Curtain Speech: Joe Mantello
Joe Mantello began his career as an actor in Angels in America but soon moved on to direct major musicals on and off-Broadway including 9 to 5, Assassins (Tony Award), Wicked, Dogfight, and most recently The Last Ship.
“As director, I’ve got to put aside any particular biases or prejudices that, as a moral human being, this is not an appropriate or acceptable way to get what you want.” (x)
Every actor, writer, director, and creative has been told time and time again not to judge or label the characters we work on in each project we take on. It is our job to find the most human elements of every character and bring them out in a way that serves the story being told. Joe Mantello’s work on Assassins is a textbook case where finding humanity in otherwise undesirable characters led to major artistic and commercial success.
Assassins presents us with a plethora of colorful characters, all of whom have killed or attempted to kill another person. On the surface it may seem like they are sociopaths or mentally tortured to the point where no ‘normal’ human being could identify with their situation but our job as artists is to find a way to bridge these character’s unique situations with universal ones audiences can resonate with. If any artist approaches a character and makes the assumption that they are a sociopath, devoid of emotions, or have no overall objective that organizes their individual intentions, then this connection will never be made. One of the best ways to avoid falling into this trap is asking the question “What is this character’s hurt?” This will often lead to peeling back the layers of motivation behind the character’s actions helping both actors, writers, and directors to more effectively find a way in to activate the text they are working on. In my experience, whether you are working on Shakespeare or New Musical Theatre, nine out of ten times this question will always boil down to some form of not feeling loved or accepted. Once the character’s hurt is figured out, it is then a matter of devising specific choices in the acting, direction, and design that help tell the story at hand. These choices allow directors to find the universal messages that naturally occur through the storytelling and provide other members of the creative team with an open to door to craft designs that support that.
This lesson carries over into Mantello’s other major success, Wicked, in which not only the Wicked Witch but also the entire world of Oz gets a makeover. Mantello’s ability to not judge Elphaba OR Glinda allows audiences to see the humanity in both characters, creating magic as we watch them become friends and then be torn apart. His approach to the show brings out a strong universal message of sticking your beliefs and how friendship can change people. Not only did Mantello find great success in storytelling but the designs for the show also support this wisely articulated universal message. The specific choices in all of Elphaba’s and Glinda’s clothing take classic, well-known shapes and mix them with an eccentricity and magic that is so specific in color, shape, and style that we instantly recognize it as a piece from Wicked. The set also tells a specific story incorporating clock elements that justify scene transitions and magical moments (like lifting the leading lady into the air at the end of act one) in a way that make them seamless and beautiful. This level of specificity in design is accomplished through finding a clear universal message that unites everyone on the same page. Finding the hurt for both Glinda and Elphaba and seeing how it drives them on a journey that changes them forever allowed Mr. Mantello and his creative staff to pin-point the story they wanted to tell and make sure that every little detail helped to tell that story.
Not judging characters at first glance is an important first step to figuring out any project, whether you are a writer, actor, director, or designer. One of my mentors always said that he thought of himself as the lawyer for each and every character in the show, constantly making a strong case for why EVERYONE was right to want what they want and go on the journey they are taking. I think there is value in that approach. It encourages creative thought and boosts the amount of creative choices available to you in order to reach an audience. Make a strong case for your characters no matter what they do or how they behave and doors will open for everyone involved with the production.