Interview with Joe Masteroff

Posted on: February 6th, 2016 by Ted Sod



Joe Masteroff

Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with playwright Joe Masteroff about our latest musical, She Loves Me.

Ted Sod: You were born in Philadelphia in 1919 and went to Temple University, correct?

Joe Masteroff: Correct. I am 96.


TS: And you studied at the American Theatre Wing?

JM: I was in the Army during WWII, and when I got out, I eventually came to New York to become a playwright, which is what I always wanted to do since I was a child. The American Theatre Wing had a special course in playwriting for guys who had been in the war. That was the beginning.


TS: You had a play on Broadway in the late ‘50s with Julie Harris and June Havoc in the cast.

JM: Yes, and Farley Granger. My agent called me one day and said, “You won't believe this but Julie Harris read your play The Warm Peninsula and she wants to do it for a full year on the road before bringing it to Broadway.” It ran for six weeks or so in New York. I got to do the musical She Loves Me with Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick because somebody had seen The Warm Peninsula and said that I was the right person to write the libretto (or the book) for their next musical.

We had almost finished writing She Loves Me when we found out the producer didn’t have the rights; he thought he did, but he didn’t. So Bock and Harnick suggested we ask Hal Prince. He was brought in as producer and director for She Loves Me, and it worked out very well.




TS: Was it the play Parfumerie by Miklós László that you used primarily to write the libretto? Or was it the Ernst Lubitsch movie, The Shop Around the Corner?

JM: I’m sure it was the movie because it’s the movie I had loved. I still do. In my opinion, the movie is much superior to the play. All in all, the movie is the work of Lubitsch, and he’s a really fine director…you feel his genius all over it. There’s a humanizing touch that the play doesn’t have. It’s a lovely movie.


TS: Lubitsch made so many movies at that time that are funny, make a point, and have heart. He was really very clever.

JM: And the people in his films all seem real somehow. I thought Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan were just about perfect in The Shop Around the Corner.


TS: Will you tell our readers about working with Bock and Harnick? What was that like?

JM: The interesting thing about working with Hal Prince is that he kept the writers and the musical people separate. He met with them separately. I was always aware of the fact that he and the musical people were having meeting after meeting. So I hardly knew the composer and the lyricist, and it was very much the same thing on Cabaret. Hal felt that he needed to be in control of the whole thing. And that the writers were going to get together and argue.


TS: Did you basically hand over the libretto and let them decide where the songs were, or were you pretty clear about where you thought the songs should be?

JM: I think it was a combination of both. If I wrote something and thought something should be made into a song, then I would certainly mention it to them. And I would always mention it to Hal.


TS: In She Loves Me, a man and a woman are more or less at odds as co-workers but are secretly in love with each other as pen pals. The story has been told in three different movie versions and, of course, your musical. Do you have a sense of why that story is so popular?

JM: I have no idea, except when I watch the movie, there’s something charming about the story – it pulls you in. It’s like It’s A Wonderful Life -- it seems simple, but there is a deeper meaning. It’s meaningful when Amalia and Georg finally get together -- the audience is ahead of them and is very happy about it when they finally realize what is going on.


TS: Do you like The Shop Around the Corner better than In the Good Old Summertime, the Judy Garland version, where they added songs? Have you ever watched that version?

JM: I have. That is the version that they set in a music shop, and I don’t like that very much. I don’t like the next version at all.


You've_Got_MailTS: You’ve Got Mail? The Nora Ephron version?

JM: Yes.


TS: So for you, the further away it got from the source material, the less effective it was?

JM: In my opinion, yes.


TS: When you wrote characters like Amalia and Georg, did you relate to them emotionally? Do you put yourself inside their hearts, in order to write them?

JM: I think no matter the importance of the characters in a show, it’s important that you can feel something for all of them. Even the evil ones. You have to ask yourself, “What would they say at this point?” -- and then you’ve got to turn yourself into them.


TS: Do you have a favorite character?

JM: Yes, my favorite character is the one that Felix Bressart plays in the film -- Pirovitch. In the musical he’s called Sipos. He’s one of the co-workers at the shop. He’s Georg’s friend and confidant. Pirovitch is the one in the movie who, the first time you see him, he’s worried because his wife is sick, and in time she calls and she’s feeling better and he runs to tell the doctor not to come!


