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Director/Choreographer Kathleen Marshall on Her Process, Female Mentors, and Developing New Musicals

Director/Choreographer Kathleen Marshall on Her Process, Female Mentors, and Developing New Musicals

Cross-posted with permission from The Interval.

Let’s go put on a Broadway show! We can do it!

Okay, this is some hubris on our part, but also the effect that listening to someone talk both passionately and practically about their job has on people—and if you talk to Kathleen Marshall, you’ll want to go out and put on a show. Kathleen is a three-time Tony Award winner for Best Choreography (“Wonderful Town,” “The Pajama Game,” and “Anything Goes”) with an additional two nominations. She also has been Tony-nominated four times for Best Director of a musical (“Wonderful Town,” “The Pajama Game,” “Anything Goes,” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It”). She was Artistic Director of Encores! for four years and Emmy-nominated for choreographing “The Music Man.” On April 1, previews will begin for the first play she’s helming on Broadway, “Living on Love,” starring Renée Fleming. She’ll follow that by directing two world premieres: “Ever After” at Paper Mill Playhouse and “My Paris” at Goodspeed. Even with all of that going on, she took the time to speak to us (and tell us how she organized it all), and we’re incredibly glad she did. 

(i.) Present 

VM: “Living on Love” starts previews on April 1st. How do you think your musical background helps you direct a play that is a comedy?

KM: “Living on Love,” since it’s about a symphony director and his opera-diva wife, music is a part of their lives and woven through the play in some ways. I think that’s a natural fit for me for my first play. There are two servants and we choreograph the transitions and it’s all musicalized and part of the way we designed the piece, so it’s fun for me that there’s still some sort of movement and music to it. I’m thrilled this is my first play.

I always thought, for my first play, I wanted to do a comedy. And this is a comedy with some elements of farce to it, which I also feel is a natural progression, because a lot of musicals I’ve done have had an element of farce to them like “Anything Goes” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” It’s the same sort of thing you do with a comic musical, where you need to create the reality of the situation and make these characters real and believable so when things go wrong, you go there with them. Any good screwball comedy sets the foundation so when it spins off into something absurd, we’re willing to go there with them. 

VM: Styles of comedy change over time. When you’re doing something that’s slightly from another era, is that something you think about? How to make it authentic to the style, but also not alienating to a contemporary audience? 

KM: I think it’s an important thing to work with the writer since humor changes; what we think of as funny changes from one generation to another. I think it’s part of working with Joe DiPietro on “Living on Love” and “Nice Work” or with Timothy Crouse and John Weidman on “Anything Goes.” We did some updating on that too. You have to make sure, in the writing, that the humor is funny to a contemporary audience.

At Encores, I always talked about things that are cringe-worthy, and if you’re doing something from another era, that there’s nothing cringe-worthy. I remember in “The Pajama Game,” Prez, the president of the union, was a married letch who was always after all the girls. And all the girls always turned him down, except the one girl who didn’t turn him down was the round girl. Well, that might have been fine for humor in the 1950s, but we didn’t think that was going to speak to a modern audience. So, with the permission of the estate, we adjusted it. In our version, Prez was sort of a nerd who still lived with his mother, who is chasing all of the girls, and the girl he got was sort of shy and tomboy-ish and sort of blossomed when they got together. So it still had humor in it, but it was humor in a more palatable way for a contemporary audience. 

(ii.) Process 

VM: What’s one of the differences in directing a play to a musical in terms of process?

KM: With a musical, you have musical numbers, and those give you a real outline and structure of where you’re going. You might only have a three-page scene and a song, and you might already have a staging idea for the song, and the scene has to lead you into that song. So it’s a little more structured that way. In a play, you can decide more, since there are bigger arcs to cover and you’re making up your own tempo in a play. Whereas in a musical, because of songs and transitions and underscoring, there might be more built-in rhythm. You have pockets of your own rhythm in between, but then you get back on that ride and that rhythm takes over. 

VM: One of the things we always think is interesting about directing is how directors manage working with different actors and their different processes.

KM: One of my definitions of directing is: Figuring out what to say to who and when. You’re all in a process of discovery. You may have an idea of where you’re heading, but you can’t just go to it — you have to find your way to it and sort of spiral into it. I always feel like I don’t have to do it eight times a week — the actors do — so what do they need to create a performance that not only can be successful and meaningful to them and to an audience, but also that they can sustain over a long run? Some actors like to be very loosey-goosey and find their way to it, and some people want to get the blocking and the framework and then fill that in. So you have to negotiate that in some ways. As a director, you’re their first audience, so you’re sort of giving feedback about what’s going to work and what’s going to work for them. 

