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Photo by Joan Marcus.

A Conversation with Director Gordon Greenberg

A Conversation with Director Gordon Greenberg

Holiday Inn:

A Conversation with Director Gordon Greenberg

On September 16, 2016, Gordon Greenberg spoke about Holiday Inn with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.

Ted Sod: Gordon, I was intrigued when I found out that you were a child actor. And the other thing that I discovered in reading about you online — besides the fact that you direct musicals nationally and internationally — is that you have a degree in film.

Gordon Greenberg: Yes, I ended up at NYU Film School. I started off at Stanford University in an effort to escape the cold and ended up coming home to New York to do a dual major in film and economics. I thought I was going to become a film producer and I spent a couple of years producing and directing commercials for JWT, the advertising agency, which was my little Mad Men-esqe stint. Ultimately, I went back into acting. I remember going to see Romance in Hard Times at the Public Theatre, a show written by Bill Finn. I saw it four times in a row because it touched something in my soul that I think was dormant for a while. I had forgotten how powerful theatre was. That was a show that didn’t get the best reviews, but it’s a show that changed my life and I’ll never forget it because it encouraged me to take the leap back into acting and I ended up performing in musicals and on television and continued to do that until eventually I started working in other aspects of the business.

TS: You tell a marvelous story about being interviewed by Todd Haimes, our Artistic Director, for a job at the Roundabout office.

GG: That was during my transition out of acting and into directing. I was working at Musical Theatre Works where we created new musicals and I became a student of dramaturgy and structure. I considered myself a chiropractor for musicals. Through a friend, Jed Bernstein, I ended up meeting Todd — he was losing his assistant at the time — and we had a lovely interview and at the end Todd said, “I’m sure you’d make a swell assistant, but I think you should keep directing. Don’t be my assistant.” And 15 years later, I am finally getting to direct for him — which was a really great full circle moment.  Around that time, I had been offered the tour of a play called Barrymore with Christopher Plummer. It was going to be Christopher Plummer and me playing the stage manager with probably 12 lines from offstage and it would have been quite lucrative as far as acting jobs go. I had the choice between doing that and directing a play at the Helen Hayes Theatre in Nyack that Daryl Roth was producing. For the entire directing job, I would have been paid what I was to be paid for a week doing the acting gig. I called my dad and said, “What should I do?” — hoping that he would have some genius idea about surviving as a director and what he said was, “Where do you want to be in 5 to 10 years?” And I thought, I want to be directing and he said, “Then get a day job and take the directing gig and subsidize yourself.”

TS: Todd and your father both pushed you toward what you really wanted to do.

GG: You can’t be scared to walk through the door that’s open to you and take a risk, you just have to do it. I was in my 20s at the time and that’s when you can fail safely. It’s something we talk about all the time in rehearsals — you have to be prepared to fail and fail big in order to succeed.

TS: You’ve done an exceptional job putting together this piece using the Irving Berlin canon of songs and the original film material. How did this project come into being? How did Universal find you and say, do this for us?

GG: I met the president of Universal through my brother who works in Los Angeles and we started talking about possible ideas for theatrical pieces. He said, “You should meet this kid who was my assistant until a month ago, his name is Chris Herzberger. He’s now the vice president of theatre at Universal.” Chris and I decided to start working on a musical based on the Michael J. Fox movie, The Secret of My Success, which I loved when I was a kid. In the middle of that, he suddenly realized that they also had the rights to Holiday Inn, which had been made originally by Paramount and then Universal bought Paramount Home Video Collection and acquired the rights. Holiday Inn ended up being fast-tracked because I directed about 12 shows at Goodspeed Theatre in Connecticut and I thought this would be a perfect show to try out there. Chad Hodge, the cowriter, and I were able to put it together relatively quickly.  I went out to Vancouver where he was shooting a show called Wayward Pines and we spent a week making our first outline. We got a lot of notes on it and a month later we submitted another one. Universal finally said, “Go ahead, write it.”  I think we wrote the script in three months and we did our first table read two-and-a-half years ago in Los Angeles at the Universal lot. We were very lucky to have an amazing cast who taught us a lot of things. But fundamentally, there was something at the heart of this project that appealed to the people at Universal and to those people who could decide whether or not to move this show forward. For instance, the three daughters of Irving Berlin, with whom we met many times, and who are very supportive of this project.

