Working in the Theatre: Revivals

[music] A few years ago I called a dear friend and
collaborator and I said wouldn’t it be exciting to work on a production of Once On This Island,
a musical that I have loved for many years and create a version that we could do on a parking lot. I wanted to show how people can tell stories
and make music using just what they might have at hand and how the power of storytelling
sort of needs nothing other than the human spirit. So I went to the authors Stephen Flaherty
and Lynn Ahrens and I said hey I want to do your show, I want to do a capella, it could
be in a parking lot and I put together some demos with AnnMarie Milazzo with friends gathered
together and we made these a capella versions of couple of the sings wrote a beautiful letter
gave it to the writers and they immediately said no, you can’t do this. We were skeptical because he didn’t have
any Broadway credits at the time other than as an actor and also because we didn’t think
the show would work a capella. Being true to myself I didn’t let no be the answer. I kept coming back to them and after I had
opened Spring Awakening on Broadway our producer Ken Davenport said what do you want to do
next and I immediately said Once on This Island. I said oh my gosh I love that show I’ve
loved it for so long let’s do it. And I called the authors literally the next
day and said I want to get you in a room with Michael Arden I want you to hear his vision
for Once on This Island. The response was not yes let’s go for it
and do it you know you always dream or sometimes the movie version would be exactly that, but
things to move a little bit slower and very smartly those authors said, we love Once on
This Island, Once on This Island was one of their first babies and a very treasured piece
for them so they wanted to hear what the vision was. When we went into the meeting there were sets,
designs and visual material and a whole long discussion about his concept for the show
and we were completely, completely won over. [music] Revivals are so much about how you’re going
to present it, right, why is it going to be relevant today. The focus becomes on how do we take what is
usually a revered piece of material something that has been proven to audiences and that
audiences love but that was perhaps written many many years and making it resonate with
a modern audience. Why tell this story today? Musicals that were written in the fifties and sixties and seventies, and if you did them exactly as is they may
not have the same resonance today as they did when they were originally produced because
the people are going different things in their lives. [music] We aren’t in a place in time and in the
world where injustice is eradicated and walls have all been broken down. We have a president who keeps threatening
to put one up so I think unfortunately some stories need to be told and told and told. [music] Revival means a play has stood the test of
time, Death of a Salesmen, A Raisin in the Sun, Long Days Journey into the Night, and
you know time changes but people pretty much stay the same, with the same sort of challenges
you know and I’m hoping one day we’ll figure it out, what it really means to be
a decent human being. And we’re still figuring out to be respectful
of each other, how to live on the planet together and some of the great works of art and some
of these wonderful plays to sort of find ways to help us articulate that in
different ways. Children of a Lesser God is a play that most
people know the title because of the film and not because of the play. I saw the play on Broadway in 1980 and it
has always been on my dream list to bring that play back to Broadway. And I was fortunate enough to be introduced
to Kenny Leon who shared that vision and since that conversation four years ago, the world
has changed in so many ways which has shown all of us that people just do not listen to other people. Above anything this is a play about love but
it is also about what strengthens the love is we got to listen to each other and we’re
just not doing that and in that sense I think it is a very universal play. Children of a Lesser God was originally written
in 1978 by the author Mark Medoff, it came about because Mark and his good friend Robert
Steinberg were teaching sign language to deaf students and Robert was married to the then
actress Phyllis Frelich who was born deaf and Robert at one point said to Mark who was
a fledging playwright at the time, why don’t you write a play for my wife because there
are plays for deaf actresses, hence Children of a Lesser God was born, it then opened to
critical acclaim, then moved to Broadway and won the Tony Award And the winner is, Children of a Lesser God! [MUSIC] The dream beats reality, I used this sign
in the play, it means to be joined in a shared relationship, thank you. Mark allowed us to look at it through fresh
lens and make it contemporary. There were things that were in the play that
quite frankly now in today’s climate of harassment and women’s rights and things
like that were a little bit off-color and off-putting and he gladly looked at those
lines and took some of them out and changed some of them and things like that. Our second nominated musical is Once on This
Island, a return to the most intimate kind of theatrical magic, this joyous musical creates
a mythical Caribbean Island and there weaves the tale of a beautiful young girl who is
sent on a journey by the gods of her island to prove the strength of love. Here now Tony nominated LaChanze and her co-stars
the cast of Once on This Island. [MUSIC] Once on This Island is loosely based on Hans
Christian Andersen’ the Little Mermaid. It’s about a girl who believes she’s been
saved by the gods, saved for something special. She finds a boy who has been hurt and she
believes that it is her duty to heal this boy and just the idea that love can conquer
death, love can heal. It is sort of ultimately about classism and
colorism and ultimately racism. The good that we do in our lives and what
Ti Moune, our lead character, does in her life and the risks she takes and the fact
that she trusts love over fear and over the sort of constraints of society echoes on and
lives on after her death [MUSIC] For Once on This Island one of the reasons
that made it so timely was looking at the incredible amounts of natural disasters that
have occurred over the last several years and how they destroyed so many communities
and then how those communities rebuilt themselves after the effects of these great storms, that’s
what we thought would resonate when we layered that on top of the story of Once on This Island. We’re looking at it through the lens of
a world that has been through quite a terrible disaster. Designer Dane Laffrey and I travelled to Haiti
and did research there; I have never been to a place so devastated. It was really interesting and really informed
what we were doing on stage. When we were in rehearsal, hurricanes were
happening in Florida, and Houston and we were interested in showing how people rebuild because
so much of the world has been forced to rebuild in the past few years. [MUSIC] 27 years ago, Stephen and I had our first
show produced. When it closed we started looking for our
next project. I was browsing around in a bookstore and I
saw this beautiful little colorful slim volume and I pulled it out and it was called My Love
My Love or the Peasant Girl, that was the title. And the words, just on the first page, just
