25 – Susan Stroman: Storytelling on Broadway and Beyond

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0:00 Stro:
If you really believe that you have a story to tell, and you have a great idea, you need to go out and find yourself a collaborator, find yourself a composer, find yourself a writer and sit around, meet once a week, and work on this story. And then when you get to a point, then go pitch it to a producer or to a theatre and institution. But you can't wait for the phone to ring. You can't sit and wait for the phone to ring — that someone's going to call you and say “Hey! You want to create for the theatre?” You actually have to go out and make it happen. You absolutely have to go out and make it happen.

0:36 Tony:
Hello, it's Tony Howell, and welcome to Conversations with Changemakers, where we examine the question, “How can you use your work to change the world?”

On this episode, we speak with five-time Tony Award winning Director and Choreographer, Susan Stroman. Having launched SusanStroman.com last year, I wanted to have this frank conversation with Stro about telling her own story – the why, and the how of building her official website, and the future of the American Theatre, as well as arts and entertainment worldwide. Enjoy!

1:19 Tony:
Susan Stroman! Thank you for coming on the podcast.

1:27 Stro:
Well, I am so happy to be here because I love you to death. So I'm very, very happy to be here and happy to have the opportunity to chat with you.

1:36 Tony:
Well, I want to echo that back. I planned on doing this, to open in this way. But I have to say thank you first: for everything that you've created for the world in dance, opera, theatre, film, television, and other genres to be announced. But you've really made a huge impact on companies of artists and audiences, and so I just want to thank you for that. And then even more profound to me, thank you for choosing me to build your website and agreeing to this interview.

2:09 Stro:
Oh, absolutely! Absolutely! Because you know, you're perfect to build a website for someone like me, because you love the theatre so much. And you have a vast knowledge of the history of theatre. So to build a website, of course, which is very contemporary, modern, and hip, and understand all the technical aspects of a new website, but then for you to be such a champion of the history of theatre and one's work in the theatre, you were the perfect person to do this.

2:42 Tony:
I will just have to keep myself under control. So in 2021, what made you say, I think it's time for me to get a website?

2:51 Stro:
Well, the pandemic helped that decision, I have to say, because I knew that building a website would take a while, take a long time, or take time away from doing other things. And there we had this pandemic. And I thought… I was indeed creating during the pandemic, but I certainly wasn't going outside.

So I thought this would be the time to create a website. Also, because of the way people communicate today, I thought it would be good for me to have something online or be represented somehow, in the World Wide Web. And I myself am not on social media. But I do think it's important to have a presence. So when people want to find out about you, it's all right there. Another reason is I do many conversations in podcasts and such with students. And they always have a lot of questions and want to know about the process of the theatre. And I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful if there was one place they could go and find out all about at least the pieces I've created and how they came to be, and be able to reference for their own future?

So it was a sort of a combination of wanting to be present somehow on a website, but also to give to these young people who want to learn more about how it is to become a director, to become a choreographer to exist in this crazy business we call show and how show business has changed over the years. So I thought it would be great to have one place. And of course, Tony, you made that happen.

4:26 Tony:
Ah, well, we're gonna break apart a few or highlight a few areas. But is there a particular page or area of the website that is your favorite?

4:35 Stro:
Ah, well, what's interesting is, I wouldn’t think it would be this, but there is a timeline on the website. That was your idea, because I have to say, to be honest, when you said “We should do a timeline!” I thought, “Why would we do a timeline?”

And then creating the timeline was so wonderful because I was even able to tap into the very beginning of my life, not only my career but to see me with my mother and father. And that's quite dear to me, really, besides the career just seeing where I came from, I came from Delaware. And I had a wonderful mom and dad. And to make note of them on this website was quite wonderful.

But I do remember when you said, we have to do a timeline, I thought, “What is he talking about? Let's just sing and dance!” I do think now, now it's my favorite spot.

5:25 Tony:
Ah, interestingly, when we were creating this, I asked you sort of how you think about putting on a show. But before we go there, what was the hardest part of the process for you and putting this together?

