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Director Leigh Silverman on Mounting the Broadway Musical Violet and Working with Sutton Foster

Director Leigh Silverman on Mounting the Broadway Musical Violet and Working with Sutton Foster

Violet is one of those rare Broadway shows where less is more. The sparsely set stage is a perfect showcase for veteran Broadway actress Sutton Foster to soar in her Tony-nominated role. Foster plays a young woman from North Carolina who takes a trip to Oklahoma in the hopes that a faith healer she saw on TV will be able to fix her facial disfigurement. (You can’t see a scar on Foster’s face; you only see the characters around her reacting to it.) Taking place in 1964, it’s a wonderful and incredibly moving look at how what matters is on the inside and not on the outside.

The show is directed by Leigh Silverman, the only woman nominated for a Tony award for directing this year. Silverman was also recently been selected by the Sundance Institute to participate in a theatre lab for mid-career directors this summer in France. Violet will close August 10th, so you need to hurry and see it. 

Silverman discussed via email Violet‘s serendipitous path to Broadway, the difference between directing a musical and a play, and working with legend-in-the-making Sutton Foster.
WaH: Talk about the challenges of mounting a one-off version of a show that premiered 17 years ago on Broadway.
LS: Well, it was a miracle, really. I have worked on musicals, sometimes for 7 or 8 years, that will never see production. That’s just part of what I do — invest in new work and hope to take it all the way. Sometimes it happens, and more often it doesn’t. But this planned one-night only concert turned into a Broadway show.

The main challenge was that we didn’t get the green light until the beginning of November [2013] and we started rehearsals in February [2014], so everything had to be done very quickly. Detailed and fast and exactly right. That takes a lot of trust, and the only way to do it is with a strong, creative, determined team of designers and excellent casting directors. 

WaH: So many things we see in our entertainment, whether they be movies or theatre, are focused on big action, big sets. Violet is the opposite. How were you able to create this intimate musical in an industry that demands over-the-top entertainment?
LS: My vision for Violet was a theatrical world where character was everything. Violet never leaves the stage, and the band is onstage literally as scenery — emphasizing that music is what makes this world. Design-wise, it all starts with the scar as metaphor — we don’t see the scar, but every character on stage reacts to it. So already the most fundamental, essential part of the story is imagined, and every other theatrical choice I made stems from there. I was worried it would make the show vulnerable, because there is nothing to hide behind — no sparkly clothes or big sets — but audiences find it moving and are grateful there is a story on stage they can identify with and care about without the bells and whistles.
WaH: Talk about Sutton Foster. I imagine that you waited to mount the show until her schedule was free. What makes her so special in this role, and how did you work with her to get this amazing performance?
LS: Sutton is interested in making left-turns in her career, and this is just one of the many reasons I worship her. After winning the Tony for Anything Goes, she was ready for something completely different, and Violet in her handmade clothes and literal and emotional scars is so different. Sutton brings creativity, gravity, intelligence, profundity, and sharp wit to this part. She understands Violet’s journey on a cellular level and she wanted to be pushed, and I wanted a leading lady with rigor. We had a wonderful collaboration that I consider a high point of my career.
WaH: What do you want people to be thinking about when they leave the theatre?
LS: Will you let yourself be brave enough to be seen by someone? Are you ready to heal yourself, or are you looking for someone to do it for you? Forgiveness and understanding lead to healing. Find a way to love yourself. Also, singing! I want people to leave singing!
WaH: This was your first musical. Talk about the difference for you between plays and musicals.
LS: I actually directed the musical Coraline at MCC five years ago with a book by David Greenspan and music by Stephen Merritt. This is my first Broadway musical. It’s all about storytelling, but in musicals it happens through songs and musical themes, and in plays the music is in the words. But the directorial challenge is the same — how do you create a world where this story can happen? What are the rules of this world? What and whose story are you telling?
WaH: You are known for helping playwrights with the development of their new plays. Talk about the collaboration between a playwright and a director.
LS: It is a deep, frequently complicated, often rewarding relationship. Being in the trenches with a writer is why I am a director. A director is the strongest ally, midwife, mirror, muse, and therapist. And then you have to know when to get out of the way.
WaH: Women directors are becoming more successful in the theatre, especially off-Broadway. What do you think about the shift, and why now?
Happily, more women are being hired to direct. I wish for a day that diversity in both race and sex is just a given, but until that day, we have to rely on Artistic Directors and producers being conscious of gender parity. Also, most ticket buyers are women. It only makes sense to have the productions helmed by women.
WaH: What’s next for you? Do you think about directing in another medium?
LS: I really want to direct TV and have started reaching out for those opportunities.
WaH: What advice do you have for women who want to be theatre directors?
Have a really thick skin. Believe in your ideas. Figure out how to advocate for yourself. Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Make a community that inspires you. Let the dark days come, the darker nights, because they will, and find yourself on the other side.

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