On March 12, 2016, Alex Timbers spoke about The Robber Bridegroom with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.
An edited transcript follows. (Beware: There are spoilers below.)
Ted Sod: Will you fill us in on what happened once you graduated from Yale and began your directing career? You started a company, I believe, and did a lot of devised work.
Alex Timbers: I graduated from college and my first job was as an intern for the artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Club, which gives you such a bird’s-eye view of how theatre works. And one of the first things you realize, that you don’t learn in college, is that in New York people who are 22 don’t get to direct Thornton Wilder. I decided to create my own theatre company in order to create a job for myself as a director. And what I noticed was that there are about 300 off-off-Broadway theatre companies. What I wanted to do was create a theatre company that had a very specific mission statement so that our work might stand out, something more specific for example than doing classical plays through a modern lens. I focused on doing work about historical subject matter through an irreverent and contemporary prism. And I think that bears out in The Robber Bridegroom, where we’re looking at something that’s historical and hopefully we’re giving a fresh take to it.
TS: And the name of that company is French, correct?
AT: We called it Les Frères Corbusier, the Corbusier Brothers. We did some work about urban planning early on.
TS: And did you start that company with other graduates from Yale?
AT: Yes, I began it with two great people I went to college with. The other thing that we did was we started leanly. I would work with other theatre companies where there would be 16 staff members, everyone unpaid. And you’d have a marketing manager, but there wouldn’t be a marketing budget. So after the third meeting the marketing manager would stop showing up, because there wasn’t anything for them to do. We started out with just two or three people, more like how you would run a dance company. We had a producer or two and an artistic leader.
HERE'S HOOVER! by Timber's theater company
TS: And is that company still producing?
AT: We did a show about Herbert Hoover last year that was really fun.
TS: Let’s talk about your history with plays that are being revived. You haven’t done many revivals.
AT: No, this is my first revival in New York City.
TS: Sometimes revivals require a different take from the director. Did you have to approach this material differently because it had already been done?
AT: We were very lucky that Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman, who wrote the show and hadn’t had a professionally produced revival in New York in about 40 years, love this show and so they were very involved with it. And they allowed us to approach it as a new work. Outside of New York, The Robber Bridegroom is performed all around America; but some of the songs you saw today have never been performed as part of The Robber Bridegroom the way that they’re performed here. The opening of the show is completely different. There’s about 15 or 20 percent of the show that’s different. So what you’re seeing is a very unique production of The Robber Bridegroom. It still has the same spirit as the 1975 and 1976 productions.
Design for the original production of THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM
I’ve never seen a tape of what the original show was, but I read all the reviews and read people’s responses to the show and from those I learned about the show’s assets and what worked less well.
TS: When I interviewed Alfred Uhry, the librettist and lyricist, he said, “This is Alex’s baby. I don't know exactly what he’s going to do with it, but he’s going to take it and do something grand with it. I’ve waited a long time to find the right director and Alex is the right director. But at the same time, it’s not like we’re creating a show from scratch.”
AT: Both Alfred and Bob have been very collaborative. That collaboration manifests itself in all sorts of ways in every department. We have a music director named Justin Levine and a choreographer, Connor Gallagher. And the authors just basically said to us, “Have at it. Go make your version of The Robber Bridegroom. We don’t want a replica of the 1975 production.” At the first meeting I raised my hand and said to Alfred, “You know, I want to talk about the script. Can we look at this scene?” He’s written brand new scenes. That whole wedding sequence at the end, where it’s a reprise of Jamie Lockhart’s song, “Love Stolen” -- in every other production, that’s a square dance. And we thought there was more of an emotional connection there and added a reprise of an earlier song instead, for example.
So, not only have we revisited all the music with their blessing, but we’ve also looked at the orchestrations. Is this a banjo-heavy song? Does piano play on this? Piano usually isn’t a part of The Robber Bridegroom, but it was important to us to get the feeling and the vibe and to have something percussive. So there have been two orchestrators, Justin Levine and Martin Lowe, who worked on Once, and both men have gone through the show and reworked Robert’s orchestrations. That’s something that’s helped make it feel new too.