5:38 Stro:
Well, what's interesting about that question, is I was surprised of how emotional I got at the various moments of going into my past and knowing how certain shows came to be and thinking of those collaborators or thinking of that opportunity that was laid in front of me, and it is about life, you could either go right or left, and you could go on the right road, or you could go left and get hit with a flower pot.

It's decisions that you've made over your life. And I feel that almost was the most difficult – coming upon pictures that I haven't seen in years, or coming upon videos that I have not seen in years, and realizing we're not alone, this all crossing paths with many people who will forever remain in my heart. And so finding those moments were truly more emotional than I would have ever imagined. And in a way, I found it a little difficult.

6:35 Tony:
Well, I thank you for doing the emotional labor as well as the physical labor of scanning and editing, and captioning. And I want to…

6:44 Stro:
Yeah, there was that – the old scanning? Absolutely.

6:50 Tony:
But I want to let people know that you've written beautiful “behind-the-scenes” of your productions. So if anyone has done one of your shows, or is getting ready to, they need to go check those out.

Stro, what was the same about putting on a show, and what was different? Because this was the Stro show. It was like all things combined. So yeah, how does that compare to putting on a big musical.

7:14 Stro:
You know, it almost was the exact same really, that we had a goal to finish at a certain time. I think it took us six months to do the whole thing, or maybe five months to do the whole thing. And so we had this goal, this date. And so it was that rush of trying to finish it, getting it all together, gathering all the information.

And because it came from so many places: the ballet world, the opera world, the theatre world, it was almost like putting on a show itself, even though it was all headed towards the computer, it was still important. And the detail was so important to me of making sure everyone who I have on there is represented in the best possible light, too. So it was just like putting on a production really.

And I know you mentioned the essays and that again was your idea. There was the same reaction as a timeline. You said, “But what if you wrote an essay for each show?” And I was, “What? Okay, yeah.” But in fact – that was almost cathartic to go back to each show, and write an essay about its creation, how it came to be, and also anecdotes that I think people would love to read about. But again, that taps into what I was speaking about in the beginning about young people going to this one place, this one website to find out about a particular show and how it was created.
So it actually was the perfect idea.

8:47 Tony:
We have so many productions there! They are organized in film, television, theatre dance, opera… but you have chosen four shows to put a spotlight on, so can you let us know what those shows are and why they deserve the Stro Spotlight, downstage center?

9:03 Stro:
Well, yes, there's a wonderful moment at the beginning of the website that has a spotlight section. And the four shows that I have on there are The Producers, Contact, The Scottsboro Boys, and Crazy for You.

And I feel that when people think of my work, that is one of those shows, it comes to their mind. If they know about me, or they know my work and the theatre world. So I thought it would be lovely to spotlight those shows. So people could go right to that link and read about them and hear about them.

And I chose those shows because each show changed my life somehow. And each show represents another type of story.

What I always say, I'm very lucky to be in a business where I can tell stories, and I can choose to tell very diverse stories. These stories are all very different. And I look for that and relish in the idea of coming up with a new idea and finding a new story.

10:02 Stro:
Crazy for You of course, was wonderful, because [it was a] complete joy and makes so many people happy. And it is filled with dance from beginning to end. And it's highly romantic. And it makes me very happy – that show. And it was the first show that I got a Tony Award for. So it'll always be very special in my life.

10:23 Stro:
Of course, Contact is very special because it was created from a visual of seeing a girl in a yellow dress at a nightclub about 1:00 in the morning. And to take that visual and then turn it into an evening. It has a freedom about it of not being... It's not a musical. It's not a ballet. It's not an opera. It's not – it's this whole new kind of unique form. And I was allowed to do that because of the wonderful people at Lincoln Center Theater, Andre Bishop and Bernie Gersten, so that remains to me very deep in my heart, because it came from a very pure place and created with the inspiration of dancers and my wonderful collaborator, John Weidman, of course.

11:05 Stro:
The Scottsboro Boys is a piece that John Kander and David Thompson and myself created again – we wanted to do something that was real, something that was based in real history, a lot of times in musical theatre, you're in a more fantastical world. So here, we wanted to do a real story that was based in history. And that changed history. And in our research, we came upon the story of the Scottsboro Boys. That shows is, [when] I think of all the shows we've done – that one is the most special to us.

