BWW Interview: A Women's History Month Special with Director & Choreographer Susan Stroman!

Third in a series.

Good times and bum times, she's seen them all, and my dear, Susan Stroman is not only still here but still out to conquer new worlds. Currently it's the nonmusical world: Dot, the first straight play Stroman has ever directed, is running at the Vineyard Theatre off Union Square through March 24.

Dot is written by Colman Domingo, who costarred in The Scottsboro Boys--directed and choreographed by Stroman--at the Vineyard and in its subsequent productions on Broadway and the West End. The Vineyard is where onetime gypsy Stroman first ventured away from performing when she choreographed Flora the Red Menace in 1987, back when the theater was still based at an apartment building in the East 20s.

Stroman's achievements since then are legendary: director-choreographer of two Tony-winning Best Musicals, The Producers and Contact, and choreographer of a third, Crazy for You; winner of the choreography Tony for those three shows plus the 1994 Show Boat revival; a choreography Tony nominee for 10 of her 14 Broadway musicals; the first woman to direct and choreograph a full-length piece for New York City Ballet; Emmy nominee for 1992's Liza Live From Radio City Music Hall; choreographer of the Christmas Carol musical (created by Stroman's late husband, Mike Ockrent) that was mounted at Madison Square Garden every holiday season for 10 years in a row; frequent collaborator with Harold Prince; recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC); member of the Theater Hall of Fame... She's even a film idol--just ask any of the cult fans of Center Stage, which she choreographed.

Three years ago the Vineyard Theatre established the Susan Stroman Directing Award, a residency for an early- to mid-career director. In addition to the Vineyard, Stroman's creative homes have included Lincoln Center, where she conceived Contact (originally for its off-Broadway theater, the Mitzi E. Newhouse) and directed the musicals Thou Shalt Not, The Frogs and Happiness, as well as works for NYCB and the Metropolitan Opera. She's also an associate director of Lincoln Center Theater.

Although Stroman's last three Broadway shows--Bullets Over Broadway, Big Fish and The Scottsboro Boys--were box office disappointments (plus 2007's Young Frankenstein was poorly reviewed, though it ran more than a year), her projects outside New York have been drawing a lot of attention. And talent. Prince of Broadway, a Hal Prince tribute musical that Stroman co-directed with Prince, debuted in Japan last fall, with Ramin Karimloo, Emily Skinner, Tony Yazbeck, Josh Grisetti, Shuler Hensley and Nancy Opel in the cast. She and Prince also co-directed the new musical Paradise Found at London's Menier Chocolate Factory in 2010; Mandy Patinkin, Judy Kaye, Kate Baldwin and John McMartin headed the cast of the show, which has a libretto by Richard Nelson and a score set to music by "Waltz King" Johann Strauss II. In 2014 Stroman directed and choreographed the world premiere at the Kennedy Center in D.C. of Little Dancer, written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and starring Boyd Gaines as artist Edgar Degas and Rebecca Luker and Tiler Peck as the adult and teenage versions of a ballerina he famously sculpted.

Sharon Washington, Marjorie Johnson and Finnerty Steeves in Dot

For Stroman, Dot represents a considerable scaling-down from all these big-budget, big-cast, big-story musicals. In our continuing series of conversations with female theater directors (see end of story for links), Stroman talks about making the transition to a nonmusical, about weathering the ups and downs of show biz and about blazing a trail for women that needs more footprints in it.

I assume Colman got you involved in Dot. Had you been looking for a play to direct?
I've always wanted to do a play, but it seems even playwrights who would contact me would contact me because they wanted me to make their play into a musical. So it's been lovely to actually be called on to do a play. We were doing The Scottsboro Boys in London, and Colman and I went out to dinner and Colman said, "I think I have a play that you would be very right for." I took the play home and read it, and I fell in love with the characters. It's a beautiful play.
Colman and I are from the same area: He's from West Philadelphia, and I'm from Wilmington, Delaware...about 20 minutes apart. So we grew up with the same love of the same music and eating Tastykakes and Charles Chips and all those things you do in that area. The show takes place in West Philly, so for me to be able to do a play that takes place in a familiar territory was wonderful; Colman and I can have a shorthand when we're talking about the area.