TS: When you pitched the show to our artistic director, Todd Haimes, was he familiar with the show?
AT: Todd didn’t know the show. He’d heard of the title. This was around 2011. Todd is so generous and artist friendly that he suggested something that artistic directors rarely might suggest. He said, “I’d like to spend some money exploring this.” He gave us a three-week lab to go and work on it with a full cast and a band in a rehearsal room. No audience, no ticket sales to make the money spent back. We got to figure out, with the choreographer and the music director, a lot of the staging that you saw today.
TS: The original production had 17 actors, I believe.
AT: Yes, all the other productions that you’ll see are basically done with 17 or 18 actors. One of the things that we thought would be cool is to celebrate the abilities of a group of really smart actors. So we shrunk everything down to nine people and a band. The actors could pick up instruments and there would be fluidity with the band.
Eudora Welthy's novella
TS: I’m curious about your response to Eudora Welty’s novella, on which this musical is based, because you told me you read that first. Will you give us a sense of how you prepared to direct this? And what happened when you got in the rehearsal room?
AT: The process of adaptation in this show is really unique because when you think about it, it started as a Brothers Grimm fairy tale called The Robber Bridegroom. And then Eudora Welty, a southern Gothic writer, adapted it into a novella also called The Robber Bridegroom. And then Alfred and Robert wrote to her and said, “We’d like to make this into a musical.” And she said, “Actually, many people have tried to do this and failed, but you may have the rights.” And so they began to adapt it. This material has had many different iterations. In terms of the process of research, what you do on a revival in addition to researching the original production, is you also look at the time period. What was going on in The Natchez Trace? What were things that people took part in in everyday life? What was the predicament of a bandit like Jamie or a girl like Rosamund? Sitting around a table and discussing these ideas -- that was the process during the first couple of days of rehearsal.
TS: How do you collaborate with Justin and Connor?
AT: They’re great collaborators and they’re witty and I think wit is an underappreciated value these days. They’re both good storytellers. We went through a pre-production process on everything. Everyone brings ideas to the table and then you winnow those ideas. With Connor, what we were able to do in December, through the kindness of the Roundabout, was a dance lab with a bunch of young actors. We were able to get in a rehearsal room to work out some of the more complicated dance sequences. Through that process you get an idea on what works and what doesn’t. And through that process you get to have a similar, shared sensibility. I think musicals are different than plays or other art forms that are collaborative. For musicals to succeed, I think all collaborators need to be rowing in the same direction. What you learn working on musicals is that everyone needs to be telling the same story in the same style; otherwise, you’re dead.
TS: I’ve heard it characterized as everybody has to be in the same world at the same time. The score, when it was first done, was called “bluegrass,” and Robert, the composer, calls it Appalachian. It was very rare for a New York audience to see a musical with a score like this at the time of the original production. Do you feel audiences have caught up with bluegrass music and that it’s more pervasive in the culture now?
AT: I think this spring is a really interesting time in musical theatre because at the Cort Theatre, you’ve got Bright Star, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s musical. That’s got a bluegrass score. Down at the Public you’ve got a show opening tomorrow called Southern Comfort and that’s got a bluegrass score as well. I think bluegrass is a completely theatrical idiom of music. And it’s something that’s popular and in the zeitgeist right now.
Steven Pasquale and the company of THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM
TS: I want to talk about your design team. What I love about your shows – and I don’t mean to make it reductive – is that the sets sometimes spill into the audience. I sense a part of your understanding of theatre is the audience can’t be passive. Is that true?
AT: I think the idea in The Robber Bridegroom is that these characters are telling a story that they love, a story that means a great deal to them. I think the actors’ storytelling is something that should be celebrated. And the theatre as a sacred place for storytelling is important. So having the footlights divide you and the actors is not part of what our mission is on this show. The actors are becoming these characters. That’s important to us. It’s important that you’re here.
