How do these guys and gals keep putting on these amazing productions of musicals that just didn’t do too well in NYC, and turn them into winners? I saw High Fidelity on Broadway, and loved the music and really disliked the book, and here at the teeny weeny DCAC, where Landless Theatre Company has transformed this High Fidelity into a fun, in-your-face high energy show, all of a sudden I loved the book!
Producing Artistic Director Andrew Lloyd Baughman, actor Stephen Gregory Smith, and Director Julie Herber explain how they made the patient well.
Joel: Why did Landless Theatre Company, and you as artistic director, want to produce High Fidelity, which was hardly a huge success after closing after 14 performances on Broadway in December 2006.
Andrew: I’m a very big fan of Nick Hornby’s novel and the movie, and many of our regular Landless patrons feel the same way, so I knew it wouldn’t take a successful Broadway track record to entice our audience. The material seemed like it could be better served by a “fringy” style production, and that’s what we do. I also liked the idea of being able to produce a show that most people never had the chance to see, and one that might not be produced too often in the future.
Joel: How did you obtain the rights?
Andrew: Tom Kitt was kind enough to put me in touch with his agent at Gersch, and surprisingly, an agreement was struck faster than any show I have attempted to negotiate the licensing rights. Gersch is a joy to work with.
Joel: Did you see the NYC production, and if you did, what impressed you and what didn’t?
Andrew: I did not, but loved the cast album.
Joel: You guys are becoming “musical theatre doctors”, taking shows that need major work, and turning them into critically acclaimed productions. How do you keep accomplishing this?
Andrew: Thank you, Joel, that’s extremely flattering. It’s a strange blessing that first rights to shows like Reefer Madness, Batboy, and [Title of Show] have been denied to us because we are a small non-union company. That has led me to discover more obscure shows that were less successful in NYC. As a result, we can occasionally look back on one of our productions and feel that we took the work to a greater level than ever before for our audience, rather than merely recreating (or “almost” recreating) someone else’s success on Broadway. I tend to research reviews of “less successful” productions to try and figure out what went wrong, and then I nudge my directors to take special care in those areas. I think 90% of the time when one of our scripts had failed in NY, it was because the material was over-produced, and our intimate staging just tends to serve that kind of material better.
Joel: What weaknesses did High Fidelity have that you think was the cause of its short run on Broadway?
Andrew: Well, if you think about it, the story itself doesn’t seem like a great match for a Broadway market that caters to “tween-age” girls and nice ladies like my mom; also, fans of High Fidelity probably don’t care much for musical theatre in the first place, so any attempt to make this musical “Broadway friendly” must have been a real turn-off to those fans. There is an intimate feel to the script, Rob is really opening his heart to the audience, and that could never be captured the same way in a big Broadway house. My guess is that the drive to make a lot of money was what killed the Broadway production.
Joel: What are its strengths?
Andrew: I think the story itself is the strongest element of the show, and the score by Tom Kitt and Amanda Green is often touching and always clever.
Joel: What changes or tweaking have you done that have made the show better?
Andrew: The intimate DCAC space really helps the audience connect with Rob. Music director Charles Johnson has pared down the lush Broadway style orchestration to a simple rock combo, and has allowed for some raggedy edges to give the score more of the feel of the rock/alternative music revered in the novel. Our director Julie Herber made no attempt to soften the edges of Hornby’s characters to make them more likable, as I suspect was done in the original production. Rob, Dick, and Barry appear in all their snobby, hypocritical, obnoxious, awkward, insecure, selfish, gluttonous and/or slovenly glory. Hornby wrote imperfect characters. These are real people who are similar to many of us: the Lost Boys and Girls who took a little bit longer to grow up.
Joel: Talk about the audition process. How many actors showed up, and why did you choose Stephen Gregory Smith to star as Rob Gordon, and Karissa Swanigan as Rob’s girlfriend Laura?
Andrew: Karissa is one of our core company artists, and I had her in mind for this role when picking the show. She brings an “every woman” quality to Laura that reminds you of your sister, daughter or good friend. You can’t help but love her, you forgive her questionable choices, and you REALLY want Rob to get his act together for her.
