Meet the Tony-nominated Creatives Behind Some of This Year’s Biggest Broadway Hits
In This Episode
ELYSA GARDNER: Welcome to Stage Door Sessions by Broadway Direct. In this podcast we have in-depth conversations with Broadway’s brightest, bringing you what’s new, what’s noteworthy, and what’s coming next to a stage near you. I’m your host, Elysa Gardner and today we’re speaking with you from the Tony Award Nominees press reception where some of those brightest the most noteworthy artists have gathered on a two-show day—no doubt running on sheer adrenaline here—to talk about their work, the season, and being tapped by Tony, as the big night approaches. In this last episode with Tony nominees, we have interviews with spectacular creatives across the field, including some of the top designers and directors working in theater. They share reactions on their nominations as well as in-depth thoughts on their key offstage roles in some of the season’s most celebrated shows.
ELYSA GARDNER: We are here with Bartlett Sher, the great American director who is this year up for directing a new play, a new American classic version of To Kill a Mockingbird. This play has gotten rave reviews almost universally, but there were a few purists who took issue with some changes that you and Aaron Sorkin instituted that I think made the play more theatrically compelling and more resonant today. Different nuances and characters, making the courtroom the main setting. I’d imagine given the box office that the public feedback and from fans, people who liked the book in the novel, has been positive though?
BARTLETT SHER: Very positive. I mean I think… I think what people don’t often realize is that it’s sometimes quite satisfying for something like a novel to have many iterations and each one could be different from the next. So the fact that it was a well-known movie and that it then became a stage version, that part of the fun is to experience different things about it than you expect from the book or you expect from the film.
ELYSA GARDNER: That’s right. And did you keep that in mind in casting? Because for example, Jeff Daniels is a revelatory Atticus. I mean he just brings something so new to the part.
BARTLETT SHER: Yeah, I don’t… I think I think people misunderstand casts. Casting is not an external business. It’s not how they look. It’s really a question of a kind of internal life and the ability of a great artist like Jeff to manifest and express those internal qualities in a room with 1,400 people. So you really resonate and see in Jeff all of the internal struggle of what Atticus is going through. And because Aaron’s rethought the character of Atticus Finch to be more of a real person who’s dealing with whether he’s become an apologist for his neighbors, whether he has to change his point of view, he’s pushed by Calpurnia to look at it differently. That’s something that Jeff’s quiet, powerful, very, very gifted physical instrument in his work expresses quite beautifully.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. I think the play and the material speak to our times in a number of ways sadly, but one of the things that’s most touching and heartening about it is how it shows something you just really alluded to— the humanity and, in some cases at least, the dignity of small town people. And I think that’s something that’s sorely needed in New York City.
BARTLETT SHER: Yes.
ELYSA GARDNER: And in our country right now.
BARTLETT SHER: I mean we have to understand it’s as much a piece about race and region. You know, it’s set in the south. This is a… from the point of view of a young girl, young white girl growing up in the South and watching who her father was, watching what her community, was and learning what she learns and that’s a very specific thing to particularly life outside the bubble here in New York. And it’s a piece— it’s race, region, gender and sexuality, class. Within the divisions in the community are very different layers of class. So Mrs. Dubose would be the most upper class and one of the most racist, matched against the farmers who are on the jury who you know struggle very hard to maintain their land are in competition with others. So you see a very complete picture of a community in the book and in the play.
ELYSA GARDNER: And you see the enduring, you know, legacy of the civil war. That’s something I was thinking about seeing the show. Have you gotten comments from out of towners or people who travel to see the show?
BARTLETT SHER: We had people, the very first previews, we had people from Alabama there at the show who were very honored that they were seeing their story reflected on stage. They were happy that it had captured some of Harper Lee’s humor. They were hoping that it would be a dignified portrayal of this kind of community, which I think it is. So, we’ve had a lot of reaction from all over the country.
ELYSA GARDNER: That’s great. Well thank you so much for joining us and we will see you again with your next show.
BARTLETT SHER: Great. Thank you.
ELYSA GARDNER: We are here with three key creative team members from The Prom: old friends Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, and Matthew Sklar, who between them are nominated for Best Book and Score. You are all Broadway and musical theater veterans and I know that you wrote this show for other Broadway and musical theater veterans, performers who weren’t marquee names but who every theater fan knows and loves. And a few of them are nominated, as well as director Casey Nicholaw who crafted the show with you. So that must make this especially special.
BOB MARTIN: Yes absolutely. We saw the show last night and it was really moving, in the curtain call, to see the final three performers come out and know that they were all nominated for Tonys. It was wonderful.
CHAD BEGUELIN: Yeah I mean it also just getting to work with all these people that we love and admire and trust. And you know, when we originally started working on the show, we, you know, had these ideas of who we wanted to work with. And so to be able to craft these original roles to these people that we love like, Brooks and obviously Caitlin and Beth, and the entire cast has been a dream.
