We've opened Grease and I couldn't be happier with it. The show has turned out exactly the way I hoped it would. And now that we're open, as the reviews begin to trickle in, I'll offer my thoughts on the job of a director. Broadway producer and director Hal Prince once said in an interview that a director's job is to lay out a roadmap for the actors, point them in the right direction, let them create, and then act as an editor.
The way I see it, a director has several all-important jobs within that paradigm, beyond just blocking the show:
First, a director has to figure out exactly what the creators intended for the show. For most shows, there's plenty of information out there if you just look for it (including my books, shameless plug). What did the creators mean to say and how did they mean to say it? What impact and effect did they mean to have on an audience? Were they making new rules, rejecting old rules, or working entirely within mainstream aesthetics? In the case of Grease, we know from a number of sources that the creators were largely working from the model of the experimental theatre movement of 1960s New York and Chicago. They were aiming for a more visceral experience than most Broadway shows offer, intentionally rejecting mainstream Broadway aesthetics for a less polished, more aggressive, more spontaneous experience.
Also, Grease was never meant to be about linear narrative -- it has always been a concept musical, exploring a central idea rather than telling a detailed story, a show more like Hair, Company, Follies, Futz, Viet Rock, and other concept musicals. The proof of this is that Danny and Sandy didn't even exist in the original pre-Broadway, Chicago production. Grease has never been a love story. Never. Which is why fifteen of the show's twenty songs have nothing at all to do with Danny and Sandy...!
The second job is to figure out how to best communicate those original intentions to today's audiences. In the case of shows like Cabaret, Carousel, or The King and I, the prevailing Broadway aesthetics and audience expectations dictated the original approach; but to achieve the same impact today, a wholly different approach has to be found for today's audiences who have wholly different expectations. To shock the far more jaded audiences of 2007, Cabaret demands a completely different approach to achieve the same ends as it did in 1966. What could not be fully explicit in a musical like Cabaret or Carousel (1945), now can be, and today's far more sophisticated audiences are ready for it.
In the case of shows like Hair, The Rocky Horror Show, and Grease, the original approach is still valid and still packs pretty much the same wallop. Because mainstream musical theatre aesthetics haven't changed all that much (just look at all the bland revivals in New York today), the rejection of those aesthetics doesn't have to change much. The anarchy of Hair still feels just as radical today as it did in 1967. The raw, rowdy, unpolished aggressiveness of Grease is just as disorienting to today's audiences as it was in 1972, maybe even more so today, now that we're so far removed from the experimental theatre movement.
The third job of a director is to lay out clearly and articulately to the actors and designers exactly what road they're heading down, why they're taking that particular road, and what the destination will look like. In the case of Hair, Rocky Horror, and Grease. that required me to explain in detail what the original productions were like, and most importantly why they were like that and how they functioned. As we stage and rehearse the show, I have to keep us on that road, keep us from veering off one way or the other, keep us heading directly and relentlessly toward our destination.
The fourth job is to help the audience if the approach is unusual -- through design elements, program notes, marketing, materials in the lobby, materials on our website, and previews in the press. In the case of Grease, though our approach is based on the original, it's also an approach that is pretty unusual today. The film has made directors of the stage version mistakenly believe that the show is cute, tame, and worst of all, a sappy teenage love story. Helping audiences understand that that isn't what they'll see on our stage is as important a part of my job as any other.
The great shame of much musical theatre today is that directors think their only job is to block the show, and so alternative pieces like Grease devolve over time into silly, dishonest parody that obscures the true craft, artfulness, and insight of the material.
New Line was founded to rage against that trend and to celebrate the greatness of some of the most interesting -- and most misunderstood -- of American stage musicals. If we do nothing else, I hope we at least do that. Yay, Ringtails!
Long Live the Musical!