BWW Interviews: Director BT McNicholl Takes a Fresh Look at WEST SIDE STORY
"The show still has the energy of those brilliant young collaborators toiling on together and shining that diamond," says BT McNicholl of his latest project, a new production of West Side Story which opens at the Ogunquit Playhouse September 5 and runs through September 28. The Broadway writer-director is thrilled to have the opportunity "to take a fresh look" at the Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents-Robbins classic and to bring to it "our own aesthetic."
Michael Schweikardt's newly designed Ogunquit production is choreographed by Jeffry Denman with musical direction by Ken Clifton. McNicholl is thrilled to be working with Denman for the first time: "We have been trying to hook up for a long time, so when Bradford Kenney called me, I jumped at the chance."
McNicholl, who is coming to the masterpiece for the first time, says he "can still feel the material when I am working on it." He admires the precision of Arthur Laurents' book, and feels his task as director is to "mine the story for clarity. Laurents did a magical job of telling a great story in very few words. Nothing is repeated; every word is important, and our job is to make their meaning clear and give the full measure of the narrative." He also stands in awe of Leonard Bernstein's score. "It's pure genius! There's nothing like it before or after except maybe Sondheim's works. I am bowled over by the brilliance of the music, not only the songs, but also the orchestrations. There are so many tiny details in the underscoring that help us get into the minds and hearts of the characters. So as a director, I just have to follow the roadmap."
West Side Story is the first big musical McNicholl has done in a while. "I've been doing mostly (straight) plays recently, which makes my work on musicals even more satisfying. I come at the musical from the point of view of the drama, trying to make things more specific and detailed."
The veteran director of such Broadway productions as Billy Elliot, Cabaret, Passion, and Spamalot, as well as a host of Off Broadway and regional theatre hits, McNicholl recalls that "his first director crush" was on Hal Prince, whom he subsequently met, and "whose body of work will be hard to match." McNicholl also draws his inspiration from the legendary directors with whom he has worked, among them James Lapine, Jerry Zaks, Rob Marshall, David Hare, Stephen Daldry, and Mike Nichols. "I am very grateful to all those men. Each had a different aesthetic, and working with them was my graduate school," says McNicholl, who grew up in Darien, CT, and directed his first show, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown in high school. Bitten early on by the theatre bug, he likens his own youthful artistic experiences to those of Billy Elliot. "My dad was a wonderful guy, but his interest was more in sports. Yet, to his credit, he recognized that his son had artistic dreams and ambitions, and he supported them."
McNicholl not only found his calling in directing for the stage, but also in writing. He has created the book and lyrics for shows such as The IT Girl, and 101 Dalmatians, as well as adapting and translating numerous plays and musicals. In the case of The It Girl, he also directed, a feat he says requires caution. "George S.Kaufman succeeded as both a writer and director, but it is difficult. He almost always had a collaborator or co-writer, which is wise. I am working on a musical version of The Blue Angel now, and Jeffrey Sweet is my co-writer, and I brought in Jerry Zaks to collaborate on The IT Girl."
McNicholl, who considers himself "musical, but not a musician" - I did play trombone as a kid, but never learned piano - nevertheless has had great success in adapting books, straight plays, and films for the musical stage. He says that a successful musical adaptation must "have central characters who are larger than life with big passions and big dreams," and that "the story needs a range of emotions and rhythms" which make for a good musical.
McNicholl is also often the go-to director to bring productions of American musicals to Europe or Asia. He has overseen the translation of American shows into languages such as Korean, Dutch, Spanish. The trick, he says, is "to make sure the foreign audiences get all the references. You can't plop a New York production onto a foreign stage and expect the audience to love it. You have to make them feel it is their show, their story. Europeans, especially, are very sensitive to translation and adaptation values." To succeed, McNicholl says he sits very patiently with the translator and with the actors and goes through the material line by line. "Right up until opening night you massage each line and make sure you are honoring the original intent, rather than betraying it."This patient search for truth and relevant cultural context was impressively in evidence in BT McNicholl's acclaimed 2012 Los Angeles production of the Spanish playwright, Jordi Galceran Ferrer's The Grönholm Method, which he is now preparing for Broadway. The original script, written in Catalan, produced in Spain, and made into a successful film version, is about several candidates vying for jobs in an insanely competitive corporate business world. McNicholl worked with the translator to create a culturally appropriate American context for the play. He says whenever a question arose about meaning "we'd go back to the original Catalan script because you can't paint all the nuances with the same brush."
The same attentiveness to detail that McNicholl demonstrates in adapting and translating is also apparent in his theatre work with animals and children. He laughs recalling the old stage advice to steer clear of both. "I think they are great," he says recalling his experience in writing the book and lyrics for the musical version of 101 Dalmatians and working with director Jerry Zaks on the production which featured both canine and human Dalmatians. "Working with animals teaches you lessons for working with people," McNicholl affirms. "You have to reinforce, be consistent with standards, and be very clear. Animals won't do what you want them to unless you are clear, and the same is true with people."
McNicholl has displayed the same patience and clarity in teaching master classes and in working with child actors, most notably while directing Billy Elliot and as child acting consultant on the recent film, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. "Child actors are very open, especially if they haven't yet had any acting classes. I use a method learned from Stephen Daldry. I work on actions. I ask them to interrogate with the line or to charm with it. And they can do that. They will interpret it in their own way, but it will be truthful." And McNicholl finds he learns from those he teaches and coaches, and that "teaching helps refine your own theories and discover new things."
Indeed, McNicholl's talents as a writer and teacher seem to inform and inspire his work as a director. "Having toiled as a writer, I have great respect for the playwright. The first thing I do when directing is to figure out the writer's intention and try to honor it. If something doesn't work, I find another choice. I think that's appreciated by playwrights here and in the beyond," he adds with a chuckle. While sensitive to the demands of different production schedules and different cultural contexts in the theatres where he works, McNicholl says he always feels an obligation to deliver a success, particular for the regional theatres whose existence depends on this.
Asked to describe his directorial style, McNicholl talks about emphasizing economy and clarity. His recipe for a successful show is threefold: "production, process, and personal. The production must be successful; the process must be enjoyable, and the participants must draw personal profit and enrichment from the experience."
Seemingly simple, this has only been achieved through BT McNicholl's own unique combination of talents. Writer, director, teacher, he brings to his work a respect for the essentials of the piece and for the collaborative process that molds it.