VM: How much do you think about directing an audience?

KM: As a director, right from the beginning, you’re making an unofficial compact with the audience. And, as a director, it’s your responsibility to figure out, “Well, what is this compact with the audience? And are we going to honor that compact throughout?” So the curtain goes up on a realistic living-room set and it’s like, “Okay, this is a fourth-wall play and I am a voyeur watching this.” That’s the compact you’re setting up. If halfway through, someone turned towards the audience and broke the fourth wall and started delivering narration, it would be jarring—unless you’re trying to be jarring. I think you have the first five to ten minutes of the show to set up the style of the show for the audience and tell them what type of evening they’re in for, and I think that’s important. I think an audience is either going to relax into it and say, “Yes, take me on this journey,” or they’ll be confused or not engaged if you don’t roll it out correctly. 

(iii.) Balance 

VM: You also have “Ever After” coming up in May at Paper Mill. “Ever After” has female writers too, which we’re always excited about.

KM: And a female music director, Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich have written the book and the score, which is exciting. “Ever After” imagines what could be the real story behind the fairy tale of Cinderella. It has a girl-power feel to it anyway, even though it takes place in sixteenth-century France, so it’s fun to be doing the girl-power team. 

VM: With all of these different projects going on, what does your creative day look like? How do you balance them all?

KM: It goes back and forth. This week, we’re in auditions for “Ever After,” so I was able to do this today, because you don’t usually have auditions on Wednesdays because people have matinees. We had auditions yesterday, we have auditions Thursday, and we have auditions on Friday. So that takes up a lot of time. But last week, I did a lot of “Living on Love” stuff. We did a reading of a new draft, and there are some marketing things going on. On Monday, I met with the woman doing the props for “Living on Love” to talk through the whole show. So there are big production meetings and then all of these satellite meetings going on.

It’s a lot because they dovetail—going from “Living on Love” to “Ever After”—so we’re trying to get everything cast for “Ever After” before we start rehearsals for “Living on Love.” I feel like you’re sort of like a border collie herding sheep; you have all of these different elements, and you have to slowly nudge them into the center. So it’s like, “Okay, we have the casting, so now let’s check in with the design team. Now the writers. Then go check on the marketing or this or that.” Like with [set designer] Derek McLane, we have a rough model of the sets for “Ever After,” but now they need to be filled in a little more, so we nudge a little closer to the center. 

VM: When you’re going back and forth between projects, how do you switch your brain back and forth? 

KM: I always say that, “Whatever room that you’re in, that’s the room that you’re in.” So, whatever project or event you’re having that day, you really try to concentrate on that and stay in the moment with that. What’s fun about doing contrasting projects is that they are so different. It’s fun to be thinking about 1957 New York and sixteenth-century France. They don’t overlap at all design-wise. There’s a sort of realistic living-room set for “Living on Love,” and for “Ever After” it’s going to be more abstract. So it’s very different. But it’s fun to take on these different things and have different worlds to enter. 

(iv.) Art Forms 

VM: You come from a dance and choreography background. What’s your relationship like with dance? How do you conceptualize it? 

KM: I think I first relate to the music, whether it’s the melody or the rhythm or the groove of it. I just worked on “Diner” at the Signature that Sheryl Crow wrote the music for. It takes place in 1959, and it was great to live in that world. It had incredible music, so that was inspiring. But I always feel like when it comes to staging or choreographing a number, the main thing is story, story, story. I usually try to come up with an outline of the dance first—what’s the story of it, what’s the progression—before I start filling in the vocabulary. I might have some ideas, but I usually come up with the structure first. If I’m having trouble coming up with the vocabulary or the actual steps, I find it’s usually because I don’t really know why we’re dancing—that I haven’t cracked the nut of the story. It doesn’t have to be literally a narrative—it can just be progression sometimes—but if that makes sense to me, then it’s easier to come up with the specifics. 

VM: What other areas of culture do you find evocative? 

KM: I was an English Literature major at Smith College. I wasn’t even a theatre or dance major. So, coming from a liberal arts background, I think it’s always fun to learn everything about a particular era. Like on “Ever After,” looking at paintings from the era and learning about da Vinci, since he’s a character in the show. I tend to go to museums a lot when I can and see all kinds of art; I think that’s always inspiring in terms of design and palette and style. Maybe not as much travel as I did before I had kids, but I think travel and exploring different cities and places is always inspiring. 

VM: Who are your top five favorite artists?

