BWW Interview: Broadway's Jeff Whiting to Helm New Musical FLY MORE THAN YOU FALL at Professionally Focused Theater Department of Utah Valley University
Broadway's Jeff Whiting has a point he wants to make clear:
"Utah audiences are very theater-savvy," he says.
Whiting is a Utah native, but he is far from a stranger in elite New York City theater circles. His lengthy credits include "Wicked," "Big Fish," "Young Frankenstein," "The Scottsboro Boys" and "Hair." The New York Times acclaimed him as a "director with a joyous touch." And theater students across the globe know him as Founding Artistic Director of the powerhouse Open Jar Institute, a premier music-theater training program in New York City.
Whiting previously staged at Utah Valley University "In the Light," which first gave fortunate Utah-based actors the rare opportunity to help develop an original musical with seasoned theater veterans.
He's back to reward perspicacious Utah theatergoers; this time with a hand-selected cast of Broadway veterans and local actors to direct and choreograph a second original show, FLY MORE THAN YOU FALL, at UVU's Department of Theatre -- quickly becoming a sought-out actor-training university with its many direct ties to Broadway professionals. In a state first, Tony nominee Will Swenson will lead a coproduction with the burgeoning Utah Repertory Theater Company at the Noorda Center's "Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" in a headlining 40-year anniversary staging. Add in the concert season that includes luminous soloists Audra McDonald and Bernadette Peters,
Book and lyrics for the Broadway-bound FLY MORE are by Eric Holmes ("Smash," "The Good Fight") with music and lyrics by recording artist Nat Zegree. And the musical is being produced by the highly regarded Suzanne Gilad and Larry Rogowsky with "Moulin Rouge!," "Angels in America," "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812" on their résumés. The Tony Award-winning team's next project is "Jagged Little Pill," written by Oscar-winner Diablo Cody and set to Alanis Morissette's music.
The story centers on Malia (Sony recording artist Lexi Walker) learning of her mother's cancer diagnosis, and her life unravels with grief. She draws on her creativity and strength to cope and eventually thrive. The 14-year-old creates a story populated by fantastical characters to provide solace, hope and strength.
"I think we've found a great balance between the fantasy story and the real-life story to provide a really entertaining experience, while still reaching into the heart of the audience in a very personal way," says Whiting. "Utah audiences are very theater-savvy and will teach us even more about that balance as we see their response and reaction. I'm very excited about the opportunity to debut the show in Utah."
Tell me how FLY MORE came about.
Jeff Whiting: I had worked with Eric Holmes (book writer) on a project and really enjoyed working with him. I had this idea for creating the show and asked if he'd have any interest. He immediately loved the idea and brought on Nat Zegree, his writing partner. They wrote the show really quickly and took the project to a really exciting level immediately. We did a reading of the show within six months and then the workshop about a year later. We're very excited to do the first full production here in Utah.
What makes the show so special?
JW: The story carries an immense impact. This family struggling with a cancer diagnosis and facing the terrible realities connected to that are difficult to deal with, but the approach to the storytelling is really unique. The daughter in the family is a writer and she deals with this subject by writing a fantasy story, which comes to life and weaves in and out of the reality in a really special way, allowing the audience to experience this subject in a totally unique and beautiful way.
How have audiences responded to previews of FLY MORE?
JW: The responses of audiences that have seen the readings and workshops in New York have been really wonderful. It's an emotional journey, and the way the story is told the audience gets the chance to experience this in a really new and surprising way. I was so thrilled to see the audiences really connecting and responding so positively to the show, the score, the story. I have been happy seeing audiences holding each other tighter when they left the theater.
Can you predict the show's future?
JW: This production of FLY MORE THAN YOU FALL is a great next step for the show's future, followed, perhaps, by another regional production and then a commercial run on Broadway. The story, the score have the perfect mix of heart and light to find a broad appeal for audiences across the globe. It has the heart of "Dear Evan Hansen" and the light of a Disney musical. Our amazing Broadway producers have a great strategy and we're excited for the ride.
JW: To my knowledge, this might be the very first Broadway show being developed in Utah and is a really unique opportunity for audiences here to get the chance to witness the development of a new Broadway musical before the world knows the show. Audiences in Utah are very theater-savvy, and that is one of the reasons we chose to develop the show here so we could learn about what is working, not working, etc. It will be an exciting night in the theater for all.
Also, the story is very relevant to today. With the two leading characters of the show being young women -- 14-year-old girls -- it's a really wonderful point of view for audiences to experience the story through their eyes.