Stephen was one of the last actors to come on board. I was familiar with him from TICK.. TICK…BOOM!, (the production at MetroStage) and was trying to hunt him down to do this show for almost a year. It’s not enough to be a good singer or have a pretty face to play a role like Rob, you need serious acting chops. Stephen brings the complete package, and I’m really glad we held out on casting in order to get him. I’m always proud of our work, but our audiences will see a performance like never before from Stephen Gregory Smith in High Fidelity.
Our audition process is perhaps unusual. We don’t have the resources to hold open auditions very often, so we tend to put out an open call for resumes and call in 10-15 actors for a callback based on experience and the specific types we need to fill. [Dear DC Actors: if you take an audition appointment from resume submission, please show up, that means we’re really interested in you. :)]
In this case, though we saw a number of talented actors, I believe Stefanie Garcia (Marie LaSalle) was the only actor cast from the audition itself. I was struck by her beautiful phrasing of the song “Ready To Settle.” Josh Speerstra (Dick), Momo Nakamura (Charlie) and I came from our resident artist pool, but it took a lot of phone calls to scout out the right actors for the remaining roles: Anya Nebel (Liz) is someone I have been hoping to work with literally since Landless was founded; Esther Covington (Jackie) and Mickey DaGuiso (Mohawk Kid) have done great work for us in the past; Genevieve James (Anna) had worked with Julie Herber and my wife Melissa, and they both recommended her strongly; Juan Carlos Sanchez (TMPMITW/Boss) emailed requesting an audition at the very last minute and blew us away; the casting of “Ian” was the strangest process of all, but happily, we finally signed on Tom Mallan – a guy who is most known for being a tremendous director, but he’s perfect for this role and should act more often.
Joel: Talk about the score that has lyrics by Amanda Green, and music by this year’s Tony Award Winner for Next To Normal, composer Tom Kitt.
Andrew: I want to meet Amanda Green so badly! The apple does not fall far from the tree [her father is Adolph Green], she is a gifted lyricist who can turn on a dime from crass to poetic and back again. Tom Kitt’s music cleverly recreates or parodies a number of styles of the music referenced in the novel.
Joel: The show is based on the Nick Hornby novel rather than the popular 2000 film version starring John Cusack. What is different in David Lindsay-Abaire’s book than the movie’s script?
Andrew: David Lindsay-Abaire’s book centers a little more on happenings at the Championship Vinyl store than the backstories of the various girlfriends in Rob’s past. While I particularly miss the episodes with Charlie and Sarah, it’s interesting that the creative team uses all of the girlfriends as an ever-present chorus in Rob’s mind, singing as one voice. The musical also includes the iconic character of TMPMITW (“The Most Pathetic Man In The World”) who appears only in the novel. Dick is given a bit more of a voice, and a love interest is introduced between Barrie and Liz that doesn’t occur in the novel or the movie. As a High Fidelity purist and Jack Black-o-phile, I’m not sure I agree with this choice (I think Barry’s one and only love is his music), but Anya Nebel is so talented and irresistible as Liz that it’s no problem at all.
Joel: What’s next for Landless?
Andrew: Next we head back to camp-land with the DC premiere of PEREZ HILTON SAVES THE UNIVERSE (OR AT LEAST THE GREATER LOS ANGELES AREA), an irreverent hit from NY Fringe. Karissa makes her directing debut – she is our gifted resident choreographer, and so in tune with the humor of this show, I can’t wait to see it. We’ll also be welcoming back Juan Carlos Sanchez, Mickey D. DaGuiso, Katie Molinero, and Gillian Shelly in the cast – among others TBA!
Joel: Why should audiences come to see High Fidelity?
Andrew: It’s a chance to see a very rare musical that might not come around again, and to see it starring a truly amazing performer!
Stephen Gregory Smith (Rob Gordon):
Joel: It’s nice seeing you in another lead role. How did you get the role of Rob?
Stephen: Thanks! Andrew pretty much called me up out of the blue and asked if I was available and interested in the project. I was only vaguely familiar with it, so I read the script and listened to the score, and knew right then that I had to do it. It was too good to pass up.
Joel: Who is Rob Gordon, and how do you relate to this character?