MATTHEW SKLAR: Yeah. And most of us go way back with a lot of these performers. Like I’ve known Chris Sieber since I was the rehearsal pianist at Paper Mill Playhouse for Peter Pan where he was a pirate in the early 90s. And Beth, I was a rehearsal pianist for a 42nd Street revival that she was in. So it’s like I go back, so far back with all these people and it’s just it’s been such a great thing to be able to create these parts for them.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Well as you’re mentioning this musical is a showcase for both exciting young performers and veteran performers and it’s got a subject is very much in focus right now. The challenges faced by LGBTQ youth, which you address in ways that are very, very funny with these lovable Broadway narcissists sort of invading a small town, but also very poignant. Was striking that balance difficult?
MATTHEW SKLA: I think that was the toughest part. It was really creating… getting the right tone for it. You know in our early drafts, you know it felt like, you know, the Broadway people were kind of invading a Broadway town. And you know during the development we really… we realized we really needed to make the town very real and a town in crisis so that when these clowns kind of come in and raise holy hell you know they’re really invading something brand new and you know so those two cultures really collide.
BOB MARTIN: Yeah, yeah I agree. It’s as we were developing the show. The issue at the heart of it really became the sort of bifurcating nature of American politics. And so it was really about these two sides trying to understand each other that that’s you know I mean that that is the greatest message in the show I believe.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah.
CHAD BEGUELIN: Yeah. It’s funny too we’ve been developing the show for over eight years and when we first started it was a time of hope and optimism in the country and things seem to be getting better for that specific, you know LGBTQ+ community. And now after this last election or last term, you know things have gotten worse. And so suddenly what we worried would not be relevant became very very relevant as a message for the show.
MATTHEW SKLAR: I really feel like it’s an important story to be telling. You know every performance we have kids come up to the actors after, you know at the stage door, with tears in their eyes just saying thank you, I see myself up there for the first time. And the representation is really important to them and that’s just you know it’s so moving for us.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. And very joyful as well as you mentioned. Thank you so much for joining us and congratulations on your well-deserved nominations.
BOB MARTIN, CHAD BEGUELIN AND MATTHEW SKLAR: Thank you, thank you very much.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well we’re here today with Daniel Fish who is directing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! on Broadway, a production that’s garnered a lot of acclaim and a lot has been made of how revolutionary this production is. But I’ve also gleaned that what you wanted to do really was to be true to these characters and really reveal them, maybe dig deeper inside them and make them accessible to contemporary audiences. Would that be correct to say that?
DANIEL FISH: Sure. You know, I mean I get a little suspicious around the word accessibility. It’s kind of like what does that actually mean.
ELYSA GARDNER: It can have a negative connotation, yeah.
DANIEL FISH: I think, yeah. I think what I’m interested in and what the actors figure out there every night on that stage at the Circle in the Square are interested in, is bringing them… bringing themselves, bringing their bodies, bringing their minds, bringing their voices to the material in as authentic and as honest a way as they can every night. And that’s a hard thing to do. And to do it with… to do it every night, eight times a week and for it to be real and persuasive. And that’s you know, fortunately, they’re buoyed by an extraordinary book and an extraordinary score and that makes it— that gives them something to to to really… it’s the spine of it as it were. But yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: And you really get a sense of how that score can live and breathe in different arrangements with the wonderful orchestrations in this production.
DANIEL FISH: Yeah, that Daniel Kluger did.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah who is also a nominee.
DANIEL FISH: Yes.
ELYSA GARDNER: You got a bunch of nominations for this. Were you a fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein and classic musicals generally?
DANIEL FISH: You bet. You know I went to musicals as a kid. I saw the 1979 revival with Christine Andreas and…
ELYSA GARDNER: Me too!
DANIEL FISH: Oh you did?
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, I worship her. I saw her in that and then My Fair Lady.
DANIEL FISH: So yeah. I went… I, you know I grew up going to Michael Bennett musicals and… but also you know shows like Lee Breuer’s Gospel at Colonus. So I am a fan of them. And you know, I just think the source material is amazing. And there’s a lot in there that I think like a lot of people I thought I knew Oklahoma!, right. You know you have the songs in your head since you’re a kid and you think you have this idea about what it is. And then when I got inside of it, I was like whoa there’s a whole story here that I didn’t know was here. That’s a, you know a story about violence. A story about the nature of community and the need for a community to create an outsider and the cost of doing so. And that I didn’t know was there. Yeah, you know I’m continually amazed by the generosity of the material as it keeps deepening.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah it really is. I heard somebody say that that’s like musical theater Shakespeare— Rodgers and Hammerstein.
DANIEL FISH: That’s a good way of putting it.
ELYSA GARDNER: It’s really rich. What have you heard from audience members who have seen the musical? I mean it’s gotten great reviews. It’s doing great box office, but have you… What have you heard from those who have seen the show before and maybe from those who have not seen it? Do they have different perspectives?
DANIEL FISH: You know, I think everybody has a different perspective. And you know I think what we all do is, as I said you know, we’re trying to do the best work we can do. And when we get that right and that’s like, it’s hard to get it right. And like all of the elements are coming together, if the design is coming together and the acting is coming together and the singing is coming together and the band is on and everything’s kind of grooving together and it looks and it sounds and it feels like we want it to be, then we send it out and it doesn’t belong to us anymore. And however people respond is fine. And I, you know it’s not that I’m not interested in the response. I’m always curious and always surprised by it, but like I really believe that like it’s theirs at that point.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah.
