeared onstage numerous times; have served the group as its President for two terms; and I'm currently on the Board.
I’ve always loved THE MUSIC MAN and find it to be more layered than sometimes people give it credit for. How did you choose this show as the season opener?
I've wanted to direct THE MUSIC MAN for a long time now. It's one of my all time favorite musicals. There is so much wonderful humor in the script -- it is filled with fabulously eccentric characters, not to mention beautiful touching moments. It also has that rare sense of unity because the book, music, and lyrics were all written by one man, Meredith Willson. Since it is our 80th season, we wanted to open with a show that had wide appeal, and especially one that was very family friendly. THE MUSIC MAN fit the bill to a tee. So I'm glad we waited for the 80th. But there is no bigger undertaking than bringing an American classic to the stage. Could we handle the large casting requirements? Could we execute all the set changes seamlessly? Could we find a leading man to play Harold Hill, as well as a leading woman to play Marian? I'm thrilled to say that we were able to accomplish it all. And judging by the audience reaction so far, I think we succeeded in a big way. The production includes the largest cast and creative team that have ever been assembled on the stage of the Little Firehouse Theatre.
I know you directed a much smaller show last season with Spelling Bee. Are you particular drawn to a certain type of musical?
I've directed a wide variety of musicals, from Little Shop of Horrors and Spelling Bee, to Into the Woods, The Full Monty, and now THE MUSIC MAN. Truthfully, I'm drawn to musicals that have a great story, endearing characters, memorable music and are just plain fun. I remember listening to my dad's Broadway musical LP's over and over again when I was a kid, including THE MUSIC MAN (similar to the Man in the Chair from The Drowsy Chaperone) and just fell in love with Broadway. I think that's when the magic was instilled in me. So, I absolutely love to find ways to recreate that magic on our stage for our audiences. And I never shy away from a musical if it is perceived as too big! I love our space in Oradell. Although we don't necessarily have the fly space, I believe many musicals are much more effective on a smaller stage (because of the intimacy). With the right creative team, and a lot of imagination, sweat and tears, anything is possible. I think THE MUSIC MAN is a perfect example of this.
There have been a few incarnations of Harold Hill on Broadway. Did you see any of the men who have played it there?
I've only had the pleasure of seeing Craig Bierko perform Harold Hill in the 2000 Broadway revival of THE MUSIC MAN. And of course I've seen Robert Preston in the film. Whenever you decide to undertake a musical containing an iconic role such as Harold Hill, there is always a danger of falling into the trap of mirroring (even if subconsciously) the actor who created the role. And Robert Preston is a tough act to follow. His Harold Hill was so indelible. In fact, Craig Bierko channeled Robert Preston so much to the point that it seemed I was watching a Preston incarnate in 2000. When I was casting the role, I specifically decided to look for someone who could bring their own interpretation to the part -- someone who could stay true to Meredith Willson's Harold Hill but someone who wouldn't force the audience to sit there for two hours comparing him to Preston.
Tell us about your Harold.
As we all know, Harold Hill is a flim-flam man. The scam he’s pushing in tiny River City, Iowa, is classic. First he convinces the townsfolk that their children’s souls are at risk (“Trouble...trouble right here in River City!”) from such evils as smoking, drinking, and billiard playing. Then Hill proposes as an antidote the creation of a marching band to keep the potential miscreants out of trouble. Hill is only too willing to collect the money with which to buy instruments and uniforms. His plan, naturally, is to get out of town with the cash before anyone gets the wiser. Of course he hadn’t counted on falling for Marian the Librarian, just about the only person in town who can see through him. Harold Hill truly is a criminal, but one so seductive that you almost don’t regret the time you spent being conned by him. It's a role that is challenging for any actor because you have to believe he can seduce not only the citizens of River City, but he has to be able to seduce the audience as well. I couldn't have found a better Harold Hill than in actor John Ade. John walked into the audition and owned the role. And never once, and I mean never once, did I find myself comparing him to Preston. It was an honor working with John because he brought so much to the process. His nuanced performance is a thrill to watch each and every night.
I’ve personally seen Katie Weigl on stage (who is playing your Marion Paroo) and know her to be an excellent performer. Share with us how you worked with your two leads to tell this interesting love story.
As you said, THE MUSIC MAN, at its core, is a love story and without two strong leads, the show just won't work. That is why we're absolutely thrilled to have Katie on our stage for the first time. She's a consummate professional and she truly was born to play Marian the Librarian. Simply put, not only can Katie skillfully navigate the high notes in all the musical numbers (and this truly is a challenging role to sing) but she brings a truthfulness to Marian every moment she is on stage. In fact, she commands the stage from her first entrance and you fall in love with her immediately. Most importantly, you feel for her since she's carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders (by taking care of her mother and little brother). I don't recall ever feeling so much for another Marian in any other production of THE MUSIC MAN. And it's all because Katie has grounded her Marian in the real world. You empathize with and understand her. Besides -- Katie is simply gorgeous to look at! She glows on stage and those period costumes make it seem as if she is floating on air. John and Katie had never met before their first audition together but it was clear it was a match made in heaven. And at our first read-through, from the moment I heard John (as Harold Hill) introduce himself to Marian; I started smiling so broadly I had to restrain myself. The chemistry was immediate and instantaneous. In fact, everyone in the room was inspired that day and we all knew we had a winner on our hands.
There is such joy associated with this show from children and adults alike. And with such a large cast, how was it working with so many people?
It was a thorough joy working with a multi-generational cast such as the one in THE MUSIC MAN. I especially love working with kids. They have such a pure, unfiltered view of the world. And when you find the right kids for the stage, their natural instincts as actors are spot on. It was especially rewarding to see there were absolutely no age barriers in this cast. During rehearsals over the summer, it was common to find our eleven, twelve and thirteen year olds hanging out with the senior members of the cast. I have a tradition with all my musicals (in fact all the shows I direct), in that I bring in a professional team building coach to work with the cast. These carefully planned exercises not only provide the cast with new tools for the stage, but they serve as icebreakers in order to break down barriers between actors. And believe me when I say it makes a difference -- onstage and offstage. Not only did we want to build a community in River City, Iowa, but we wanted to build a tight knit family at the Little Firehouse Theatre in Oradell. I think we succeeded in spades.
And the opening weekend reaction?
Over the top incredible. We were hoping to entertain, to move, and to get our audiences involved with our characters on an emotional level but we could never have anticipated such a reception (from audiences and critics alike). I think what makes this MUSIC MAN different from all the rest (besides the incredible talent both in front of the curtain and behind the curtain) is our approach. I was adamant from the beginning that our version be a love letter to Meredith Willson and his hometown. We wanted to offer up a slice of life of 1912 Iowa. These are real people, not caricatures. And folks have responded enthusiastically.
So glad you could share with us today. Audiences can experience all the wonderful songs and sights of this beloved musical that runs through Oct 6, 2012. For tickets and information, please visit: http://www.bcplayers.org/