Stephen: Rob is your classic Gen X Man boy. He is a man, yet not ready to own up to all of the responsibilities of being one. He compartmentalizes so many aspects of his life into manageable lists, keeping them locked there instead of actually dealing with them and facing them. That being said, there is a decent human being underneath all of that, it just takes him awhile to find that and to toss away all of the baggage that he has been carrying around for so long. I relate to him on several levels, as I am similarly going through some of that in my own life. I think every guy goes through that once they enter their thirties. It’s like all of the sudden you think – oh – I’m like an actual grown up now…what should I really be concentrating on? I would just personally like to think that I am not quite the jerk that he is in real life.
Joel: Is your performance of Rob based on a family member or friend?
Stephen: He is an amalgam of several friends who shall remain nameless with a dash of me thrown in.
Joel: This is the first time you have worked for and with Landless Theatre Company. What has your experience been like?
Stephen: I have had a blast! Everyone involved in the show is so fantastic, and everyone has been welcoming and inclusive to me. I feel like I am a part of their family, and that is always what you want to feel as an actor coming to a new theatre or company. You want to feel safe and in a comfortable place to get emotionally naked and create a character from the ground up. That was absolutely the case with High Fidelity. Also, Josh Speerstra is one of the funniest human beings on the planet. So there’s that.
Joel: What’s it like working with co-star Karissa Swanigan, who plays your girlfriend Laura?
Stephen: First of all, Karissa Swanigan is an undiscovered jewel in this city. Her voice is crazy ridiculous, she is a fantastic actress, and she is also an amazing dancer! She is very giving on stage, and in all of our scenes, she is always present and living in the moment with me. This is truly important because lord knows Rob throws many things her way. Sometimes to annoy her, anger her, or to then conversely try to get her back. Some nights, I feel a little more impish than others, and she is always there catching the pass and running with it. On a personal level, we started talking on Facebook and phone before we even started rehearsal. She initiated that in the interest of fostering a comfortability between the two of us. It worked in a big way, and we fell into an almost automatic friendship that will continue long after this show is over. She and I exchanged mixtapes (of course) of our favorite songs that summed up who we were as people, She even wanted to watch some of my favorite bad movies (Billy the Kid Vs Dracula, Flesh Eater) to see why I liked them so much. She ended up enjoying them just as much, if not more than me. After all of this, how could I not be comfortable enough to “fall in love” with her during every show? Karissa Swanigan, folks. Hire her.
Joel: I agree with you on Karissa Swanigan. She is so talented, and she had an amazing year in 2009, that Karissa was named DC Theatre Scene’s musical performer of the year.
What was the best advice director Julie Haber gave you regarding playing Rob?
Stephen: Everything that came out of her mouth, basically. Julie is such a smart director and knows how to get inside an actor’s head and to get them to convey exactly what she wants. She told me at a certain point that I needed to be more abrasive and defensive during one of Rob’s monologues in which he basically is running his mouth up and down making excuses for all of his bad behavior. I agreed with her and said that I was having a hard time at this monologue because I was approaching this monologue with a little more self doubt in what I was saying as Rob. I didn’t want to make him as horrible a human being at first because it was a place I wasn’t personally comfortable going to at that time with the character. She told me to step more outside of how I personally would handle the situation were it my life and embrace more of Rob’s immaturity and passive aggressive nature. And she was absolutely right. If we don’t see Rob in this light in the beginning of the story, then his journey to self discovery and redemption are not as worth it.
Joel: Set up your Act II duet with Karissa called “I Slept With Someone…”. How do you relate to the song?
Stephen: I love how the song has three sections, and you see that thought process unravel in the course of a morning. My character having slept with Marie LaSalle, a local singer/songwriter that I just met (who happens to be the alleged ex-lover of Lyle Lovett – which excites Rob more than anything else) and Laura has finally slept with Ian, who she is staying with after moving out of her and Rob’s apartment. The morning unfurls in unexpected ways after starting out so exuberantly. How do I relate personally? Hmmmm. No comment.
Joel: Set up your “11 o’clock” number in the Second Act called “Laura, Laura”. How do you relate to this song?