DANIEL FISH: And whatever they take away is fine.
ELYSA GARDNER: And the audience is part of that community in this production.
DANIEL FISH: And that’s what we’re asking. You know, that’s sort of that’s the deal that we’re putting out there and saying hey you know we’re going to spend three hours together making this thing and your presence is part of that.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Well that definitely comes across. So thank you so much for joining us.
DANIEL FISH: My pleasure, thank you.
ELYSA GARDNER: And congratulations on your nomination and all the others the show got. Thank you.
ELYSA GARDNER: We’re here right now with our returning champion, David Yazbek who won last year for, in the same category for The Band’s Visit. A little show called The Band’s Visit that won a bunch of awards and this year he is up for Tootsie which is also up for a bunch of awards. Everyone is loving this show. It’s witty, it’s accessible, there’s inside stuff that’s not too inside and you did some pretty extensive updating as well. Tell us about that, about bringing the story into the present.
DAVID YAZBEK: Well it’s, you know, the original movie, the workspace in the original movie, the show within the show is a soap opera. That just doesn’t feel like a very current, milieu right now. But also what’s the fun of just taking a movie and just putting songs in this pre-existing thing and then just slapping it on the stage. That’s not what I’m in the business for. That’s not what Robert Horn is in the business for. We’re in the business to have fun making something new. So I feel like that’s what we tried to do.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah yeah, and you did. Was the #MeToo movement a factor in the story? I saw Santino Fontana speak on a panel and he mentioned speaking with Rebecca Traister who is a, you know, a noted writer on women’s issues. Did you consult with her as well or did you all kind of talk about that?
DAVID YAZBEK: Yeah I mean I had a few discussions with her, with Robert and Scott Ellis. And I know that Santino was in touch with her a lot. And also other you know other friends of ours or people that we know that we respect. Women who have a take on what the zeitgeist is right now. If you’re a guy you can be very smart, you can be very empathetic, but you’re not a woman. So you’re not going to… you really can’t get completely into the shoes of a woman to understand from that side what the #MeToo movement is all about. So you know, I think we would have had these discussions even before the hashtag started because the brand of feminism that the movie deals in is dated in many ways. You know, comedy is a very sensitive and strange area when you’re talking about things like sexism or racism or you know, it’s like what is… what is the arena. You know where, how does the pendulum swing. We had to have those conversations.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah.
DAVID YAZBEK: You know, we knew we could be funny no matter what. But we, and we knew that we could serve the characters in the story no matter what. We just needed to check in.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. No, it struck that balance brilliantly. I mean it was outrageous, but it was also not offensive. That’s a hard thing to do nowadays.
DAVID YAZBEK: That’s nice to hear. Thanks.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well thank you so much for taking some time and congratulations again.
DAVID YAZBEK: Thanks.
ELYSA GARDNER: We are here with multiple Tony Award winner Des McAnuff whose wide-ranging work includes both rock infused hits such as Jersey Boys and The Who’s Tommy and who’s now up for one of 12 nominations for Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. Twelve for a show that wasn’t even eligible for Original Score— that’s amazing. Were you surprised by that?
DES MCANUFF: You know I’m extremely pleased. The Temptations, you know, The Temptations are an institution and I think one of the main themes of our show has to do with the entrances and exits and there’s a line in the show that the, you know, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There have in fact been 24 Temptations. So this is really a group effort. And I thought it was poetry that we got nominated in every category we’re eligible in. I think it’s truly a reflection of the show we’re doing. And so that’s a great feeling. I’m thrilled for the whole crew.
ELYSA GARDNER: And it’s getting standing ovations every night, from the first beat.
DES MCANUFF: People go berserk. Thank you. Yes, that’s true. People go berserk. There’s a kind of cathartic, you know, ending where they all came from the south, of course, the guys, and to Detroit is a part of that you know migration to the auto industry. So they all grew up singing gospel and we talk about that through the play, but we don’t actually go there till the very end. And there’s been a fair bit of pain and sacrifice by that point. So I dare say there are men in the audience with tears streaming down their cheeks that haven’t cried since they were five years old.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well The Temptations were and are known, they’re still around, for their spectacular showmanship and we see that in this production. The singing and dancing are just breathtaking. How did you and the choreographer work on those production numbers and make those songs everyone loves not only wonderful but fresh?
DES MCANUFF: You know we work, we do a lot of preparation together. Dominique Morisseau, who’s from Detroit, our writer, I spent many many hours with Dominique before we, she even really started writing the play. We created outlines. We had a kind of a blueprint. And then Sergio Trujillo, the choreographer, and I, we actually do plan things very, very carefully. You know we worked through the kind of physical production generally several times by the time we get to staging. And then from that point on, we have a kind of a, almost a kind of telepathic communication because we’ve worked together so much. So we kind of can check all that stuff at the door and then it really comes to life in a kind of process of discovery in the room. So he’s an amazing partner and I’m really pleased for him. While this is the moves are reminiscent of The Temptations, what he does is far beyond the choreographer, choreography that they were doing in the 60s.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh it certainly is, yeah the exuberance.