Stroman with actor-playwright Colman Domingo

What else do you like so much about this play?
Colman is able to write humor and heartache in the same sentence, which I find is very rare for a playwright. He is able to get humor out of a situation that might at one point be just maudlin. The play is about family, and about a funny family. And also how when trauma occurs, when something devastating happens, how a family deals with it, whether some members step up or some don't. I found that really fascinating--and accessible for an audience. When an audience watches Dot, they either know a character like that on stage or they are one of the characters on stage.

What have you discovered about yourself as a director working on a play?
The difference [from a musical] for me really is not that big--I approach the work as I would anything--but you have the actors there from 10 to 6 and they're not shared with a musical director, they're not shared with a choreographer, they're not shared with anybody else. There's something wonderful about being able to spend a great amount of time just on the characters and the dialogue and really be able to delve in in a deeper way. With a play it's almost more like a therapist, because you are talking about the characters in such great detail, and talking to the actors about how it applies to their own life or their own experiences. So each morning would be like a big therapy session. It's lovely to only have seven people stand in front of you instead of seventy.

How would you characterize yourself as a director in general?
It's a little tricky to talk about yourself that way. I guess, more of a protector. You want to be able to be there for the actors almost like a net that they would run into and you would catch them. And also, in the end, a storyteller. I love telling stories, and what's great about what I do is that I get the opportunities to tell diverse stories. Like The Scottsboro Boys, that's based on truth and an actual event, or something like Contact--which was created most all through improv, more connected to a contemporary audience, about making contact [and] if you don't make contact you will die--or something like The Producers, where it is mainly for laughter, to make people happy. Right down to the storytelling of Dot: to be able to tell the story of this loving family who adore their mother, and as the play unfolds they realize the mother has Alzheimer's, and how they deal with that. To be able to put that on the stage, it fills my heart. To be able to tell these stories makes me very, very happy. It is something I look forward to all the time.

Matthew Broderick and chorus girls in the movie
of The Producers, which Stroman also directed

You're one of a (small) handful of women who work regularly as directors of Broadway musicals. Why does the progress toward gender parity on Broadway lag so far behind off-Broadway, especially with musicals?
It is still a big gap, I have to say. I'm not really sure why, because I think women are better at everything. I think in theater, as in many professions, oddly there is not as much respect for women in charge. In my career, every once in a while I do feel that somebody might have trouble with me because I'm a woman. It's not something you can really even discuss. It's sort of a subtextual feeling sometimes.

Do you feel the situation has improved over the course of your career?
It has changed, and it changed for the better. I feel that women are criticized more than men for anything, even in politics; for some reason they are taken to task more by their critics. But as far as job availability, it's very different. I think if a woman has an idea for a show and she wants to explore it, off-Broadway is very embracing to women directors. I think Broadway needs to change its tune.
Whenever I do a show, my union, the SDC, has an observership, and I always have a young woman observe. I think that's very important--to reach out to younger women and bring them in. That's very much part of every production that I do, an observership for a woman.

Sharon Washington, Libya V. Pugh, Colin Hanlon
and Stephen Conrad Moore in Dot

Are you aware of any efforts within the Broadway community to address the disparity?
No, it's not something that's talked about ever. That's why it's lovely you're doing this [series], because it's never talked about. I think it would be opening a can of worms, ultimately, if people talked about.
What's great about what Colman's done with Dot is he is a black playwright with a woman director and then a diverse company. That's rare. When you see Dot, the family that you see up on stage is what Colman sees as the contemporary family, and it's wonderful.

What do you feel is most important to impart to young women who work with you?
Not to be afraid to ask questions, not to be afraid to try, not being afraid to fall on your face--because you just have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. It's trying to instill a bravery in your art, all about taking chances. Because if you really believe in what you're doing, if you believe in your art, you have to go out and make it happen. If you really believe in this piece, this story, this whatever, you have to be the one to make it happen. You cannot wait for the telephone to ring. You have to be the one to go out and stir it up. I think that's what some women are afraid to do; they're waiting for that phone call.

