First, I want to preface this that I respect how when getting started you mentioned that you didn’t want to talk about specific people, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I’d love to hear you talk about working on your Sondheim productions since you’re a frequent collaborator with him and James Lapine/John Doyle and those works/productions are revolutionary, at least to me as a person and theater artist.
I must say that when you are doing them you are just doing them. You are grateful for the chance to work with wonderful artists- but you know when I was collaborating early on in my career with Michael Langham, I realized the best I could do was to be his collaborator and on his team, not to be enamored over what he had done. You see, just like a runner, you are each time to the block wondering if you can run the race again…. each time you are a little older and you now have everyone thinking you know something special about running the race… What I have witnessed and what I have experienced is each artist looking around and trying to make themselves super aware of what everyone else is doing. Steve working directly with a singer to make a song work and James rewriting overnight, again and again, a scene. Perhaps it is an edit of just a few words, but each one adds up on top of the last.
Perhaps the best I ever saw of this, is the workshops of new shows where we were really out of the purview of the masses such as the first workshop of Sunday in the Park at the old little 90 seat Playwrights Horizons Theater, the first production of company out at Cincinnati Playhouse in the park where John Doyle could hone how the actors were working, and the initial production of the Visit up at Williamstown. In a way, when you can get into a more relaxed creative situation it lets the actors have freedom that affects everyone.
Now I will say for a designer these situations are never ideal – in fact, they are the hardest. Here you are with a team of a top director and actors and top writers and you as a designer are in less than the ideal situation – not enough money – not enough time and a small shop…. but what you do have, if you can use it right, is the situation to get to know your actors and other creatives really well and be able to change things as they go along. Sure there are pressures too – like no second act for Sunday – when it was finally performed we just read it to the audience about 3/4 of the way through the run to a single audience. The makeup designer for The Visit was unable to make it up to Williamstown when all the actors were to have specific drained looks. John Doyle, after the original production of the Catered Affair where Faith Prince had 5 full costume changes, saying to me, “which single costume did I want for the broadway run?” (Making me hone it to what was important and told the story in a direct and forceful manner)
You see these as revolutionary, I would say that when a revolution starts it is a few people seeing what they feel may be a better way. They start to work toward that goal as a community, the revolution then happens around them because of what they wanted to put forth. They are responding to what is the status quo, like James Lapine as a graphic artist and photographer really responding in Sunday to what the theater was at that point and reflecting on a piece of art- and his meeting steve at a point where as an accomplished artist steve was ready and willing for that journey and could add exponentially to what Lapine wanted to achieve. No matter what production you work on – know that you are holding someone’s dreams in your hands – a community Hello Dolly is as important as Broadway in the most basic form -the communication of ideas through a story. Whether you work with the greatest or not is not relevant, what is relevant is that you treat each collaborator like a doctor in surgery treats a patient like they are the most important in the world at that moment. That is what lets you work with the greatest in the best fashion – as when they are collaborating on an idea with you – they need your full attention and your full energy and your full honesty.
I made the decision early on if I was afraid to work with these people with these things; I was not giving them my level best and so full speed ahead – Stephen Sondheim or a brand new team like the whole creative team for Beauty and the Beast was for Broadway – give your best – the oldest and the most accomplished are just as concerned as you are that it is a creative act – and surprise – surprise they are happy to work with your new talent.
Were these productions an example of when you find a collaborator that you just click with and whose work does something to/for you, that you continue fostering that relationship? Did you know right away that this was a partnership that’d last several productions?
You never know- it is an ongoing changing world in our theater- especially commercial theater. You know, I make up my mind there are people I would do anything fo – sometimes that is hard – to wit when I was fired off the Boy from Oz because the producers did not like the reviews that had come out for Dance of the Vampires and they wanted their own team, not the director’s choice, I made up my mind that this would not affect my relationship and devotion to the director. It did not and indeed I have done major productions around the world with him since that time.
I have had super successful relationships that have gone on to be devoted friendships where we do not always work together but we always keep up with each other and kind of come in and out of each other’s work lives. I made a decision a long time ago that friendships have to be an important part of me – that is what makes me who I am and if they want to work with me I am delighted and if not I will enjoy my friendship.
Many of these works have revivals, movie adaptations, and/or have influenced other work. What is it like to see something you helped originate spin-off in this way?
It is so weird to see film and TV versions for me as I really see the first actors I worked with as the characters as I made the visual upon them and they then made it alive. Somehow the witch is Bernadette’s voice to me and always will be…Terry Mann will always be the beast… But, I know the stories go on to be told by others to many others and they will continue to be.
Each story has its visual world and making that with a group of people is birth – there are many births – it is just that I will always have the memories of when my actors first gave life to my clothing and that is my miracle…
I feel a little sad when I see another version but I know that is the circle of anything that has ongoing life.
Did you know these productions would be as influential as they turned out to be?
Heck no! All I am trying to do is have once again that spark of life I feel when my actors are in the light and the theater is full of people and our show, for a while, become all of life – all of history- all of the emotion as the audience sits forward in their seats to become a living breathing single whole.
You see the secret here is whether you are Sondheim – Doyle – Robbins – Layton – Prince – Miranda – Lapine – all you want is that……How lucky are we to run this race.