DES MCANUFF: And our guys are they’re, the company, they’re such great, not only great singers, but they’re spectacular dancers. We use that term triple threat, you know, acting, singing and dancing, and this company is really made up of a company of triple threats.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. You found a bunch.
DES MCANUFF: We certainly did. And they’re also gorgeous and they’re young. So one of the things that’s really really thrilling for me is watching at the stage door and it’s really like, well the original Temptations or the Rolling Stones coming out of the stage doors. I mean there’s literally screams from the kids.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh I’ll bet.
DES MCANUFF: So we love the fact that it’s so current. There’s, this is that this is a play that’s about now. Maybe it takes place in the 60s, but this is about the America we live in now.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Well, congratulations again. Thank you so much for stopping by.
DES MCANUFF: Thank you. I loved it. Thank you.
ELYSA GARDNER: On Stage Door Sessions we’re so happy to feature a wide range of the amazing shows playing on Broadway right now. There’s truly something for everyone, but with so many options for buying Broadway tickets, it can get very confusing. Broadway Direct makes it simple. We will always direct you to the official source for tickets. Whether you’re trying to decide on the best show for you or you already know exactly what you want to see, we’re able to get you the information you need to get the best seats, at the best prices, with the best customer service on Broadway. And with insider access, we’re able to bring the latest Broadway news, behind the scenes stories, backstage videos, and expert tips to help you find your next show. From navigating ticketing, to your in-theater experience, to keeping you connected to Broadway after the curtain comes down, we’re here with one mission to make your Broadway experience the best it can be. Buy tickets, get news, and explore all things Broadway at BroadwayDirect.com.
ELYSA GARDNER: We are here today with the great director George C. Wolfe who’s nominated this season for Gary: a Sequel to Titus Andronicus. I just want to say this was, this is such a brave and beautiful and different play and it’s full of wackiness and gory and devastating and hopeful also.
GEORGE C. WOLFE: Oh well good, thank you I agree.
ELYSA GARDNER: All those things. Did you ever think will this work on Broadway?
GEORGE C. WOLFE: I don’t I… you know I had no real… I didn’t because I’m not a for, it’s not my job honestly. As a director, it’s not my job to question it. Once I say yes, now once I say yes, it’s my job to figure out how to animated and make it entertaining and smart and available to people. And if I’m pulling back asking questions, then I’m not doing my job. You know what I mean? I can look at it, in my days when I was a producer of The Public, I would go is this, I don’t know? I mean I think so because it’s, that was part of my job. To question and judge. But as a director, once I say yes it’s like “all right I believe in this, this is the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever been a part of. I’m so glad everybody is involved and now we’re going to change the world. We’re going to redefine what the nature of American theater. Let’s get to rehearsal.” So that’s the kind of energy I have to have when I begin a project.
ELYSA GARDNER: That’s right. This play doesn’t also you know, confront social issues as directly as some of the other great work you’ve done. I mean it’s set in thousands of years ago for starters, but I found it very topical in a way. I mean did it resonate be… you know again because of that, you know the lessons we haven’t learned historically. I mean did that strike you as well?
GEORGE C. WOLFE: Well also it’s the thing is that, I think there is an obviousness of people without power. One of the things that I think it’s so brilliantly smart about the play, it’s about people without power doing brutal acts and then people with no power being called upon to clean up after them.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah privilege! It’s very much about privilege.
GEORGE C. WOLFE: It is 100%. So that’s one of the things that I think it’s really really interesting. But one of the things that I personally really really love is that at one point the character Carol says to the other two characters, “look at us, we’re three disposables.” And to me what it’s about— people who believe they have been discarded by society, figuring out that they have agency and that they have power and that they have a command over their own life. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to guarantee a positive outcome and that they’re going to change the world, but they go from feeling like they’re trapped inside of a system, to feeling as though they can alter or change the system. And to me, I find that very thrilling and very empowering.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. I also just wanted to ask you quickly about, I know you had a little bit of unfortunate backstage drama with the show and Andrea Martin was hurt and she had to bow out of a role which was, you know, beautifully filled in. You’ve gotten a bunch of Tony nominations. Is she doing OK? Is she recovering?
GEORGE C. WOLFE: Yes she’s doing well. I mean it was it… the thing which is it’s weird. We did a workshop of the play in October. We started rehearsals in January. It was our last week in the rehearsal room before we moved into the theater and she fell and broke four ribs.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh gosh.
GEORGE C. WOLFE: And then I was getting ready to go into tech. So it was just, it was heartbreak, it was heartbreaking for what happened to her. And then I am so incredibly proud of Christine and Julie because in a week’s time, with just a week’s worth of rehearsal, they were in performances.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah yeah.
GEORGE C. WOLFE: And Nathan was, Nathan Lane was extraordinary in the whole process. So I’m, there’s heartbreak for what happened, but there’s also I find incredible inspiration in the energy of people rising to the occasion.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah I know you all gave her incredible support as well. So congratulations once again. You know, you continue to do such great work. You’re an inspiration for us all.
GEORGE C. WOLFE: Thank you very much.
ELYSA GARDNER: So thank you.
GEORGE C. WOLFE: Thank you. Thank you.
