When it comes to directing for Encores! at New York City Center, there's really no time to second-guess yourself. That's because the process for the popular series is so fast: Broadway-caliber theatre artists only have 10 days to rehearse and stage a musical. The Encores series focuses on re-staging hidden gems of the the American musical theatre in barebones, concert stagings.
Though recent years, the productions have become more elaborate—the recent Encores version of Into the Woods (which transferred to Broadway) featured an all-star cast and giant puppets. But the heart remains the same: "It’s really about the story, the actors, the music, and the relationship with the audience in this very immediate and visceral way, says Encores! Artistic Director Lear deBessonet, who directed Into the Woods and is directing the upcoming Oliver! (May 3 to 14). Not to mention Encores boasts a full orchestra, one of the rare ones south of Lincoln Center.
Below, deBessonet speaks to the other directors of this Encores! season: Josh Rhodes (of Dear World, March 15-19) and Chay Yew (Light in the Piazza, June 21-25). They traded notes, including how doing Encores encourages them to learn more about the history of these special musicals.
How do you approach directing a musical? It’s a huge puzzle, so what do you start with?
Lear deBessonet: For me, musicals are the most deeply collaborative art form: there’s the music director, the choreographer, so many people that are holding that space in the rehearsal room with you. So musicals require a lot more upfront preparation to make sure that the entire team is leading with one vision. And especially in the context of the Encores! process—which as we know is very swift—we really try to make sure the actors are supported as much as possible by the creative team.
Josh Rhodes: My experience, especially with Encores!, is to first approach the script. Because we have to distill these musicals down, it means the design has to be so clear, and the choreography has to be just right. Any decision that you make really stands out because everybody gets, like, one bold choice. I read the script over and over again and wait for it to tell me how it wants to live and what message it wants to get across.
Chay Yew, director, The Light in the Piazza: I agree with Josh because I also feel like the story is the most important thing, and by rereading it and revisiting it, it opens itself up like a little flower, which is kind of fascinating. And of course in my case, because we have Ruthie Ann Miles [in The Light in the Piazza], there’s this prism through which I get to look at this musical and interpret it.
JR: I’m so inspired by that! And you’re right Chay, you sort of read it through that perspective: “How do I make sure that I do the best I can do [with Dear World] for Donna [Murphy]?” When your leading lady is there it does change it, doesn’t it?
CY: It does, especially when the leading actor is also from a different cultural background—the world becomes a little different. And the challenge is not to change the work, but to find the subtext and the distance between music, notes, and words, and find a new interpretation of what is existing. That’s why we go back to the classics, why we do these musicals over and over again.
Tell us more about your directorial process, and a bit about what’s different working on an Encores! show.
LD: Well, it’s a staged concert, so nothing is hiding behind moving scenery or anything; it’s really about the story, the actors, the music, and the relationship with the audience in this very immediate and visceral way. And I think it’s a great discipline for directors because you really have to clarify your thoughts and intentions in advance. We still have actors on book because they’ve been in rehearsal for 10 days total, and I think one of the things that I notice in rehearsal is that the deepest clues and insights into character are there in the text and the music. A character might say something that is full of love but the way it’s written has a roar of rage to it as well, in the music. That score, that text is our lifeboat. Thinking about Oliver specifically, there’s so much in Lionel Bart’s lyrics, and we don’t need to put much on top of that. It’s all there for us.
JR: I’ve been doing Encores! for so long: as a performer, as an associate, and now I’m blessed to be here as director and choreographer—and everyone always says, “How did you do that in 10 days?” And I always laugh. Encores! has taught me that if you get a vision, if you get an idea, go with it. Don’t edit yourself. It teaches you as a director to be brave. The other thing is with a show like Dear World, or when I did Mack & Mabel, you have to be a detective. You spend many months talking to people who know the show. For Dear World, Josh Clayton [Director of Music Administration & Score Restoration], who is unbelievable, goes page by page and knows who arranged what and when. He has a video where you can hear people coughing and he told me, “This is when the flu was sweeping through and Angela[Lansbury] was sick, which means this was in November of ‘68,” and it’s just kind of unbelievable. [General laughter] It’s like some kind of crazy musical theater Scooby Doo mystery!
CY: I actually did the same sort of Scooby Doo thing by speaking to a lot of people who had done Encores! before. And what you have been saying is right on the money and actually gives me more confidence. The joy of it is: How can we find something that is a little surprising in a process that is so regimented and so short? Always being open to some new discovery, while still realizing that you have no choice but, at some point, to put it up. And I think as theater animals we’ve all done this before. The joy and the energy that the designers and artists bring to a very truncated moment, they’re ready to just explode.
LD: Chay, you used a word that I want to highlight, which is joy. And for me, joy is a watch-word for Encores!. As we’re putting together projects, in seeking out you both, part of what we’re looking for is love: a deep love for these shows, for the form of musicals, for the artists, both the ones working today and the artists of the past who we treasure and respect. Something I always talk about with a company is that every single day of the process, there will be a choice to make: You can find it oppressively stressful, or wildly exhilarating and freeing. What we try to do, as a company, is dive in with this huge “Yes!” and this spirit of inquiry and enthusiasm and readiness. What is so special here is that many artists at the end of an Encores! show feel like what they’ve just experienced is a moment like none other in their life.
CY: I also feel like there’s something very pure about the Encores! process. The idea that there’s no turntable, no falling chandelier or helicopter to enhance the experience, so the purity of the presentation and the process is going to be one of the most thrilling aspects.
What do you want the audience to know before they come to an Encores! show?
LD: Just that we have 10 days to put these shows up, and we are giving our all! I think of the actors in an Encores! show as Olympic athletes; the fact that they are able to do this is just incredible.
JR: And maybe just to add to that: the designers, my God! These are real artists who are great at what they do, and we’re asking them to absolutely just throw paint up there as fast as they can. They’re in some ways more brave than I am, because their art form can only happen in the theater and they are doing it in two days and it’s amazing.
CY: What I also feel excited about is the fact that it’s almost like a staged reading, so we need the audience to participate. Ultimately the audience is the missing component. And sometimes that experience makes the project more profound. That’s why I feel Encores! is a very vital part of the American theatre, because there’s very few programs like this.
Tickets from $35 at NYCityCenter.org.