ROUNDABOUT BLOG

She Loves Me

Interview with Director Scott Ellis

Posted on: February 10th, 2016 by Ted Sod

 

Scott Ellis

Scott Ellis

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?

The 1940 film THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER

The 1940 film THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER

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.

The 1993 Roundabout production of SHE LOVES ME

The 1993 Roundabout production of SHE LOVES ME

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.

Set Design for SHE LOVES ME by David Rockwell

Set Design for SHE LOVES ME by David Rockwell

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.


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


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Interview with Sheldon Harnick

Posted on: February 8th, 2016 by Ted Sod

 

Roundabout Education Dramaturg Ted Sod interviewed renowned lyricist Sheldon Harnick about the development of She Loves Me and the significance of its latest revival.

Sheldon Harnick

Sheldon Harnick

Ted Sod: Will you give us some background information on yourself. When and where were you born? Where were you educated? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you? When did you decide to write lyrics for the theatre and why?

Sheldon Harnick: I was born in Chicago on April 30th, 1924, in an area called Portage Park. I went to Portage Park Grammar School, Carl Schurz High School, and Northwestern University. I studied violin with several teachers including Robert Quick, who had been the associate concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony. I don't know if any of my teachers had a profound influence on me, but I have fond memories of one grammar school teacher: Cora K. Schultz. She gave me a thorough grasp of English grammar, for which I've always been grateful.

I thought I would make my living via the violin. One of the reasons I chose to go to Northwestern was to study with Mr. Quick. But the other reason was that they had a lavish annual student musical called The Waa-Mu Show. My first year at Northwestern, I placed one song in the show. It was performed by a gifted student who later took the professional name of Charlotte Rae and had a successful career in the theatre and television. In her junior year, she went to New York over the Christmas holiday. When she came back, she loaned me the cast album of Finian's Rainbow.

When I listened to it, I was dazzled by the lyrics of E.Y. ('Yip') Harburg. They were not only poetic and inventive, but some of them dealt with serious subjects in ways that were both playful and entertaining. Instead of a career as a violinist, I now wanted to write lyrics for the musical theatre.

 

The 1940 film THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER

The 1940 film THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER

TS: How did you and Jerry Bock get involved with writing the score for She Loves Me? What do you feel the musical is about?

SH: Producer Larry Kasha invited Jerry Bock and me to write the score for a musical based on the film The Shop Around the Corner. The book was to be written by playwright Joe Masteroff. Jerry and I admired Joe's work, so we were pleased.

To me, She Loves Me is about different types of relationships. The primary story is about Georg and Amalia, two shy and lonely people. Watching their relationship change from initial antagonism to romantic involvement is both amusing and touching. A second story is about Ilona, a girl who always seems to be attracted to handsome, sexually appealing cads. During the course of the play, she has to break away from the attractive but amoral villain of the piece, Steven Kodaly. Eventually, she meets someone who really cares for her, which is extremely gratifying.

A third story has to do with Mr. Maraczek, the owner of the shop in which the story takes place. He is an older man who discovers that his marriage is unraveling. His story ends on a melancholy note. After a near suicide, he becomes resigned to his renewed bachelorhood. He comes to realize that his relationships with his employees will have to make up for the relationship he no longer shares with his wife.

 

TS: How did you research the world of She Loves Me? Will you give us some insight into your process as a lyricist and how you and Jerry worked specifically on this project?

SH: Even though She Loves Me takes place in an “Eastern European City,” I did no research for this project, unless frequently watching The Shop Around the Corner counts as research. What I needed to know, I found in the film or in Joe’s libretto.

Since She Loves Me tells three love stories, my research consisted of recalling the various kinds of relationships I've experienced: what it feels like to be in love, the fear of rejection, experiencing infidelity, et al. In short, my research was to try to relive the feelings I've experienced as an emotional human being. And when the script called for me to deal with something I had never experienced (e.g. Maraczek's attempted suicide), I did what all writers do: I called upon my imagination.

Jerry Bock and I had a way of working that I've never employed with any other collaborator. When we knew what the source material was, we went into our respective studios and began to work. I studied the script to find the key emotional moments, or those moments which might be treated in an amusing way.

