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InDepth InterView Tony Awards Edition: Jeff Calhoun - Part 1: BONNIE & CLYDE, Plus A Career Retrospective

Today we are kicking off the 2012 InDepth InterView Tony Awards Series with the director/choreographer of the hottest hit of the 2011-2012 theatrical season, NEWSIES, that was recently awarded with a boatload of Tony Award nominations, in addition to a short-running show that has a very vocal group of advocates and supporters that also received a handful of Tony noms, BONNIE & CLYDE - the passionate and visionary Jeff Calhoun. Discussing all aspects of his freshly minted mega-hit with Disney's NEWSIES and his success d'estime with Frank Wildhorn's BONNIE & CLYDE, as well as all about his years spent developing both and the rule of three, Calhoun illustrates his process and sheds some light on many aspects of the creation of the wildly different dramatic musical vehicles, as well as his opinions on the theatrical environment of today. Additionally, Calhoun outlines his experiences working with NEWIES and BONNIE & CLYDE breakout stars Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes - both Tony nominees - as well as sharing insights arising from his many years spent as an associate choreographer for legendary Tony-winning master director Tommy Tune, creating many remarkable musicals such as THE Will Rogers FOLLIES and GREASE. Plus, Calhoun conveys his infectious enthusiasm for his craft and discusses what drives him to create while also sharing his humbled appreciation for the recognition for both of his new musicals this season by the Tony Award committee and reflecting on his vast multitude of experiences in the theatre so far in his career - everything from starring in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS and MY ONE AND ONLY on Broadway to choreographing THE Will Rogers FOLLIES and BUSKER ALLEY with Tommy Tune to transitioning into directing/choreographing in his own right with the hit revivals of GREASE, BIG RIVER, PIPPIN, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (with Graciele Daniele), BELLS ARE RINGING, as well as GREY GARDENS, 9-TO-5, BROOKLYN and the rest. Also, news on the upcoming JEKYLL & HYDE tour, tentative Broadway plans for EMMA, a John Kenley documentary and much, much more in this career-spanning two-part conversation with one of Broadway's best!

In Part I, Calhoun and I discuss BONNIE & CLYDE, GREASE, BROOKLYN, MY ONE AND ONLY and more. Part II is primarily focused on Calhoun's work on NEWSIES.

Part II is available here.

More information on NEWSIES on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre is available here.

Part I

The One And Only

PC: What a thrilling time this must be for you - major Tony recognition for not only NEWSIES, but BONNIE & CLYDE, too!

JC: Oh, I know - what a week it's been! [Laughs.] It's been a really amazing week. I actually just got married, as well, so it's really exciting both personally and professionally - we've been together sixteen years.

PC: Congratulations! BONNIE & CLYDE getting noticed must especially put a feather in your cap considering it closed quite a while ago now.

JC: Oh, it sure does! That show was a real heartbreak - because, as you know, a lot of people just loved that show.

PC: And they still do.

JC: They still do.

PC: Laura spoke so favorably of her experiences with the show and working with you on the various versions of it when she did this column recently.

JC: Oh, isn't she just an angel? Incredible. I love Laura.

PC: She really is so sweet. She's the next big Broadway star, I think - on the level of Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel.

JC: Oh, yeah - no doubt about that!

PC: Laura's "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" in BONNIE & CLYDE was a highlight of the season for me. What did you think of her performance of that fantastic number?

JC: Oh, Laura's "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" was just that - fantastic. I truly think that those are Don Black's finest lyrics to date, actually.

PC: Did you always anticipate she would have a big musical moment like that in the show?

JC: Actually, no; we didn't - with BONNIE & CLYDE, the whole time we were really just trying to protect Frank and so we just didn't want a big, belty, down-center song that would draw too much attention to itself; we wanted all the songs to be character-based and driving the story. I think that song is the closest we came to giving people what they expected from Frank Wildhorn - you know, that kind of a big statement song - but, in that case, I felt like we earned it and that it was not gratuitous.

PC: Jeremy Jordan is perhaps the biggest breakout star of the season and he, of course, starred in both of your new shows. In both the cases of Jeremy and Laura, how did you manage to tap into major new talent right before it explodes and they become huge?