TS: The original film took place in 1942 during World War II and you moved the action up to 1946.

GG: I wanted it to take place after World War II. Partially because White Christmas had covered that territory already and I wanted to separate us from that show, and partially because I just didn’t want to deal with the war. I thought setting the play in the late 40s after the war would put the characters in a more optimistic time period. I also thought the later time period suited our protagonist. For the last year or so, I was working on a revival of Guys and Dolls in London and because I was deep into that, it felt very easy to access a late 40s, early 50s sensibility.

TS:  How did you and Chad go about deciding which songs from the film would be used to tell your version of the story and which songs would be interpolated from the Berlin canon?

GG: Well, we’ve kept most of them. Obviously there was a number in the original film that we got rid of—

TS: You’re referring to the blackface number…

GG: Cutting that song wasn’t even a question obviously. What we needed was an “I Want” number – which is theatre speak for a song that you do near the beginning of a show -- where your protagonist in essence tells the audience what he’s going to pursue. We looked at the “I Want” song from the original film which is entitled “Lazy” and it is about a guy who wants to just take it easy and doesn’t want to work hard. And I thought, I’m not sure people will get on board with that. So we found this Berlin song, “Little Things in Life,” which finds the poetry in everyday simplicity. It expresses the protagonist’s desire to not have to be sparkly and fabulous anymore. Then there was the question of what to sing for Washington’s birthday, which in the film is a great song, but it’s a moment in the show when the character of Jim is speeding up and slowing down the orchestra to torture his former dance partner. If you don’t know the song well, you don’t actually appreciate the changes in the tempo — so I suggested that we try “Cheek to Cheek” — and I think it’s a successful addition because everyone knows “Cheek to Cheek” and when the tempo changes and it becomes a conga — it becomes more and more ridiculous.

TS: After you did the run at Goodspeed, you went to The Muny in Saint Louis? Correct?

GG: Yes, Mike Isaacson, who’s a producer of Fun Home, also runs the Muny and he and I had done Pirates! together —  a show I created with Nell Benjamin. When I told him I was working on this, he scheduled it before we even opened at Goodspeed. We went there and did a new draft incorporating everything that we learned from the run at Goodspeed. The Muny, for those of you who are not familiar with it, is a100-year-old theatre with 12,000 seats. It’s outside and the stage width is 110 feet, I think. This stage at Studio 54 is probably 30 or 35 feet. So it was tough to fill that space. We got a lot of valuable information from those two runs prior to Broadway and we used our workshops at Roundabout to make fixes and we continue to work on it — we’re still doing work right now. We’re only in week two of previews.

TS: Talk to us about working with Andy, your musical director, and Denis, your choreographer. They were involved in all three manifestations, correct?

GG: Andy Einhorn is new for this incarnation. Denis Jones has worked on it since the very first draft. I sent it to him and got his thoughts on it because I wanted him to have the opportunity to create choreography that would give depth and dimension to the characters. I also know, having worked with Denis on Pirates! and a show called Band Geeks, that he’s particularly good with story and collaborating. He’s a great friend and team member because he’s willing to throw things out when he has to.

TS: Is it my imagination or is there more dance in this show than in most musicals?

GG: Absolutely, this is a big dance musical. At the center is a dancer who is looking for his partner.  For all intents and purposes, this is a show about putting on shows and that gave us permission to incorporate a lot of dancing.

TS: I want to hear about working with your design team because Alejo Vietti has designed at least 400 extraordinary costumes and Anna’s set and Jeff’s lighting perfectly complement one another…

GG: Jeff Croiter, our lighting designer, won a Tony Award for Peter and the Starcatcher. He’s one of my oldest friends and it’s enormously rewarding to work with people you’ve been working with for a long time. I’m big on loyalty and I’m big on having a short hand with people who are just good people. I like nice. I did a show years ago based on the sitcom Happy Days with Garry Marshall that was not the best moment in musical theatre history, but it was an important lesson in my working life, because Garry was so generous in spirit and wise about humanity. He became a mentor and close friend, and I am deeply grateful for that. I learned so much about the value of trust and bringing love and joy into the rehearsal room every day. That is true about people like Jeff and Anna and Alejo and Andy and all of our collaborators. It makes a big difference. Alejo and I have worked together on several shows. He’s from Argentina. He has assisted many of the best designers in the business and has designed Beautiful and Allegiance on Broadway. He is fastidious and hardworking and calls me at two in the morning with ideas. He sends emails all night and I love that. We’re both passionate and excited by details. He has a great eye and a love for this period and he just keeps making it better and better.

