When Directing Is Much More Than Just Directing

While watching both the Broadway production of Hamilton in October and the national tour of Finding Neverland last week, one thing that struck me was the extreme and sustained level of collaboration required of directors Thomas Kail (Hamilton) and Diane Paulus (Finding Neverland).  Both productions were developed extensively, over a long period of time, in partnership with the shows’ writers (Lin-Manuel Miranda for the former and the team of James Graham with Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy for the latter) along with creative teams including choreographers (Andy Blankenbuehler for Hamilton, Mia Michaels for Neverland), music supervisors (Alex Lacamoire for Hamilton, David Chase for Neverland), designers, producers, and many more crucial talents.

The story of the development of Finding Neverland is an especially twisty tale, as it began with not only a different director (Rob Ashford) but also an entirely different writing team.  Paulus, as artistic director of American Repertory Theatre (ART) in Cambridge, Massachusetts (where the eventual Broadway and current national touring productions originated), came aboard as a producer as well as the director late in 2013; by the spring of 2015 the show opened on Broadway.

Thinking about the process required to direct a spectacular musical production as complex and integrated as Finding Neverland, it seems to me that Paulus’s work must have been quite unlike–and far beyond–even the most far-reaching and tight-knit collaborations I have experienced as a director.  For example, in developing the spectacular environments for the show (which depicts the creative process of early-20th-century British playwright J. M. Barrie as he created the characters of Peter Pan and Captain Hook), Paulus worked not only with scenic designer Scott Pask and lighting designer Kenneth Posner but also with projection designer Jon Driscoll, whose sensational work was integrated completely into the show’s visual scheme from top to bottom.

In addition, the production employed experts to fashion flying effects, an illusionist, and an “air sculptor” whose function was mysterious to me until near the end of the show.  At that point, a series of beautiful effects using fans to move and shape textiles, fog, and especially an airborne cascade of silver gossamer fragments made the story’s climax shimmer.  There were of course a costume designer and a hair & makeup designer, but also an animal trainer responsible for the adorable antics of a dog that served as pet to the family at the story’s heart.  No wonder Paulus worked with two different associate directors (Nancy Harrington for the ART and Broadway productions and Mia Walker for the tour) in addition to the show’s stage management staff.

I haven’t enumerated the various orchestrator/arrangers, music director/coordinators, the sound designer and the “vocal designer,” which is also a new title in my experience.  Throughout it all, uber-producer Harvey Weinstein was at the project’s center.

[Sidebar: For an interesting deep-dive into a similarly extensive collaborative creative process with directors at its center, check out author Charles Duhigg’s discussion, in his book Smarter Faster Better, of the development of the Disney mega-hit animated movie Frozen].

My point is that directing of this kind is an organizational leadership and integral creative role that’s only hinted at by the more typical interpretive job of staging a musical that is already fully developed, even in partnership with a music director, choreographer, and a full roster of designers and stage managers. This is a whole different art.

The same difference seemed evident in Hamilton.  In the process of developing the entire project–script and score as well as production–from scratch, Tommy Kail achieved with Miranda (and Lacamoire, Blankenbuehler and the rest of their collaborators) a theatre piece of transcendent and otherwise inexplicable unity.  For all its complexity I was astounded by its seamlessness; I couldn’t tell where the characterization ended and the music began, where the choreography ended and the props began, where the lighting ended and the writing began.  If that sounds nonsensical, it’s because it expresses the mysteriousness, to me at least, of the artistic apotheosis Hamilton reaches.

It may just be that the Diane Pauluses and Tommy Kails of the world have gifts that are denied to the vast majority of us directors.  If there is a practical lesson for us to draw, though, I think it must be that there are no practical limits to the range of disciplines we must forever work to master: from dramatic structure to musical composition to choreography, from all aspects of design to all branches of theatre technology, from visionary and inspiring leadership to organization and administration to teamwork and collaboration, from history to literature, from acting to singing to dance, from magic to animal training, from psychology to the deepest secrets of the human heart.  And, of course, the ultimate skill of weaving it all together.

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