Part 1 in a series on Philadelphia directors from
Curtains, SilverHill, Macbeth, and The Three Penny Opera.
It’s one of my favorite Kander and Ebb musicals and I’ll be seeing the final performance of Curtains at the intimate Walnut Street Theatre on October 24th. Last year I loved Walnut’s production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and was impressed by the work of director Richard Stafford, so I was delighted to hear that he was back at The Walnut to direct Curtains.
Joel: What is Curtains about, and why did you want to direct it?
Richard: Curtains charts the tumultuous days of an out-of-town opening of a new musical (circa 1959) entitled Robbin’ Hood. The show’s star, an untalented TV personality, is murdered in the final moments of the show and Lieutenant Frank Cioffi of the Boston police arrives backstage to investigate. The large and colorful cast of characters enlivens the goings-on as the murders mount up, Robbin’ Hood gets a make-over thanks to Cioffi’s guidance and ultimately the mystery is solved.
I was thrilled to be offered this show for many reasons: I love the idea of a “murder” musical, Kander and Ebb (and Holmes and Stone) are masters of the craft, the characters are vivid and, finally, who doesn’t love a backstage musical?
Joel: During the writing of the show, both book writer Peter Stone and composer Fred Ebb died; Rupert Holmes came in and finished and revised the book, and he and John wrote some additional lyrics. You would think that with everything that happened, the book would be a mishmash.
Richard: I agree you would imagine a mishmash, but it’s not at all. I can’t for the life of me tell who wrote what. Knowing The Mystery Of Edwin Drood (which Rupert Holmes wrote) and its complexities, I would imagine that the final twists and turns as well as the clues that Cioffi is picking up on and his final revelations are Holmes’ contributions. One of the very poignant moments comes as the composer Aaron sings about losing his writing partner (one of the plot twists) and the sadness he feels in the song “I Miss The Music” (the title alone tells you all you need to know) and I imagine this was completed after Ebb’s death. [He is correct. See Richard Seff's interview with John Kander.]
Joel: The cast of Curtains is pretty large. How many people are in the Walnut cast, and who have you worked with before?
Richard: We are a cast of 29. I have worked all of the principals before except Peter Schmitz, Nancy Lemenager and Julie Reiber, and most of the ensemble too, so it was wonderful, comfortable rehearsal period for all of us.
Joel: Last year you directed another large cast in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Was this show more difficult to direct than Scoundrels?
Richard: They are such different types of shows and each, obviously, had its own challenges. What was perhaps more challenging about this were the many stories to keep balanced and moving forward – so many principals each with a story to tell. Also, keeping the tension with regard to the mysterious murders and the who-done-it angle was challenging. Finding the right balance between farce and reality was very important, because how do you make murder funny?
Joel: Curtains is a murder mystery within a musical within a musical. What have you done to make it easy for audiences to understand what is happening?
Richard: I knew how important it would be to keep the stories very distinct – the mystery of who keeps killing people, the flirtation between Cioffi and Niki, the antagonism between Carmen and her daughter, the Aaron, Georgia, Bobby story – all so important to not lose sight of. Also, I purposely kept the blocking and direction of the scenes very simple and straightforward and the choreography really bubbly and complex so the entertainment value is high with the story being told very clearly.
Joel: How would you describe Kander and Ebb’s score for Curtains? What is (are) your favorite song (s) in Curtains?
Richard: I describe the score as a classic waiting to become one – it really is a good score with very strong melodies and lyrics. It has an “old-fashioned” clarity to it. The orchestrations and dance arrangements are GREAT and I really love (as do audiences) all of the counter-point moments in many of the songs. Interestingly, one of my favorite songs is “What Kind Of Man”. I remember it vividly from the Broadway production – it’s succinct, simple, and very clever. It always gets a good response.
Joel: How would you describe your style of direction and your choreography for Curtains? What was the most difficult scene(s) to direct and choreograph?
Richard: I’ve tried to really keep the show moving along so that the transitions were as seamless as possible and keep a strong tempo in the scenes. I wanted, as I said, the choreography to be complex, buoyant, and show-biz-y fun and with a nod to Jack Cole and a 1959 sensibility to the Robbin’ Hood choreography. I wanted a traditional ballet corps for the “finale” of RH which meant women in ballet shoes and tutus – all based on Balanchine’s ballet Western Symphony. Colleen McMillan, the costumer really helped out on that.
The number “Thataway” was the most difficult, hands down, because it’s a long number and, frankly, not about very much – but having the extraordinarily talented Nancy Lemenager leading the number is a huge help. She really fills in the blanks.
Joel: ‘It’s a Business’ is a song about how show business can be ‘prickly”. Based on your years in ‘the business’- are the lyrics true?
