In 1992 a young actor-turned-director named Scott Ellis met with Roundabout’s Artistic Director, Todd Haimes. Ellis was just coming off the recent success of And the World Goes ‘Round: The Songs of Kander and Ebb, a musical revue that he’d conceived with Susan Stroman and David Thompson and directed at the Westside Theatre. Haimes was relatively new to his position as Artistic Director, having transitioned into the role in 1990 after seven seasons as Executive Director. He had led Roundabout to its first Broadway home (the Criterion Center Stage Right) only a year before. The meeting didn’t seem particularly momentous. Ellis pitched a show he was interested in directing, a jewelbox of a musical called She Loves Me. Though the show’s writing team (Joe Masteroff, Sheldon Harnick, and Jerry Bock) had gone on to megawatt success since She Loves Me’s 1963 debut, the musical hadn’t been seen on Broadway since its well-reviewed but short-lived first run. Haimes wasn’t ready to commit to the project; he was impressed by Ellis’s work, but he didn’t know She Loves Me well. Even more importantly, he was already set to announce another musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, as the first installment in the company’s brand-new Great American Musical Series. He accepted a cast recording of She Loves Me from Ellis, said thank you, and filed the meeting away in memory.
Six months later, circumstances had changed. The rights to Forum had been revoked when a well-known director and big-name star expressed interest in doing the show; Roundabout, a company that had only recently become financially solvent (and that had never before produced a musical on Broadway), couldn’t come close to competing with such a glitzy proposal. Now, the company found itself in a very public bind: they’d announced the launch of the Great American Musical Series and had no Great American Musical to produce.
Haimes remembered the meeting he’d had with Ellis and gave him a call. Would he still be interested in directing She Loves Me at Roundabout? The timeline was tight – the show would need to go into pre-production in just a few months – but Ellis said yes.
This decision – and, in retrospect, the seemingly unremarkable meeting that preceded it – would go on to be one of the seminal events in Roundabout’s 50-year history. In the 28 years prior to the season of She Loves Me, Roundabout had occasionally dipped a beveled toe into musical theatre, but never anything close to the scale of She Loves Me, and certainly not on Broadway. The company had tackled musical revues (Pins and Needles, Streetsongs, A Kurt Weill Cabaret), short-run workshop productions (The Musical Merchant of Venice), children’s musicals (Yolanda Loves Me), plays with songs (Privates on Parade), and even a new musical (Brownstone). She Loves Me was something different – a full-scale Broadway revival of a little-known classic – and for both Haimes and Ellis, it was a first: Ellis’s first musical on Broadway, and Haimes’s first musical altogether.
In interviews in the years following, Haimes has often remarked that he assumed that producing and rehearsing a musical meant taking a play and adding an orchestra. The reality was, he quickly found, much more complicated – and far more expensive. Throughout the process, Ellis remembers, the Roundabout staff was constantly asking for explanations of the rehearsal needs: Why two rooms at once? Why two pianos? Why do you need an orchestrator? Then, Ellis remembers, the questions stopped. Looking back now, he realizes Roundabout had likely decided to stoically accept the sunk cost: they’d already come this far. If the show was a hit, great. If it was a flop, they’d lose millions, but right now, there was nothing to do but wait.
Doing the waiting, Haimes was terrified. He prided himself on money management; after all, it was his business sense that had pulled Roundabout out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy a few years earlier. But the company was still far from comfortable, and here he was, in one of his first seasons as Artistic Director, spending more money on She Loves Me than the company had spent on any production. As the budget ballooned, the board of directors grew concerned. Haimes knew that if the production wasn’t successful, the board could justifiably oust him from his post; they’d certainly never green-light a musical again.
It was with these high stakes that Haimes walked into She Loves Me’s last run-through in the rehearsal hall. Fluorescent lights illumined actors in street clothes; tape marks indicated the show’s bi-level set. Hardly a glamorous setting, but to Haimes, the run-through was magic. He walked out of the rehearsal studio confident that the show would be a success – of course, his enthusiasm couldn’t guarantee ticket sales, but artistically, at least, the production was worth the agonized wait. Ellis, for his part, vividly remembers another moment of magic within the final weeks of rehearsal and tech: walking into the Criterion Center lobby to find it filled – to every possible corner – with props. Today, remembering that crowded lobby and the production that filled it near to bursting, Ellis looks back with some degree of amazement; he had relatively little experience under his belt, and yet Masteroff, Harnick, and Bock entrusted him with their show.
Their faith – and the faith of Haimes and Roundabout – proved to be well-deserved. The production went on to be a sold-out hit, to be nominated for nine Tony Awards (including one win, for lead actor Boyd Gaines), and to transfer to both a commercial Broadway run and a run on London’s West End. Perhaps even more significant than the success of the show itself, however, was the institutional shift it heralded. Far from being shuttered, Roundabout’s Great American Musical Series went on to become a cornerstone of the company’s mission. Since She Loves Me, Roundabout has brought more than twenty musical revivals to the stage, including landmark productions of Assassins, Cabaret, Sunday in the Park with George, and Anything Goes. Today, Roundabout is the only not-for-profit theatre company dedicated to producing a full-scale musical on Broadway every year, a commitment which has garnered five Best Musical Revival Tony Awards as well as over thirty additional nominations and awards. The company has become a home for the innately American art form of the musical, an identity which can be traced directly back to 1993’s She Loves Me. Haimes and Ellis, too, are far from the novices of 1993; Artistic Director and Associate Artistic Director of Roundabout, they are leading the way for the next decade of risks and rewards.
She Loves Me is now playing at Studio 54. For tickets and more information, please visit our website.
2015-2016 Season, Education @ Roundabout, She Loves Me, Upstage