Stick With Me, Baby

I have to brag on my actors for a moment.

Philip Leveling in Return to the Forbidden PlanetPhil Leveling, who plays Charlie Starkweather, has done only one other show with us, the surprising "monster" hit Return to the Forbidden Planet. Sometimes I felt like he was under-used in that show, but he did have a couple of great musical moments and, more than anything else, he was amazing at living in the moment, being alive in the background, keeping the reality of the story alive, and making us believe in a life that extends beyond the boundaries of this story. When we decided to do Love Kills, I thought about him right away -- he's got a great rock/theatre voice. I hadn't seen him play anything nearly as serious and intense as Charlie, but his talent and his professionalism was so obvious in RTTFP that I figured it was a safe gamble. And it turns out I was right.

The cast of Best Little WhorehouseTaylor Pietz, who plays Caril, also did one show with us before this, but hers was The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas back in 2003. She played Shy, and delivered the most beautiful, subtle performance as the fresh runaway looking for a new home. Even though hers was a relatively small part, she really impressed me with the honesty of her acting. No frills, no ego, no bullshit, just the Truth. The funny thing is that though I had done a show with her, I didn't really know how well she sang because she didn't have any solos in Whorehouse. So when I heard her sing for this show, I was blown away -- she has this powerhouse voice that can be rock and roll or Broadway ballad, ballsy or sweet. The other funny thing is that I mostly knew Taylor as a dancer and there's not a lick of dance in this show...

Zachary Allen Farmer in Return to the Forbidden PlanetZak Farmer, who plays Sheriff Merle Karnopp, first joined us in summer 2007 in the ensemble of Urinetown. He was really terrific and (like Phil) so fully living inside the universe of the story every second he was on stage. So I gave him some solos in our revue Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll, which he totally nailed (his rendition of "Reefer Madness" was terrifying). Then came Assassins, and I needed someone to play the crazy egoist assassin Charles Guiteau. So far, Zak hadn't done any serious acting for us, but I really felt like he had it in him. He turned in an absolutely brilliant, chilling performance as Guiteau, finding not only what was ridiculous about the man, but also what was sad. Then the part seemingly written for him, Barry in High Fidelity. Another home run. Then the cross-dressing Tourist Lady in Hair. If you didn't see it, words won't do it justice. And finally, the role that knocked my socks off -- Dr. Prospero in Return to the Forbidden Planet, a totally ridiculous, hilarious, Shakespearean rock musical. But Zak wasn't just funny, he was soulful, full of rage, regretful, and periodically wacky. It was the most wide-ranging performance I've seen in years, and somehow he kept control of it and made it a unified whole. It was never Zak asking for a laugh -- it was always Dr. Prospero living earnestly in this wacky universe. And now, something even different from all of those: a subdued, walled-off, damaged, conflicted, older man. Zak really can do anything.

Christopher Clark and Alison Helmer in AssassinsAnd then there's Alison Helmer. I've known her since 1987. We directed a lot of shows together in New Line's early years. She's a really terrific actor but I can only get her on stage now and then. The performance that really convinced me of Alison's power was in Sunday in the Park with George. Alison, as Yvonne, had a scene with April Strelinger (then Lindsey), as Dot, that was one of the most beautifully acted scenes I've ever had in a show. So much unsaid. So much subtlety. So much comfort with silences. And so much honesty. Alison can do sincere so well on stage. That's why I asked her to play Emma Goldman in Assassins (across from her husband as Leon Czolgosz). And that's why I knew she should play Gertrude in Love Kills, a very complex but subtle character, and in many ways, the emotional center of the show. I'm so glad she's a part of this project.

These are the artists I've been lucky enough to work with for the last few weeks, the ones I get to watch create vivid, emotional performances over and over in the weeks ahead. The most fun for me is watching a show as it moves through its run, as it settles, then deepens. The changes are almost undetectable but when you see a show that many times you can feel them. A good moment gets a little more honest. The timing of a punchline gets a little tighter. A shared moment between two actors gets realer. A laugh becomes bittersweet. A sad moment becomes ironic. There's nothing better than watching skilled artists loving what they're doing.

Long Live the Musical!