KM: 1. Cézanne 
2. Matisse
3. Monet
4. Degas
5. Lautrec (because I’m working on “My Paris”) 

(v.) Projects 

VM: What attracts you to a project?

KM: It can be a combination of things. I feel like you have to love the characters and their story—you have to understand them in some way and be rooting for them—there has to be some core story that you want to tell. Then, of course, who is involved. Who are the writers? Are there actors we want to develop this with? Is there a composer that you admire? For us, the behind-the-scenes people, all we get is the creative process. We don’t have the satisfaction that an actor gets of going out and doing it eight times a week and getting that direct response from an audience. We only have the process. So I feel like whoever you’re in the room with, from the writers to the design team to the actors, that’s what we have. That’s the juicy part—getting into the sandbox with people. 

VM: Is there any type of project that you haven’t done yet that you would like to?

KM: While working with Renée Fleming, she said, “Have you ever directed opera?” And I said “No,” but I love opera. My mother is a huge opera fan and took me from the time I was about five-years-old. That’s a canvas on a grand scale. I think it would be really interesting to try that sometime. 

(vi.) Development 

VM: We talk a lot about new-play development and the challenges of that. We haven’t talked much about new-musical development, and that seems even more daunting.

KM: It’s a long process no matter what. I was just talking to somebody the other day and saying that on a short track, it can take three years for something to get from idea to production—and that’s fast these days. These productions that I’m having that are all back-to-back have all been in development for a while. Our first reading of “Ever After” was three years ago. “Diner,” same thing. And “My Paris”[this summer at Goodspeed], that’s something that’s been a few years in development. They all take awhile to gestate. You’re developing the material, but you’re also looking for a home to develop it, and a lot of these regional theatres or non-profits where we develop have their seasons planned a year or two years ahead of time. So you have to not only develop your project, but also figure out a way to get on their schedule. And, of course, you can’t get on their schedule ’til you’ve developed it.

It’s a bit of a catch-22, since you feel like we can’t fully develop it until we get a production, but you can’t get a production ’til the project is there and ready to go. So you’re hoping that some theatre or institution will realize that this project may not be fully developed, but they believe in the project and the team enough that they’ll give you a home, and you’ll take it the rest of the way.  

VM: Someone wanted to put together a Kilroy-like list for musical theatre, where there were shows by women ready to be produced, but one reason that was hard to do was because musicals take so much development. 

KM: A play can arrive and there it is, and then you can figure out how to produce it and if it’s going to be a realistic set or abstract and what the style is. Someone can write a play and it’s sort of fully formed, but musicals are never fully formed. A composer, lyricist, and book writer may have a basic thing, but until you have a director involved and a choreographer and musical director and orchestrations… there are so many more layers of it that have to be developed. 

VM: We’re always interested in the economics of doing shows on Broadway. It’s really expensive, and that might not be benefiting the form. 

KM: Yes, it’s a very high-risk business in that way and it’s expensive to produce on Broadway, but there’s a successful backend if you create a hit. What I think is sort of difficult is that we seem to have shows that either are gangbuster shows that run forever and make money for everyone or shows that lose everything. It used to be that a musical could run for a year and be deemed successful, pay back its investors, maybe make a profit, and that was fine. Now it feels like people are aiming at that brass ring and want shows that are going to run for five or ten years and have huge international companies, and that’s harder to predict.

Believe me, when you’re working on a commercial project, you’re always balancing what it’s going to cost with what it can make. It’s in everyone’s interest to run at a profit and where the show doesn’t have to be at 99% capacity to make its nut every week. My husband [Scot Landis] is a producer and it’s a risky business, and thank goodness there are people who are passionate about theatre and willing to invest. But it’s unnerving that there are shows that seem to have come and gone very quickly and unexpectedly. 

(vii.) Past 

VM: What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?

KM: “The Wizard of Oz.” Of course, when I was a kid, it would come on once a year and that was it. No VHS. No DVR. No nothing. It was like once a year, you had to sit and watch it, and I think that is something that always resonates with me. 

VM: How old were you when you were like, “This is what I want to do”?

KM: I didn’t start dancing ’til I was thirteen. So I started late. I’d done some shows at school and some local things. But I was a fan first. My parents took us to everything they could in terms of performance and culture, so I was seeing ballets and operas and symphonies and musicals and plays and Shakespeare. So we were fans before we ever thought we could participate in it and long before we ever thought we could do it as a profession. By the time I was finishing high school and applying to colleges, I was dancing a lot and dancing with a semi-professional ballet company in Pittsburgh and I was doing a lot of musical revues. I knew that after college I’d want to move to New York and peruse that, which is why I chose a liberal arts college, since I wanted the classic college experience. So probably not ’til my last couple of years of high school. 

VM: We were going to ask how you decided to do a liberal arts education. 

KM: Well, also, one of the reasons I chose Smith was it was a wonderful liberal arts school, but also had a very strong theatre and dance program. Gemze de Lappe was on the faculty there. She’s an amazing lady who trained in classical ballet and danced with ABT, but she was also a dancer for Agnes de Mille. She was in the original “The King and I” and “Paint Your Wagon.” So she taught not only ballet and technique, but also musical-theatre dance and choreography. It was a nice balance for me to have a liberal arts school and exactly the kind of dance I wanted to study.  

VM: When was the first moment you felt like a grown up? 

KM: After my freshman year of college, my brother [Rob Marshall] was touring in “A Chorus Line” and hadn’t been home for Christmas that year and I hadn’t seen him in awhile. I went out to visit and stay with him in San Francisco. It was one of the first times that I was basically relating one-on-one with my brother without the rest of our family or our parents around, and it was like, “Oh, we’re grownups.” I was eighteen and he was twenty. That sense of, “Oh we’re two grownups and we’re deciding where we should go to dinner and what we should do.” 

(viii.) Parenting 

VM: You have two kids. We’d ask your husband this too, since we think it’s silly only women get asked how they balance having a job and a family, but how do you balance it?

KM: It’s challenging being a working parent no matter who you are. There’s never enough time in the day to do your work, have quality time with your kids, have quality time with your spouse or partner, and still have time for yourself. It’s a challenge for anybody. I think, in some ways, I’m lucky in that my schedule changes. I think theatre can be very intense, but it also shifts. Yes, I’m about to go into rehearsal and that’s six days a week, and that’s hard because I won’t have full weekends with my kids. Then we’ll shift into tech, and that’s challenging because you’re going into evening, but I have the mornings and, because I live in Manhattan, when we’re in tech or previews, I can come home at dinner for an hour or so.

Another challenge is, for the first time since our kids were born, I’ve had some projects that were out of town. Now with “Living on Love” at Williamstown, my husband was working on that as well, and we all just went up and that was summertime and that was great. But then I went to do “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” at Denver Center, and that was a challenge. The kids were out there for part of the time, but then they came back to start school and I was still there for another three weeks. But it’s more challenging for actors because I left after opening night, but the other people who are there with kids are there for another six weeks beyond that. As a director, if there’s a school event and I can schedule the day so that’s when lunch is, then I’ll do that, but there are also times when you can’t. I mea,n when you’re in tech, tech is tech. You can’t take that time off. 

VM: Is there something you think theatre can do better to help people be able to balance both?

KM: I think just acknowledging what that is like and that it factors into people’s decisions about what work they take, especially out-of-town work. So to be sensitive and aware. One thing we did on “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” because we had several people with kids on that show, our last weekend in the studio, we had family day. We were rehearsing down at 890 Broadway and one afternoon, our last couple hours of the day, we invited everyone to come with their kids, their spouse, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, whoever who was close to them could come. We got pizza and soft drinks and we performed a couple of numbers, and all of the kids were running around the studio and jumping on all the prop furniture. It was great because it was before we went to the theatre, and it really bonded all of the cast. And then during the course of the run when, for example, Kelli O’Hara’s son would come to see her between shows on a Saturday, there was some connection that we all already knew each other. 

(ix.) Representation 

VM: One of the things that we think is really cool is you have a history of casting women in slightly out-of-the-box ways. For example, you were the first person to cast Kelli O’Hara as a comedian. It seems like in musical theatre especially, actresses can really get pigeon-holed, so we love that. 

KM: I first worked with Kelli in “Follies.” She was in the ensemble and then took over as Young Phyllis, and I was just a huge fan and was excited that in “The Pajama Game,” she got to go from being the ingénue to the sexy, sassy, slightly tough leading lady and sing in a style people hadn’t heard before. So that was easy to do. I just believed in her and her talent so much and knew she could hit it out of the ballpark. I remember when we did “Wonderful Town” with Donna Murphy, and she’d just done “Passion” and “The King and I” and people were like, “No, she’s dramatic. Is she funny?” And she started off replacing Betty Buckley in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and “Song of Singapore” off-Broadway and these other things. She did comedy before she did these dramatic roles. 

VM: You mentioned a female professor in college. Did you have any other female mentors? 

KM: Susan Schulman has always been very generous and supportive of me. She actually gave me my equity card at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera when I was in college—I auditioned to be in the ensemble. She was the first professional director I worked with. It was kind of wonderful that the first professional director that I worked with was a woman. And then she has been very supportive of me and hired me to choreograph shows for her. And Judith Dakin [executive director of City Center], she and Rob Fisher offered me the job of Artistic Director of Encores, which I did for several seasons. The first show I directed and choreographed was for City Center Encores. 

VM: We’ve had a few people mention that they didn’t know there weren’t that many women who had directed ‘tll it was too late. Was it a little bit of that?

KM: Yeah, I mean it was wonderful that she was my first experience with a director. Summer stock is not for the faint of heart. She was directing six shows in six weeks and running the techs and dealing with six different casts of principles. She was amazingly organized and had a wonderful, calm authority about it all. But I didn’t realize that wasn’t normal. 

VM: Have you ever had to think about how you present yourself in a room in order to get people to take you seriously?

KM: I think, no matter who you are, the director has to be the person in the room who is willing to say, “Alright, I know what we need to do. Everyone follow me.” At the same time, you need to listen to everyone else’s ideas, and then the editing is in your hands. It’s different, since coming from choreography, you start as assistant choreographer, then choreographer, and then director-choreographer. You get there gradually. It’s not like all of a sudden you’re in charge of a multi-million dollar Broadway musical. You have all the experience, and you learn how to take a meeting and how to run a tech and run a production meeting and talk to writers. You sort of have proven yourself in some ways. You’ve successfully been the associate on a show, and then maybe put together the tour, and then are given a chance to choreograph something on your own.

The first thing I choreographed on my own was a revue [“Swinging on a Star”] at George Street Playhouse that I was lucky enough went to Goodspeed and then Broadway. It didn’t last on Broadway that long, but it was my first Broadway show as a choreographer, and I got a Drama Desk nomination. So you feel like you’ve proven yourself, and you’ve gotten some sort of approval along the way. The first Broadway show I directed and choreographed was “Wonderful Town.” We’d done a production at City Center Encores that transferred and was enhanced for Broadway, but we’d had a successful venture, and so I think there’s a certain degree of trust, and then it’s, “Let’s take it to the next step.” 

VM: As a female director, do you feel there is extra pressure to succeed? 

KM: I don’t feel that. I think it was Michael Blakemore who said to me, “You’re lucky if one in three things works.” In one season, I choreographed “Seussical” and “Follies” that Matthew Warchus directed, and both were productions that I was very proud of and had worked very had on — and both had gotten a mixed response. The day after “Follies” opened, I went to meet with [set designer] Robin Wagner about our “Kiss Me Kate” tour. And I remember going to his studio—he had done hundreds of Broadway shows as a designer—and he had all the show posters lined up on the wall one after the other, all in chronological order. I looked up there and there’s “Dreamgirls” and “42nd Street” and “Chorus Line,” and then there were all of these other shows up there that were not successful, and they were all up there with equal billing. And it was sort of like this epiphany, like, “Oh, I get it. It’s about a career. It’s about the long term.” Yes, you can have your “Chorus Line” and “Dreamgirls,” but the next one might not work.

Look, if there was a formula, everything would be successful. There is no formula. You just have to get the smartest and most creative people you can together, and everyone just works their hardest to make it work. 

VM: Has there been anything lately in terms of being a female director, where you’ve been like, “Hmm that’s a curious…“?

KM: I know your website has also talked about what percentages of shows on Broadway have been directed by women, and I was actually talking to Scott the other day and saying, “I wonder how many women have gotten to direct both plays and musicals on Broadway?” Or who has directed and choreographed a musical on Broadway and a play? Leigh Silverman has directed plays and musicals. But lots of men have done both: Trevor Nunn, Jack O’Brien, Scott Ellis. And I was thinking, “There aren’t many of us who are doing both.” Even historically, did Agnes de Mille ever direct a play? 

(x.) Future 

VM: What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre? 

KM: I think that one of our responsibilities as women working in theatre is to give opportunities to other women working in theatre. And that can be in all kinds of ways. That can be having them as an assistant or observing on a show. Supporting other women who are artists, which could mean just going to their shows and being a positive presence in other people’s lives. I believe that good work is the best way to promote yourself, and if you create good work, that, hopefully, is also successful, then that will be what gets you noticed.

The Interval is a theatre website, founded by Victoria Myers and Michelle Tse to be a virtual home for female voices of the theatre, with the goals of changing the conversation around women in theatre by asking smart ladies smart questions for a smart audience and promoting gender parity in theatre. Because being a woman can be hard, but hearing stories by and about women should be easy. the-interval.com and @TheIntervalNY

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