JC: [Laughs.] Oh, I'm just really lucky that way! I guess it's that I get exposure to them early in their careers and then I use them as soon as I get the chance to - Sutton [Foster] is another one like that for me.

PC: Of course.

JC: I discovered her - she got her Equity card with me. Marissa Winokur - I gave her her Broadway debut, too. You know, it was funny because Sutton won the Tony and then the next year Marissa won - back-to-back.

PC: You can certainly sniff out the top-tier talent judging from those two Tony champs.

JC: Eden Espinosa, too.

PC: For the lead in BROOKLYN - of course.

JC: Yes, lovely little BROOKLYN - and don't forget Megan Mullally, too; GREASE was her first Broadway show.

PC: Eric McCormack, her WILL & GRACE co-star, just did this column, incidentally. What do you think gives you this sixth sense for spotting soon-to-be stars?

JC: Oh, isn't that funny you talked to him! I honestly don't know what it is - I guess I am just very lucky at finding people at a certain time in their careers and then doing shows where I can take advantage of their skills.

PC: What have been the best auditions you have seen in your career?

JC: Well, I think I'd say all those people that I just mentioned, and, also, Sherie Rene Scott. Let me tell you about Sherie Rene Scott.

PC: Please do.

JC: Sherie came in and auditioned to replace Megan Mullally in GREASE. I remember I went up to her after the audition and I said, "You know what? This is the first time in my life that I ever have felt that I would give up my career to manage someone, but that's how I feel about you."

PC: High praise indeed!

JC: Of course, since then, she has gone on to become a big, big star.

PC: Did you enjoy her recent solo show?

JC: Oh, I loved it! It was my favorite show of that season. I love her.

PC: Would you like to direct a solo show like that in the future?

JC: Oh, if it's the right star? Absolutely. I would do anything like that with any of the people we have mentioned - I love all of them; I'd do anything for them.

PC: Jeremy and Laura doing a duets show would be amazing.

JC: Oh, wouldn't it? You know, I have just been so blessed - two new, original Broadway musicals in one season with people like them starring?

PC: A complete and utter anomaly in this day and age - especially in this economic climate.

JC:  Yes - especially in this climate! I am really very proud about that - two new musicals; I am very, very proud. And, I got to work with all of these amazing artists!

PC: There have been quite an assortment between the two projects.

JC: I mean, just naming one: Frank Wildhorn? Of course, time will tell, but I think that someday he will go down as a great American songwriter - I really do. I just don't understand why the critics are going to be the last to know it, but I guess they will be.

PC: His score for BONNIE & CLYDE is his best ever on Broadway. The cast album is superb. You were involved with that, as well, correct? I know you were a bit busy with NEWSIES.

JC: Of course I was involved! As a matter of fact, John McD - the music director of BONNIE & CLYDE, John McDaniel - just e-mailed me and told me that the cast album for BONNIE & CLYDE is Number 2 on the Billboard cast albums chart, right behind WICKED.

PC: What wonderful news!

JC: It's really fabulous - I'm so, so happy the music is getting out there.

PC: One of your next projects is the West End production of 9-TO-5. Did you see Joe Mantello's Broadway production or did you start completely from scratch for the US tour version?

JC: No, I never saw the Broadway production, so it was pretty easy for me to come in and start fresh. I have been very lucky in that respect - I've never seen the movie of NEWSIES; I never saw GREASE or BIG RIVER before I did them, either.

PC: Speaking of that, your career has now come full-circle: your first Broadway musical as an actor was based on a classic film - SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS - and now you have NEWSIES. Had you seen the film prior to doing SEVEN BRIDES? What are your memories of your time in that?

JC: Oh, of course I had seen that movie! But, oh my God - I was so young and it was so exciting. But, we opened on a Thursday and closed on a Sunday, so… [Laughs.]

PC: Far from a huge hit!

JC: Yeah - for real! We previewed for a long time, though. [Sighs.] Ugh, I remember Frank Rich's review was "Seven Brides For Seven Clowns" - it was heartbreaking, but I learned early that this is a business of ups and downs and you have to roll with the punches.

