When director Robert O’Hara (The Mountaintop, resident playwright at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company) was presented with the opportunity to take on Arena Stage’s upcoming production of Five Guys Named Moe, he pondered how he could make the 1992 Tony-nominated musical his own.
“I’m not usually offered musicals, so that in itself interested me,” he says. “I had seen it on Broadway and I loved the music but I knew the original music was not written for Broadway, and I thought about how I could get back that positive instinct of the music—the nightclub songs with roots of rock and R&B.”
After talking with Arena’s artistic director Molly Smith about his ideas for changes in the music and a reimagined script, all parties agreed that he was the best man for the job.
“Molly knows I wouldn’t just take it on the way it was and she lets me explore it my way,” O’Hara says. “In essence, she hired me to reinvent the play. She wanted someone to have a different conversation with the work, so that was very exciting and a great challenge. It’s a beloved musical so there was no real reason to do something different, but that’s not how she runs a theater and I enjoy that.”
O’Hara’s first action was to work with the music and create a tribute to the “King of the Jukebox” composer and saxophonist Louis Jordan that he felt would serve the musical better.
FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE
Runs Nov 20 – Dec 28, 2014
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Tuesdays thru Sundays
“I remember the first time seeing this and the music was so great and loud in terms of design, colors and presentation. It was big, “in-your-face,” and I felt like it was very Broadway,” he says. “To me, many of these songs are intimate and classy and I began to look at them almost as monologues as opposed to just song after song after song with a little bit of book in between.”
He received permission from producer Cameron Mackintosh (who owns the rights to the musical) to rearrange the music to give it a more contemporary feel.
“We’re using instruments you wouldn’t normally see in the 1940s, such as the electric guitar,” O’Hara says. “We’re taking some liberties to give it a more R&B feel, as opposed to a broad Broadway appeal.”
Another big change on the docket concerned the men playing Nomax and the Moes (Big Moe, Four-Eyed Moe, Eat Moe, No Moe, and Little Moe).
“Usually, you see five guys of various ages, and it’s multi-generational, but I have made it into a tribute band, more like a boy band, and everyone is in their 20’s so it’s young and sexy,” O’Hara says. “It’s now more of a nightclub feel, as opposed to what we saw on Broadway. I think it adds intimacy, but also makes each of the songs more personal. Each of the actors are treating each song as if it is a signature song and that’s exciting.”
With that in mind, when it came down to casting, having not worked on a lot of musicals, O’Hara was completely unfamiliar with the talent pool and he organized an audition process that he compares to a Star Search or American Idol.
“We went to Chicago, New York and DC and there was a lot of talent,” he says. “Everyone had to be able to sing, dance and act. When it was a multi-generational cast, not everyone had to move on the same level and same pace, but with this ‘boy band,’ we needed everyone on the same level. We went around and gathered a cast, just as American Idol goes and finds its would-be Idols.”
The cast features Sheldon Henry, Kevin McAllister, Paris Nix, Jobari Parker-Namdar, Travis Porchia and Clinton Roane.
“They all came from different places and the bonding cohered very easily. When you’re learning to dance and sing in harmony, it bonds you immediately,” O’Hara says. “They have bought into the idea that they are the hottest Louis Jordan tribute band on Earth. It’s a thrill to see them take on the persona of a boy band and really make these songs their own.”
Directing a musical for the first time on his own, O’Hara has noticed the amount of time that needs to be devoted to things he doesn’t often have to concern himself with.
“With a straight play, I don’t have to wait for a choreographer to teach a dance. Here, you do. A lot of time in the room is teaching music and dance and shaping it, and that’s a big difference,” he says. “It’s wonderful to witness. It’s hard to coordinate singing and dancing and acting and here there are three people who are feeding the artist. With a straight play, you have only the director and maybe the writer. It’s been a great learning opportunity.”
The production, which features music and lyrics by Jordan and a book by Clarke Peters, will begin performances Nov. 14 prior to an official opening Nov. 20 and continue through Dec. 28 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage.