Today we are kicking off the 2012 InDepth InterView Tony Awards Series with the director/choreographer of the hottest hit of the 2011-2012 theatrical season, NEWSIES, that was recently awarded with a boatload of Tony Award nominations, in addition to a short-running show that has a very vocal group of advocates and supporters that also received a handful of Tony noms, BONNIE & CLYDE - the passionate and visionary Jeff Calhoun. Discussing all aspects of his freshly minted mega-hit with Disney's NEWSIES and his success d'estime with Frank Wildhorn's BONNIE & CLYDE, as well as all about his years spent developing both and the rule of three, Calhoun illustrates his process and sheds some light on many aspects of the creation of the wildly different dramatic musical vehicles, as well as his opinions on the theatrical environment of today. Additionally, Calhoun outlines his experiences working with NEWIES and BONNIE & CLYDE breakout stars Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes - both Tony nominees - as well as sharing insights arising from his many years spent as an associate choreographer for legendary Tony-winning master director Tommy Tune, creating many remarkable musicals such as THE Will Rogers FOLLIES and GREASE. Plus, Calhoun conveys his infectious enthusiasm for his craft and discusses what drives him to create while also sharing his humbled appreciation for the recognition for both of his new musicals this season by the Tony Award committee and reflecting on his vast multitude of experiences in the theatre so far in his career - everything from starring in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS and MY ONE AND ONLY on Broadway to choreographing THE Will Rogers FOLLIES and BUSKER ALLEY with Tommy Tune to transitioning into directing/choreographing in his own right with the hit revivals of GREASE, BIG RIVER, PIPPIN, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN with Graciele Daniele, BELLS ARE RINGING, as well as GREY GARDENS, 9-TO-5, BROOKLYN and the rest. Also, news on the upcoming JEKYLL & HYDE tour, tentative Broadway plans for EMMA, a John Kenley documentary and much, much more in this career-spanning conversation with one of Broadway's best!
In Part I, Calhoun and I discuss BONNIE & CLYDE, GREASE, BROOKLYN, MY ONE AND ONLY and more. Part II is primarily focused on Calhoun's work on NEWSIES and what is next.
Part I is available here.
More information on NEWSIES on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre is available here.
King Of New York
PC: Alan Menken has done this column and he is such a nice guy who has achieved so much in so many mediums.
JC: Oh, isn't he just the nicest guy? Alan is so wonderful.
PC: How did you approach the challenge of bringing NEWSIES to the stage while retaining the songs and paying homage to the original film?
JC: Again, like I said, I never saw the movie, so, I took it on as a completely fresh experience. It was a blank page.
PC: You went in knowing the audience would have certain expectations based on the film experience, though, no?
JC: No - if I thought of the pressure of a show before I did it, I never would do it! [Laughs.] You know, honestly, it's a miracle a show ever works, so you try to arm yourself with as much optimism as possible - and, for me, that's worrying about the possible stress or failures or anyone's expectations of it. I just assumed that we were going to make a show so good that the fans and the new audience would love it equally - otherwise, I'd be too afraid to show up to work in the first place! [Laughs.]
PC: What a daring approach.
JC: It's the truth, though, Pat - it's a miracle any show ever works; truly. If one thing is off, it can ruin the whole balance. What a lot of people don't realize is that a big part of the collaboration is done nine months before the rehearsals ever start - and that's the director's work with the designers.
PC: Elemental to a show's success - or lack thereof.
JC: I think the key to a show is the director's work with the designers - obviously, you have to have a good story, too; but, that floor plan that you come up with them is everything. And, you can't change it - once it has gone into the factory and it is starting to be built, that is it; and you had better have guessed right.
PC: How harrowing.
JC: Oh, my God - it is. I sit there with Tobin, my set designer, and think about it for - I'm not kidding - six or nine months. It takes a long time to actually come up with the physical production of a show. By the time we hold auditions, we know the scene transitions and how everything moves - we have it all figured out; how it looks, how it moves, how it feels. We always want the scenery to be another character in the show - we want it to be as fluid as possible; like a movie. It's always very clearly thought-out.
PC: The scenic design for NEWSIES is so striking and instantly intriguing and enveloping. Tell me about coming up with that design - particularly the multi-tier scaffolding concept.
JC: With NEWSIES, what is so beautiful, in my opinion, is that this is the second design we came up with - the first design we went to Thomas Schumacher with was rejected and I stormed out of the meeting and I was so angry. Then, Tobin and I came up with the second design and that's what we brought back to Tom, and, I have to say, Tom was right all along.