PC: Do critics still have the power that they used to wield? Do they have any power at all in the age of the internet?

JC: Oh, they do - some do; you know which ones.

PC: Which is worse: bad reviews or bad box office?

JC: Oh, bad box office is much worse! [Laughs.] Are you kidding me?! No question!

PC: With a situation like BONNIE & CLYDE, how do you proceed with the production after getting badly reviewed or do you essentially just leave it up to destiny?

JC: The thing that happened to us with BONNIE & CLYDE is that the minute the reviews came out we went from doing really good business to the box office coming to almost a halt - people just instantly stopped buying tickets. So, that answers your question right there - critics still have power.

PC: Unfortunately.

JC: And, unfortunately for us, we did not have the reserve to keep the show going without reviews - in order to get word-of-mouth going and to catch on. We needed the sales. You know, a lot of producers are in a position where they can weather that storm with bad reviews, but we were not - we needed the reviews because we just did not have the back-up money. I am confidant that if we had had that, we would still be running.

PC: What a shame. So, the critics essentially killed it?

JC: Absolutely - as a production, you have to somehow outlast that terrible day of press, or else.

PC: Everyone forgets WICKED's and PHANTOM's reviews since they are now both huge hits.

JC: Oh, I know! I remember opening up one of the morning papers and the headline said, "Wicked Waste Of Talent!" And, you just go, "Oh, my God!" and you get a stomach ache. You know, you don't want to read bad things about any show - you don't ever want to hear that any show is closing because theatre is a community and you want to support your fellow artists. When I heard that LEAP OF FAITH was closing, it just gave me such a stomach ache and just took me right back to BONNIE & CLYDE's scenario. [Sighs.] There is just nothing worse than a flop - you work just so hard. You know, you work as hard on and you learn as much on your flops as you do on your hits - if not more.

PC: What a fascinating insight. It seems we have fewer and fewer director/choreographers these days - particularly in the mold of Tommy Tune and Michael Bennett. Why do you think that is? Sergio Trujillo just did this column and he seems to be one of the few exceptions to the rule.

JC: Well, we were all of a generation - Sergio, Chris Gattelli, myself. I mean, I remember seeing Chris in GUYS & DOLLS doing Chris Chadman's choreography and going, "Wow! Isn't he wonderful?!" So, I've been watching him for a long, long time. But, it's just that we grew up in that era - the Michael Bennett and Tommy Tune era.

PC: And Tommy of course is your mentor and was your collaborator on so many shows.

JC: Yes - absolutely. I owe my career to him.

PC: How did your relationship with Tommy Tune begin? What was your first meeting with him like?

JC: Oh, I will never forget it: I met Tommy when I was 17 and he was the Leading Player in PIPPIN. I was doing Summer stock with him with the Kenley Players - and, off the subject, but I am actually in process of doing a documentary on John [Kenley]; I've been working on it now for four years.

PC: Tell me more about the documentary.

JC: He's the most fascinating man I've ever met in my life. He passed away a few years ago at the ripe old age of 103. He created what Broadway became out there with the Kenley Players - he took stars and put them in revivals and made it all accessible to Middle America, long before Broadway did that itself. Back then, Broadway had Broadway stars, but it didn't really have a lot of crossover with movie stars and TV stars until recently - John Kenley invented that whole formula.

PC: He did the Dick Van Dyke MUSIC MAN, correct?

JC: Oh, yeah - he did everything! He would put Paul Lynde and Henry Winkler in ROOM SERVICE. He would put Ann Miller in PANAMA HATTIE. He would take these MGM stars, right when their contracts ran out, and he would put them into his shows and bring them to Ohio.

PC: What shows were you in there?

JC: Well, I did a few, but I met Tommy there doing PIPPIN - Tommy was the Leading Player, Barry Williams was Pippin and Maxine Andrews was the girl.

PC: What a cast!

JC: And I was just a chorus boy.

PC: You eventually worked with Stephen Schwartz on a new version of PIPPIN decades later, with Deaf West. What was that like to revisit it all those years later, now as the director?

JC: Oh, my God - that was thrilling! And, you know, the best part of the good fortune of having had a career like I have had is that I have gotten to work with these great legends - and Stephen Schwartz is a great example of that.