TS: Was it very daring to do a small-scale musical in 1963? Everything had big choruses at that time on Broadway, and this was intimate. Was that something you all talked about, or was that not important to you?

JM: I don’t remember talking about the scale of the show at the time – we were just trying to tell the story in the best way possible. I didn’t hear too many questions about the intimacy of the piece.


TS: Can you talk to me a little bit about the revival of She Loves Me that Scott Ellis directed in 1993? You were around for that, I would imagine.

JM: It was a very good production. Historically, She Loves Me gets fabulous reviews whenever it plays. It does well, but it is never a smash. It’s never been a huge success, even at Roundabout.


The 1993 Roundabout production of SHE LOVES ME

The 1993 Roundabout production of SHE LOVES ME

TS: Do you have a theory about why that is?

JM: It just never is – it is a quiet love story – it doesn’t have a lot of spectacle -- maybe that’s the reason.


TS: When I watched Scott’s 1993 revival at the New York Public Library, I realized the audience was rooting for the two leads to get together. I think that’s part of the journey for the audience. If you don’t know the story, you’re hoping that they’ll connect. And even if you do know the story, you want them to get together.

JM: That’s true. It’s a lovely story, and it should be a big hit. I can’t tell you how many reviews I’ve read from productions all over the states and from Europe in which the reviewer called She Loves Me, “One of the finest musicals ever written.” They’re wild about it, but the audience doesn’t see it that way. They will say something like, “Oh, that’s cute” or “That’s sweet.”


TS: Do you have a sense of what attributes the performers need in order to excel in this piece?

JM: It’s a cast of people who have to look the part. It has parts for a lot of different types of performers. Very good-looking people and not-so-good-looking people. Old people, young people. It requires quite an interesting mix of talent and types.


TS: Have you ever been to Budapest, where the musical is set?

JM: Yes.


TS: Was that part of your research, or was that after you wrote the show?

JM: It was after. At that point, Julie Andrews was supposed to make a movie version of She Loves Me.


TS: I read about that. Andrews was busy doing something else at the time, I think.

JM: She did a movie that bombed and, unfortunately, the movie version of She Loves Me collapsed. But meanwhile they offered to send me to Budapest for a week to look around. I went with a friend, and I loved it. We were there in the summertime. It’s a lovely city, and people were very nice. The trip turned out to be pointless because the whole project ended.


TS: In closing, I just wanted to thank you for allowing Roundabout to produce your two musicals - they have been very successful for us! It’s really appreciated.

JM: It’s interesting because I had no connection to Roundabout, but then everything took off with the revival of Cabaret. I’m so glad Todd was interested in doing it -- it always seemed like a great project for Roundabout to me.

I was sent to London to see the production because Fred Ebb had already been there and hadn’t liked it. I remember when I got to the Donmar, I didn’t see Sam Mendes -- his secretary told me that he was busy that night and that he would call me the next day. The next morning Sam called and said, “What did you think of it?” and I said, “I loved it.” He said, “You did? Let’s have lunch!”

The Donmar was waiting for somebody to move the show to a larger theatre. Nobody ever did. Very strange. But, yes, both my successful musicals, Cabaret and She Loves Me, have found new life at Roundabout. It’s been a terrific opportunity for new audiences to experience these two stories I wrote a long time ago.

She Loves Me begins performances on February 19 at Studio 54. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, A Conversation with, Education @ Roundabout, She Loves Me, Upstage

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Interview with Steven Pasquale

Posted on: February 4th, 2016 by Ted Sod


Steven Pasquale

Steven Pasquale

Ted Sod, Education Dramaturg, sat down with The Robber Bridegroom star Steven Pasquale to discuss going into rehearsals for the show and his process as an actor.


Ted Sod: Will you tell us where you were born and educated and why you decided to become an actor? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?

Steven Pasquale: I was born in Maplewood, New Jersey and raised in Central Pennsylvania, just outside of Harrisburg. I was an athlete as a kid and got injured playing football, and a friend convinced me to act in a play during my junior year of high school. I had a great time and was convinced it was something I wanted to do. That summer I went to a theatre training program at Northwestern University. Then I went to SMU for that one semester. I got a job on tour and never made it back to school. I started at 18 and have been going ever since. As far as profound influences are concerned: Paul Newman, Jim Carrey, Michael Keaton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bradley Whitford – all amazing actors that I’ve attempted to steal from.


