ROUNDABOUT BLOG

Holiday Inn

INTERVIEW WITH ACTOR CORBIN BLEU

Posted on: October 20th, 2016 by Ted Sod

 

Corbin Bleu

Corbin Bleu

Ted Sod: Why did you choose to do the stage musical adaptation of Holiday Inn and the role of Ted Hanover?

Corbin Bleu: I have always been a fan of traditional musical theatre and Irving Berlin. When you think of Berlin’s music, it is really the foundation of American musical theatre. Holiday Inn is based on the movie musical that starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire… two legends of that genre. Fred Astaire has always been a big inspiration for me, and tap dancing has been a huge part of my life since I was two years old. So, for me, the opportunity to tap as well as to originate a role on Broadway made it easy to say, “Yes!” I’ve taken over roles on Broadway before, and I loved being part of those shows. I felt like they were exactly what I needed at the time. Those shows gave me the chance to understand a Broadway schedule and what it takes to be in a Broadway musical, which requires every ounce of your being. I am very excited to create the role of Ted from scratch at Roundabout. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

TS: How much preparation do you do for a role like this?

CB: When I first started delving into the character of Ted, I was studying the time period and basing my ideas off of the movie. When Gordon Greenberg, the director, and I started working together, he really wanted to break that down and strip that away. He wanted it to be less about the period and more modern. It was a little bit of a shock
at first. But when you see something through someone else’s eyes, it can be a great awakening. It makes so much sense to approach the work naturally and relate it to our time. That’s the thing with a lot of traditional musical theatre shows. People will go to them and it just doesn’t translate anymore, it doesn’t connect, and it can be very boring or it can feel contrived. Gordon is really trying to do this period musical differently. He is really trying to capture, stylistically, the music and dance of the time, but as far as the tone of the show, he really wants it to feel more contemporary.

Corbin Bleu and Bryce Pinkham

Corbin Bleu and Bryce Pinkham

TS: Can you talk a little bit about your process as an actor? What’s important to you?

CB: It depends on the project. With a show like this, I think that the dancing is going to be a very big part of the equation for me. Ted Hanover is very suave and debonair and full of himself. The ladies love him, and a lot of it has to do with his talent and his ability. So the dancing is a huge aspect of the process for me. I think that when you watch Fred Astaire, it’s mind-blowing. His dancing is so intricate and complicated, and yet he makes it look like it’s effortless. That ease comes with time. It really is just putting in hours, so I’m going to be working diligently with Denis Jones, the choreographer. I know he’s going to be pushing me, but my plan is to also push him. I really, really want to try and push the boundaries as far as I can with the dancing in this show. As far as character and the scene work is concerned, I really just want to pick Gordon’s brain and understand his vision because we all just need to be on the same page. You try as an actor to do your own homework and research, but a lot of the time you’ve prepped something that’s not necessarily what you needed. I think we have to ask ourselves: What’s entertaining? What touches people? It’s our job to tell a story that’s interesting and that people connect and relate to.

TS: A big part of the story is the relationship between Ted and Jim. Do you sense that they’re like brothers and that they’re somewhat competitive?

CB: I think that they’re very competitive, Ted probably even more so than Jim. Ted is about himself; he wants the limelight, he wants to be a star, he wants to be the best, and it comes from greed. With Jim, I think it’s something a bit deeper than that, and that’s why he ends up leaving the business. I’m really looking forward to working with Bryce Pinkham, who is playing Jim. I saw him in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and I thought he was fantastic, and just getting a chance to read with him during the audition process was exciting.

TS: What do you think the musical is about?

CB: I think it’s about how everybody approaches their life’s work differently. Yes, the backdrop is American holidays and the hotel, but I think the audience sees what being alive means to each one of the main characters. Holiday Inn encompasses the entertainment industry through the lens of the holidays we celebrate. It’s wonderful to be in a show that is about celebrating because we’re in a time right now where we could use it. There’s so much uncertainty and turmoil in the world, and sometimes just to be able to experience the joy of characters for a few hours on Broadway is a relief.

TS: What do you look for from a director, musical director and choreographer?

