Education Dramaturg Ted Sod talked to director Gordon Greenberg about his work on Holiday Inn.
Ted Sod: Tell us about yourself. Where were you born and educated? Why did you want to become a theatre director? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?
Gordon Greenberg: I was born in Texas but raised in New York, where I quickly became a theatre fan and then a performer. I appeared in my first Broadway show at age 12 and attended Stagedoor Manor, a magical summer camp filled with similarly passionate theatre kids. I lived for the summers and remain close friends with many of the people I met there, including my first theatre teacher, Jeanine Tesori (composer of Fun Home, Caroline or Change, and Shrek), my counselor Mark Saks (casting director on “The Good Wife”), and my roommates (we didn’t have bunks) Jonathan Marc Sherman (playwright), Shawn Levy (film director, Night at the Museum), and Josh Charles (actor, “The Good Wife” et al.). It was an idyllic place to cultivate your inner artist and share stories and hopes for the future. During high school, I also went to summer programs at Carnegie Mellon for musical theatre and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London for classics, before enrolling at Stanford University to study Western Culture as a freshman (how’s that for non-committal?). I later transferred to NYU, where I was able to major in Film and Art History. We were very fortunate, as part of an artists' group that also travelled to China, to study with renowned film director Zhang Yimou, and to Russia to study at the Moscow Art Theatre. Our Dean used to rate us on the value of the questions we asked, to ensure that we were always circumspect and thoughtful. That sense of intellectual rigor was intimidating at first. I have always believed that art is first and foremost for the audience. But I eventually learned that respect for craft and quality goes hand in hand with accessibility to all art forms. Stagedoor, Stanford, and NYU began a great awakening to all the possibility of theatre and the value of hard work. But it’s a lesson that I am still learning from every collaborator I work with.
TS: Why did you choose to co-write and direct this stage adaptation of Holiday Inn?
GG: I was working with Universal on another project when this idea came up, and Chris (Herzberger, Universal's Vice President of Live Theatricals) and I jumped out of our skins with delight. I always get excited when a film offers the raw material for a great stage musical without begging to be recreated literally onstage. And Holiday Inn was just that; a classic film with a classic score and a simple narrative that left room for development. It’s a show that is a sheer pleasure to direct, filled with humor and heart and humanity. I try to make the atmosphere in the rehearsal room as buoyant and spirited as the show itself. That’s how we fuel the joy machine that is Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical.
TS: How did you research the world of the play? Can you give us some insight into your process as a co-writer and director?
GG: I grew up with a profound love for this period. My parents are big fans of musicals and the great American songbook, so this was the music that was always playing in our house. Those were the films that were always on our television. So that sense of nostalgia and romanticism for this period was very much alive for me. My grandmother and her sister appeared once on "The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour" television talent show. They didn’t win, but the legend seems to have grown inversely, looming large in my mind from a young age. When we started this process, I immersed myself happily in films, books, and radio broadcasts of the era, although Chad Hodge (my co-writer) and I only ever watched the original film of Holiday Inn once, at the outset. That allowed us to approach the story with fresh eyes. Furthermore, I have spent much of the past four years directing the UK revival of Guys and Dolls, first at Chichester Festival Theatre and then in London’s West End. Since that show was written in the late 1940s, the post-war period in which we chose to re-set Holiday Inn, I felt very much in tune with the vernacular and silly sense of word play. It was also a gift to be able to develop the show at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut, where we were living quite literally in the world of the show, surrounded by that New England architecture, staunch Yankee sensibility, and beautiful scenery.
TS: What do you think the musical is about? How do you understand the relationship between Jim and Ted?
GG: Whenever I start working on a project, I ask myself what the play underneath the play is about. Why must these ideas be put into the world? With Holiday Inn, I was immediately drawn to the idea of what, in art and in life, is truth as opposed to artifice. And where do the lines get blurred? The notion of wanting to swap the frivolity and uncertainty of show business for something genuine and solid was also very much alive for me. Both of these themes run throughout the show, as our protagonist Jim struggles with his desire to live authentically against his love for performing. In one of his moments of epiphany, he realizes that maybe it does take a little bit of performing to live a normal life. But he doesn’t ultimately find happiness until he learns, as Rilke would say, to live in the questions. Throughout the show, Jim has two love stories—a romantic one with Linda, a local school teacher who is not easily charmed, and a platonic one with his oldest and best friend Ted, whose life force energy has become entirely focused on his career, while Jim’s is pointing in another direction. Jim and Ted experience the heartache of a friendship breakup and the ultimate joy in a reunion that shows growth on both of their parts and reaffirms their bond of mutual admiration.