TS: The Easter bonnets he’s designed are outrageous. How do the actors walk in them?

GG: I love that you’re applauding because those hats took like three days of tech. The show backstage is equally complex and probably just as entertaining as what’s happening onstage. Those hats were a big thing because if we cut a song by eight bars to make it a little quicker and more exciting, we’d have to rehearse the whole thing in costume. We’d have to go through all the motions and make sure there was time for the actors to get downstairs, change into their bonnets, come back upstairs and let the wig people make their wigs look beautiful, take the bonnets off, etc., and so forth.

TS: When they say it takes a village, they really mean it when it comes to a musical.

GG: Yes. There are a lot of great people backstage. Particularly our crew, who are all heroes and have been in the business with their families for generations. That scene with Jim playing with his door, we literally put in yesterday. I sent in the scene at 10 in the morning saying, “I guess we need to go to a hardware store and buy planer.” I don’t even know what a planer is, it just sounded like something we needed and one of our crew members, our great prop guy named Larry, said, “Actually I have my grandfather’s planer here, it’s vintage. Do you want to use it? He can make his Broadway debut.” And I thought that offer was very sweet.

TS: Sometimes we take for granted all the magic that happens onstage, but it can’t be done without people who are working on the crew. Anna Louizos, your set designer, designed The Mystery of Edwin Drood for us. How did you find your collaboration with her? Is this your first time working with her?

GG:  No, we’ve done several shows. Our first show was called The Baker’s Wife, which we did at Paper Mill in New Jersey. That was a huge set and very kaleidoscopic and I thought she was so successful at creating a rich, romantic world for that show. We needed to achieve the same thing here — only this time creating a romantic view of Connecticut in the 40s. Anna did a marvelous job in tech refining her design and figuring out where we needed to repaint, rethink, reengineer. But it’s all paid off and the show moves in a fluid way like a film.

TS: I want to talk about your cast too. You have assembled an extraordinary group of people. The principles, the ensemble are all terrific. What did you look for when you were casting?

GG: This is a tough show to cast because you need people for the principles who sing and dance and can live in this time period, but with a little bit of a wink. The cast we found from Bryce to Lora Lee to Megan Lawrence and Megan Sikora and Corbin have all jumped right on board with the material. They have all found the heart and humanity in the characters they are playing and what they’re after. That was really important. We spent so much time going through every moment in the musical to make sure that it was grounded. We always say the show is a helium balloon but it has a string attached to the ground.

TS: I love Morgan, of course—

GG: Oh my goodness, Morgan Gao came out of the blue from Atlanta to audition. He’s a comedy master, I’m taking lessons from him. He just gets it.

TS: How old is he?

GG: He’s 11.

TS: And then one of my favorite Broadway performers is Lee Wilkof.

GG: Lee Wilkof is amazing. We worked together as actors and already had some fun history. He is also one of my heroes because he was the original Seymour in Little Shop.

TS: So now it’s your turn to ask Gordon questions.

Audience Member #1: When you audition people, do you ask them to audition from the script or do they just bring in music? What are actors asked to prepare. Is it just random?

GG: Typically for your first audition you bring in a song that you’ve prepared. The standard is to have a ballad and an up-tempo and a short cut of those songs — which is a minute or less — you want to leave them wanting more. And then you are given what are called sides — excerpts of scenes — those sides are chosen so a director might be able to see a value that he or she is looking for. Does this person have timing? Can this person easily access certain emotions? Usually by call backs you’re giving them material from the show to see what the chemistry is like, what the fit is.

