In 2000, the great Australian director Michael Blakemore, who rose to fame in Great Britain, became the only person ever to win both the Tony Awards for directing–of a play (Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen) and a musical–in the same year. His second Tony that evening was for directing the Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, which remains to this day the best revival I have seen of a traditional mid-20th century book musical.
His acceptance speech also remains my favorite, for its modest charm but mostly for its honesty. I wish I could link to a video recording of it or at least quote it precisely but I have not found it (if you do, please send me a link!). I can closely paraphrase my favorite part of what he said, however, by cribbing from the detailed credits available at ibdb.com.
“The fact is,” he said (approximately), “when you have Robin Wagner designing the sets, Martin Pakledinaz designing the costumes, Paul Gemignani directing the music, Kathleen Marshall doing the choreography, and Ara Marx as your stage manger, directing a Broadway musical is quite easy.” And, believe me, I’ve been there–most recently with Little Shop of Horrors in 2012.
In fact, I am one of those directors that just isn’t all that good at many of the various component art forms and crafts that go into an excellent production. Now, if you count producing, I’ll take credit for some ability there, and I assume I could still act pretty well (from the neck up, anyway) if I could remember the lines, and maybe even sing a little. But scenery, costumes, lights, sound, hair, props (I’m not even very good at shopping for them, let alone building them), projections? Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.
I could probably still put on my own makeup, but I couldn’t build a beard. It’s been far too long since I’ve stage managed anything to know if I ever could again.
And dance–choreography? Don’t make me laugh. Music direction? I can actually conduct a little (long story), but I can’t even plunk out a melody for the singers on a piano. I was recently out to dinner with a talented colleague that teaches musical theatre at another university, and I felt for him when he complained that he always has to serve as musical director as well as director, but mostly I just felt jealous that I don’t have the chops to do the same.
So, especially when directing a musical, I sit in the rehearsal hall making self-deprecating jokes about having precious little to do and thanking everyone and everything for the team of knowledgable, skilled, creative people on the team all around me. It’s axiomatic–a cliché, but not an incorrect one–that 50, 75, 90 or 99% of a production’s success can be ascribed to casting. In my experience, it’s just as true that success depends on the group of “creatives” that come together to male the production along with the cast and director.
At the moment I’m heading into auditions and then immediately into rehearsals for a show that is not a musical but that involves a great deal of both music and dance, and even more creative movement to bring the storytelling to life. As producer of my university’s Mainstage Series, I chose this play because it complemented other titles that we wanted in the season for good reasons. As a director I chose it for its thematic content (it’s a story about storytelling, and I can’t get enough of that stuff) and because, consciously or unconsciously or both, I wanted a challenge, and this play is very different from what I usually do–and what I feel confident doing–as a director. It also depicts a world that I know little-to-nothing about.
What is all-too-characteristic of me is that I agreed to direct this play–indeed I picked it–with blind faith that the right team would come together to realize it for an audience. Sure, I knew I would be working with faculty designers I know and trust and admire enormously. And the idea of one of our most experienced, sharp, and dedicated student designers joining us was a no-brainer. We’ve got a first-rate student stage manager. A student that I trust (because I’ve worked closely with him recently in the classroom and rehearsal hall) asked to assist me and he’ll do a great job, but he doesn’t fill any gaps in my expertise.
Then began the small miracles upon which I rely far too completely (I hope I’m not jinxing anything by writing this prematurely!). I asked the student that had assisted with the dances in our last musical if she would choreograph and she grabbed the project by the throat–she’s already way out ahead of me on research and specific ideas. We have new faculty arriving; one recently served as dramaturg for a different production of this play and the other served as movement coach and fight director at yet another school: I will pay visits to their offices soon, I’m sure, on bended knee.
Most of all I was really sweating the need for a composer/music director. I begged a brilliant colleague I’ve known for decades to lend a grad student from his composition studio that could do it (“I have no plan B!” I confessed). He found one! Hooray! The student could not schedule it. Oh, no. He changed his schedule and got free! Hooray-hoorah! And he is bright and enthusiastic and collaborative and has high standards and is flexible, and we have begun.
The whirlwind of meetings and approaches and sketches and schedules and inspirations is underway and, as ever, it is exhilarating. In the real world of jam-packed calendars and chaotic comings-and-goings, the director’s role emerges: I’m the one that everyone most needs to talk with, making me wonder if perhaps I won’t be useless after all.
But, oh, what gratitude I feel to have such a team to collaborate with. I certainly couldn’t do this show without them, but with them perhaps I’ll end up, like Mr. Blakemore, saying it was all “quite easy!”