PC: The show was significantly revised in that version by the two of you, was it not?

JC: Oh, yeah - we changed a lot and did a lot of editing, too. You know, he told me that, next to the original, it was his favorite production of PIPPIN that he had ever seen - and that just, you know, made my life! I was just floating.

PC: I bet!

JC: We did PIPPIN as sort of a follow-up to BIG RIVER - another Deaf West production.

PC: Your revival of BIG RIVER is a truly unique entity in Broadway history - what a feat it must have been to get that on Broadway!

JC: Yes, BIG RIVER was probably the hardest assignment I have ever had in the theatre - and, ultimately, the most fulfilling. It involved a lot of challenges I never even knew existed or considered - you know, you take away your ears and there is just this plethora of problems you never even think about. So, because of that, it made me a better storyteller. I think that every show I have done has made me better in some way - whether the show was successful or not.

PC: Why do you think that is?

JC: Well, I either worked with great people that made me better or the process itself just made me better. I think you always have to have that attitude when you are an artist, anyway - an interest in the unknown and trying something new; if you fail, you fail, but you always learn something along the way.

PC: Your resume is clear evidence of one thing leading to another.

JC: That's right - it is. John Kenley led me to Tommy Tune who led me to Broadway. Then, Tommy asked me to replace him in MY ONE AND ONLY for two weeks when he was going to be out, after he had seen me in SEVEN BRIDES - so, I married Twiggy on Broadway sixteen times. [Laughs.]

PC: How fabulous!

JC: But, the best part was that I got to dance with Honi Coles for sixteen performances, too. That was the highlight of my career - I knew that, at that point, I would never have the last bow in a Broadway musical as an actor again, so I kind of closed the door on performing and just dove into choreographing and directing from them on. That's when Tommy asked me to do THE Will Rogers FOLLIES - and, just imagine, I got to watch the entire process of Tommy Tune, the greatest director of that time, working with Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Peter Stone

PC: A dream creative team if ever there were any! What was Peter Stone like one-on-one?

JC: He is the smartest man I have ever worked with, I think.

PC: Maury Yeston said the exact same thing when he did this column.

JC: Yeah - he is. Hands down. All those people were legends, but Peter really broke the mold. There has never been anyone like him and I don't think there ever will be again. He was such a nice man, but he was so funny, too.

PC: The book for 1776 is the best musical book ever - hands down.

JC: Oh, my God - it is. I actually just saw a production of 1776 recently - at the Ford's Theater - and, you know what? Peter Stone always told me himself that it was the best book to a musical - and he was right! [Big Laugh.]

PC: It really is.

JC: It's a brilliant, brilliant book. He was such an amazing man.

PC: What can you tell me about your experiences as a show doctor for TABOO? That is a tremendously underrated show.

JC: Oh, I'd love the chance to take another look at TABOO someday.

PC: You'd like to direct it?

JC: Yes - I think there's something really special there. I don't think the story on Broadway - or at least the telling of it - was right. But, that score? Just fantastic.

PC: The arrangements were absolutely thrilling, as well - John McDaniel again.

JC: Oh, I just love working with John so much - we've done so many shows together and he is just the real deal. Boy George's score was just spectacular, though - again, I am so lucky to get to work with all of these fantastic people.

PC: That cast, too.

JC: Oh, yeah - I have to say that Euan Morton was just the sexiest thing I think I've ever seen! [Laughs.]

PC: What a smart and thoughtful guy, as well.

JC: You know, that's actually how I thought the whole show should start off - with him in that phone booth singing "Stranger In This World". But, then, Rosie was like "You can't start a show with a ballad!" And, then, she listed every show that started with an up-tempo, and, she may have had a point, but, I said, "You can break the rules, you know - that's why we do theatre; we know the rules, so we can break them." And, ultimately, she just wasn't receptive to that idea at all. But, I would love to go back and reinvestigate that show someday - definitely.

PC: The longest running musical of all-time, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, starts with a five-minute dialogue scene, after all.

JC: Yeah, yeah - there aren't rules anymore; the only rule is to entertain.