CB: What I love in a director, and I see it in Gordon, is someone who knows what they want. There’s a big difference between a director who knows what they want and is able to trust their actors to find it, and someone who just barks and doesn’t also understand how to communicate. Gordon—I think because of his background—knows how to communicate with his actors, and he has a vision. Denis, the choreographer, is someone who doesn’t just choreograph and teach, he really pays attention to the actors and story to find what can organically flow in the movement. And I think he wants to take the dancing up a notch and showcase it differently. As for the musical direction, I think that’s where our footing is in terms of remaining in the classical world. Irving Berlin’s music is hard to mess with. I know there are certain pieces that we’re speeding up tempo-wise and we’re giving them some zhoosh, but for the most part, the songs are classic and beloved by the audience.

Corbin Bleu and Megan Sikora

Corbin Bleu and Megan Sikora

TS: Where did you get your training? I read that you moved from Brooklyn, where you were born, to Los Angeles when you were about seven, is that true?

CB: Yes! Because I grew up in this industry, a lot of my teaching has been experiential. I was thrust into it at such a young age, and when I say thrust—I gravitated towards it. My father is an actor as well, and my mom used to do it. I have three younger sisters; none of them do it. They’re all interested in the medical field, but from the get-go, I was always drawn to it. I was blessed and lucky enough to be able to start so young. I worked off- Broadway when I was six.

TS: And did you have any schooling prior to Los Angeles, or was all of your schooling in Los Angeles?

CB: All of my schooling was in LA. The high school that I went to is a performing arts school called LACHSA, Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. I didn’t go to college, although I was accepted into Stanford. I started working and having a degree of success early on, and I needed to continue to push forward, so a lot of my schooling has been on my own. I’ve always tried to keep myself as well-rounded as possible and extend my work through all facets of the arts. I’ve always done everything from theatre to film and television and music, and more recently, hosting.

TS: Was your father a role model for you as a performer?

CB: Yes, very much so. I still will go and run lines with him and take direction from him. From the beginning, he’s always been there.

TS: I’m curious if you have advice for a young person who thinks that they might want to do what you do.

CB: Know your intentions. It’s important to remember that every choice has a consequence, so you need to know your intentions—know why you’re doing it. If you’re doing it for fame and fortune, the times that that pans out are very few and far between. Do it because you know you can’t live without it and that when you’re performing, you’re happy. Never stay in one place; it’s important to break yourself down and rebuild yourself. You can’t get better if you don’t keep training. Give yourself time to change and grow.

Corbin Bleu

Corbin Bleu

TS: I think that’s great advice, Corbin. I have one last question for you: is there a question you wish I had asked about yourself or about Holiday Inn that I didn’t ask?

CB: I think you covered it. I’m actually about to get married.

TS: Wow! Congratulations.

CB: Thank you.

TS: You’re getting married before rehearsals start?

CB: It’s all happening at the exact same time.

TS: Who are you marrying?

CB: Sasha Clements, soon-to be Sasha Reivers. Bleu is my middle name and my professional name.

TS: Are you going to get to have a honeymoon?

CB: No. I mean it’s postponed at the moment. I feel terrible because of course I want us to go on a honeymoon. I’d love to have time for that, but, you know, she’s an actress as well, a phenomenal one actually, and she’s traveling today to film a movie. So we’re in this crazy business together. She’ll be coming to New York, and we’ll get a chance to spend some time with one another, but I am determined to go on a real honeymoon at some point.

 

Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical is now playing at Studio 54. Visit our website for tickets and more information. 


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Holiday Inn, Upstage


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The Life of Irving Berlin

Posted on: October 12th, 2016 by Olivia O'Connor

 

The composer Jerome Kern famously said of Irving Berlin, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.” That this legacy should arise from Berlin —a Russian émigré and Jewish son of a cantor who spoke English as a second language and survived his teens by saloon singing and newspaper hawking—is a reminder of the lasting cultural contributions of American immigrants.

A young Irving Berlin, 1906

BEGINNINGS
Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline in May of 1888 in a small village near Siberia. The Baline family was forced to leave Russia soon after young Izzy’s birth; fleeing violent pogroms, they set sail for New York City in 1893. They settled in the Lower East Side, a neighborhood notorious for its crowding and filth. Just three years later, Berlin’s father died, leaving his mother to care for eight children alone.