With Hal Prince during Prince of Broadway rehearsals last year

Does your own experience illustrate this as truth?
I came to New York to be a choreographer and director, but I came as a song-and-dance gal, 'cause I could [get work easier in that capacity]. But I always wanted to create for the theater.
When I first started, I was doing a Broadway show that lasted two weeks on Broadway. It was called Musical Chairs, and I was in that show with Scott Ellis. We were both lamenting how we wanted to be on the other side of the table. I had done the national tour of Chicago, and Scott had done the Broadway show The Rink, so we both knew Kander and Ebb. We decided, What if we went to Kander and Ebb and asked them if we could have one of their old musicals to try to take off-Broadway? We asked ourselves the question What's the worst that could happen? The worst that could happen is they say no. So we knocked on Kander and Ebb's door and, in fact, they said yes. So we took one of their shows, Flora the Red Menace, down to the Vineyard Theatre, and the Vineyard gave us a production of it. And we never went back on stage again. It had a big following, and because of that I was able to not only become best friends with Kander and Ebb but go on to do Liza's show at Radio City Music Hall and work for Hal Prince on Don Giovanni [at New York City Opera] and Show Boat. It was one of those remarkable times where you say, What's the worst that could happen? You need to take that chance, and knock on that door or make that phone call.

Tiler Peck, Boyd Gaines and company in Little Dancer

When did you first get the desire to direct and choreograph rather than perform?
That started young. I was that little girl who danced around the living room to her father playing the piano. I was in a dancing studio from about 5 years old, and my father played the piano every day in the house, and I would make up routines to his music. I acquired great passion for music from my father, and it was all about creating--creating for the music, creating with the music. As I grew older, I became a big fish in a little pond in Wilmington, Delaware, being the director-choreographer for all the community theaters and high school plays and even the halftime show in high school. It was always part of me to create rather than perform. The fact that I've been able to survive in New York City as a director and choreographer is really beyond dreams realized, but I also know how fortunate I am, because I love what I do and I've loved doing it since I was a very little girl.

Do you still struggle at all with any aspects of your job?
Sometimes it's hard to understand why a show works or why it doesn't, and that will always be the case. That can be discouraging. It's a miracle a musical gets up, a miracle a play gets up--just what it takes, and the different departments that are involved. You put your heart and soul into everything you do, and sometimes, when it's not embraced by the critics, it's a puzzlement. Because you would never go into something if you didn't believe in it 100 percent--it's too hard. One discouraging thing, too, is investors don't seem to want to take chances like they used to, and that's why we have so many revivals. They don't want to invest their money in new work, they want something more comfortable. It would be great to again come into a time when people took chances on new work and new artists. That's why I love Hamilton so much, 'cause Hamilton is so unique and inventive, and I'm sure that was a bit of a chance for an investor to put his money into. Of course it's paid back tenfold. But that it even exists is fabulous.

Ciara Renée with Norbert Leo Butz in Big Fish

Your last three shows on Broadway all had short runs. As someone who's helmed megahits, are you shocked--or perplexed--by these flops?
It's all different. It's hard to read into these things. Scottsboro Boys we created at the Vineyard off-Broadway, and I think it may have been too intense for a Broadway audience. I ended up doing nine different productions of Scottsboro Boys around the country, and it was always a big hit in every regional theater, and then it won the Best Musical [Evening Standard] award in London. But I think if tourists had their choice at the time to see Mamma Mia or Scottsboro Boys, they were going to choose Mamma Mia. It was bold, but not tourist fare, and I think Broadway has gotten to be more about the tourists. Big Fish was a beautiful production, and we were able to do things in that show that had never been done before on Broadway visually. Perhaps we just weren't able to sell tickets because it was about the death of a father. I don't know; you can never be sure of your analysis of these things. And Bullets Over Broadway was a spectacular show that got rave reviews except for the New York Times, and that really hurt us. People didn't want old-fashioned music, maybe.
I never think of those three shows as flops in any way. A producer would, financially. But for an artist, I was able to do my art and explore something I'd never done before. Each show is a stepping stone to the next show, and you learn something from each show that you apply to the next show. Although they didn't run long, I know those shows will be remembered--and remembered fondly--by the audiences that saw them.

Is there anything left on your professional to-do list?
Yes, I feel like I have a lot of stories in me left to tell. I work with writers all the time, trying to come up with different ideas. It's very much a part of me to tell stories. I have a couple of irons in the fire that I can't really talk about yet, but it will be another musical that I'm working on.

Want to read the earlier interviews in this Women's History Month series? Click here for Smokefall director Anne Kauffman and here for Sweat director Kate Whoriskey. Coming next week: Familiar's Rebecca Taichman.

Stroman's headshot, Little Dancer and Big Fish photos: Paul Kolnik (3); Dot photos: Carol Rosegg (2); Stroman and Domingo: Kevin B. Winebold; Stroman and Prince: Walter McBride

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