Education dramaturg Ted Sod speaks with now two-time She Loves Me director Scott Ellis about the current revival and its everlasting impact.
Ted Sod: Will you talk about your history with She Loves Me? This was the first musical you directed for Roundabout, correct?
Scott Ellis: Yes, it’s the first musical I directed for Roundabout. It was the first musical Roundabout produced. It was my first Broadway show. It was a lot of firsts for me and Roundabout.
TS: I believe the story goes that Todd Haimes, our Artistic Director, wanted to produce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and the rights fell through, and then he remembered you from And the World Goes Round. Is that how it came about?
SE: I went in for a meeting with Todd after And the World Goes Round, and during the meeting we were talking about shows that I might want to direct. I brought up She Loves Me. I said, “This is a piece that you should look at.” We talked about the show because I don’t think he knew it very well at the time. I said, “It’s a perfect piece for Roundabout, and it has never been revived.” That’s how it all started.
TS: What is it about this particular musical that you love?
SE: I love it because it’s close to a perfect musical. It’s so well constructed. The characters and how they’re introduced and how the plot is set up -- all of that is manifested beautifully. The source material is the 1940 film, The Shop Around the Corner, and Joe Masteroff has preserved its charm in his libretto. But it’s really the score that I love – it is so beautiful. It’s unlike any other show written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. These are all things that attract me to the piece. I think the main reason I love it is that people just don’t know it very well, and I keep thinking they should.
TS: I went to watch your 1993 production at the Lincoln Center Library’s Theatre on Film Archives, and what I loved about it is how quirky the characters are, how intimate the show is. What do you think the show is about?
SE: It’s about love that’s mature. It’s not about young love. It’s about people who have been around for a while and perhaps are starting to think that maybe this falling in love thing isn’t going to happen for them. But they haven’t given up, and they are filled with romantic notions of what it means to be in love with another person. The characters are not young, callow, or carefree. They’re dealing with finding their soulmates in a more mature way. You don’t find that happening a lot in the musical theatre.
TS: The coincidence that Amalia and Georg are working together and don’t know that they’re really each other’s object of affection is marvelous.
SE: That’s something many of us have explored. We see someone we’re constantly around, someone we work with perhaps, and something is not clicking. We think, I really don’t like this person. And later on, there’s a little sign that makes you think, Oh, wait a minute, maybe they aren’t who I thought they were. That slow awakening to what is happening between the two leads in the show is fun to watch.
TS: It’s almost as if you see yourself in the other person, and you’re repelled, but then you realize, Oh, they’re a lot like me.
SE: I think Amalia and Georg are a lot alike. It’s almost as if they are looking in the mirror when they see each other and, at first, they don’t like it so much.
TS: Can you talk about the challenges of returning to a piece over 20 years later?
SE: Originally, when Todd asked me about directing a revival of She Loves Me, I said no. I wasn’t interested in doing it. I just wasn’t interested in returning to something that I had already done, especially something that I had done successfully. It was a talented cast, the design was exquisite and it was beautifully choreographed. It was a perfect experience for me back in the 90s. It was very hard for me to say to Todd, “Sure, I’m ready to jump back into the world of that show and give it another try.”
Then two things happened: Todd asked me to do a benefit reading of She Loves Me as a Roundabout fundraiser, and when I did, I fell in love with it all over again. I thought, Wow, this is a perfectly rendered musical. I fell in love with the storytelling again and I said, “Okay, I’ll do it, but I must try to do it as differently as I can. I’ll start looking at it from a different perspective.”
So we have a new set, new lighting and costumes, new actors, a new choreographer, and new orchestrations. Every single person working on this production is different except for me, and I’m just starting to embrace it. Hopefully it will work, but it’s the only way I could go back to it.
TS: I did notice there are some real differences in the casting. Louis Zorich played Mr. Maraczek in the ‘93 version, and now Bryon Jennings is doing the role, and they’re very different actors. Boyd Gaines and Zachary Levi, who were both cast as Georg, are very different, too.
SE: That’s a perfect example of how this production is different from the last. Yes, Louis and Byron and Boyd and Zachary are very different, but there is room for both actors to play the same role in the writing.
Every actor has their own quirkiness and their own attractiveness, and these roles can be played in a variety of ways. I certainly didn’t go into the casting process thinking, let me cast it with actors who look completely different from the actors I cast the first time. That was not it at all. With Amalia, there are perhaps three or four women working on Broadway right now who have enough star presence and can sing that score. Laura Benanti is one of them.
As far as Georg goes, you have to find someone who will bring humor to the role. It’s not your typical leading man in a musical role. It’s got to be cast with someone who is separate from Kodaly and can hold his own in the comedy department. And I think that’s what Zachary will bring to the role.
TS: Talk about working with Warren Carlyle, the choreographer, and Paul Gemignani, your musical director. These are artists you work with often.
SE: I’ve worked with Paul for many years. Paul approaches a song from an actor’s point of view. It’s never about the notes, it’s always about the acting. So if I leave Paul alone with an actor, I know he’s never going to steer them in the wrong direction. He does more than just teach them the notes, it’s always about the story and the characters. That’s why he’s so remarkable.
Warren is a whole different story. I’m so fortunate because Warren is great director in his own right, and the fact that he collaborates with me is very humbling. He doesn’t have to, he can direct wherever he wants. I’m always so grateful for that. We have a very easy collaboration; we can tell each other anything. I certainly can say, “Hey, you might want to look at this,” and he can certainly do that -- and he does -- with me. I want him to. I think we just have total trust. I got lucky that he said yes to doing this and On the Twentieth Century and Edwin Drood because he’s just so wonderful.
TS: This design team is a group of people that you often work with, too.
SE: I had such an extraordinary design team the first time, especially since it was my first Broadway show. Tony Walton designed the set and, at the time, you couldn’t get any better than that. Here I was, this kid who had never done anything on Broadway before. This time around I knew David Rockwell would be strong enough to come up with something different. We won’t be deconstructing the show and doing something avant-garde with it. I felt we needed to stay close to the reality that it is written in, but I also felt that I wanted a set designer who would be able to take it to another level, which he has. David came up with some solutions that I would not have thought of.
TS: Jeff Mahshie, your costume designer, is an interesting choice because he worked in the fashion industry.
SE: I’ve known Jeff for a long time, and he can be really honest with me. He’s a remarkable designer and understands women. I told him a long time ago, “If I ever do She Loves Me again, you can design the costumes.”
TS: And Donald Holder is someone who often lights your shows, correct?
SE: Yes. You know, when I choose these remarkable designers to work with, it’s a selfish way for me to relax, knowing that the work will be done and the show will look great.
TS: Jon Weston is designing sound – which is vital in a musical. Have you two collaborated before?
SE: Yes, I’ve worked with him, and he is excellent. Studio 54 is a tricky space, and Jon has all the knowledge we need to figure it out.
TS: What does Roundabout’s 50th anniversary season mean to you?
SE: It’s an opportunity to look at the remarkable journey Roundabout has had. I have to remind people that this theatre started in a grocery store basement in 1965 – that it grew and changed and survived bankruptcy – it’s a rather incredible story of survival when you think about it. Roundabout has endured while other theatres have perished. I’ve always thought that it’s a gift that I have had Roundabout as my artistic home for all these years. I know I’m lucky.
She Loves Me begins performances on February 19 at Studio 54. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2015-2016 Season, Education @ Roundabout, She Loves Me, Upstage