PC: What was your experience learning the rules from the greatest director/choreographer of the last thirty years, Tommy Tune?

JC: Imagine being a kid from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who wants to be a director/choreographer and start out having your mentor be Tommy Tune - the greatest director/choreographer of the era! It just doesn't get any better - it's like growing up in Green Bay and having Brett Favre be your mentor; it doesn't get any better! [Laughs.]

PC: The perfect scenario. Do you enjoy doing regional theatre, even still, like he does?

JC: Oh, definitely - regional theatre is my favorite place to work, actually. It's like the line in GYPSY - you know, "New York is the center of New York." And that's the truth.

PC: So true.

JC: There's a whole wide world out there of theatre. I love San Diego, especially - The Old Globe, San Diego; and Sarasota. The audience really loves theatre and the artistic directors really love theatre and it's not about the reviews at all - it's not even about the money; it's about the work. That's why we are trying out Broadway shows in the regions these days.

PC: Do you think you can get away from any critics in the age of the internet and instant Twitter reactions, no matter where you or they are?

JC: Well, I think in a certain way you can because I think people respect where you are in the process - I think people will treat a new show differently out-of-town than they would a show on opening night on Broadway. I hope they would.

PC: Undoubtedly - but, to what extent?

JC: Well, it hasn't changed much in all these years - and I hope it doesn't change soon, at least not in my lifetime! That could destroy the process - and that process really can't be destroyed. You know, some say that directing is rewriting and it takes three times to get it right - first, there is some kind of reading or workshop; then, there is an out-of-town; then, there is New York. For me, it has always taken three times for me to get it completely right.

PC: On that note, Laura Osnes also told me that all three iterations of BONNIE & CLYDE were necessary to get the show where it ultimately ended up.

JC: That's what always happens! Always! BIG RIVER - so many; all of mine, at least. The only exception to that, which is a real sort of miracle, is THE Will Rogers FOLLIES - we did not have an out-of-town on that because the show was too expensive, even at that time, to go out-of-town with it.

PC: I never knew that.

JC: Yeah - especially because of that huge staircase and the huge, complex lighting package from Jules. So, we definitely got very lucky with how that all turned out. That show was really my audition for the big time - my job for that show was, really, to choreograph it and make it look like a Tommy Tune musical and win him the Tony Award for choreography because he was mostly busy working with Peter Stone and Cy Coleman and Betty and Adolph. I'm sure Tommy would tell you this, too - I did almost every step in that show; 99%.

PC: Is it true you took a lot of inspiration from 1930s film musicals - sometimes whole sections of routines?

JC: Oh, yes - absolutely; there is no doubt about that. You know, Michael Bennett always used to say, "It's perfectly OK to steal as long as you pay back with interest." [Laughs.]

PC: How apt!

JC: There's no doubt about it, though - we did.

PC: "Our Favorite Son", in particular - yes?

JC: Yes. There are moments from a lot of old movies and I know the specific scene you are talking about with that - but, as I said, we only stole the best and we always paid back with interest! [Laughs.] Of course, we added tambourines and changed a lot of things, but it was a very similar combination - absolutely - but I think we made it into something new.

PC: You really did. The tours of the show were both quite wonderful, I thought, as well.

JC: There have been a few different tours over the years and I remember specifically that I discovered Sutton Foster when I needed sixteen fabulous girls for THE Will Rogers FOLLIES on tour the first go-round and that she came in to the audition in flip-flops. [Laughs.] She totally transcended the flip-flops, though, let me tell you! I think she was only 17; that's how young she was.

PC: Wow. What did you think of her?

JC: Even at 17, it was obvious to us all that we were in the presence of greatness. So, we put her in Will Rogers and then she was in GREASE after that - and the rest is history.

PC: What was it like working on that production of GREASE and rebuilding the show in the way that you did?

JC: You know, people are not really aware of what we did with that show - we really rewrote it, actually. You know, MTV was really big at the time and we really tried to be the first MTV Broadway show - I really wanted it to have that feel.

PC: And it did.