We made certain efforts in the design like pulling out the front-row seats, pushing the stage forward. We carried the set design into the house. We wanted to keep reinforcing that we’re here in the same room together. We know that the show takes place in 1795 – but we made certain choices to contemporize some of the costumes, for instance. What are people buying at thrift stores that relates to what people were wearing in 1795? And we did that because this isn’t a museum piece. We wanted it to be an aspirational experience for the audience. We want you to feel as if you want to hang out with these characters, wear these clothes, play with this band.
TS: You sometimes refer to this as “DIY theatre” or do-it-yourself. Will you tell us about do-it-yourself theatre?
AT: I work on shows that require all sorts of different aesthetics, ones where – I mean you see them all the time on Broadway – where a giant room comes in or comes up through the floor or whatever and every prop is detailed. And I think those are great for a certain type of theatre. But here, what we’re saying is, “We’re creating the story in front of you.” What we want is a lean-in experience for the audience. We want to engage the audience’s imagination.
We use the props we have on hand and use them over and over and over again to detail different locations and have the actors become the environment and the scenery. So it’s a very do-it-yourself aesthetic. I think it’s something that you wouldn’t do in a movie. It’s something that’s inherently theatrical and engages the audience in the act of storytelling.
TS: I also want to talk about the audience’s romance with con men. It seems like we never get enough of them. Why do you think that is? We’re watching one play out on the national political stage right now.
AT: I think musical theatre has a great history with hucksters as protagonists. If you look at The Music Man’s Harold Hill or you look at the protagonists in The Producers or you look at Billy Flynn in Chicago. We love these kinds of salesmen. I think that part of the reason is that these characters try to better their predicament, they make positive, active choices. Think of Charlie Brown. He always gets that football taken away from him, but he always gets back up to try to kick it. And that’s what we love. We love people who try, who sell themselves, who are actively trying to work out how to make things happen. I think that Jamie Lockhart and this whole band of robbers and bandits are like that as well. Rosamund is a compulsive liar. That’s an interesting character flaw.
Ahna O'Reilly as Rosamund in THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM
TS: She’s been around Salome, her stepmother, for a long time. Her father is sweet and seemingly naïve. It’s fascinating to me that Rosamund has had polarities of behavior as a moral compass.
AT: Her backstory is actually really interesting in the novella. Clement Musgrove’s original wife was a woman named Amalie and he had twins with her, just like the twins at the end. And one of them was Rosamund and one was a boy. Clement went on a trip with a guy named Kentucky Thomas, and his wife Salome, and they were attacked on the frontier. And the only people who survived were Rosamund, Clement and Salome. Clement knew immediately that Salome was not a right match for him, but they were so desperate for water that he made a promise to God. He said, “If I find water, I will marry this woman and do right by her.” And the next moment he found water.
TS: So now it’s your turn to ask questions.
Audience Member #1: Hi, I just wanted to say this is my second time seeing the show. And it’s even funnier the second time. There’s so much that I didn’t catch the first time. Anyway, are there any plans to record a cast album of this production?
AT: We would love to do that. I think that there is a cast album of the Barry Bostwick version from 1976 and it’s a great recording. But particularly with these new orchestrations and this cast, it would be amazing to have it be recorded.
TS: It might be good to just give you a brief history on this show. This is the second show that Bob and Alfred wrote together. Alfred had only been doing lyrics up to that point. And he did the book for this with the blessing of Gerry Freedman, the original director, who kept encouraging him. Of course, now he’s a playwright almost exclusively. But he has written a new libretto for a piece that’s being done at Long Wharf about Toulouse-Lautrec. The Robber Bridegroom was done as a workshop at St. Clements in 1974 with Raul Julia in the title part.
Patti Lupone and Kevin Kline in THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM
There was a woman named Margo Harley, who was associated with the Julliard School, who went to John Houseman and said, “This show is perfect for us.” And they did it on tour with Patti LuPone and Kevin Kline. And while they were on tour, a producer said, “Let’s do it on Broadway.” But since Kline and LuPone were on the road, they decided to recast it with Barry Bostwick and a woman whom I haven’t heard much of since, Rhonda Coullet.
AT: And what’s interesting too is it was on Broadway with Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone for about 14 performances.
TS: They were at the Harkness Theatre and that qualified them for Tony nominations.
AT: Patti LuPone and Alfred both got nominated.