Stephen: This is Rob’s long overdue apology for all that he has put Laura through, and also the first time we as an audience see him mature and start to change. I think that anyone who has ever intentionally or unintentionally hurt someone else can relate to this song. It is about owning your mistakes and admitting that they were wrong. He finally takes accountability in their relationship, and it is a beautiful first step for him.
Joel: Have you worked with any of the cast members before?
Stephen: No, I have not, but I love them all and hope to in the future!
Joel: You have had a busy year being part of the Helen Hayes Award-winning Best Ensemble in Signature Theatre’s Les Miserables, appearing as insane Shrdlu in Adding Machine: A Musical at Studio Theatre, and now Rob in High Fidelity, and you performed your one-man cabaret act, and wowed the audience in a workshop of a new musical called The Boy Detective Fails.
Stephen: I have been truly busy and truly blessed to have all of the opportunities that are given to me. Also, Civil War was in there too! And each project has been its own gorgeous little experience. Not a bad apple in the bunch. Shrdlu in Adding Machine was so fun to delve deep into. Who couldn’t sink their teeth into a religious zealot who is also a psychotic murderer? And then Boy Detective, same thing. Such a precious little guy. So mentally bottled up. And now Rob. I truly have made a living off of playing neurotic men this year. Wow. What does that say about me?
Joel: How would you summarize your year on the stage?
Stephen: Barricade storming, trumpet playing, mystery solving, bible beating, Santa Swinging, Record Store owning good times.
Joel: What was your favorite role and song this year?
Stephen: Probably Billy Argo in The Boy Detective Fails. I just absolutely fell in love with the character, and the beauty of him. And the piece itself is gorgeous as well. Song? Probably The Gospel According to Shrdlu from Adding Machine. You don’t get chances to climb the walls of a jail cell while flagellating yourself with a bible much.
Joel: How difficult is it for you to be a working actor in the DC area?
Stephen: Hmmm. Does the fact that I work 5 jobs give you any indication? Hard. Very hard. We need all the help we can get.
Joel: What’s next for you on the stage after High Fidelity?
Stephen: I have a workshop coming up, maybe a cabaret in the summer, but other than that, nothing. I am auditioning currently for things going on next season. I will just keep on bartending till any of those come through.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave DCAC after seeing High Fidelity?
Stephen: I want them to go home feeling like they had a fun-filled and enjoyable evening at the theatre. What I know they will see is this: an intimate staging of a Washington Premiere musical by the composer of Next to Normal, Tom Kitt, a fantastic cast and band, and a pretty amazing Bruce Springsteen impersonation (thanks, Juan Carlos). Come see us!
Julie Herber (Director and Choreographer):
Joel: How did you get involved and hired to direct and choreograph Landless Theatre Company’s production of High Fidelity?
Julie: I have a long history working with Andrew, as well as being a fan of “Landless”, I work pretty much, full time with the Maryland Ensemble Theatre here in Frederick, and am usually not too available for outside projects, but Andrew caught me at a good moment, where I had a free month!
Joel: Why did you want to direct and choreograph High Fidelity?
Julie: I’ve always been a fan of the novel & movie. So, it was very tempting…and again, being a fan of Landless, I enjoyed the opportunity to ‘play’!
Joel: What do you like most working with Landless?
Julie: It’s a great group of artistic people, who are very …sort of…guerilla in their approach. I like that.
Joel: Tell us about your theatre training and work as a director, choreographer, and performer.
Julie: I’m a graduate of Towson University and after living in NYC for a while, decided to move back down in this area where I could really concentrate on ‘creating’.. which is what I get to do 24/7 at MET. Like I said, most of my work is done here at MET. One of the joys of being in an ensemble is that it gives me the opportunity to perform, direct, choreograph, costume design, write, etc.
Joel: DCAC, where the show is playing, is a tiny space. Talk about the challenges you faced in choreographing and directing this production?
Julie: The space is very challenging, but I think it works terrifically for this piece. The whole play is about Rob’s journey, and the bulk of Rob’s life is that record store. I think DCAC really gives the opportunity for, not only the actors, but the audience as well to be immersed in that little shop. Of course, the script requires us to be in several different locations…but they are all extensions of Rob’s journey…so always feeling like the record store is present really works. Next challenge…cast of a dozen, plus a band!