JC: You know, I had to make the show fun for me to do because, to be honest, I am not really the audience for GREASE. But, how could I turn down the opportunity to direct my first big Broadway musical? So, I had to make it something I would love to see - that's why we started the show with the big party with Vince Fontaine spinning records when you came into the theatre. Then, it was our idea to introduce the kids at the top of the show like we did - one at a time, ending with Rosie going, you know, "And Rizzo!" I think that with the most recent revival of GREASE they went back to the original and that isn't my favorite version of the show.

PC: How did the restructuring of the show work? Was it difficult obtaining the clearances for the songs from the film?

JC: Well, first of all, I just have to say that John McDaniel did all new orchestrations for everything - and it's all genius. If you compare the CD to the original show's CD it's like two different shows. I specifically remember that Billy Porter was so amazing - this is someone with a crazy, soulful voice long before AMERICAN IDOL and all of that stuff got popular! I love "Those Magic Changes" on the album, especially - that's my favorite, I think. Sam Harris was spectacular, too.

PC: And many stars came into the show - Brooke Shields, Jon Secada.

JC: Oh, they did - I remember I used to call it the LOVE BOAT of Broadway. [Laughs.]

PC: Brooke Shields was the first big replacement.

JC: Yes - she replaced Rosie.

PC: How did the rewriting of the show work? Did you take the movie into consideration at all?

JC: We didn't base it on the movie at all - we basically had to do the original Jim Jacobs Broadway musical. We questioned whether we could get the big hit from the movie - "Hopelessly Devoted To You" - but, we couldn't get it. We even flew over to Robert Stigwood's to see if we could get the rights and it was just too expensive. We were so naïve at the time that we even asked, "Oh, can we even do it without that song?" And, then, we asked Tommy Tune and he remembered hearing a song on the radio that would work in place of it - "Till I Don't Have You" - and we used it instead. John McDaniel gave it a kick-ass arrangement, too, that eventually eliminated 99.9% of the girls who auditioned for the part and then Susan Wood walked in and sang it and blew us all away. Then, for four and a half years, not one person ever mentioned to me that we didn't have the big hit song from the movie. [Laughs.]

PC: What ever happened to Susan Wood?

JC: I don't know, but she was so fantastic, wasn't she? I remember a few years later she was the girl on the swing in RAGTIME - that's the last I remember of her, but, boy, was she a knockout! She was so beautiful and she just had these golden vocal cords.

PC: That's right! So, GREASE was really your first big official directing gig on your own?

JC: Yes - pretty much. I had done Tommy Tune TONITE! at the Gershwin Theatre, but that was just Tommy and four guys - that was my technically my official Broadway debut.

PC: ANNIE GET YOUR GUN was the next big hit for you after GREASE.

JC: And, again, how lucky was I? I got to work with Graciela Daniele and Bernadette and Reba - what a thrill that was. To this day, Tom Wopat's big number in the show - where he drags the boys across the stage - is one of the highlights of my career.

PC: With a fabulous John McDaniel arrangement - his work on that show was flawless.

JC: It's always the best with him - and I like to keep it in-house whenever I can, so I love to have him.

PC: When did you and he meet in the first place?

JC: We met when he was doing a non-Equity production at the Coast Playhouse on Santa Monica Blvd. - he was doing a revue of Marilyn and Alan Bergman songs, and, needless to say, it was ballad-heavy! [Laughs.]

PC: No question!

JC: What I'll never forget, however, are John's arrangements - Marilyn and Alan were actually in the show and the way he interweaved their songs and everything was so amazing. I remember that, during the show, they actually said to him, "John, you are a musical genius," and I remember thinking to myself, "Wow! If Marilyn and Alan Bergman are saying this about him, he must be really good." And, we've worked together ever since. I mean, a huge part of the success of the BONNIE & CLYDE cast album is due to John McDaniel.

PC: TABOO is a masterful cast album, as well.

JC: It is. He is a genius - totally and utterly.

PC: Did his involvement with BONNIE & CLYDE preclude his taking part in NEWSIES?

JC: Well, of course, I had planned to have BONNIE & CLYDE and NEWSIES running on Broadway at the same time, and, of course, Alan Menken has his own brilliant musical team that he has had for years, so that's why John didn't do NEWSIES.

Continue on to Part 2 of the conversation here.

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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)