TS: When did you realize you could sing?

SP: In the car. It’s always been about mimicking good singers. I think it was probably at seventeen or eighteen years old, singing along with Donny Hathaway or Billy Joel or Stevie Wonder, where I felt like I could sing like those guys depending on the genre. I started to think that maybe that was rare and I began to seriously explore singing at that point.


TS: Did you teach yourself how to read music?

SP: I don’t read music. I’d say I have a good ear. I never studied music and I never studied singing, so it’s just about what I feel.


TS: You’re intuitive.

SP: Yeah, I’d like to think so.


TS: Why did you choose to play the role of Jamie Lockhart in The Robber Bridegroom? What do you find challenging about it?

SP: Alex Timbers is the reason why I am interested in this version of The Robber Bridegroom. I think Alex is one of our great living American directors. And I’m interested in anything he does. He pitched it to me in a really smart and interesting way. In a nutshell, I wanted to work at Roundabout, and Alex Timbers was my way in. I also listened to the score and thought it sounded completely contemporary in a great bluegrass way. I respect what Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman have accomplished. I think that the libretto and score has honored the tall-tale fable that it’s based on. I think it’s a weird, fun, dark, dangerous romp, in the best possible way.


Evan Durand, Steven Pasquale and Ahna O'Reilly rehearsing for THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM

Evan Durand, Steven Pasquale and Ahna O'Reilly rehearsing for THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM

TS: When you take on a role, does it have to have personal resonance for you? Do you have to immediately connect with the character?

SP: For me, that is 100 percent not true. I have a better time playing people that I don’t relate to. I enjoy going to work and putting on another person’s skin, as opposed to going to work and accessing different parts of my own persona.


TS: What is the first thing that you do when you take on a role?

SP: I like to feel well-versed in terms of knowing what was happening historically when the piece was written or when the piece takes place. For me, the table work during the first few days is really valuable. It’s not until I have the ability to get rid of the script and have committed the lines and the music to my brain that I really feel confident moving forward. It’s always a crazy, fearful, excited, anxious time during the first week or two. Once I’ve gotten the material in my bones and muscles, it evolves quickly into excitement and confidence and all of the good things that make acting fun.


TS: At this point in time, what do you think this musical is about?

SP: It’s a love story at its heart, and it’s a cautionary tale.


TS: I’m wondering if reading the original story has had any value for you?

SP: Yes. I’m in the middle of it right now, and I’m finding it very helpful. The answer so far is yes. I’m about 100 pages into it.


TS: Can you share your preliminary ideas about Jamie with us? Or Jamie’s relationship to Rosamund?

SP: That’s going to be something that we’ll discover in the rehearsal room. I think clearly what happens when Jamie meets Rosamund is undeniable attraction and, ultimately, love. There’s a softening that happens to Jamie, and the line between the nighttime bandit and the daytime gentleman becomes blurred. I think there’s some fun to be had in that blurring of his two personalities.


Ahna O'Reilly and Steven Pasquale rehearsing for THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM

Ahna O'Reilly and Steven Pasquale rehearsing for THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM

TS: It seems Rosamund and Jamie fall in love with each other’s alter egos.

SP: It speaks to the idea of one’s sexuality in a way. You can be interested in a person in the daytime and feel very different in the nighttime because of -- for lack of a better term -- perspective. I think that’s maybe what the musical is commenting on. The faces that we show to the world and then the private ones we show that are sometimes darker and more sinister.


TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?

SP: I like to get to theatre and movies and to tune into quality, scripted television as often as I can. Whenever I see something good, it keeps me going artistically. I think it’s a really vibrant time in theatre in New York right now and I’m really happy to be doing something with an incredible group of artists in Roundabout’s off-Broadway space. With the success of Hamilton and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, a lot of high-quality work is being deservedly celebrated; I think the Broadway and off-Broadway community is on fire right now.


TS: New York City public school students will be reading this, along with our subscribers and anyone else who chooses to see the show. They often want to know what it takes to be a successful actor. Do you have any advice?

SP: Yes, I do. Acting takes an incredibly thick skin, as well as the ability to be vulnerable and sensitive at a moment’s notice. You have to be insensitive to the rigors of the business and sensitive when it comes to acting and making art. That’s the main challenge of living this life. If you can successfully balance those two things by checking in and checking out, it is a great profession.