ELYSA GARDNER: We are here today with Harold Wheeler who is winning a lifetime achievement Tony Award this year and is also nominated, one of 12 nominations, for Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations. Congratulations and thank you for joining us.
HAROLD WHEELER: Thank you very much. My pleasure.
ELYSA GARDNER: So The Temptations, I know you’ve done pop, R&B, Broadway, Academy Awards, everything through the years. I would imagine you are quite familiar with this music. And was the opportunity to work on a show like this just incredible? I can imagine.
HAROLD WHEELER: Well I grew up listening to this music and in my professional career I’ve worked with The Temptations, I’ve worked with Stevie Wonder, I’ve worked with the Four Tops, I’ve worked with Smokey Robinson on television specials. So to be able to do what I do for theater now and that pop background that I have, also I am classically trained. But I said I’m not going to make a living in classical music so I might as well go another direction led to, but to take all of that training and put it into the R&B music, but also recognizing that this is… these songs are scenes and so it’s not about trying to make it sound like the original and the whole thing. It’s about playing to the emotion of the actors. And that’s what I do best and that’s what I love doing.
ELYSA GARDNER: I was going to ask about adapting the music for a Broadway audience. And these are spectacular song and dance numbers so I would imagine keeping the energy for that would also be part of the job in a case like this?
HAROLD WHEELER: Yeah well I always felt the palette that the songwriters and the arrangers in Detroit set for all these songs and made them hits. I said if you take that away you’re taking the enjoyment away from the audience. But because this just theater, this is not a concert, and we’ve had people singing along, you know, in the show. I mean in a sad scene somebody is singing along with it. But these aren’t theatergoers. These are people that are there because they love the Temptations. But I mean, I just try to make it… I tune everything to the scene, to the actor, to the emotion of the moment and keeping that Motown feel, keeping… so I’m trying to serve two masters there.
ELYSA GARDNER: What have the crowds been like and have you gotten feedback, have the musicians gotten feedback? Because the music is such a huge part of this show. It’s really front and center.
HAROLD WHEELER: Well the crowds have been phenomenal and this show started in Berkeley, California and it went to the Ahmanson, then it went to the Kennedy Center, then it went to Toronto. And everywhere, I saw it everywhere, and it’s amazing. The audiences just go crazy with the familiarity. They cry when they’re supposed to. They laugh when they’re supposed to. And the standing ovations are just unbelievable. There’s never been a show without immediate standing ovation. So it’s… I’m proud of that.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, the night I was there the minute the curtain call.
HAROLD WHEELER: Yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: And your lifetime achievement Tony Award, that has to be very special. That’s a rare honor. That must be a profound thing.
HAROLD WHEELER: It’s, it is very special because it doesn’t often go to people who work behind the scenes. So it’s very special to me. I don’t, I don’t do theater for awards. I do it because I love theater and I do it because I make a living at it. But it’s, I don’t do it for awards. So to be recognized for… I’ve done 27 Broadway shows in 50 years. And I didn’t know that until I went online. I forgot about many of the shows but, so it’s truly an honor. I mean it’s still overwhelming. The fact that someone who works behind the scenes, you know, can be recognized like this and then when I looked at my body of work I said: “yeah I think so.” [both laugh]
ELYSA GARDNER: “I deserve this.” [laughs] You do. You do. Thank you so much for stopping by. Congratulations on this nomination and this award and we look forward to your work in the future.
HAROLD WHEELER: Thank you very much.
ELYSA GARDNER: So we are here with Jason Michael Webb who is receiving a special Tony Award this year for arranging music for Choir Boy. Now the music for this play is such an integral part of it. I mean I heard people say well it’s really more like a musical, but it isn’t. It’s a play, but you’ve woven in the music in a way that’s so integral without it being a musical. Tell us about that.
JASON MICHAEL WEBB: Well I think one of the main distinctions between music as it’s used in a play and music as it’s used in a musical is that in a musical, the music is supposed to advance story plot. That kind of thing. And in the play, we kind of capture a tone and really dig into the hearts of these characters when those songs come up. And so what Tarell has done really beautifully was, he selected Negro spirituals, pop music that these boys wouldn’t necessarily have access to in their bodies, but the characters had to figure out, well it was kind of my job, to figure out how these characters would articulate that music. And so, in capturing the tone of the vibe of these moments we were able to find how the boys might sing “Motherless Child” or might sing “Wait in the Water.” We didn’t sing “Wait in the Water” in the show, but it’s that type of, that well that was the gig.
ELYSA GARDNER: That’s right. And you’ve done stage and screen musicals including the last revival the first Broadway revival of The Color Purple, which was one of the most gorgeously sung shows I have ever seen.
JASON MICHAEL WEBB: It was one of the most beautiful shows I’ve ever worked on in a very, very special time.
ELYSA GARDNER: That’s right. So does a play present a different kind of challenge?
JASON MICHAEL WEBB: I think so because in a musical you know OK, well we’re here for the music and let’s let the music drive it. But in a play, it’s the text. And in a musical, it’s also the text but in a play very much so. So the challenge for me, I think, was figuring out how to not get in the way of the text, to let the music do its job which is, I don’t wanna say secondary, but in a play versus a musical. The music is very much a supporting role in the play.