Richard: Well, that’s an interesting question. I have been so fortunate to work with producers who were as concerned about the art as the $ but particularly in today’s financial climate, producers are certainly more wary about trying something new or straying too far from what is expected to sell. I think Bernard Havard does such a wonderful job of choosing shows, both musical and straight that strike a balance between lesser known but high quality entertainments (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Curtains to name two), classics (Oliver!) and megahits (Miss Saigon, Cats).
Joel: Describe to us what your designers – Scenic Designer Robert Andrew Kovach, Lighting Designer Paul Black, Costume Designer Colleen Grady and Sound Designer David Temby – have created for this production. Have you worked with any of them before?
Richard: I have been so fortunate to have worked with all except David Temby and I adore them all! Robert and I worked so long on this to find something that could move, gave us enough room for a huge cast and huge numbers and was visually stimulating. How wonderfully Paul and Robert work together. I don’t think there could be a more visually stunning way to realize “Tough Act To Follow” that has been conceived, designed and lit here. Colleen and I both won Barrymore awards for our work on La Cage Aux Folles at the Walnut years ago so we go way back and I couldn’t be happier with her work here. She’s so good. And it was a pleasure to finally meet David who I’d only heard good things about and, boy, are they true. He’s a consummate pro. They’ve each contributed so much to this show and I think each compliments the other – story telling, visual surprises, great beauty, and homage to show business.
Joel: You are directing David Hess as the show-tune loving Lt. Frank Cioffi. I saw him in NYC playing the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Talk about David’s performance and why he is so perfect for the role of Cioffi?
Richard: Well, David and I go way back too. At the Walnut, I choreographed him in Grand Hotel and I really respected his work so much. He’s such a gentleman, which is a great place to start. I’m so happy with where David’s gone with Cioffi. We talked right away after casting him in the role and I could tell he was excited about finding this character. We talked immediately about the Boston accent and he nails that. Mainly, we agreed about the boyish quality, almost childlike simplicity that overtakes him when he enthuses or muses about show business. Also, he’s a really good lieutenant – serious about his job so it’s entertaining to see the gears turning as he figures it all. It’s a mammoth role and he conquers it beautifully.
Joel: You also have Broadway actresses Julie Reiber, who is playing Cioffi’s new-found love and dancing partner Niki Harris and Nancy Lemanger, who plays the lyricist and the new Madame Marian – Georgia Hendricks. I saw Julie in Wicked as Elphaba. And Nancy in Never Gonna Dance. What do they bring to their roles besides their incredible voices?
Richard: They are both great actresses and admirable just on that score alone….thoughtful, quick, easy, funny. They both bring tremendous honesty to their very different roles. I had not worked with either before but had wanted to work with each of them for years. You never know what it’s going to feel like being in a room with someone that you don’t know, particularly if you’ve admired their work before. For us, it was great from the get-go. I look forward to working with both of them again.
Joel: You have worked with Musical Director Music/Vocal Director Douglass G. Lutz before. Talk about working with him in this production.
Richard: I love working with Doug. He too is quick, easy, funny and thoughtful. It’s always a pleasure and this was no different. He works so well with the orchestra. They really sing in this one. The orchestra sounds great—in large part to Doug’s great conducting. (They also happen to be terrific players!)
Joel: Have there been times when you are both choreographing and directing at the same time- that you wished you hired a separate director and/or choreographer? Why put double the pressure on yourself?
Richard: I choreographed for so long with really wonderful directors and certainly when I directed Miss Saigon, I was happy to have a separate choreographer to work with. Both have advantages. At this point in my life and career, I find this way of working very fulfilling. I work very closely with my associate director/choreographer Jonathan Stahl. We’ve done probably 30 shows together and it is a very close collaboration. We now finish each other’s sentences in the pre-production and rehearsal room and have the same vision almost always. I trust him implicitly.
Joel: Why do you enjoy working at Walnut Street?
Richard: The Walnut has such an artist-friendly team with Bernard Havard at the helm. He impresses upon us all from day one the importance of the process and the support we all have from his team at the Walnut, and I have always known it to be so. It also happens to be a very beautiful theatre. I like that the runs are long so the actors have a real chance to realize, quite completely, their roles. The orchestra is good-sized. Also, the audiences are so savvy and warm. Sets, costumes, lights, and sound are all first-rate.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave Walnut Street Theatre after seeing Curtains?
Richard: Well, I hope they have a great time, laugh a lot and are surprised by “who-done-it”.
Curtains plays through October 24th at Walnut Street Theatre, in Philadelphia, PA. For more information, and to purchase tickets click here.