PC: What is working with Tom like?
JC: Well, to be honest, I really have to say that Tom is just the smartest, best producer I have ever worked with. He said to us about that first design, "It looks like a revival! It's too old fashioned." And he was right. You know, Tobin and I had done a set that we thought was what Disney wanted, but it was a great lesson because rather than second-guess what Disney would want, we should have always stayed true to our own sensibility and followed our vision. It turned out being that our own sensibility was something that Tom wanted most of all.
PC: Your own individual stamp on every aspect of the production.
JC: Right. What I am so happy about with it is that it looks like it is really 1898 and you are in the tenements of New York; or, you are looking at the skyline - but, also, it looks like a modern sculpture. It's all 21st century storytelling, yet, it nods to the industrial revolution of the time, too.
PC: It has many levels - physically and metaphorically.
JC: I think that it is very successful in that it is opaque - when the screens come down - and it is completely skeletal when the screens fly up. We can transition from one scene into another in about seven seconds - and it's all balletic.
PC: It really is. The towers move so smoothly and effortlessly.
JC: Each of those units weighs two tons - two tons! So, that's six tons total between the three units. It could feel very laborious and heavy, but it doesn't feel that way at all and that's a credit to Tobin's amazing design.
PC: How did the final design idea come about?
JC: Well, basically, I needed a cityscape that in some way dwarfed the actors and intimidated the actors, because that's the whole point, yet I never wanted it to eclipse them to the point that you lost their humanity; so that's what the skeletal part is for - allowing us to get down to the boys' humanity. If the screens were down for the whole show it would definitely not work.
PC: The opening sequence is ingeniously staged - very Michael Bennett and very much in the great Tommy Tune tradition, too.
JC: Well, that's right and I appreciate you see that - Michael Bennett passed it on to Tommy Tune who then passed it on to me.
PC: A bit of a GRAND HOTEL influence with the multi-levels, no?
JC: Yes, GRAND HOTEL - and, look at THE Will Rogers FOLLIES! I think that opening number was 13 minutes or something.
JC: The GRAND HOTEL opening is spectacular, too - Tommy's a genius.
PC: Bennett's A CHORUS LINE is the greatest ever opening, I think.
JC: I agree; it is - ever, ever, ever. Also, as hard as we worked on the NEWSIES opening, we worked really hard on the opening number for BONNIE & CLYDE, too, and I thought that turned out great: you saw the carnage and then you saw the innocence of these two young people and where it all began, and, by the end of the opening number, you were all up to date and we were back years before their demise, all in 13 minutes - I love doing that kind of thing. Ultimately, what I want the audience to feel like at the end of an opening number is, "God, am I glad to be here!"
PC: Is the opening the first sequence in NEWSIES that you worked on?
JC: Yes. That was Tobin and me and Chris sitting there and figuring it all out - I was determined that by the end of the opening number you would know all the rules of the show. We wanted to show everyone the vocabulary right at the start.
PC: Establish everything immidiately - the Rodgers & Hammerstein tradition.
JC: We introduced the theme and we wanted the rest of the evening to then be a variation on that theme. First, we go from the rooftop to the interior of the boarding house and then out onto the streets, passing the nuns and continuing down the streets to where they see the blackboard and then to the actual distribution window - and, by the end of the number, there is a sense that you know who these people are and you have a sense of location and where and how they live; how they get to work each day. That's all the information you need to know about them, all in one number.
PC: It's so clearly conveyed, as well - a credit to your stagecraft.
JC: You know what the journey is every day for those boys and that's the information you need to know before we can proceed in telling the story.
PC: Was Alan involved in the structuring and design of that sequence?
JC: Well, what we did was we just took the song and put it with all the information Harvey had written and we just re-routine-d it all so it could dance and so it could be a comprehensive story told through the music. You know, that's a lot of information packed in there!
PC: You can say that again! Was anything cut out of it along the way in the development of it?
JC: Yes. We actually edited out some information - such as: Harvey also had the introduction of Davey and his brother, Wes, during the opening number, but I felt like that was just too much information, so we saved that for later on once you settle down in your seats and everything. We actually thinned it all out from what was in the script as we developed it, believe it or not. [Laughs.]
PC: Were you the first director involved with NEWSIES or were other directors attached at earlier points in the process?
JC: I don't know for sure, but I believe I was the first director other than the in-house Disney guy who handles the readings. Disney did ask me to direct a reading, but I said no because I wanted to come in with baby eyes and really see it as fresh as I possibly could when we began work on it.