Berlin lightened the burden by leaving school and heading for the streets, where he sold newspapers to help his family’s finances. He left home permanently at 14, finding shelter in boarding houses or, if business was slow, any empty hallway or park bench.

Berlin eventually moved past his newspaper gig. For a while, he worked as a sort of assistant to a street singer named “Blind Sol.” Berlin served as Sol’s eyes and recordkeeper— and picked up some of his singing skills. Berlin’s voice carried him first to some Bowery-area bars, then to a Union Square music hall, and, in 1906, to the Pelham Cafe.

The place was run by Mike Salter, another Russian-Jewish immigrant. Salter’s business practices were less than savory (the Cafe was eventually shut down by authorities), but he proved a catalyst in Berlin’s career. Hearing that some waiters down the street had composed an original song for their bar, Salter challenged Berlin to do the same. In 1907, with fellow employee Nick Nicholson, Berlin wrote “Marie From Sunny Italy.” He wrote the lyrics, Nicholson the music. The song was a hit amongst the local saloons, and a printer error on the sheet music that credited “I. Berlin” created the pseudonym Berlin would go by for the rest of his life.

A MOVE TO MUSIC
Eventually, Berlin’s musical leanings found him a job beyond the sawdust-strewn floors of local saloons. He started working as a lyricist at the music publishing firm Waterson & Snyder in 1909. Many of his songs were about immigrants and used ethnic humor—a fact that would later embarrass him, though the practice was common at the time. His 1911 song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” proved to be his first international hit; a 1940 New York Times article dubbed it “the overture to the Jazz Age.” Crowned the “King of Tin Pan Alley,” Berlin’s star began to rise. He wrote his first full score, for the musical revue Watch Your Step, in 1914.

In 1917, a few months after becoming a US citizen, Berlin was drafted into the Army. His military career, too, quickly became an opportunity to make music. Used to late night hours, he despised the early mornings of the army. When the opportunity came to write a fundraising show for the troops, he jumped at the chance -- and requested that he be allowed to work through the night and skip the morning wake-up call. His general agreed, and thus came the show Yip, Yip, Yaphank and the song “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” (Apparently, Berlin really hated to get up in the morning; the song also appeared in his WWII show This is the Army.)

After the war, there was a new appetite for homegrown music, rather than imported operettas. In 1919, Berlin established the Irving Berlin Music Corporation so that he could publish his own songs. A natural businessman, Berlin recognized that retaining the copyrights for his own work was of major importance. Over the course of his career, he proudly bought back the copyrights to all of his early work, as well.

A PROLIFIC CAREER
Berlin was an immensely prolific writer, with a catalogue boasting some 1,500 songs. He could write four or five songs in a night and might keep one of ten efforts. He was
unsentimental about his inspiration (more “make a living” than “honor the muse”) and unapologetic about reusing material. In his New York Times obituary, the paper noted that,“When someone admired one of his melodies, Mr. Berlin was quick to say: ‘I like it, too. I've used it lots of times.’”

Never able to fully read or write music, Berlin could pick out a tune on a piano but couldn’t write harmonies or transpose keys. Instead, he relied on the help of secretaries who transcribed his tunes as he played them—and on a Monarch transposing piano, which allowed Berlin to play in the only key he was able to (F sharp) and, with the twist of a lever, change the key without moving his hands. Berlin was so fond of his piano (which he dubbed his “Buick”) that he kept it with him for decades, taking it on trips around the US and Europe. Perhaps because of his own lack of training, Berlin was a populist when it came to musical merit. His songs (at first thanks to his shaky English) were written simply and directly, favoring everyday language and one-syllable lyrics. He aimed to please the masses and judged the success of a song by its popularity, proclaiming,“The mob is always right. It seems to be able to sense instinctively what is good, and I believe that there are darned few good songs which have not been whistled or sung by the crowd.”

Ever the businessman, Berlin opened his own venue—The Music Box Theatre—in 1921, with partner Sam Harris. The Music Box housed his many revues, for which Berlin was known to weigh in on everything from the costumes to the sets to the casting. He was also a co-founder of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers an organization that, like Berlin himself, carefully controlled the publication of music in order to protect composers’ rights.