ELYSA GARDNER: And what attracted you to Choir Boy in particular? I mean it’s such a wonderful play that people have related to on all kinds of levels.
JASON MICHAEL WEBB: Yeah it’s a play that’s nourished me in a way that I didn’t anticipate. But I worked on it… MTC, I’ll say this. MTC has been a family to me and it’s one of the first theater companies that really embraced me as an artist when I got introduced to the theater community. I began music directing their galas and really building a relationship with them then, and they started working with Tarell and were looking for a musical director to come in and work with him. And I think I was just kind of assigned that, but everything, you know, everything happens for a reason and I felt like that placement was really divine. And in the five years since we mounted the first production, I feel like we’ve all grown. You look at where Tarell is in his career and what’s happened with Nick and Jeremy, my goodness he’s got two nominations for his debut, like this is… we’ve all worked hard and tried to be good stewards over our gift. And I feel like this is the reward.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah and you use the word divine. This is a show that addresses faith and racism and homophobia…
JASON MICHAEL WEBB: Indeed.
ELYSA GARDNER: …and how difficult it is for all of us to come into our own, particularly at a time in our lives when we’re so vulnerable. What kind of feedback have you gotten from audience members or how is it resonated with you personally?
JASON MICHAEL WEBB: Well me personally, I can identify with so much that that’s addressed in this, in the play and the feedback has just been overwhelming. It’s consistent with how I feel. I was uplifted every time I watch that show even though I worked on it, it never got old. The cast was working so hard and they did such beautiful work that it just, it touched me and I know that it touched audiences in a way that again, I did not anticipate being changed in the way that I was changed by that play.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well congratulations again on your Tony.
JASON MICHAEL WEBB: Thank you.
ELYSA GARDNER: We look forward to hearing a lot more of your work.
JASON MICHAEL WEBB: I’ll receive that. Thank you so much.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well we are here today with Joe Forbes who has been awarded a special Tony for Excellence in Theater. Congratulations. And this is a Tony Award you’re not nominated for that just you get for years of merit. So what is something like this mean to you?
JOSEPH BLAKELY FORBES: It is the capstone to a, to a long career. It’s, it sort of validates all the work and effort that I’ve done for 26 years. My company has painted over 350 Broadway shows. We’re represented on most of the shows on Broadway and most of the shows that are nominated. So it’s an absolute thrill.
ELYSA GARDNER: What have those decades been like, particularly in recent years when there have been such advances have been so, so rapid like it seems every minute technology’s changing. Has that impacted your work a lot?
JOSEPH BLAKELY FORBES: It has impacted our work a lot. It has become more difficult as time goes by. Production times are ever decreasing. We sometimes have you know a week or two to paint an entire Broadway musical, where I can remember an age where you would work on a Broadway musical for a month or two. Production times have been so shortened.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Do you think there’s, there’s ample appreciation for what you bring to a production?
JOSEPH BLAKELY FORBES: You know it runs in cycles, I’ve been around long enough to see. We’re primarily known for our painted backdrops and you’ll do a show like Hello, Dolly! and the reviewers will all go “what a joy to just see a good old fashioned painted show.” And then suddenly everybody’s nostalgic for painted drops and you’ll do a lot of painted drops. And then you’ll turn around and it’s all about built real, I want, you know, bricks and stone and it’s not as much fun sometimes, but it runs in cycles.
ELYSA GARDNER: But there does seem to be, I mean I asked if there was ample appreciation, but there does seem to be a renewed appreciation among artists and people who really pay attention to those details for what they call “old school”— things that you can’t do with a machine necessarily.
JOSEPH BLAKELY FORBES: I attribute it to the fact that we as a society are bombarded with digital imagery 24/7 and you go to the theater to escape that. You go to the theater to see life to see things that are created by human beings and a hand-painted show, the painted image on stage, it has life and it says things to the audience that digital media just can’t.
ELYSA GARDNER: Very very true. Well, thank you so much for stopping by and congratulations on your well-deserved award.
JOSEPH BLAKELY FORBES: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
ELYSA GARDNER: So we’re here now with Michael McElroy, the founder, and director of Broadway Inspirational Voices, who are receiving the 2019 Tony Honors for Excellence in Theater. Congratulations!
MICHAEL MCELROY: Thank you so much.
ELYSA GARDNER: First of all, receiving a special Tony Award. You’re not even a nominee they just give it to you.
MICHAEL MCELROY: So the panic’s over. No stress over the next four weeks yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: Were you, I don’t want to say surprised because it’s so richly deserved, but what was it like getting the call or the e-mail to learn about this?
MICHAEL MCELROY: The call went to our office. And then the person who works in the office called me at home and said you need to call this number, wouldn’t tell me why. And I called and got a voicemail. And then 15 minutes later I got a call back from Heather from the American Theater Wing telling us that we had been awarded this Tony Honor. And I probably have cried more in the last week. Just you know tears of joy because this is our 25th anniversary this year. I started it in 1994 out of a need I felt in our theater community for something that was that would unite us musically and during the AIDS crisis. And to have the most prestigious theater institution in the country say we see what you’ve done for the last 25 years and we want to celebrate and honor that, has been a really humbling and overwhelming and exciting, and it makes you know, yes I’m on the right path. Even when I’m frustrated and want to give up. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. It gives you the strength to kind of go I can do it for 25 more years.