TS: Sometimes if an actor comes in to sing for the first time, they’ll bring their book which has all the songs they’re prepared to sing and a director or a musical director might ask, “Do you have anything in the style of a particular composer?” Correct?

GG: Yes.

TS: For this show, I would imagine you asked them to sing Berlin.

GG: Yes, it was pretty clear that is what they needed to audition with. What’s interesting is that people who graduate now from conservatory programs like Michigan and Carnegie Mellon and CCM typically come out with what they call their music book. It’s a binder with 20 or so songs that they can sing for auditions and that’s the gold standard. When I was an actor, I had a total of two songs and that was it.

Audience member: First, how long did it take to rehearse the show? And, second, has anybody from the Irving Berlin estate seen both the movie and this show and, if so, what were their thoughts about it?

GG: Oh, yes, the Irving Berlin estate is closely involved in the process. In the beginning, they had to approve everything. They’ve been here to watch our progress and the audience’s reaction. In terms of rehearsal, this group started rehearsal the second week of July and this cast is almost entirely new.

TS: They’ve had how many weeks of rehearsal, not counting tech?

GG: We had four weeks in the rehearsal room, and then we did two-and-a-half weeks of tech.

Audience member: I was very impressed with the diversity of the cast. How did that come together?

GG: To me, that was just sort of something that I wanted to do and I think that our casting directors worked very diligently to make sure that we had access to everyone in the city. I credit our producers and our casting directors, all three of them, with doing a broad and smart search and giving us access to a delightful group of people.  I feel strongly about what I put into the world.  I remember the 12-year-old me sitting out there watching Broadway shows thinking, Is that me? Is that someone I know?  Ideally, I would like for everyone in the audience to recognize a piece of themselves onstage in a positive way.

TS: It’s also fascinating that the opera has been doing this kind of casting forever and the theatre is just now catching up.

GG: Yes, it is strange.

Audience Member: That song, “Shake Your Troubles Away.”

GG: “Shaking the Blues Away.”

Audience Member: “Shaking the Blues Away.” I remember Doris Day singing it in Love Me or Leave Me when she played Ruth Etting. This show and that movie were so different in mood and tone and yet the song was so right for each show. Does that say something about the Berlin’s music?

GG: I certainly think it says something about the genius of the great Irving Berlin and his ability to write transcendent songs. It’s my philosophy that some artists have an ability to access something primordial in people – the art they create allows people to recognize things in themselves in a deeper way. They are helping people gain emotional intelligence. I think Berlin was one of those artists.

TS: We haven’t really spoken enough about Irving Berlin today, but you can access our Playgoers’ Guide which is full of contextual and historical information. Wasn’t it Jerome Kern that said, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music, he is American music”?  What I love is the fact that Berlin was never really trained in music, he never studied it.

GG: I think he wrote lyrics first and taught himself to play the piano.

TS: And every song was written…

GG: In the same key. He had a special piano with a lever to change keys.

TS: It’s quite brilliant what you and your collaborators have done with this show, Gordon, because although Berlin wrote songs for quite a few films, the only musical of his that gets done often is Annie Get Your Gun.

GG: We let the songs inspire the story. We often found a song he wrote and thought, How can we rework the scene to really justify that song? And hopefully it’s fairly seamless.

Audience Member: I’m an investor in Broadway shows and I’m increasingly frustrated with the lack of melodic convention on Broadway today. Is there anything you feel that’s in the training of composers that is contributing to this?

GG: I think there are a lot of wonderful new composers, but the trick for them is finding ways to compose that are unique, personal and expressive and feel directly connected to the stories they are telling. It seems like what you are referring to is the classic old-school melodic musical theatre which, for a while, was out of fashion. I think if you look around New York, there are many talented composers writing really interesting and worthwhile material. I love that you are someone who supports theatre and is happily involved, but I think you’ll find if you look far and wide, there are a lot a lot of great composers who are aching to be heard and are waiting for someone like you to take an interest in them.

TS: We have to wrap this up, but before we do, I want Gordon to tell us about what’s on the horizon for him.

GG: I’m still working on The Secret of My Success. I’m wrapping up a movie for Nickelodeon and I’m doing a new play by Bob Morris, a writer for The New York Times. I am also doing a workshop version of Man of La Mancha — with all women!