THE MAN BEHIND THE MUSIC
Berlin was exceptionally private; he didn’t want to be written about during his life (though that didn’t stop biographers) and rarely talked about himself in interviews. But some details couldn’t be hidden—notably his two loves. His first was Dorothy Goetz, the sister of a fellow songwriter. Goetz and Berlin married in 1912 and honeymooned in Cuba. Goetz contracted typhoid fever on the trip and died just a few months later. Berlin almost never talked about the tragedy, though his song “When I Lost You” is assumed to be about his first marriage.

He met his second wife, Ellin Mackay, in 1925. She, too, was from an immigrant family, though her ancestors arrived in America a couple of generations before Berlin’s. The intervening years marked a major difference in pedigree. Berlin was a self-made and self-educated man. Though he loved reading Shakespeare and books on American history and hung out with the likes of Dorothy Parker and George S. Kaufman, he was, to many eyes, still an immigrant Jew. Mackay, by contrast, was an heiress, the daughter of wealthy Irish Catholics. And she was already engaged. Her father was enraged by her attachment to Berlin (he sent her to Europe for a few months, in hopes that she’d get over him). The public, however, was fascinated—and New York tabloids had a field day.

In 1926, Berlin and Mackay, ignoring public scrutiny and private disapproval, wed at City Hall. Their marriage proved to be a happy one; they stayed together 62 years, until Mackay’s death in 1988, and had three daughters (a fourth child, named Irving, died in infancy). Mackay’s father—and anyone else who judged Berlin on his immigrant heritage—had his misgivings proven wrong when Berlin sailed through the Depression on his royalty checks (and quite a bit of work from Depression-era feel-good cinema). Mackay’s father didn’t fare as well; Berlin lent him money after the Crash.

THE LATER YEARS
After the failure of his 1962 musical Mr. President, the ever-private Berlin stepped out of the spotlight for good. The music scene was changing drastically with the advent of rock and roll, and for all of his versatility, Berlin couldn’t find kinship with the styles of Elvis and The Beatles. Later, Robert Kimball, the author of The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin, would remember that Berlin told him that, when the sixties hit, Berlin “felt very much as if he were like a storekeeper... and the people were no longer interested in buying what he had to sell.” As a result, Berlin “decided... to close down the store.”

For the last twenty-five years of his life, until his death in 1989, Berlin rarely left his Beekman Place townhouse, though he made frequent phone calls to keep in touch with friends and family. Always known for being generous of praise with his colleagues, he was known to make phone calls complimenting the work of his fellow musicians. Mackay stayed with him throughout, until her death a year before Berlin’s. She perhaps forgave his eccentric behavior as just another unique aspect of their partnership. Years before, Berlin’s daughter Linda recalled, her mother had told her to take her elbows off of the dinner table. When young Linda protested that her father had his elbows on the table, too, Mackay replied, “That’s different. Your father is a genius.”

 

Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin musical is now playing at Studio 54. Visit our website for tickets and more information. 


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Holiday Inn, Upstage


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On September 16, 2016, Gordon Greenberg spoke about Holiday Inn with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.

An edited transcript follows. (Beware: There are spoilers below.)

 

Director Gordon Greenberg

Director Gordon Greenberg

Ted Sod: Gordon, I was intrigued when I found out that you were a child actor. And the other thing that I discovered in reading about you online besides the fact that you direct musicals nationally and internationally is that you have a degree in film.

Gordon Greenberg: Yes, I ended up at NYU Film School. I started off at Stanford University in an effort to escape the cold and ended up coming home to New York to do a dual major in film and economics. I thought I was going to become a film producer and I spent a couple of years producing and directing commercials for JWT, the advertising agency, which was my little

Mad Men-esqe stint. Ultimately, I went back into acting. I remember going to see Romance in Hard Times at the Public Theatre, a show written by Bill Finn. I saw it four times in a row because it touched something in my soul that I think was dormant for a while. I had forgotten how powerful theatre was. That was a show that didn’t get the best reviews, but it’s a show that changed my life and I’ll never forget it because it encouraged me to take the leap back into acting and I ended up performing in musicals and on television and continued to do that until eventually I started working in other aspects of the business.