ELYSA GARDNER: That’s right.
MICHAEL MCELROY: Maybe. [laughs].
ELYSA GARDNER: That’s right. Of course, you can!
MICHAEL MCELROY: Right?
ELYSA GARDNER: So 25 years ago was a very different time and we were dealing, we’re dealing with devastation now, but it was different… it was a different period. So the AIDS crisis was still, is still, but at that time it was in very dark days. That was the impetus for this and tell me a bit about you know what kind of support you got at the beginning and how that’s developed.
MICHAEL MCELROY: Well at that time I was a Broadway actor and had been in a couple Broadway shows by that point. I got here in 1990 and experienced having one of my first friends in my first Broadway show, watch him going from being a beautiful dancer, young man of Native American descent, to seeing him on an oxygen tank. And it was happening. It wasn’t an original story. It was happening everywhere we looked. In the Broadway community, being that we are actors, we are artists, we rally. We want to be able to fight. We want to be able to do something in a situation that we were actually helpless to do anything about. So we what we did was we raised funds. We made sure that there was support systems in place for our fellow actors and directors and choreographers. And this was a part of it that I felt was missing, which was, what is the community spiritual inspirational aspect of how we can come together and how can we use our art, our music, to mourn together, to celebrate together, to laugh together. And I grew up in church singing gospel music and I knew the power of that music. And so I got 12 of my friends who were doing Broadway shows, three of whom are now Tony Award winners, and I said could you come into this concert as a benefit for Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS. And they did and it became an annual event for Broadway Cares. And then we eventually became a 501c3 non-profit and we’ve branched out not just in doing things for the community, but as ambassadors for the community in performance. And also we created an outreach program that we have at Ronald McDonald House where we bring Broadway composers into and we match them with a child who is battling pediatric cancer. And they hang out for like two to three weeks, on and off and then they go away and they write a song celebrating the child’s life and then the choir members come in and we do a concert for all of the children and families that are living in the house and that’s seven years. 40 songs in 40, 40 year anniversary this year of Ronald McDonald House and the Covenant House, which is a homeless shelter for homeless and trafficked youth. We have a monthly program there. And we put a music teacher at an elementary school, in a small elementary school in Harlem because we believe that we know the power of music to transform lives. So what started as something that was just for the Broadway community is now something that we bring within the Broadway community but also out into the community at large knowing the value and power of music and how it can help and how it changed my life and how it has the power to change others lives as well.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Have you seen Choir Boy?
MICHAEL MCELROY: I actually know Tarell very well…
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh, great yeah.
MICHAEL MCELROY: …we are both Young Arts alums and I saw it before. I didn’t see this one because I was out of town when it was running.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. The power of inspirational singing. I was thinking about that, that’s great.
MICHAEL MCELROY: Yes. Something different.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate it and we all appreciate all you do.
MICHAEL MCELROY: Thank you so much.
ELYSA GARDNER: So continue. Good, good luck and success.
MICHAEL MCELROY: Thank you so much.
ELYSA GARDNER: Thanks.
ELYSA GARDNER: We are here today with Robert Horn, book writer of Tootsie. One of 11 nominations, one for this musical. Everybody is loving this show. And it’s funny and it’s relevant now. And you’ve done quite a bit of updating I know…
ROBERT HORN: We have.
ELYSA GARDNER: …to make it that way. Tell me about that.
ROBERT HORN: Well you know Tootsie is, it’s an iconic movie. AFI number two comedy I think of all time. And it’s in many many people’s eyes a perfect film, but very much also of the era that it was made and when it existed. But at the heart of it, there’s a wonderful story with a, about a desperate man who is told he can never do the one thing he loves more than anything and makes a really stupid choice in order to be able to do that. So the stakes are really high which is great when you’re writing a musical. But, you know the the a lot of where the musical lived from the world of soap opera, through the way some of the women characters ordered the world, to the idea of just a man putting on a dress in 2019, obviously didn’t resonate the way they did in the movie and had a very different sort of point of view. And so we realized we had to honor the DNA of the movie, but make it our own and make it a wholly original musical.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. We interviewed Sarah Stiles and Lili Cooper a while back.
ROBERT HORN: Oh my God, dream team!
ELYSA GARDNER: They did not stop raving about you and how much you sort of remained in touch with them, encouraged their input, answered their questions, so I would imagine that was your approach with the cast.
ROBERT HORN: It absolutely was. Both David and myself, and one of the great things about working with our director Scott Ellis is because you know I understand the hierarchy in theater and the director is king. And Scott encouraged me and we talked about it to have conversations with the actors and to form a relationship with them. And I did. Each one of these actors was very integral in creating the characters because you know it’s a lot of comedy. And my mind, as well as David’s writing, is very specific and unique and you have to know how to deliver that. But broad comedy can’t really exist unless it’s grounded in real truth and real pathos. And so that the actors really had to figure out how do we keep the humanity of the characters and still play the farce and everything from one extreme to the other and that lived in between that was really a conversation with each one of these actors. And each one of them has a specific skill because truthfully when you see the show, you’re laughing but you realize no other character could say what that character is saying.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah yeah I was actually going to ask you about that, finally about working with David Yazbek. Because you know he won last year for The Band’s Visit…
ROBERT HORN: He did.