Joel: How many musicians are in the band, and what is the best advice you gave musical director Charles Johnson and his musicians?
Julie: The band consists of 5 members, who sometimes have to play characters in the play. Because the world of Rob Gordon is all about music, this works really well to have them be such a strong presence. Charles is a great musical director who I’ve worked with before. I love his attention to style & details…so I trusted him to get the sound we needed…he always comes through!
Joel: Talk about your cast, and who they play.
Julie: I have a terrific cast to work with, most who I have never worked with before. What can I say about having the good fortune to work with the amazing Stephen Gregory Smith??…Well, here’s what I can say…When you have an actor who has a phenomenal skill set, you’re already ahead of the game.
What I love about Stephen is that he dove into this role with such passion…but also a sensitivity. Stephen & I talked about how similar Rob was to him in so many ways. Rob tends to use a personality that has become a ‘mask’ for him when dealing with difficult situations…and Steve, just like Rob, would put on the mask for a bit, but when we worked through exploring some of the more difficult decisions Rob is faced with, his exploration went deeper, giving his performance a truly textured and graceful edge…..not to mention a whole lotta ROCK & ROLL! And the chemistry between he and Karissa is super charged. The dynamics of the pair of them were a joy to work with. The entire ensemble brought so much to the table and were relentless through our wintery storm tormented rehearsal process. Josh and Andrew really make me howl too!
Joel: What was the hardest scene to direct?
Julie: Rob’s “Top 10 Things I Miss About Laura”, took us a while to get…(just to finesse it in the most effective way), and the scene with Rob & Laura at the funeral was challenging, because of the raw sensitivity of it, and this was mainly because of the stage set-up, that was a bit constricting for me.
Joel: Tell us about your choreography.
Julie: I’m a very visual/physical/movement oriented artist. I think our physical lives tell a lot about us, so, when I choreograph, I usually try to evoke an emotional life to the movement that enhances the storytelling. Everything has to have been motivated from within…or it doesn’t work for me.
Joel: What was the hardest scene and song to choreograph?
Julie: Well, Joel, I wouldn’t say any of them were hard for me to work on – just challenging, mainly due to the space.
Joel: What’s your favorite song, dance, and scene in the show?
Julie: Another one, I’m going to waver on! Because the score has such variety in it they were all quite fun. I like the first song, because it really sets us up for the ride. I love Anya’s song in the 1st act because it’s so character driven – and she rocks! And, I adore Stephen’s “Laura, Laura” because it’s so brutally raw, honest, and stripped of any ‘mask’.
Joel: Did you see the NYC production, and if you did, what impressed you and what didn’t?
Julie: No, I did not. From what I’ve read about it, it may not have worked because it was just too big & over-produced. That’s the main reason why I think it works here with Landless…because it’s so intimate. We’re really able to become a part of Rob’s journey. The play deals with all these misfits, not only Rob, who have dreams & passions. In such an intimate setting, it allows the audience to relate, support…and really feel like they want to cheer Rob on to get to that place he finally gets to in the end.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave DCAC after seeing High Fidelity?
Julie: First, Joel, I’d love it if they had an enjoyable evening supporting live theatre;) Secondly, I’d like them to feel like they just spent an evening with friends, and lastly – I really do want the mixtape to make a comeback! Have you made yours???
Joel: Yes! I still make them in the CD age. I have dozens of mixtapes!
High Fidelity plays through March 14th at the DC Arts Center (DCAC), 2438 18th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, click here.
Karissa Swanigan says
Great interviews Joel!! and I just wanted to let everyone know, the show has done so well, that we are going to extend!
March 26-27 @ the Warehouse Theatre.
Tickets are available now at http://www.landlesstheatrecompany.org
Julie Herber says
Thanks for the article Joel…and I’d love to hear what’s on the top five of your mix tapes!!
Elizabeth van den Berg says
Wow! I’m thrilled with this interview, Joel. So insightful into the process, respectful of all the work, courteous to the interviewees – I’m now hoping I can make my schedule work to see the show!