 

TS: You tell a marvelous story about being interviewed by Todd Haimes, our Artistic Director, for a job at the Roundabout office.

GG: That was during my transition out of acting and into directing. I was working at Musical Theatre Works where we created new musicals and I became a student of dramaturgy and structure. I considered myself a chiropractor for musicals. Through a friend, Jed Bernstein, I ended up meeting Todd — he was losing his assistant at the time — and we had a lovely interview and at the end Todd said, “I’m sure you’d make a swell assistant, but I think you should keep directing. Don’t be my assistant.” And 15 years later, I am finally getting to direct for him --which was a really great full circle moment.  Around that time, I had been offered the tour of a play called Barrymore with Christopher Plummer. It was going to be Christopher Plummer and me playing the stage manager with probably 12 lines from offstage and it would have been quite lucrative as far as acting jobs go. I had the choice between doing that and directing a play at the Helen Hayes Theatre in Nyack that Daryl Roth was producing. For the entire directing job, I would have been paid what I was to be paid for a week doing the acting gig. I called my dad and said, “What should I do?” — hoping that he would have some genius idea about surviving as a director and what he said was, “Where do you want to be in 5 to 10 years?” And I thought, I want to be directing and he said, “Then get a day job and take the directing gig and subsidize yourself.”

 

TS: Todd and your father both pushed you toward what you really wanted to do.

GG: You can’t be scared to walk through the door that’s open to you and take a risk, you just have to do it. I was in my 20s at the time and that’s when you can fail safely. It’s something we talk about all the time in rehearsals — you have to be prepared to fail and fail big in order to succeed.

 

TS: You’ve done an exceptional job putting together this piece using the Irving Berlin canon of songs and the original film material. How did this project come into being? How did Universal find you and say, do this for us?

GG: I met the president of Universal through my brother who works in Los Angeles and we started talking about possible ideas for theatrical pieces. He said, “You should meet this kid who was my assistant until a month ago, his name is Chris Herzberger. He’s now the vice president of theatre at Universal.” Chris and I decided to start working on a musical based on the Michael J. Fox movie, The Secret of My Success, which I loved when I was a kid. In the middle of that, he suddenly realized that they also had the rights to Holiday Inn, which had been made originally by Paramount and then Universal bought Paramount Home Video Collection and acquired the rights. Holiday Inn ended up being fast-tracked because I directed about 12 shows at Goodspeed Theatre in Connecticut and I thought this would be a perfect show to try out there. Chad Hodge, the cowriter, and I were able to put it together relatively quickly.  I went out to Vancouver where he was shooting a show called Wayward Pines and we spent a week making our first outline. We got a lot of notes on it and a month later we submitted another one. Universal finally said, “Go ahead, write it.”  I think we wrote the script in three months and we did our first table read two-and-a-half years ago in Los Angeles at the Universal lot. We were very lucky to have an amazing cast who taught us a lot of things. But fundamentally, there was something at the heart of this project that appealed to the people at Universal and to those people who could decide whether or not to move this show forward. For instance, the three daughters of Irving Berlin, with whom we met many times, and who are very supportive of this project.

 

Bryce Pinkham with Gordon Greenberg and choreographer Denis Jones (Photo by Jenny Anderson)

Bryce Pinkham with Gordon Greenberg and choreographer Denis Jones (Photo by Jenny Anderson)

 

TS: The original film took place in 1942 during World War II and you moved the action up to 1946.

GG: I wanted it to take place after World War II. Partially because White Christmas had covered that territory already and I wanted to separate us from that show, and partially because I just didn’t want to deal with the war. I thought setting the play in the late 40s after the war would put the characters in a more optimistic time period. I also thought the later time period suited our protagonist. For the last year or so, I was working on a revival of Guys and Dolls in London and because I was deep into that, it felt very easy to access a late 40s, early 50s sensibility.

 

TS:  How did you and Chad go about deciding which songs from the film would be used to tell your version of the story and which songs would be interpolated from the Berlin canon?