The Robber Bridegroom begins performances at the Laura Pels Theatre on February 18. For tickets and information, please visit us on our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Robber Bridegroom, Upstage

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Interview with Director Alex Timbers

Posted on: February 2nd, 2016 by Ted Sod


Alex-Timbers_600x400Education dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Alex Timbers, director of The Robber Bridegroom about his research and process of working on it so far.

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?

Alex Timbers: I grew up in New York City and suburban Chicago and then went to Yale for college. Two teachers in particular had a big impact on me: my fifth grade teacher, Diane Hawes, who got me excited about history, a topic that has ultimately become a huge part of my focus in theatre. And Peter Ferry, my high school English teacher, who helped me find my own voice as a writer and helped me embrace the notion that humor and irreverence were a legitimate form of expression.


TS: Was there a specific moment when you decided to become a director?

AT: The extent of my theatre experience until college was really just the annual school play. In high school, I was always relegated to the one non-singing, non-dancing character in the musicals they chose: for example, the Hungarian diplomat Zoltan Karpathy in My Fair Lady and the gangster Big Jule in Guys and Dolls. It was humbling! But I’m not a great actor and knew it. So, in college, I wasn’t initially interested in doing more theatre. I auditioned for and joined an improv troupe and a sketch comedy group, which was much more my speed. We toured and performed. Over time, I became curious about the mechanics of comedy -- in other words, how comedy works. And, as a result, I started to grow curious about the construction of farces. I acted in a student production of one. And then, to learn more, I chose to direct Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy. It was a great experience, so then I directed Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor. I got bit by the directing bug at that point. And it soon led to me directing dramatic plays and musicals and then devised work, but it all began based on an interest in comedy.


TS: Why did you choose to direct a revival of The Robber Bridegroom?

AT: As a director, I’ve spent my post-college professional career devoted to new work. But I saw a production of The Robber Bridegroom many years ago, and it always stuck with me and inspired me. I remember when I saw it feeling a real kinship with the material. Even though it was written in the 1970s, it felt like it had a fresh, playful, and sexy irreverence. It was also raw, mischievous, and gritty—qualities at the time that I didn’t naturally associate with musicals. I also loved the actor/audience relationship in the show, which was fluid and charged. What’s more, the characters onstage appeared to be making up the show as they were doing it. I loved the improvisatory spirit -- that nothing felt premeditated.

So, a few years ago, when Todd Haimes, the Artistic Director at Roundabout, and I were talking about shows I’d like to direct, I brought up The Robber Bridegroom. New York hasn’t seen a professional production of the show in 40 years. Todd was intrigued. I reached out to the wonderful authors of the musical, Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman, and they were enthusiastic, so we did a workshop of the show in a rehearsal studio to experiment with how we might tackle the material in a potential revival.


TS: How have you researched the world of this play? Will you give us some insight into your process?

AT: I do a lot of work focused on historical figures and historical subject matter. But no matter what the show, I’ll begin with a research phase. Here, that started with the musical’s source material: Eudora Welty’s novella. Then I looked at research imagery from the period where the show takes place, as well as the Natchez Trace, indigo fields, basically everything name-checked in the musical. Then I researched what resources were available to people living back then in Mississippi and the larger historical-political context surrounding the area. For a revival, you also look at the environment in which the show was originally created: The Robber Bridegroom was born of a certain breed of musical in the 1970s that includes shows like Pippin and Godspell. In these musicals, the audience is repeatedly reminded of the fact that they’re watching performers play roles and telling you a story. The act of making theatre is part of the central event.

When my collaborators and I began thinking about staging the show at the Steinberg Center, we thought about how we could push that idea even further than the premiere production. How can we do the show with less: less scenery, fewer performers. How can we rely on the audience’s imagination as much as possible in the act of staging this play, so we can make it a real “lean in” theatregoing experience?


Alex Timbers working with Steven Pasquale and Leslie Kritzer on THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM

Alex Timbers working with Steven Pasquale and Leslie Kritzer on THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM

TS: What do you think the musical is about? Do you feel it has contemporary resonance?