TS: What are the major differences between this adaptation and the movie version? Will you talk about any songs from the Irving Berlin canon that are being interpolated into this stage adaptation? Why did you choose them?
GG: The stage musical is inspired by the original screenplay, but it’s very freely adapted. Although we held onto all the beloved set pieces (songs, dances, ideas, and moments), we largely reimagined the story, characters, and tone. We have also added several fantastic songs from the Irving Berlin songbook. What a treasure trove to select from! The new songs in the stage musical are like a hit parade from the Irving Berlin songbook, including “Cheek to Cheek,” “Blue Skies,” “Shakin’ The Blues Away,” “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “Heat Wave,” and “Easy To Dance With.”
TS: What do you look for in a musical director and choreographer? Will you talk about working with your collaborators in these roles, Andy Einhorn and Denis Jones?
GG: First and foremost, you want to work with people who enjoy collaboration; people who derive joy from the spark of creating new ideas together, bouncing back and forth improving them. I am fortunate enough to have met Denis many years ago when we were both actors. He was always a bright light in the room and continues to be one in every room we work in. He is never shy with ideas or less than flexible —and always a source of good humor and spirit. We always see our work evolve as we discover more about how best to tell a story. For example, at one point the opening number of this show was a gigantic cavalcade of dancers, which was thrilling in and of itself, but ultimately confusing to an audience who needed to know that our protagonist was not at the top of his game and wanted to quit show business. There was an inherent mismatch of ideas, but it took a minute for us to see that. Denis is the rare choreographer who was able to turn on a dime, throw that spectacular number away, and whip up a rinky-dink cabaret sketch that set us up for narrative success—all with pleasure. Andy is new to the show but is a top notch musician and highly sensitive to the overall needs of the show. He listens not only as the music director, but also as an audience member experiencing the show for the first time. That’s a crucial distinction, because it’s easy to become myopic and obsess about your department specifically. Being able to see the big picture makes for great collaborators and, ultimately, a much better show.
TS: What did you look for in casting the actors?
GG: Because Holiday Inn lives in a specific time period, style, and vernacular, we looked for actors who connected with this language and sensibility; actors for whom the humor came naturally, and who could fill this style with truth and humanity. On top of that, they all had to do justice to this glorious music. And then there’s the dancing. For the role of Ted, we needed someone who could command the stage as an actor and singer—and tap dance like a star. Indeed, trying to fill the shoes of Fred Astaire was a slightly terrifying prospect for us—but we ultimately freed ourselves in much the same way we did with the book – by embracing the idea that this is going to be its own new creation. And the more we take it in new directions, the better it becomes.
TS: How will the play manifest itself visually?
GG: We found a lot of great inspiration for the visual world of the show up in Connecticut, where there are a wealth of old farms, inns, bungalow colonies, and school houses that feel like we could find any of our characters living in, working in, and loving. In fact, the proscenium surround is a loving homage to the Goodspeed Opera House, where the earliest version of this show was performed. As far as the general aesthetic for the design of the show, we aimed a contemporary lens at the vintage world of 1946. The graphics, patterns, and colors are all little gems we found in vintage shops, online, and in some public buildings I happened upon in London. Camera phones have made trading ideas much easier!
TS: Any advice for young people who want to be theatre directors and who specifically want to direct musicals?
GG: Have a trust fund. I jest, but it’s true that a career in directing takes time and mileage to cultivate. Be prepared to dedicate the time. If you want to become a professional theatre director, you should first and foremost take in all of the arts; visit museums, see every play, opera, ballet, musical, spectacle, prayer circle, paintball tournament, poetry reading, movie, and live event you can. It’s all woolgathering. It will free you to dream up your own stories, and it will all come back in your work one day in ways you can’t even contemplate right now. Also, live life outside of theatre. If you want to paint mountains, you have to go look at them. Don’t settle for just looking at other people’s paintings of mountains. Finally, write. Even if you think you’re a lousy writer, write something every day. It will make you more sensitive to the process, and you may even find that you have a play or musical or novel in you.
TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?
GG: I teach. There’s nothing more inspiring than inspiring someone else, helping them discover an unknown part of themselves. As a director, you are responsible for so many departments that you can sometimes get lost in the weeds and disconnect from the sheer joy of creation; the need to express something profoundly personal and human. So working with young artists becomes a great way to reconnect yourself; encouraging them to reach down deeper for the art in themselves; to tap into that soulful stream that runs through all of us. You don’t realize how much life has beaten you up until you watch a group of kids experience something for the first time. That’s pure— and theatrical.
Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin musical is now playing at Studio 54. Visit our website for tickets and more information.
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Holiday Inn, Upstage