11:39 Stro:
And then, of course, there's The Producers, which was a blockbuster, and my collaboration with Mel Brooks, to now become a great friend of his and have him in my life. It was so funny. And I learned so much about comedy from Mel and my, my wonderful cast of Nathan and Matthew, and all of them, Roger Bart, Gary Beach, and Brad Oscar. And, you know, it was comedy through and through. So it was also a great education. And it was a joy to go to work every day and know that you were going to laugh. And that's not always the case, but it was on The Producers.

So those four, you know, are special to me in my life. And so I thought they deserve to be on the front page of the website.

12:27 Tony:
Well, speaking of education, I learned so much from working with you and bringing over all the essays, photos, videos… and now updates about revivals and events. But what is something that's a gem to you, that's lesser-known, but it's a production on your site that people might not be aware of that they should maybe check out?

12:46 Stro:
Well, I have a few things on there that are very special to me. And a more recent one is The Vineyard Theatre produced a show that I created, again with John Kander and David Thompson called The Beast in the Jungle. And it was sort of a new, unique art form in itself. It was narrative, a great deal of narrative and dance. And it talks about love, but lost love and people who are afraid to take a chance. And I think we all know those people in our lives that have lived their life and were too afraid to take that step. And I wanted to tell this story. It was important to me and they gave us a wonderful production and it had abstract settings by Michael Curry and beautiful lighting by Ben Stan. But again, it was a collaboration that just happened in my studio here.

And then we got it produced at The Vineyard, but I loved it so much and our lead dancer Irina Dvorovenko is a beautiful actress and Tony Yazbeck, of course, a wonderful actor and dancer. And then Peter Friedman, terrific actor it was – I feel like I had the best of the best in this little space Off-Broadway. And I do love going Off-Broadway. That's my favorite, I think because you really get to tap into the art more than anything and not worry about anything else.

14:02 Tony:
Mm-hmm. We'll go into some of those high-stakes situations in a moment. I know from prior to meeting you I worked at MTI and The Producers, you know, is being licensed all around the world. And if you put on The Producers, you can get what's called “The Bible,” which is like the whole show from Susan Stroman. And interestingly, you've been called God's gift to musical theatre. So Stro, did you come up with the term Bible, and why is a Bible so important for a show?

14:32 Stro:
Well, I wasn't the first because I think Jerome Robbins had his notations where you were able to. And I remember being very young, at a community theatre in Delaware, and the materials came for Fiddler on the Roof.

And all of a sudden, I saw Jerome Robbins' notes, all written down. And whether they were complete or not, I don't know. I think it might have just been his choreography notes. That was when I was in High School, or beginning of college. And it was something that stuck with me of how that made me so happy to see that. And I thought it'd be wonderful, if you're lucky enough to have your show go to MTI, if you're lucky enough to have your show recreated somewhere, wouldn't it be wonderful for some young choreographer to be able to open a book and see what the original was, and they could try to recreate it if they so wanted to, or they can just be inspired by it.

But I think it's because of that first time I cracked open Fiddler on the Roof materials and saw Jerome Robbins’ notes. I thought this is what I should do now. So for all my shows, I do a Bible and I guess we call it a Bible just because every moment of the show is in there. And so for people who want to do the show, they can use it as a resource to, you know, a springboard really for their own creation.

15:55 Tony:
One of my favorite memories thus far of our friendship was visiting you and seeing three new Bibles on your table — of shows that are in the works. And one of the interesting things that I know is this story of, maybe you can elaborate here for our listener, but early on you were known for wearing a black baseball cap that was signature Susan Stroman. Why that choice? Why was that your brand? And when did you decide to rebrand?

16:23 Stro:
Well I don't think I was consciously rebranding. I think I think I just got too old for my ponytail. I think that perhaps, is the real answer. But yeah, I wore a black hat a lot. And ponytail. And I think just yeah, absolutely… It was just a new look for me. I grew up a little bit and took the hat off. But I'll still put it on every once in a while.