PC: What was the process of adapting the film script and story into the stage show along with Harvey and Alan?
JC: Oh, it was fabulous. You know, Harvey and Alan are such easy collaborators. All three of us had the same way of working: the best idea wins.
PC: The best way of attacking it, no doubt.
JC: Alan usually agreed to trying anything and Harvey would challenge us on many things - as he should - and we would take on the challenges we gave each other and come back smarter and better for having had those challenges. I thought it was a very rewarding collaboration. And, again - as I keep saying - what a thrill to be working with an idol of mine; this guy who changed my life with TORCH SONG TRILOGY.
PC: Such a momentous play.
JC: I mean, that's the show I brought my mom to as my sort of coming out experience. So, to work with Harvey now on this? I feel so very blessed.
PC: He's so talented.
JC: Oh, he is! And, he just understands it all so well - he just gets it. They say you are either born with star quality or you're not - and it's the same with writing ability and the ability to structure a story; you either can do it or you cannot. You can't learn those things in school.
PC: "In your bones," as Arthur Laurents was wont to say.
JC: Absolutely - "In your bones." That's exactly right.
PC: Speaking of the structuring of NEWSIES, was "Sante Fe" always positioned as the Act One closer or did you ever use "King Of New York" in that slot instead to see how it played?
JC: Oh, well, ever since I got on board it was "Sante Fe" - and I think that was one of Harvey's most brilliant decisions. There are three genius things that Harvey did - and he did a lot of genius, brilliant things - and, first, was the addition of Katherine, the love interest.
PC: A revivifying addition.
JC: Second, making Jack Kelly an artist and letting that artwork be what ultimately conquers and acts as the slingshot to his Goliath. And, the third thing is starting the show and ending Act One with "Sante Fe". Those are all Harvey additions and those strokes of genius you just cannot extract from the show and have it still be a hit.
PC: Inextricably non-extractable.
JC: [Laughs.] It's true. It wouldn't work if it wasn't structured the way that it is and that is all due to Harvey.
JC: Was "Watch What Happens" Katherine's only solo spot or were there other songs in earlier versions of the show?
PC: Oh, no - we went through many, many songs for that spot; as we did for Pulitzer's song, too.
PC: Did you have any affection for any of the cut songs you lost along the way?
JC: Oh, yeah - I kind of liked them all, but I see now why, dramaturgically, they just didn't serve us as well as they could.
PC: How did "Once And For All" come about? That's my personal favorite moment in the show.
JC: Oh, that's a good one - "Once And For All" is actually my favorite number in the show, too; I'm a little partial to it.
PC: Why do you prefer it?
JC: Well, basically, because it was the biggest challenge of the show for me - as far as the storytelling goes, a lot really had to be accomplished in that number.
PC: It's loaded.
JC: I was just thrilled with how it turned out and the collaboration Chris and I had in creating that - you know, there's not a ballet step in that whole number, but it feels like a ballet. When they all line up in all of those squares and they push that unit downstage on the modulation? That's my favorite moment in the whole show.
PC: And it's easy to see why! So cinematic and electrifying.
JC: Thank you - that really is my favorite moment. It was such a challenge to do and I am really proud of the storytelling we did in that number.
PC: Has Tommy come and seen the show yet?
JC: Oh, are you kidding?! He was there on opening night!
PC: Did he enjoy the show?
JC: Yes! I mean, I hope he did - I hope he was at least proud of my work on it. You know, he really is my mentor, so I'm too intimidated to really ask his opinion.
PC: As Michael Bennett was to him - tou continue the great tradition; and how!
JC: Thank you for saying that. I just know that, honestly, next to my parents, Tommy was the greatest influence on my life.
PC: NEWSIES has that same infectious energy and contagious enthusiasm that the best Bennett and Tune shows had.
JC: You know, to me, the most thrilling part of a theatrical experience is when the lights go down - that promise of what will happen afterwards. Rarely do I feel that same energy when the lights come up again at the end of a show, but I think with NEWSIES people are leaving with more energy than they came in with and for that I am really, really happy.
PC: What was the last song written for NEWSIES? What changed most between Papermill and Broadway?
JC: I can't remember the last thing we added, but, from Papermill to Broadway, there were three new songs - Medda's song is new, Pulitzer's song is new and the Act 2 ballad is new.
PC: How did you come to the decision to implement those changes?
JC: Well, I think we agreed that those were the weakest elements at Papermill - I think those moments paled in comparison to the rest of the show that we had. And, to Alan's credit, he was the one who said, "Look, I know I can do something better for these three songs, so let me," - and, so, we did. You know, you don't say no to Alan Menken when he says he wants to write a new song or two! [Laughs.]