TS: And then the next year it was considered a revival.
AT: Barry Bostwick won the Tony for best actor in a musical.
TS: Waldman has continued to write incidental music. He has composed music for a lot of plays at Lincoln Center. And, of course, Alfred wrote his great Atlanta trilogy: Driving Miss Daisy, Parade and The Last Night of Ballyhoo.
Audience Member #2: I’m curious about one thing, as a musician. The whole thing of doing the sound effects yourselves is almost like old-time radio or a vaudeville effect that really charmed me.
AT: Thank you. In terms of the sound effects, that was part of the do-it-yourself quality of it. We wanted the company to be able to comment on scenes that they weren’t in, but also to create the visual and sonic environments for scenes they weren’t necessarily in either. It all goes back to the idea of communal storytelling.
Audience Member #3: Hi, Alex. Can you offer any advice to new graduates on how to start a theatre company?
AT: The three things that I normally tell people is be really specific with the kind of theatre you want to create because your company will need to stand out from other companies, which I think is a hard thing to do. Also, it’s generally difficult in the long run to create a company with all the people who you went to college or graduate school with because at the end of the day, you all might actually like different kinds of theatre and after a couple of productions, you guys will each want something different from the future of the company. Also it’s helpful to have one artistic director.
TS: Sometimes that mission of a new company will morph, correct?
AT: Yes, over the years.
Alex Timbers directing THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM
TS: Every year there seems to be new companies. I have no idea where they get their money from. But, Alex, wouldn’t you say that’s a big deal? Finding the money to produce?
AT: Absolutely, yes.
TS: And it’s always very valuable to get some press, so people know you exist. And if you’re lucky enough to have The New York Times come by, sometimes it can be a big help. It’s a complicated thing. There are so many new companies and new companies of mostly people who’ve just graduated from Brown or wherever. I feel like it’s a huge undertaking. But I’m sure if you think about what’s missing here in New York City, you’ll find out there actually is something missing.
Audience Member #5: Can you speak a bit more about your first experience with the show, the squash court that you mentioned? What was it about that production that was so inspiring for you?
AT: I was an undergraduate in college. And some kids I went to school with put on The Robber Bridegroom and I had never heard of the show before. And what I remember about it was the mischievous quality to the actor-audience relationship. I found it really charged and exciting. It didn’t feel elevated and elitist. It felt just kind of anarchic and a little raunchy. I just remember being surprised. It wasn’t what I thought musicals were.
Audience Member #4: I found the scene with the masks intriguing, while everyone was singing and dancing. Was it difficult for the actors to balance it all?
AT: That moment with the masks in Salome’s song, “The Pricklepear Bloom,” was actually an interesting moment in the rehearsal process and came out of a conversation with the music director, Justin Levine, the choreographer, Connor Gallagher, and Leslie Kritzer who plays the role. Our feeling was that it would be great for the song to have a lift at some point. It would be fun to have a “dream ballet” for Salome. And that was something in rehearsal that we started exploring: “What would her dream be?” We decided on a whole world of Salomes where she was glorified and everyone was like her, instead of her being an outsider, maligned. And so that was where the masks came from and how the choreographer and music director built that whole sequence.
TS: Something we didn’t discuss is the fact that throughout this play – and it’s something that you mention in the playgoers’ guide interview – there is this concept of duality. Everybody has a dual nature in the piece. I feel like that’s something the audience can take away with them -- nothing is ever what it really seems to be.
AT: Jamie Lockhart is the Bandit of the Wood and he’s Jamie Lockhart, the gentleman. Rosamund’s the girl that dresses up like a crazy person and then she’s also beautiful Rosamund, a merchant’s daughter. Throughout the show there’s this duality that lurks. I think that it’s an important theme in the piece. Where I find it the most resonant is in the songs like “Deeper in the Woods,” where you really get that sense that two different worlds co-exist out there. I like the duality of the hard-hearted world and the more romantic, gauzy world that surrounds us.
The Robber Bridegroom is playing through May 29 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
Related Categories: 2015-2016 Season
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, Education @ Roundabout
, The Robber Bridegroom