GG: Well, we’ve kept most of them. Obviously there was a number in the original film that we got rid of—

 

TS: You’re referring to the blackface number…

GG: Cutting that song wasn’t even a question obviously. What we needed was an “I Want” number — which is theatre speak for a song that you do near the beginning of a show — where your protagonist in essence tells the audience what he’s going to pursue. We looked at the “I Want” song from the original film which is entitled “Lazy” and it is about a guy who wants to just take it easy and doesn’t want to work hard. And I thought, I’m not sure people will get on board with that. So we found this Berlin song, “Little Things in Life,” which finds the poetry in everyday simplicity. It expresses the protagonist’s desire to not have to be sparkly and fabulous anymore. Then there was the question of what to sing for Washington’s birthday, which in the film is a great song, but it’s a moment in the show when the character of Jim is speeding up and slowing down the orchestra to torture his former dance partner. If you don’t know the song well, you don’t actually appreciate the changes in the tempo — so I suggested that we try “Cheek to Cheek” — and I think it’s a successful addition because everyone knows “Cheek to Cheek” and when the tempo changes and it becomes a conga — it becomes more and more ridiculous.

 

TS: After you did the run at Goodspeed, you went to The Muny in Saint Louis? Correct?

GG: Yes, Mike Isaacson, who’s a producer of Fun Home, also runs the Muny and he and I had done Pirates!  together — a show I created with Nell Benjamin. When I told him I was working on this, he scheduled it before we even opened at Goodspeed. We went there and did a new draft incorporating everything that we learned from the run at Goodspeed. The Muny, for those of you who are not familiar with it, is a100-year-old theatre with 12,000 seats. It’s outside and the stage width is 110 feet, I think. This stage at Studio 54 is probably 30 or 35 feet. So it was tough to fill that space. We got a lot of valuable information from those two runs prior to Broadway and we used our workshops at Roundabout to make fixes and we continue to work on it — we’re still doing work right now. We’re only in week two of previews.

 

TS: Talk to us about working with Andy, your musical director, and Denis, your choreographer. They were involved in all three manifestations, correct?

GG: Andy Einhorn is new for this incarnation. Denis Jones has worked on it since the very first draft. I sent it to him and got his thoughts on it because I wanted him to have the opportunity to create choreography that would give depth and dimension to the characters. I also know, having worked with Denis on Pirates! and a show called Band Geeks, that he’s particularly good with story and collaborating. He’s a great friend and team member because he’s willing to throw things out when he has to.

 

TS: Is it my imagination or is there more dance in this show than in most musicals?

GG: Absolutely, this is a big dance musical. At the center is a dancer who is looking for his partner.  For all intents and purposes, this is a show about putting on shows and that gave us permission to incorporate a lot of dancing.

 

TS: I want to hear about working with your design team because Alejo Vietti has designed at least 400 extraordinary costumes and Anna’s set and Jeff’s lighting perfectly complement one another…

GG: Jeff Croiter, our lighting designer, won a Tony Award for Peter and the Starcatcher. He’s one of my oldest friends and it’s enormously rewarding to work with people you’ve been working with for a long time. I’m big on loyalty and I’m big on having a short hand with people who are just good people. I like nice. I did a show years ago based on the sitcom Happy Days with Garry Marshall that was not the best moment in musical theatre history, but it was an important lesson in my working life, because Garry was so generous in spirit and wise about humanity. He became a mentor and close friend, and I am deeply grateful for that. I learned so much about the value of trust and bringing love and joy into the rehearsal room every day. That is true about people like Jeff and Anna and Alejo and Andy and all of our collaborators. It makes a big difference. Alejo and I have worked together on several shows. He’s from Argentina. He has assisted many of the best designers in the business and has designed Beautiful and Allegiance on Broadway. He is fastidious and hardworking and calls me at two in the morning with ideas. He sends emails all night and I love that. We’re both passionate and excited by details. He has a great eye and a love for this period and he just keeps making it better and better.

 

Corbin Blue, Lora Lee Gayer and Bryce Pinkham (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Corbin Blue, Lora Lee Gayer and Bryce Pinkham (Photo by Joan Marcus)

 

TS: The Easter bonnets he’s designed are outrageous. How do the actors walk in them?