16:48 Tony:
Well, I heard that that was also a way for you to sort of masculinize, if that is a word, make yourself more masculine in the man's world. Is there any truth to that?

16:59 Stro:
Well, when I started, of course, it was a very male-dominated field. And I did indeed try to dress down. So I would wear a black blazer, black baseball cap, pants – everything to be interviewed, even to be in front of a room teaching.

And I felt when I was young that it was necessary to be in this male-dominated field.

I felt that I could do anything a man could do, but I knew that I was seen differently as a woman. So I do remember consciously saying, let me dress down here and look a little different. Now, I would not advise that to any woman today. I think you need to go in there, how you want to look, you know, with your big lashes, or whatever you want to do. But you know, I think today is quite different. And of course, it's opened up for women. But you know, to be quite honest, it's only really opened up in the last 15 years or something, which is crazy. So it did indeed start that way. And then, of course, when I felt that I'd done quite a bit, I could take off my baseball cap and let down my ponytail and continue on with life.

18:07 Tony:
Well, Susan Stroman, you were a pioneer. You paved the way for many different people, most importantly, women.
Looking ahead in this great awakening that we're in with the theatre industry and the arts in the world. What's changed, particularly with the theatre, what's changed about the industry in terms of people who are traditionally marginalized, having leadership opportunities? And what do you think is still the same? What needs to change?

18:32 Stro:
Well, I do feel the theatre needs to change. And I do feel it's changing. I know all of us who are theatre makers are part of that now. And we need to move over. And we have paved the way for other people to step forward. And for those, particularly like in the design field, where we want to move over, but in fact, I feel like we're teaching and taking along, we're carrying people forward. So I know a lot of designers are having associates and co-designers now that will be able to teach and learn and ultimately completely take over. But as far as choreographers and directors, you know, I mean, there's so many wonderful people out there who have possibly been marginalized in their life that they are indeed ready to step forward and take over and, and I feel like we are giving the space to do that and should do that.

19:28 Tony:
You are an incredible woman and particularly an incredible leader. So lessons that you've learned along the way in order to hone big multimillion-dollar musicals and films. What makes a good leader? What are the qualities?

19:42 Stro:
Well, I can only speak for myself, because I know there are a lot of different types of leaders out there that seem to be able to lead away with a particular group of folks. I can only speak for myself and you know, in the theatre, even though one is in the commercial world, a lot of times you still want it to feel completely artful and all about the art and all about the creation.

So it is important to make the room comfortable. And in doing so it is all about respect. It is about respecting actors, it's about respecting designers, and even about respecting your producers. So it is all about respect. And because I don't think people can do their best work if they do not feel respected. And you want to have that room filled with that feeling of being able to create and being able to fall on your face and get back up again — that no one is judging you. So it has a great freedom to it. And you want to be inspired by everyone in the room. So I think respect is the most important aspect of that.

20:50 Tony:
Along the way, you've worked with so many luminaries, both actors and creatives. So just to highlight a few, just to drop a few names – Kander & Ebb, Liza Minnelli, Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, Mike Ockrent. What is a lesson that Susan Stroman then, from all of these sources, tries to pass on to your companies?

21:12 Stro:
Well, it's different. I mean, I've been very lucky to work with extraordinary collaborators, you know, someone like Hal Prince – he really changed the course of the American musical and believed that you could musicalize stories that one would think could not be musicalized and in doing so, made some very profound pieces of theatre and thought-provoking pieces of theatre. Ideas like that – learning from Hal Prince.

From Kander & Ebb, the idea of playing the game of “What if? What if we did this? What if we did that? What if we didn't do that?” and sitting with them and collaborating about a story, and also, from Kander & Ebb – making a profound story. Also a story that will make a difference, a story that will be about the importance of art.

And of course, Mike Ockrent, learning how to create a musical from scratch and bringing joy into the room and making every person in that room feel important.

There's so many people that I've learned from and I was very blessed to have worked with Sondheim several times. And the deepest collaboration was when we did The Frogs at Lincoln Center Theater. And that whole show was about how art can make a difference. Dionysus goes down to Hades to bring back Shaw as Shakespeare, so he can speak to the people. And he ends up choosing Shakespeare because Shakespeare is a poet. And Nathan wrote a wonderful book. And the collaboration with Sondheim was very strong and it was all about art making a difference, art speaking to the people.