ELYSA GARDNER: …and another really witty guy who’s writing is packed with details and very specific references and kind of working that into a broad comedy that’s also, you know, very heartfelt.
ROBERT HORN: David, I was a little intimidated when I first met David because obviously, I was a huge fan of, being a musical theater boy, I was a huge fan of his catalog. And we literally had our first meeting and we were like brothers from another mother. We very much have the same sort of frat-boy humor. We connected emotionally. We connected spiritually. More important than any that we connected comedically. We’ve both seen each other through a lot in our personal lives in the last three years. He truly has become a brother to me. But he constantly demands you bring your A-game.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah.
ROBERT HORN: And and I love that. I love that about him and he just was a dream partnership. We’re doing many other things together after this.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh are you?
ROBERT HORN: Yes!
ELYSA GARDNER: Will you keep us posted on that?
ROBERT HOR: Oh my gosh I will!
ELYSA GARDNER: Good. Excellent. Well, you heard it here first or maybe not, but you heard it here anyway. [laughs] Thank you so much for joining us.
ROBERT HORN: My pleasure. Thank you, thank you.
ELYSA GARDNER: We are here right now with Todd Sickafoose, who is nominated for his orchestrations for Hadestown. Congratulations.
TODD SICKAFOOSE: Thank you very much.
ELYSA GARDNER: This show has been a long time coming…
TODD SICKAFOOSE: I should say along with Michael Chorney, who had to go back to the theater to play in the show right now.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh, okay. To do that. That little thing. Well, congratulations once again. This show has been in development, Hadestown has been in development for a long time.
TODD SICKAFOOSE: It has.
ELYSA GARDNER: I think it started in Vermont around, as sort of a DIY community theater the way it was described to me. Were you part of that?
TODD SICKAFOOSE: I was, yeah. My involvement goes back to 2007. So yes.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh wow. Wow.
TODD SICKAFOOSE: It’s been a long project, stewing for a long time. And it’s had all this time to grow. Yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: And it’s evolved a lot. I know even over the past few years. So what has it been like going through all those iterations and contributing to them musically?
TODD SICKAFOOSE: I mean, one thing that I feel like I haven’t said enough is that I… watching Anaïs revise this show over this many years and not ruin the show. I don’t, I don’t know if anybody else could have done that. She’s just and she’s incredible and so the tone of everything in this show has been from her down. And now Rachel Chavkin also.
ELYSA GARDNER: That’s right.
TODD SICKAFOOSE: You know so they’ve built this family. We’ve all been inspired by each other. It makes sense that the whole, the whole show makes sense to see so many of our colleagues from the show here today because it feels like everything is synthesized in our work. And that’s been the lucky part of getting to work for this many years on it together.
ELYSA GARDNER: And there’s very much the musicians are very much part of the show and…
TODD SICKAFOOSE: The musicians are part of the show. The musicians are introduced as part of this show.
ELYSA GARDNER: That’s right, it is. One number I think early in the second act?
TODD SICKAFOOSE: That’s right.
ELYSA GARDNER: So there is almost a concert-like quality to the show.
TODD SICKAFOOSE: I’m glad it comes across that way to you because that’s intentional.
ELYSA GARDNER: That that was intentional? OK.
TODD SICKAFOOSE: Very much so, yes.
ELYSA GARDNER: Was that the case from the beginning and that just remained throughout?
TODD SICKAFOOSE: Yes. Yeah yeah, I think we’re trying to strike a balance between a show and a concert. Yeah. With the sound too. Yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: And had you worked in musical theater prior to working with Anaïs?
TODD SICKAFOOSE: So a little bit, but not at this level. I mean, music is my background and producing and composing.
ELYSA GARDNER: So what’s it been like just working with the Broadway community?
TODD SICKAFOOSE: Just totally thrilling. I think this introduction to it probably is unique because of the path and because of the people involved. But so as, you know, just I’m so impressed.
ELYSA GARDNER: And with 14 nominations I think you must feel pretty embraced.
TODD SICKAFOOSE: That’s right. That’s a good way to put it.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, yeah. Well, that’s terrific. Thank you so much for taking out a few minutes and congratulations and welcome.
TODD SICKAFOOSE: Thank you.
ELYSA GARDNER: So don’t forget to tune in to the Tony Awards which will be airing live Sunday, June 9 at 8/7 central on CBS. This podcast is produced by Broadway Direct and the Nederlander Organization with Iris Chan, Glenn Halcomb, Erin Porvaznik-Wagner, and hosted and produced by me, Elysa Gardner. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you soon on Broadway.
With the Tony Awards just days away, we’re gearing up with this special Tony episode of Stage Door Sessions. Interviews with some of the 2019 Tony-nominees including Daniel Fish, Des McAnuff, Bartlett Sher, George C. Wolfe, Harold Wheeler, Todd Sickafoose, David Yazbeck, Robert Horn, and more! Tune in to the Tony Awards live on CBS on June 9 at 8/7c.