GG: I love that you’re applauding because those hats took like three days of tech. The show backstage is equally complex and probably just as entertaining as what’s happening onstage. Those hats were a big thing because if we cut a song by eight bars to make it a little quicker and more exciting, we’d have to rehearse the whole thing in costume. We’d have to go through all the motions and make sure there was time for the actors to get downstairs, change into their bonnets, come back upstairs and let the wig people make their wigs look beautiful, take the bonnets off, etc., and so forth.

 

TS: When they say it takes a village, they really mean it when it comes to a musical.

GG: Yes. There are a lot of great people backstage. Particularly our crew, who are all heroes and have been in the business with their families for generations. That scene with Jim playing with his door, we literally put in yesterday. I sent in the scene at 10 in the morning saying, “I guess we need to go to a hardware store and buy planer.” I don’t even know what a planer is, it just sounded like something we needed and one of our crew members, our great prop guy named Larry, said, “Actually I have my grandfather’s planer here, it’s vintage. Do you want to use it? He can make his Broadway debut.” And I thought that offer was very sweet.

 

TS: Sometimes we take for granted all the magic that happens onstage, but it can’t be done without people who are working on the crew. Anna Louizos, your set designer, designed The Mystery of Edwin Drood for us. How did you find your collaboration with her? Is this your first time working with her?

GG:  No, we’ve done several shows. Our first show was called The Baker’s Wife, which we did at Paper Mill in New Jersey. That was a huge set and very kaleidoscopic and I thought she was so successful at creating a rich, romantic world for that show. We needed to achieve the same thing here -- only this time creating a romantic view of Connecticut in the 40s. Anna did a marvelous job in tech refining her design and figuring out where we needed to repaint, rethink, reengineer. But it’s all paid off and the show moves in a fluid way like a film.

 

TS: I want to talk about your cast too. You have assembled an extraordinary group of people. The principles, the ensemble are all terrific. What did you look for when you were casting?

GG: This is a tough show to cast because you need people for the principles who sing and dance and can live in this time period, but with a little bit of a wink. The cast we found from Bryce to Lora Lee to Megan Lawrence and Megan Sikora and Corbin have all jumped right on board with the material. They have all found the heart and humanity in the characters they are playing and what they’re after. That was really important. We spent so much time going through every moment in the musical to make sure that it was grounded. We always say the show is a helium balloon but it has a string attached to the ground.

 

TS: I love Morgan, of course—

GG: Oh my goodness, Morgan Gao came out of the blue from Atlanta to audition. He’s a comedy master, I’m taking lessons from him. He just gets it.

 

TS: How old is he?

GG: He’s 11.

 

TS: And then one of my favorite Broadway performers is Lee Wilkof.

GG: Lee Wilkof is amazing. We worked together as actors and already had some fun history. He is also one of my heroes because he was the original Seymour in Little Shop.

 

Corbin Bleu and Bryce Pinkham

Corbin Bleu and Bryce Pinkham (Photo by Jenny Anderson)

TS: So now it’s your turn to ask Gordon questions.

Audience Member #1: When you audition people, do you ask them to audition from the script or do they just bring in music? What are actors asked to prepare. Is it just random?

GG: Typically for your first audition you bring in a song that you’ve prepared. The standard is to have a ballad and an up-tempo and a short cut of those songs — which is a minute or less — you want to leave them wanting more. And then you are given what are called sides — excerpts of scenes — those sides are chosen so a director might be able to see a value that he or she is looking for. Does this person have timing? Can this person easily access certain emotions? Usually by call backs you’re giving them material from the show to see what the chemistry is like, what the fit is.

 

TS: Sometimes if an actor comes in to sing for the first time, they’ll bring their book which has all the songs they’re prepared to sing and a director or a musical director might ask, “Do you have anything in the style of a particular composer?” Correct?

GG: Yes.

 

TS: For this show, I would imagine you asked them to sing Berlin.

GG: Yes, it was pretty clear that is what they needed to audition with. What’s interesting is that people who graduate now from conservatory programs like Michigan and Carnegie Mellon and CCM typically come out with what they call their music book. It’s a binder with 20 or so songs that they can sing for auditions and that’s the gold standard. When I was an actor, I had a total of two songs and that was it.