So I have crossed paths with some theatre luminaries that really loom large in my whole being and my career. So you know, I stand on the shoulders of all these wonderful people who I've crossed paths with.

23:10 Tony:
I want to take a moment and put a spotlight back on Crazy for You. There's a wonderful story that I had never heard that is in your essay on Crazy for You of what happened just before opening night that changed the course of your life and the show. So everyone needs to go check that out.

And speaking of lessons, there's clues all throughout your site Stro, but you were given a couple of breaks. Maybe not given — you requested some things and were granted some offers. But what is your advice to someone who is wanting to make the move of creating their own work versus interpreting something else? How do they break in?

23:48 Stro:
Well, I think there are some opportunities out there. Now I think if you really want to create, if you want to be on the other side of the table, it's trying to get in the room where it happens, as we now say, all the time. But I know that my union, the SDC has wonderful opportunities for fellowships and observerships, where you can let them know that you want to see what it's like to create a show, and they will try to match you up with a particular director or a particular choreographer. And that is great because I've done that for sort of the last 25-30 years and had observers in the room who have gone on to do great things.

The other thing is though, if you really believe that you have a story to tell, and you have a great idea, you need to go out and find yourself a collaborator, find yourself a composer, find yourself a writer and sit around, meet once a week and work on this story. And then when you get to a point, then go pitch it to a producer or to a theater, an institution, but you can't wait for the phone. You can't sit and wait for the phone to ring, that someone's going to call you and say “Hey, you want to create for the theatre?” You actually have to go out and make it happen, you absolutely have to go out and make it happen.

So, as a young person who wants to create for the theatre, it is that thought of really believing in yourself — that you can do this — and then going to make it happen. Gather the people around you that will help make it happen, that you can collaborate with, and then also be a part of different organizations like the SDC observership or fellowship.

Well, actually, there's so many wonderful… like Lincoln Center Theater or The Roundabout that have director institutions… Manhattan Theatre Club, they all have different sessions where they do take in young people who want to learn how to direct and choreograph.

So I think it's marvelous to have these opportunities all around you. You just have to seek them out and grab them.

25:51 Tony:
Taking it to a serious moment, you have lived and worked through the AIDS epidemic, 9/11, and now the COVID pandemic. And I have to tell you, one of the quotes that are now on your website that people have been really responding to is the following:

“The theatre really saved me. I don't know how widows deal with the death of their loved ones, if they don't have a job that surrounds them with life, I was very lucky to be surrounded by the life force of the theatre.”

So I agree, theatre people are the best type of people. But we know it's also a very, very hard business. So how do you handle the highs and lows? And particularly, how do you take care of Susan Stroman?

26:38 Stro:
Well, yes, I mean, I feel like I have lived my life through highs and lows. And not only in the theatre, but in my personal life. They seem to be extremes: extremely high, and extremely low. And same with personal and theatre. And it is just the roller coaster of the choice of job and profession that I have chosen, that we all have chosen, for those of us in the theatre. It is precarious, at best.

And how one gets through all that I think is surrounding yourself with friends and people who are like-minded, love you, and that sense of people that you love. It's very important to have friends that will be there for your highs, but will also be there for your lows.

And as you go on through your life, some of those folks who you thought would be there for your lows are gone. So you know… “Whoops!” Yeah, it's very important to recognize good people, good-hearted people, and put them in your life, whether they're your family, or friends. One has to step away from anyone who stifles your creativity, one has to step away from anyone who has such a dark side, they could do harm to you.

You have to have the strength to do that. Because ultimately, one wants to live a happy life. And that depends on those people who you surround yourself with, to make sure that you indeed live a happy life.

28:14 Tony:
Speaking of good people to surround yourself with, and good friends, I want to take a moment to put a spotlight on Tara Young, who is the catalyst for our collaboration, who brought you and I together. But who is Tara Young to you?