struck me so so emotionally, the words were: there is an island where rivers run deep,
where the sea sparkling in the sun earns it the name Jewel of the Antilles. And I thought oh my god this sounds like a
musical it sounds like that should be a song and I bought the book for a dollar fifty and
I went home and I read in about an hour and I called Stephen and I said I’m coming over
and I got a cab took the book and brought it to him and said I think this is our next
show. [There is an island where rivers run deep,
where the sea sparkling in the sun earns it the name: Jewel of the Antilles] I had been just for fun listening to a lot
of Afro-Caribbean beats, South American music, Sambas and also American Gospel and I thought
since the novel wasn’t placed in any particular island I could really create my own sound
world. There’s something very purposive about the
score and I always wanted it to be that, and there was something about when your sitting
at your piano that you’re very sedentary and I thought I have to get up and move and
feel the rhythm in my body. I would be walking through Manhattan and I
would be singing as I would be going along. I pretty much wrote the entire score on my
feet and then I would run home to my apartment leap at the piano and then I would try to
record it and transcribe it, I really had to imagine what this world sounded like in
my head. [MUSIC] I approach all revivals the same, I approach
them like they are new plays and I think about what I want to leave this present day audience
with. With this production of Children of a Lesser
God, unlike forty years ago when it was originally produced which was all white Americans doing
all the roles, this production is cast multi-racially. I am a stronger director because of this specific
play, in my rehearsal room I have three interpreters, I have three actors who are deaf, I have hearing
actors, I have all the different racial makeup in the room. Because of the fact that Sarah is now being
played by a young black woman and she has a black mom we exploring kind of the cultural
underpinnings of the play, African-American culture is a little different from Anglo culture
in terms of how we raise our children. It’s not always safe for brown children
in this culture; we have to learn how to speak two languages if you will. And I would imagine that’s especially difficult
for a deaf person; you have to navigate a world in which you are seen a certain way
just because of your color, there are assumptions made because of your color and how you have
to overcome those assumptions and very often overachieve in order just to have a seat at
the table, so we are kind of adding that in as well. [MUSIC] Working with Steve Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens
is really a life long dream, I listen to their cast albums and saw their shows and hear I
am arguing with them over something now. With a revival you’re not rewriting so much
as watching it be reconceived by other artists. In a way it makes you more nervous because
you can’t control it as much as you can. When you’re writing an original musical
the writer is the ultimate authority we own our words we own our music and in the case
of a revival we’ve done that work already so really it’s our job to sit there and
be the concerned parent saying you know this is a really good show don’t mess it up. [MUSIC] It’s difficult for writers who have written
something and worked on it with a director in the past creating and making it exactly
how they see it to then years later revisit it and have someone else sort of tear it apart
and put it back together again. Michael Arden really wanted to not deconstruct
he was very faithful to the original tunes and the original lyrics which we have not
changed but in terms of the how to of the piece the idea of pushing the idea of storytellers
and story circles even further, he came up with a notion that it should be done in the
round. They’ve never seen it with the entire audience
as part of the circle of storytelling. [MUSIC] The gods that are a part of Once on This Island
some of them are based on actual real gods so it’s really about understanding the African
tradition and that culture and really bringing that in. I was going to watch the show and I decided
to just watch one number just to get a feel and then I said that was enough because I
wanted to make sure that all of the ideas, the discoveries, the feeling, the language
was coming from my voice and I didn’t want to be influenced and I also wanted to honor
what Graciela did as her own choreographer and then step into my own voice as well. [MUSIC] We had had an early meeting and they had the
notion that [19:12?] was nothing but human voices, human bodies and even instruments,
could you make an instrument out of junk, what if we made marimbas and xylophones out
of broken pieces of tile and glass and wood. [MUSIC] The idea of making something of beauty from
something that is a cast off, I thought was actually quite profound. In this revival the character that I originated
Asaka, the mother of the earth, was played by a man, just to be able to experience that
role in a way that would be more open to trans-people to see that possibility, it’s very exciting
and it expands I think people’s thinking. [MUSIC] The gods didn’t need to be defined by gender,
by race that people who come to this show kids especially could come to this show and
wake up and see themself reflected back and say oh my gosh that’s me and feel proud
about that. And as a gay man myself I find that really,
really exciting. I like the word, their classical you know
or this is just another production of their play, but revival sounds like something [ooo],
how do you make it fresh for a new generation. Sometimes it means you just work more with
the technology, sometimes it means you bring the play closer to the audience, sometimes
it means add sound to the production or music, sometimes it means you cast it in a different
way – you cast it the way the world looks now. So it’s always creative and energetic ways
to make work fresh for today. [MUSIC] There is something about this whole new generation
experiencing this show that’s thrilling to me, our audiences are very mixed there
are many, many young people, very, very ethically diverse. I just find it really exciting and humbling
to know that this thing that we created all these many years ago is now breathing this
new life and really speaking in a direct and emotional way to contemporary audiences. One of the reasons I produce theatre is to
help develop the next generation of audiences for the future. My mom tells me that I first kicked when she
was watching a production of God’s Bell so I got into it very young. But we know now it is a fact that people that
attend the theatre late in life, people that support the theatre, invest in the theatre,
write checks to non-profit theatre, these are the people that were exposed to it very
young and actually participate it in very young. So when I see families bringing their children
when I hear children gasping or cheering or asking there parents questions or wanting
to go see an actor to get their autograph. I know that we’ve done our job and that
child is going to grow up and hopefully bring their children to the theatre which guarantees
that the theatre not only survives over the next hundred years but that the theatre thrives
over the next hundred years.


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