PC: Or three!
JC: Or three! That was all Alan - he said he wanted to write three new songs and he did and they were all fantastic; and I think the show is better for it.
PC: What was the biggest change overall in the move to Broadway, in your estimation?
JC: I think we just upped the ante - again, it was the rule of the trinity; the reading, Papermill and then Broadway. Each incarnation improved upon the last and the show got clearer and better each time. What we have now is the show we were always hoping we would have - if not even better.
PC: What was your conversation with Jeremy like, having had the experience of a short-running show with BONNIE & CLYDE and then starting work on NEWSIES? Did you discuss it?
JC: No - we've never talked about that. You know, as the director, it's hard - even though we are friends, you want to keep it as positive and professional as possible at all times and if you're talking about the reviews it's no longer about the work.
PC: You stay focused on tomorrow, not yesterday.
JC: Exactly - and, honestly, you know, as a director, you love your flops as much as your hits. What I come back to every time, no matter if the show is a hit or flop, is what I learned doing the show. On BONNIE & CLYDE, I learned a lot of things, but, the greatest lesson that is foremost in my mind is that I had to develop a thick skin to survive all of it because in the end it was really heart-breaking. After a few months, though, I realized that as my skin gets thicker, that's how much farther the world is away from me and I just woke up one day and said "Forget it!" and left my house for the first time in weeks and just moved on with my life. It took that visual metaphor for me to really get it, though - you can't have a thick skin and do this kind of work.
PC: What a great insight.
JC: It's so true - I can't put that much space between the world and my heart. My job is to move people and to have my shows touch people and I can't do that if I am not open to the world myself. And, you just can't be cynical and do what I do every day - it's impossible. You can't be jaded, either - at least not with the kind of material that attracts me and what I want to put out there into the world with the shows that I choose to do.
PC: Were you committed to NEWSIES by the time of BONNIE & CLYDE's closing or did you become involved afterwards?
JC: I knew that NEWSIES was going to Papermill, but, the beauty of NEWSIES is that it was never planned for Broadway - it just keeps surpassing everyone's expectations every step along the way.
PC: Broadway was not planned as the ultimate goal for the show?
JC: No! We were just going to do it at Papermill and that was going to be that. That's the absolute truth - it's not bullsh*t. Then, the extension and open-ended run was not planned either - we basically went to Broadway for licensing reasons, so it had to play a certain amount of weeks, and that was going to be that, too. It's because of the audiences really demanding it that we extended, and, since then, it's like, you know, they're not going to close a show that's doing great business! That would make no sense.
PC: Of course not. It's a definite Broadway hit.
JC: It is and I am so happy about it. The whole journey is really a metaphor for what the show is about and I just love that - you know, it is a David and Goliath story that became a real David and Goliath story in real life. People usually don't believe that because they think Disney is the Goliath - but, in this case, that's a cynical mind thinking; it was a truly organic journey for this show. Trust me, if they were planning otherwise with this show they would have told me. [Laughs.]
PC: Does the time seem particularly right for NEWSIES right now given the predominance of teen vocal groups and the reemergence of boy bands like One Direction and The Wanted?
JC: Oh, I would be lying if I said that I had that kind of insight. All of that is just luck - or fate.
JC: Really. Honestly, I thought BONNIE & CLYDE was going to be my hit! I thought BROOKLYN was going to be my big hit! [Laughs.]
PC: You can never predict anything.
JC: You can't - you just never, ever, ever know. So, yeah - everything about the success of NEWSIES is a complete surprise to me and I couldn't be happier.
PC: What is it about the show that has made it hit with the public at large like it has?
JC: Well, of course I'm going to be biased, but I think that it is really good, old fashioned stagecraft at its best and people appreciate that - and, all of the collaborators are at the top of their game and they are all in synch, so it is possible for anything to happen and you can feel that. Most of all, I think tone is everything and NEWSIES has a really consistent tone - everything about it is consistent; the book, the music, the set, the costumes, the acting, the casting, the choreography. That's hard to achieve and I am proud of that - I think our show is most successful in terms of tone.
PC: Tone dictates all.
JC: It's all about creating a world and bringing you as an audience member into that world and making it so you want to stay in that world until the show is over.
PC: Casting a spell and then maintaining the magic - the Tune/Bennett tradition once again. You've done it with NEWSIES.
JC: Well, if that is true, then I am deeply honored - they are the best; there has never been any better than them.