AT: The Robber Bridegroom is a tribute to the con men, riverboat hucksters, and charlatans that colonized and created our great nation at its founding. America doesn’t have the rich set of myths that Europe does, filled with princesses, magical swords, and trolls under bridges, so Eudora Welty made up her own fitting menagerie of gentleman bandits, talking heads, and Southern stepmothers. Welty, and now Uhry and Waldman, here suggest these were the people that created our nation and in a way so many of our leaders and politicians are born from their rib. Businessmen and bandits, all rolled into one. The show is trying to define a uniquely American spirit, locate a strange part of our psyche, and point at our attraction to these figures. So as we see the great salesmen of today stump across America and as they try to wrangle a vote from us, not every one of them seems so different from Jamie Lockhart.


TS: How do you understand the role of Jamie Lockhart?

AT: Jamie Lockhart is a rogue. He’s a charmer. He’s clever, funny, and he has the privilege of speaking directly with the audience. And we’re putty in his hands. The character is an update of Robin Hood. He’s a gentleman by day and a bandit by night and he follows his own code of ethics in justice. It’s meeting the character of Rosamund that turns his worldview upside down. He’s hardhearted and cynical and pragmatic, yet meeting this girl transforms him, which is a beautiful and moving idea.


TS: Rosamund and Jamie fall in love with each other’s alter egos first. Did I understand that correctly?

AT: There’s a duality throughout the entire show. That’s one of the big themes in this piece -- everyone has two sides to them. There’s big suspension of disbelief for the audience in that Jamie Lockhart doesn’t realize that Rosamund is Rosamund when she’s dressed up in her mop cap and acting like a crazy person. And Rosamund doesn’t know that the Bandit of the Woods is also Jamie Lockhart when he has berry juice stains on his face. We need to remember that the show is sub-titled “A Mississippi Fairytale” and these sort of dramatic devices, while far-fetched, exist confidently within the language of this story.


TS: Are there substantial differences between the version you are directing and the original version of the script and score?

AT: Alfred Uhry has taken a fresh look at the book and trimmed and re-written a half dozen scenes throughout. There have been efforts to add more musical material for Jamie Lockhart and Rosamund to share. There’s been a big re-think of the first 15 minutes of the show, and a great deal of tightening throughout. I think the piece is going to end up being 85 minutes straight through.


Alex Timbers directing THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM

Alex Timbers directing THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM

TS: Are you anticipating having the actors be the band or are they separate entities?

AT: There’s going to be a lot of fluidity. The actors will be playing instruments, but the band will be on stage as well and participating in many of the numbers. My hope is that there is a seamless energy between the band and the performers. All the people onstage need to be invested in the communal aspect of telling this story.


TS: Why did you choose to work with Connor Gallagher and Justin Levine?

AT: Justin Levine, who is musical director, is one of the most gifted young composers and music directors working today. We worked together on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Here Lies Love, and one of his own writing projects as well. I consider him one of my closest collaborators. Beyond being a brilliant writer of pop music and musical theatre, he plays a dozen instruments and has a deep love and appreciation, specifically, for bluegrass. I thought he would be the perfect person to be in charge of the band and re-investigating this score, along with the genius musical mind of Martin Lowe. Robert Waldman, the show’s composer, wisely wants the score to feel as alive today as it did to audiences back in 1975. I think what comes with that is a responsibility to put the score in dialogue with what’s going on in music today with bands like Grizzly Bear and Mumford and Sons. Justin and Martin are the perfect people to do that.

I first worked with Connor Gallagher about six years ago. We were paired together on a project and, while it was a forced marriage, we felt it was serendipitous as we had an immediate connection. Connor is an enormously clever and talented young choreographer with a huge imagination and a great wit. He also has the unlikely benefit of having acted in The Robber Bridegroom! He played the character of Goat in high school. He knows the show incredibly well, has the same love of it that I do, and understands the spirit of what I want our production to be.


TS: Talk about casting the show -- what traits did you need?

AT: The actors we cast needed to be true proteans, playing multiple roles and willing to step forward and take the lead in a scene or song, and then in the next one hold up a board or a rope and recede into the scenographic world. These hard-working actors never even leave the stage. We’ve got an exciting cast that I couldn’t be more delighted about, led by the remarkable Steven Pasquale.

The Robber Bridegroom begins performances at the Laura Pels Theatre on February 18. For tickets and information, please visit us on our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, A Conversation with, Education @ Roundabout, The Robber Bridegroom, Upstage

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