 

Audience member: First, how long did it take to rehearse the show? And, second, has anybody from the Irving Berlin estate seen both the movie and this show and, if so, what were their thoughts about it?

GG: Oh, yes, the Irving Berlin estate is closely involved in the process. In the beginning, they had to approve everything. They’ve been here to watch our progress and the audience’s reaction. In terms of rehearsal, this group started rehearsal the second week of July and this cast is almost entirely new.

 

TS: They’ve had how many weeks of rehearsal, not counting tech?

GG: We had four weeks in the rehearsal room, and then we did two-and-a-half weeks of tech.

 

Audience member: I was very impressed with the diversity of the cast. How did that come together?

GG: To me, that was just sort of something that I wanted to do and I think that our casting directors worked very diligently to make sure that we had access to everyone in the city. I credit our producers and our casting directors, all three of them, with doing a broad and smart search and giving us access to a delightful group of people.  I feel strongly about what I put into the world.  I remember the 12-year-old me sitting out there watching Broadway shows thinking, Is that me? Is that someone I know?  Ideally, I would like for everyone in the audience to recognize a piece of themselves onstage in a positive way.

 

TS: It’s also fascinating that the opera has been doing this kind of casting forever and the theatre is just now catching up.

GG: Yes, it is strange.

 

The company of Holiday Inn performing "Shaking the Blues Away" (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The company of Holiday Inn performing "Shaking the Blues Away" (Photo by Joan Marcus)

 

Audience Member: That song, “Shake Your Troubles Away.”

GG: “Shaking the Blues Away.”

 

Audience Member: “Shaking the Blues Away.” I remember Doris Day singing it in Love Me or Leave Me when she played Ruth Etting. This show and that movie were so different in mood and tone and yet the song was so right for each show. Does that say something about the Berlin’s music?

GG: I certainly think it says something about the genius of the great Irving Berlin and his ability to write transcendent songs. It’s my philosophy that some artists have an ability to access something primordial in people — the art they create allows people to recognize things in themselves in a deeper way. They are helping people gain emotional intelligence. I think Berlin was one of those artists.

 

TS: We haven’t really spoken enough about Irving Berlin today, but you can access our Playgoers’ Guide which is full of contextual and historical information. Wasn’t it Jerome Kern that said, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music, he is American music”?  What I love is the fact that Berlin was never really trained in music, he never studied it.

GG: I think he wrote lyrics first and taught himself to play the piano.

 

TS: And every song was written…

GG: In the same key. He had a special piano with a lever to change keys.

 

TS: It’s quite brilliant what you and your collaborators have done with this show, Gordon, because although Berlin wrote songs for quite a few films, the only musical of his that gets done often is Annie Get Your Gun.

GG: We let the songs inspire the story. We often found a song he wrote and thought, How can we rework the scene to really justify that song? And hopefully it’s fairly seamless.

 

Audience Member: I’m an investor in Broadway shows and I’m increasingly frustrated with the lack of melodic convention on Broadway today. Is there anything you feel that’s in the training of composers that is contributing to this?

GG: I think there are a lot of wonderful new composers, but the trick for them is finding ways to compose that are unique, personal and expressive and feel directly connected to the stories they are telling. It seems like what you are referring to is the classic old-school melodic musical theatre which, for a while, was out of fashion. I think if you look around New York, there are many talented composers writing really interesting and worthwhile material. I love that you are someone who supports theatre and is happily involved, but I think you’ll find if you look far and wide, there are a lot a lot of great composers who are aching to be heard and are waiting for someone like you to take an interest in them.

 

TS: We have to wrap this up, but before we do, I want Gordon to tell us about what’s on the horizon for him.

GG: I’m still working on The Secret of My Success. I’m wrapping up a movie for Nickelodeon and I’m doing a new play by Bob Morris, a writer for The New York Times. I am also doing a workshop version of Man of La Mancha — with all women!

 


 

Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical is now playing at Studio 54. For tickets and more information, please visit our website.


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2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Holiday Inn


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