PC: Will there be a NEWSIES tour sometime soon?
JC: Oh, I have no idea what's happening with that - we'll have to wait until after the Tonys for any word on that, I think. But, I can tell you that the set that is currently in the Nederlander is the set we built to tour - that was the original mandate and we certainly fulfilled it. I'd have to assume, at this point, that it will have life beyond the Nederlander, so, we'll just have to wait and see what the next decisions will be.
PC: Did you always want NEWSIES in a smaller house like the Nederlander as opposed to one of the big barns on Broadway?
JC: Yes. I love that intimate feeling - there's really something to be said for modesty. I just think that when you have a baby, you put it in a crib, you don't put it in a king size bed, you know?
PC: It's a special space - especially given the RENT legacy.
JC: It is a really special space and it has a really wonderful meaning to me because the Nederlander is like home - it's where Tommy and I created all of our shows back when it was pretty much abandoned. I mean, there used to be bums peeing in the lobby!
PC: It was far from the space it is now.
JC: Yeah, I remember having the keys to it - we rehearsed everything there; THE Will Rogers FOLLIES, GREASE, Tommy Tune TONITE! We even rehearsed BUSKER ALLEY there. Tommy was so famous that if you wanted him to direct a show he wouldn't do it in a rehearsal space, he would only do it in a theatre. So, the Nederlander was always available at the time, so that was part of his deal was that he got to use that theatre. Isn't that amazing?
PC: It is. One last thing, since you brought it up: tell me about BUSKER ALLEY.
JC: Oh, BUSKER ALLEY was one of the most wonderful and most difficult experiences of my life.
PC: The Tony Awards performance from out-of-town was so exciting and quite unprecedented at the time for a new musical, out-of-town - I remember it fondly.
JC: What I remember most is that we had just had the theatre painted and then Tommy broke his fifth metatarsal in Tampa. [Sighs.] It's a long story - it's its own book. I remember The Sherman Brothers were so fabulous, though - Richard is such a light and Bob had a bit darker point of view, but they were great. Like I said, I have wonderful memories of that show because it was very personal to me and I was the real driving force behind it - and I will tell you that I still don't think that the definitive vision I have for that show has been seen yet.
PC: So, you'd like to take another look with a new version of it someday?
JC: Well, you know, you never say no to anything, but, in thinking about the future, I'm just not sure how it would be received - it's so old fashioned. Shows that I love - shows that got me into the theatre - are so kind of antiquated now. I think that, from now on, I just want to create something new and original whenever I can - that's the real goal of an artist, after all; to create.
PC: Something new.
JC: Yes - I want to do something new and original and something that we haven't seen before whenever I can.
PC: What has been your favorite show of the season besides either of your own?
JC: Well, I have to say that I loved ONCE - I am a real fan of ONCE. Again, it's something that I hadn't seen before and it was my kind of thing. I thought the direction was superb, especially.
PC: NEWSIES looks likely to take the Best Musical Tony - let's hope it does.
JC: Oh, well, if that were to happen I would just be beside myself! I am over the moon already with the way everything has gone. We are so happy to have been received as well as we have been. I'm overjoyed.
PC: What's next for you after the Tony Awards?
JC: What's next for me is I am doing the Broadway revival of JEKYLL & HYDE with Constantine and Deborah Cox. We are planning on touring that for 26 weeks and then coming to Broadway with it. But, before that hits Broadway, I did a production of a beautiful musical Paul Gordon wrote called EMMA and we did a production of it recently at the Old Globe Theatre and now we are just looking for the right theatre in New York for it.
PC: So, EMMA will be soon, perhaps before JEKYLL?
JC: Yes - EMMA will be soon; hopefully, this Winter/Spring. We are just looking for the right theatre now.
PC: Who will be Broadway's Emma?
JC: Well, Patti Murin did it at The Old Globe and was spectacular. We'll see.
PC: What about the future for BONNIE & CLYDE?
JC: We're thinking about BONNIE & CLYDE either touring or going to the West End, but I actually am doing the 9-TO-5 auditions now because we going to be doing that in the West End in the Fall right before we start JEKYLL back here in the US. I can't wait to get started on 9-TO-5 and working with Dolly again because I knew her and she is one of my favorite people on this planet.
PC: This was awesome, Jeff. This is your time! Enjoy it.
JC: Oh, Pat, you are just so wonderful at your job and you inspire me! I can't thank you enough for this. I feel like I am on top of the world right now and I have so many people to be thankful for. Bye bye.