28:30 Stro:

Well, Tara Young started as a tap dancer to me — an exceptional tap dancer — and I met her, she auditioned for the show Liza: Stepping Out at Radio City Musical. And it was a big extravaganza of Liza Minnelli and 12 women dancing, and the show did so well at Radio City. And then of course went on to tour and such, and was shot for HBO.

Tara was an amazing dancer in that show and what I noticed was how gracious, kind, and giving she was to sort of the other women in the show — very friendly and helpful in putting this huge show on. So when I then went on to do Sondheim at Carnegie Hall, I thought maybe Tara would want to be an associate, maybe she would want to assist because she has the personality for it, and of course, she had the talent for it, but the personality is very important for when you do choose an associate or an assistant. And she accepted the job and that was it. I don't think she ever went back on the stage, and she's maintained many shows for me like The Music Man, Crazy for You, and Show Boat.

She's been very much a part of a lot of my shows, and then she went off. She joined the circus if you will. She ended up being resident director to many Cirque du Soleil shows. So she really knows what she's doing about what it takes to mount a show.

And when I called her, in fact, we were about to go over to China to do a big extravaganza in Macau. And we were headed there about a week before the pandemic hit. And actually, we were saved by the protesters in Hong Kong. They were stirring it up, so our producer said, “You know, let's wait a little bit before we go over there.” And then of course, the pandemic hits, and we would have been right in the middle of it, we would have had to have been all evacuated from China. So let's talk about timing.

But anyway, Tara was heading over there to maintain that show. But she was stuck here in New York with all of us during the pandemic, and I asked her about doing a website. And if she knew anybody, she said, “Yes, I know, the perfect person!” So she introduced us and the rest is history.

30:51 Tony:
I know that in other interviews, you've shared that there are differences in shows that are a financial success, or a blockbuster, like The Producers versus shows that you consider an artistic success. Taking it away from the work, and making it just about the term. How do you define the word success? And what would make someone such as yourself successful?

31:14 Stro:
Well, I think just because the show financially doesn't make money, it's not a flop in the eye of the artist, it's certainly probably in the eye of the investor. But for all of us, who create for the theatre, you know, some of the shows that didn't make it financially are artistically very fulfilling for all of us.

So I mean, the success has to lie in your own art, and how you feel about your art, and how you feel about what you created, and how it came to be. Many times you can have the most incredible collaboration and the most incredible artful time. And then the show doesn't make it. A lot of times a show doesn't make it just because of the particular season it was in, or what's happening in society at the time. It doesn't mean it wasn't good. Timing has a great deal to do with a show's success.

32:12 Tony:
And what about as a human, what makes someone? You could take it off of yourself. How do you view someone as successful?

32:19 Stro:
You know, that's difficult, because, in the end, I think someone is successful if they're happy — that's it really.

You know, I know, a lot of people in our business don't have any money in the bank, but they are completely happy to still be involved somehow, and are surrounded by people that they love and love them.

And I think that the word success is tricky because I think people think about it financially. But it all has to be with what you're creating as an artist. And whether it's on Broadway, or Off-Broadway, or at the ballet, or whatever it's in. It's about creating it in that, and the success of at the end of the day of that creation, not so much the ultimate final opening night of it.

33:40 Tony:
Well, you have received many awards and honors, so I would highly consider you successful. And I would encourage everyone to go to your about page and take a look at the long list for lifetime achievement awards. And you will learn like I did that Susan Stroman Day is October 10, and we need to celebrate it every year.

So Stro, all your successes are out there. But for the listener who needs some encouragement, can you share a time that you thought or you perceive that it might have been a failure? And what did you learn from that?

33:41 Stro:
Well, I think I have learned from every show and everything I've done, and I think it taps into what we talked about before, about just because the show is a financial flop, it doesn't mean it wasn't an artistic success, and in most cases it very much is.

So I think it's, I mean, it sounds quite corny to just say, you have to believe in yourself and go on. But if you are really in this business, if you really believe that you are an artist, and can make great art, somehow that kind of complete failure doesn't wash over you like it washes over other people, you just kind of keep going forward, you know. If you are really doing it, you keep doing it, you keep going on.