Jerry began to write melodies. When he had composed anywhere from eight to a dozen melodies, he would record them and send me a tape. On the tape, he would preface each melody with his notion of where a song might be used. For instance, he might say, "Shel, this song could be for Georg as he describes the excitement he is feeling about the blind date he's to have that night." So the first lyrics I wrote for any show we worked on were always written to melodies Jerry had given me. Eventually, I would write lyrics which Jerry then set to music.

Before I begin to write a lyric, I study the scene in which the character is to sing. I try to imagine what that character is thinking and feeling. I take into account that character's personality and background, his or her education and the way he or she speaks in the dialogue scenes. My idea of that character's diction must match the librettist's. Eventually, I write a variety of sentences and phrases, things that the character might say. At some point, those sentences and phrases begin to coalesce into verses. Once I establish a pattern for those verses that pleases me, I construct the song, always remaining conscious of how the words will sound when sung.

 

Set Design for SHE LOVES ME by David Rockwell

Set Design for SHE LOVES ME by David Rockwell

TS: What was the most challenging part of writing lyrics for She Loves Me? What part was the most fun?

SH: The greatest challenge was finding ways to incorporate into the lyrics the names of items one would find in a parfumerie. The most fun I had was putting words to those melodies of Jerry's which captivated me (e.g. “Tonight at Eight”).

 

TS: Do you relate personally to any one of the characters in She Loves Me and, if so, which one and why?

SH: Since I explore all facets of my own personality when I'm writing lyrics, I related personally to all of the characters in She Loves Me: Georg and Amalia's shyness, Arpad's ambition, Kodaly's vanity, Ilona's neediness, etc. etc.

 

TS: Can you describe what you look for in a director and musical director when She Loves Me is being revived? Were you involved with casting? Will you be involved with rehearsals?

SH: I would want the musical director of She Loves Me to have the same capabilities he must have to music direct any musical of mine. He must be a fine musician, a good conductor, and someone who has demonstrated a feeling for the requirements of musical theatre. To direct the show, I would hope to find someone who has shown that he or she understands the rhythms of a musical; someone who is especially strong at working with actors. I would expect this director to give the production an attractive set and effective lighting. Scott Ellis fits those requirements perfectly. Consequently, I know Scott will cast the show wonderfully without my help.

Although I expect to attend rehearsals, I don't expect to play an active role. All the work of creating the show has been done. Experience has taught me that I will be able to give the actors pointers that will help them perform their songs more effectively.

 

TS: This is a very big season for you and the late Jerry Bock. There are three revivals of your musicals this year. She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof, and Rothschild and Sons will all be seen. To what degree are you involved in NYC revivals of your work?

SH: In most revivals, I've been fortunate enough to have first-rate directors, so there's not much need for input from me. However, Rothschild and Sons was not really a revival. It was an extensive rethinking of the show, changing it from a large cast, two-act musical to a one-act musical with a cast of 11. It needed new songs, new reprises and a good deal of new dialogue. So Sherman Yellen (who wrote the libretto) and I did a great deal of writing and rewriting.

 

TS: What are you working on now? How do you keep yourself inspired? What do you look for in your writing collaborators? What advice would you give to a young person who wants to write lyrics for the musical theatre?

SH: My current project is the libretto for a one-act opera about Lady Bird Johnson with a score by Henry Mollicone. lt was commissioned by Texas State University, where the premiere will take place next April. What keeps me inspired? When I see a play, a musical, or an opera that has been particularly well written, well performed and well directed, it reminds me of what the theatre has to offer, and I can't wait to get back to my writing desk to try to create something equally entertaining and/or moving.

I have been fortunate enough to work with wonderfully talented composers and librettists. Collaboration has invariably been a joy because my partners have been intelligent, companionable, and extraordinarily gifted. I will continue to look for those qualities in any collaborator with whom I work in the future.

The advice I give to a young person who wants to write lyrics for the theatre is this: read widely and acquaint yourself with all types of literature. A theatre lyricist never knows what kind of assignment he will get. I also recommend that they stay abreast of what's happening in the world. And, of course, I recommend that they see as much theatre as possible.


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


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


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Interview with Joe Masteroff

Posted on: February 6th, 2016 by Ted Sod

 

joemast2

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.

 

The 1940 film THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER

The 1940 film THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER

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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