On April 15th, the opening night audience applauded wildly as the talented and exhausted cast of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies took their final bows. Maurice Hines, stopped the applause to bring on stage the show’s director Charles Randolph-Wright.
I swear that the very young-looking director looked like he had just graduated college. What I found out was that this young and brilliant man had already directed six other Arena Stage productions, and has a long list of credits not only in theatre, but also in film, and television. Sophisticated Ladies has gone on to become a box office smash, and as I prepared for this interview, we learned that the show has been extended – the “must close” date is now June 27th.
Joel: We’ve just learned that Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies has broken all box office records in the 60 year history of Arena Stage. Congratulations!
Charles: I am ecstatic! I told Molly Smith from the beginning that I planned to beat her record (that she held with South Pacific). She and I have a wonderful sibling rivalry -because I truly consider her my sister.
Joel: Thousands of people have packed the Lincoln Theatre to see your show. For those who are still haven’t bought tickets, please describe your production.
Charles: What I wanted the most from this production was to honor the legacy of Duke Ellington – his artistry, his charm, his elegance, his brilliance, and especially since we are at one of the theatres where he began his career, I wanted to honor his history.
Joel: Why did you want to direct Sophisticated Ladies? And who asked who?
Charles: This was my seventh show at Arena, and it is my theatrical home. Molly is my family. That of course made me want to return, but I wanted to direct Sophisticated Ladies also because of Maurice Hines. Working with him is an extraordinary journey that is indescribable. We never thought that we could top the amazing experience of Guys and Dolls, but this production has. Maurice was a mentor to me in NYC as he was to many other dancers. He called me yesterday and thanked me for giving him the greatest production in his career. After my tears finished, I was so grateful that I am able to give something back to him because he has given and continues to give me so much.
Joel: Why do you enjoy working with Maurice Hines?
Charles: He is a legend. I know no one that can top his passion and artistry on stage. He is unique and necessary because there are so few people who truly do what he does. Watching so many young people experience him is inspiring because I know they will be forever changed. Maurice forces you to be your best and do your best. Working with him is the ultimate gift.
Joel: Which of his choreographed numbers still makes you say, “Wow!”?
Charles: It changes every time I see it. There are the obvious showstoppers, but there are very simple moments that I also find quite beautiful and moving.
Joel: Which moment in the show is your favorite?
Charles: That’s an impossible question because there are so many moments that I love – the opening when the past and the present collide and the audience realizes they are sitting in the actual theatre where this magic began, the delicious sounds of the different soloists, the diverse types of dance all in one show, Maurice giving the stage to the Manzari Brothers – You know what? I can’t answer this question.
Joel: Talk about how Arena’s design team, musical director and cast brought your vision for Sophisticated Ladies to life.
Charles: Every single person on this team is spectacular. I can’t count the number of shows I’ve done with the lighting designer Michael Gilliam. We don’t even have to speak. He is brilliant, and has been my comrade for years. My last few shows have been with Alex Nichols (set and projections) because his vision and mine also are so in synch. His video vocabulary on stage is genius. We both love the theatre and also love film. What a joy to bring them together and have people get it.
This is the first time I’ve worked with Reggie Ray whose costumes are blowing people away. His work is majestic and illuminating. David Alan Bunn has taken the music to a place I didn’t even think possible. Listening to this show is hypnotic and infectious. I was blessed with an extraordinary team. And I must mention the stage management team led by Kurt Hall. This show would not be possible without them. They make the impossible happen every night.
Joel: Tell us about those wonderful projections that envelope the Lincoln Theatre stage.
Charles: I saw the original Sophisticated Ladies with Gregory and Maurice. (Actually, I was in Dreamgirls across the street. We used to joke that 46th St was the ghetto!) The show was filled with exceptional talent, but was simply a revue. The Ellington legacy is so rich, especially in DC, that I wanted to highlight his history in this production. The fact that young audiences are learning about him thrills me. I use video and projections as the tool for telling that history.
Joel: Where did you rehearse the show?
Charles: We rehearsed in DC, right on 14th and T. The building used to be Club Bali so I felt we were channeling all the people who played there. I love the rehearsal process, and this cast made it a joy to go to work every day.
Joel: Were you at the auditions when the young brothers John and Leo Manzari walked in and blew Maurice away?
Charles: Maurice first saw them in a master class that he taught, then we both saw them in the auditions. We both spotted their talent instantly. You couldn’t help it – thunder and lightning exploded in the room!
Joel: Now that you’ve worked with them and seen them stop the show every performance, what can you say about John and Leo?
Charles: I am so proud of them. They came in as these two kids from SW who loved to dance. Now they literally stop the show every night. Their transformation has been breathtaking. I know that we are witnessing the beginning of two immense careers, and I will take credit for it every chance I get.
Joel: When you went to Duke University, you were a pre-med major. What happened?
Charles: To quote Duke, “I saw the light.” I decided to pursue my dream. I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and I decided to take that chance. I realized that I could return to medical school if this didn’t work out, and I didn’t want to spend my life wondering, “What if?” I always have believed that the pursuit is far more important than the dream. My mother was an English teacher and was obsessed with Robert Frost. I listened to his words and took the road less travelled. (I’ll have to send her this interview.)
Joel: You have directed for television, written, starred, and directed for the theatre, and have written screenplays and directed movies. Which medium is your favorite?
Charles: I am very fortunate and grateful that I get to work in all three mediums, and I just recently added opera to that list. Nothing can take the place of live performance, but I love the work I am doing in film and television. I feel that each medium informs the other, and I have become a better artist because of the collisions of these worlds. I love collisions – in the storytelling as well as in the form.
Joel: Your play Blue was produced at Arena Stage and featured Phylicia Rashas as a very stern and demanding matriarch who loved the blues. Was that character based on your own mother? Did she come and see the show, and what was her reaction? Are you two still talking?
Charles: Very funny! When we were doing interviews I tried to claim that the matriarch was an amalgam of women in my family so that my mother would not be too offended -because Peggy Clark is a very difficult character. When my mother came to the opening of Blue, half the audience was watching her. The amazing thing was that she saw absolutely nothing wrong with the character! To her, Peggy was the perfect mother. That says it all.
Joel: You have written and directed a film version of the musical Mama, I Want to Sing! starring Ciara Harris, Lynn Whitfield and Patti LaBelle. When will it be released?
Charles: I wish I knew the answer to that question. Allegedly, it’s soon, but predicting anything in the film industry is impossible. At least the trailer proves I did it!
Sophisticated Ladies plays through June 27th at Arena Stage at The Lincoln Theatre, in Washington, DC. For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here.
Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies must close June 27, 2010.
Here’s the trailer for “Mama, I Want to Sing”