And I learned this from Hal Prince actually, that whatever show you open, no matter what happens, if it's a success, or financial failure, whatever, the very next day, you meet with your collaborators for the next show. The very next day. And I've always done that. He taught me that. That no matter what the outcome of that show, you keep going forward, and keep doing your work. Because if you are this creator, then you never stop creating, you keep going forward.

35:02 Tony:
Well, we talked a little bit about some of your influences like Hal and Sondheim, and I know growing up on your beautiful timeline you were obsessed with decopage all over your bedroom, with Fred and Ginger — growing up on Agnes DeMille, George Balanchine, Martha Graham, later working with Fosse. But Stro, in 2022, who are some of your modern-day influencers, who inspires you right now?

25:31 Stro:
Wow. That's interesting, because I still, I still tap into the folks who influenced me from the very beginning, like Astaire, like Robbins, like my own father, who was a wonderful piano player.

But I do see how things are changing. Now choreography is changing. And I do go out and attend all these pieces of theatre and dance works and concerts, which I also think is very important.

If you're in the business, you have to go see what's happening. And the idea now of seeing these new, what I refer to as new choreographers, but somebody like Andy Blankenbuehler, who took Hamilton and did this new kind of movement, this poetic, modern movement, that was a combination of jazz and modern and hip hop and all of it, and yet remained poetic, and supported the story the entire way, I find that fascinating. And I know a lot of other choreographers have been inspired by that. And I've changed the course of theatre choreography because of that.

So I think it's, I'm inspired by what is out there now, and how that applies to my own work. So you do have to go take it all in, you don't have to see all of it.

You know, I think Camille Brown is very exciting. And all these, these new people who are now very much a part of the landscape of the theatre are indeed inspiring because they've changed it, taken it to a new level, a new plane, and, and all I can do is watch and observe and see how that applies to my own work, which is great. That you know: one always has to keep learning. That's the thing. You can never stop learning.

37:19 Tony:
Well, I learned, this is just connecting the dots, when I was watching some of the Crazy for You videos, I came to you during one of our weekly meetings and I said “Stro, I did Beauty and the Beast and in ‘Gaston,’ the mug clinking with Matt West... was he inspired by you?” And like, the answer is yes! So I love that everyone is inspiring one another.

Is there anything that you're working on that you can give us a little press release on? What's coming down the pipeline?

37:48 Stro:
I am about to do a workshop of a new show called New York, New York. And it is loosely based on the movie in the sense that a musician falls in love with a singer. And that's it. That's the only comparison to that screenplay.

But it is a wonderful Kander & Ebb score. About a third of it is music from the movie, a third is specialty material of Kander & Ebb, and a third of it is brand new John Kander, who's written the music and lyrics. So the score is sensational.

We do a workshop this January/February. And as we say, we hope for the best. And hopefully, we'll have a production maybe in about a year. So that's fantastic.

And I have a play that hopefully, it was about to come out before the pandemic, but it's waiting for theatre, of course. It's a very funny comedy called POTUS, which has seven women in it. And it's written by a lovely, very funny writer named Selina Fillinger, so hopefully, that will happen on Broadway in March. So fingers crossed.

So there's a lot of things happening. I have different writers and composers in my office every day, keep going forward, to try to create. So there are about three, three other things actually, that I'm working on.

But I know for sure that these two seem the most likely that will put me in a studio with a lot of actors pretty soon.

39:19 Tony:
Well, one of those things is news to me. So I'm excited and hopeful. I'll stand by to make a new page.

Stro, take a moment, look back at your past self. If you were talking to young Stro, what advice would you tell her from the future?

39:37 Stro:
I guess not to sweat the small stuff. You have to keep going forward, not to ever get overwhelmed. If you believe in what you're doing, you have to go forward. So I think, you know, sometimes when you're younger you think, “Oh my God! Can I do this?” Or “Oh my God! Will I ever get this job?” or, “Oh my God! Can I really create something?” And the thing is you can't stop to think that. If you've made this step, you can do it. You just have to. You can't get overwhelmed. Go forward.

