A Shared Vision, A Sense of Mission: The Director
In my blog posts here, I’m talking to a range of people who are all involved with bringing new musicals into being. This week, I had a conversation with Michelle Tattenbaum, a director with whom I’ve worked many times, both on my own material, and as a director of work at NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program. Most recently, Michelle directed the musical Nobody Loves You, written by Itamar Moses and NMT blogger Gaby Alter. She was connected with the show from its early beginnings in readings and workshops, through the regional production at the Old Globe, to the New York production at Second Stage in the summer of 2013 – a journey which took six years.
Rob Hartmann: Let’s talk about directing readings of musicals. For those who haven’t been through the process and are wondering: what does a director really do in a reading?
Michelle Tattenbaum: With a musical, someone needs to be in charge. There’s a lot going on. There are multiple writers, there’s a music director, there’s often a producer. Someone needs to be the person who’s the “decider” about things. It’s almost like an administrative position.
I’m often heavily involved in casting, so there are a lot of conversations about how we see the characters, and then reaching out to actors I know who will do a good job. These are actors who can confidently learn a score very quickly, and then make a strong choice that’s going to come across well in a reading format. They can understand where their character fits into an overall story. You want a smart actor who learns music quickly.
During rehearsals, there are two things that that I do. One is, I’m a cheerleader. So I am there with constant good spirits, making everybody feel that it’s going really well. I’m always cheerleading everybody, because everybody has a harder job than the director. The writers are freaking out because they’re hearing things out loud for the first time; the music director has to get all those notes into those actors’ heads; and the actors have to learn it and then sing it in front of an audience – and that’s really stressful. So I’m a cheerleader.
And then with the writing team, I’m asking them questions about the show, talking dramaturgically about the storytelling, thinking about the shape of the show. Sometimes it’s little things, like, “I don’t think this is totally clear, you could tweak it this way,” for the actual rehearsal process that we’re in. And other times, it’s ideas for the next draft – we start a dialogue about that.
And after the reading, we’ll have a larger dialogue about the things that I saw – what could make the show better in the next draft. What could go, what seemed to really work, what didn’t work as well.
When I’m rehearsing a reading, I’d rather spend time making sure the actor knows what their intention is, versus spending time giving them blocking behind their music stand. Any direction I give them has to do with the story of a song or the journey through a scene, what the conflict is – making sure things are grounded. I really, really don’t think that there’s any kind of staging that you can come up with in the amount of time that you have that reveals anything about the show. So I want to give the actors the tools and the vocabulary to use their own artistry as much as possible. I can’t give them movement that will do that. When I’m staging a show and we have plenty of time, then, yes, I can use movement to tell a story. I want the audience to be able to use their imagination to visualize how the show might look.
Trailer from the Old Globe production of Nobody Loves You
RH: What is it that you love about working on new musicals?
MT: I have a passion about musical theater as an art form – as a living art form. I was so inspired by so many musicals when I was growing up, and loved listening to shows and seeing shows. I think, especially in my three years at Manhattan Theatre Club, I got really hooked into a feeling of, you know, what are people going to say about this era in which I was a theater artist? Who is our Eugene O’Neill? Who is our Stephen Sondheim, or Rodgers & Hammerstein? I feel a real sense of mission to be part of whatever that is. I don’t want to be some person who just did a great revival. I want to be part of creating things that are a furthering of an art form. I love, love, love the collaborative process. I love the puzzle-ing of putting a musical together. There are so many elements – it’s about getting the perfect balance. And I think music is a profound part of our psyches and our souls as a species.
RH: So when someone sends you a script, what are you looking for? What do you connect to in a musical when you’re first reading it.
MT: (Laughs) Well, looking for, in a lot of ways, just basic competence in the writing. I know that sounds harsh. You know, there’s a beginning and a middle and an end, the characters change, they want things from each other, the protagonist has a strong superobjective, the lyrics sit on the music properly – things that are just pure technical competence. And then, I’m looking for things that surprise me, or give me pleasure, or that I feel that I completely get. That no one could possibly understand this character in the way that I do. (Laughs)
I love coming on to a project toward the beginning, especially when the writers want to work collaboratively with me. When the collaboration is going brilliantly, there’s not the “writer’s vision” or “the director’s vision.” It’s just a beautiful shared vision.
Trailer for Nobody Loves You at Second Stage Theater