Jeff Calhoun lent his choreographic talents to the recent revivals of Bells Are Ringing, Annie Get Your Gun and Grease —which he also directed. He also recently returned to the work which jumpstarted his career, The Will Rogers Follies, for a 10th anniversary tour.
The director talks about braving a new Mississippi in the American Sign Language adaptation of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and his other upcoming work, the musical called Brooklyn.
How did your collaboration with Deaf West Theatre come about?
Jeff Calhoun: A guy named Bill O'Brien — who is their managing director — called me up and asked me if I would come out and try to create a show where half the cast was deaf. But it had to be a musical was the one stipulation.
That first production was the musical Oliver! What was the initial experience like?
It was just very surreal. [But,] in a way, it's no different; we're putting on a show. The difference is all the things you learn about directing, you kind of have to throw out the window. And there are things that you can't be prepared for. You just learn during rehearsals. Oliver is supposed to say "Could I have some more, sir?" with a plate in his hand, but how can he sign if he has a plate in his hand? [When] someone knocks at the door, [the deaf audience] can't hear a knock at the door, so how do they know someone's at the door? Or how can someone look out a window and have a scene go on behind them? You can't because they have to be able to see the actor to hear them. So that's basically the rule: if you can't see someone's face and hands, then you can't hear them. So, you have to block all your scenes where everyone's facing everybody, but yet you also don't want there to be a stagnant stage picture and bore the audience. So, it was really challenging.
Having the award-winning Oliver! under your belt, was Big River easier?
I was thinking that it would be, but it's almost like I had forgotten everything. See, I was convinced Oliver! was a fluke. So, I was very trepidacious because I wasn't sure if we fooled people or were really on to something. Of course, now I'd love to continue to do a show like this every year or two.
Are you finding audiences are getting what you intended?
I find that it's what you get in your standard musical plus some. I think a lot of people hear "deaf musical" and think they're going to get less of an experience. But for my money, I think you're getting more. It's so enhanced visually from what we're normally used to seeing. I think there's that learning curve the first 10 minutes of the show where people are a little confused, like "What have I gotten myself into?" "Should I be here?" "What's going on?" But then I think by the end, the people I've talked to have just been really overwhelmed and there seems to be a very emotional returning.
What was the thinking behind choosing Big River as opposed to other musicals?
The common denominator between both cultures is the written word. So, I wanted it to be based in literature that both cultures would have read so we're starting on equal footage. I also learned by doing Oliver! I had Charles Dickens do it as a public reading, so he became our narrator and that was a very helpful tool. So I knew I also wanted that kind of device, so I could get through any problems I might have with a simple narration at any given moment. So, it just dawned on us that Mark Twain is arguably the American Dickens and they'd already [adapted him] with the show Big River. I had never seen the show, but I read the novel and I listened to the CD. And I thought that this would be really great to have a story about prejudice where there was a minority playing Huck.
Focus is a major issue for many directors, I suppose it was even more so for you...
That was the hardest difference...in hearing theatre we can have split focus. We can hear someone sing down[stage] right as we watch things happen up[stage] left and that would be favoring the hearing audience. I really tried to be equitable every moment of the show so it was all about focus. I think [Deaf West artistic director] Ed Waterstreet had this really beautiful abstract idea and I don't think anybody realized how beautiful an art form it could be.
Having only worked on musicals, could you see yourself directing a play?
I always say yes, but I don't know how true it is. I don't know if it's because it sounds good to say yes or whether I really mean it. I'm still really so far passionate about this show and then I have another show called Brooklyn — that I'm producing as well. I have to say right now in my life, I have two projects that are very near and dear to me and so there's nothing else I'd rather be doing now.
You just directed and choreographed the new musical Brooklyn—by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson — at The New Denver Civic Theatre. What are the plans for the show?
JC: We were a big hit in Denver. We learned everything we needed to learn. It was a chance for people to go out and see the product, so we raised money and learned what needed to be tweaked in the book and added a couple new songs and come the first of the year, we hope to be in rehearsals in New York.
Describe the show briefly.
Brooklyn, in a nutshell, is a troupe of five homeless street entertainers who have written an urban fairy tale and they perform it every night under the Brooklyn Bridge. With both of these projects, it's just so refreshing for me to believe in them so much and to love the material so much and not to just be a director for hire.
What would be your dream projects?
I want to create an original musical for Deaf West and I really can't wait to see Brooklyn up and on stage and I would love to turn it into a film.