40:08 Tony:
I missed a question. So I'm going to sneak it in here. Speaking of those moments of overwhelm, when you have a huge million-dollar film, or a million-dollar musical on your shoulders, how do you now, with experience, handle those high stakes situations? Or a million-dollar musical in China, in a pandemic?

40:26 Stro:
The funny thing is, when you're creating, you can't think of the finances of it. I know that sounds nuts, but you have to think always, always about delivering the story, always about pushing a plot forward.

And we are storytellers and whether we tell them through dance or song, it doesn't matter. But it is always about the story. So in fact, you can’t put that pressure on you about what the finances are. That's what producers are for. That's what investors are for. But you need to be aware of it, of course, totally aware of it, and actually play a part of helping out with a budget, you do play a big part in that, and being collaborative with your producer and your investors. But the money thing can't weigh you down or overshadow how important it is to tell the story.

41:15 Tony:
I think we got a bunch of new Susan Stroman quotes today. But just to highlight another one from your website that a lot of people are responding to.

“Is it idealistic to think that art can really make a difference? I've spent my whole life believing it can.”

So what are you hopeful for now with all of these new shows that you are a part of and seeing? What is your hope for the future of arts and entertainment?

41:42 Stro:
Well, I think coming out of this pandemic, I do think we need both. We do need good old entertainment for people to lift their spirits. We absolutely do. But I do think too, it's a time to think about making theatre that's going to touch people in a way, to make them think. That is very important. Making people think in a new way, in a different way. Make people understand something they never knew anything about.

So it's finding those stories, too. That when an audience leaves the theatre, they talk about that particular idea or show for several days, that's when you really have success.

41:24 Tony:
Final question for the artist that's listening: they want to be as impactful as you have been, they want to be a changemaker. What encouragement would you give them in case they need a little motivation? What do they need to hear?

42:41 Stro:
If you believe in your talent, and if you want to be part of it, then you have to do everything you can to be completely knowledgeable about what is going on in the theatre community now in the different modes of storytelling.

But also, again, step forward with your talent, step forward with your ideas, find different collaborators, find places that you can show people what you have to offer. There are so many institutions around the city that you can knock on the door and be a part of it.

So I think it's that idea of opening up your eyes a little bit past your own myopic talent and finding out what else is out there. And then trying to be a part of it and trying to make a difference. Do something that makes a difference in someone's life, a singular person's life, or in the life of an audience.

43:45 Tony:
Thank you so much for being on the show, Stro. Thank you for choosing me to build your website. And thank you for everything that you've created.

Thank you, the listener, for sharing time with us.

I want to highlight just a few things. Stro said art can make a difference, and storyteller, this is why I refer to you as a changemaker.

To develop your own new original work, you have to believe in yourself first. But then, your next step is to seek out collaborators for both development as well as production.

And the biggest leadership lesson to take with you? R-E-S-P-E-C-T. I also really liked the idea she got from Kander & Ebb, continually asking the question, “What if?”

What resonated with you? Take a screenshot and share your favorite takeaway! Be sure to tag @TonyHowell to make sure that I see it, and I'll pass these on and make sure that Stro sees them as well.

If you want to go further click on the link alongside this episode. I've gathered some of my favorite things from SusanStroman.com, and I'll give you a bit of a backstage tour of what to check out while you visit — what not to miss.

And if you enjoyed this episode, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts. While you're there, check out our past conversations and subscribe for next month's episode.

Thank you so much for listening. Now, go out there and use your work to change the world. Maybe you and I can have a conversation about it very soon?

On this episode of Conversations with Changemakers, we speak with five-time Tony Award winning Director and Choreographer, Susan Stroman. Listen now to discover:

  • Why she decided to create an official website and how the process was as challenging and cathartic as putting on a show.
  • How to develop your own new work, get into “the room where it happens,” and lead your collaborators and company to their best work.
  • How to redefine success in the business of show — including life lessons from Sondheim, Hal Prince, Kander & Ebb, Mike Ockrent, and Stro herself!

Click here to access bonus resources from this episode.

Connect with Susan Stroman:

Connect with Tony Howell:

Episode Credits:

If you enjoyed this episode, leave a review on Apple Podcasts. Be sure to check out our past conversations and subscribe for next month’s special guests!

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