Podcast Episode 50 Transcript – Joe Mantello

Ken: Hello, Producer’s Perspective Podcast listeners. Welcome back to the show. As you all know, it’s hard enough for people to make it in this business in one discipline. My guest today has made it in two. I’m thrilled to have on the podcast today two-time Tony Award winner for Best Direction and two-time Tony nominee for his performances as an actor, Mr. Joe Mantello. Welcome, Joe!

Joe: Thanks, Ken.

Ken: What’s amazing about Joe’s directing resume is the incredible amount of diversity in the material. Joe, you’re a guy that’s directed everything from The Vagina Monologues to The Odd Couple to Love! Valor! Compassion! to last season’s Act of God, Assassins, Other Desert Cities, to that little show that no one has ever heard of called Wicked, the revival of Blackbird this season . . . I mean this is the resume of five different people combined. So let’s start with that. A lot of directors consider themselves musical guys or classic guys. How is it that you’re able to do such a diverse group of material?

Joe: Well I’ve always been a fan of people like George Wolfe and Jack O’Brien, people who actually do go back and forth between the two forms. I guess I’ve just never placed any sort of limitations on myself in terms of material. If it speaks to me in some way, hopefully we’ll be able to translate that, my passion, my enthusiasm for the project.

Ken: So let’s talk about how you choose material because, as a director of your stature, I’m sure you get offers all the time for all sorts of things. What makes you say, “That one. I want to do that play,” whether it’s Off-Broadway or Broadway, musical or drama?

Joe: It’s a slightly mysterious process. I would say that it’s similar to meeting someone at a party and slowly falling in love with them. There’s something that sparks your curiosity, there’s a response to a kind of intelligence and honesty that makes you want to see them again and/or turn the page. It really is that, it’s just the material. I described it at one point as being like a little bell that goes off in my head, where instinctually something about it feels right. I would say that in recent years I’ve also added to that that it’s important to me that there’s someone in the room that I’m going to learn from and/or be challenged by. I don’t have it in me as much anymore to do a project just to do a project. I want to do something that’s going to make me better.

Ken: Let’s go back and start with your story about how you got started in this business.

Joe: I grew up in Rockford, Illinois. We were very fortunate in that our little city had quite a bit of community theater and summer theater. I went to high school with . . . you know Bob Greenblatt?

Ken: Oh yeah, he did a podcast here a couple of weeks ago. He talked about you a lot. He said you grew up together.

Joe: We did, we grew up together, we went to the same high school, and I attribute the professionalism of our high school productions to Bob. Even then he had a very, very high standard and so obviously we would try to mimic the productions on Broadway. We would rent costumes and replicate the sets, so we had a great high school program. there was a professional theater in town, there were a couple of different community theaters, so if you were into it, you could just go. You could have a year full of four, five, six shows and never really stop. It was amazing, it was amazing. And my high school at that time had not only Bob, it had Marin Mazzie, Jodie Benson, there’s a writer named Linda Wallem who created Nurse Jackie . . . there were just a lot of us there at the same time.

Ken: And you decided, “Okay, I’m going to do this as a career. I’m going to jump on a bus and go to New York?”

Joe: I didn’t, no. At the last minute I decided that I wanted to pursue acting as a career, so I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina for four years, a conservatory program for four years . . . had great training there. One of my classmates is a writer, a screenwriter, novelist and playwright, named Peter Hedges and he wrote What’s Eating Gilbert Grape among many other things, and we had a little theater company called the Edge Theatre when we graduated and came to New York. And Peter would write plays for the company and they were all usually people who had graduated from North Carolina or were still going there . . . Mary-Louise Parker was one, K. Todd Freeman was another . . . and so we sustained ourselves by this little company where we would self-produce, at a time in New York where that was actually possible. You could find a space that was somewhat affordable, rehearse something in your off hours when you weren’t temping or having a restaurant job, and it would run for two weekends. And they were all plays that Peter wrote for us. Then I joined the Lab at Circle Reparatory Company and, over a few years, became a company member there and that’s really the place where I first started directing, first in the Lab, and then they moved a show that I directed in the Lab to the main stage. And that’s really where it all started, from their support and encouragement and nurturing.

Ken: So what was it about directing that attracted you to that, to step in front of the stage, if you will?

Joe: Again, it was just an instinctual thing. For a long time, for the first few years, I didn’t dare call myself a director. I was kind of dabbling and maybe that was just to give myself an “out” if it didn’t go well, but the more that I did it, the more that it felt like the right fit. There was something about it that suited my personality. Simultaneous to all of this, I was in Angels in America and so, though it wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision of ending one career and starting another, I was aware of the fact that it was unlikely that I would ever have a role as great as Louis Ironson in Angels in America and that everything would probably be downhill from there. So it was just kind of the simultaneity of those two things, of being in this extraordinary play, having this experience, feeling like, on some level, that that was as good as it was going to get, in a great way. That was the pinnacle. And also having this burgeoning directing career starting at the same time. So it was kind of a seamless segue, though I can’t pinpoint an exact moment where it happened.

Ken: I talk to a lot of people that want to transition their careers. Some, even, lawyers that want to get into the theater now they’re much older in life. How difficult was it for you at that time to be an actor and walk into a cocktail party or industry event to be like, “I’m a director now. I want you to think of me as a director?” Was it challenging for you? Did you find the industry was supportive of that or were they like, “Oh, here we go. Joe, you’re such a great actor. Please don’t do this. Just stay doing what you’re doing?”

Joe: Well, first of all, I would say that I don’t think anybody was saying, “You’re such a great actor.” I don’t think my stopping acting was a great loss to the acting world. I don’t think anybody was clamoring for more. You know, again, it wasn’t that kind of distinction. I didn’t go to bed one night an actor and wake up the next day a director. It was more that I just started taking more directing work and then, after a couple of years of it, I think I had to finally admit to myself that this was probably what I was meant to do, or something that at least felt much more comfortable and a better fit. I’m watching Michael Arden now, who really was a proper actor . . . you know, he really was a proper actor, or maybe still is, I don’t know . . . and it’s so fascinating to watch him have this success, and I’ll be curious to see what happens to him over the next few years. I think there’s certainly people like Austin Pendleton, who has been able to sustain both careers over many, many, many years.

Ken: I’ve never asked a director about the casting process, what you look for when you go into an audition. You talk about when you’re reading something a bell goes off. Does a similar bell go off when you see a performer when you’re like, “Oh, this is a person I want to work with?” What’s that process like?

Joe: Well first of all, I have to say I loathe auditions. I think that’s left over from the days where I was on the other side of the door, so I think I have . . . I hope I have . . . great sensitivity to the bravery and courage and fearlessness it takes to walk through that threshold and face a table full of people. In fact, I don’t sit at a table. I think it really is left over from that. I’m usually to be found standing in the corner, wedged in the corner, writhing with sympathetic nausea for people who have to do it. So I never sit at the table, I tend to greet actors at the door so that I can just have a moment where I check in with them, and then, if I have an adjustment or want to continue the work somehow, I will pull them way to the other end of the room and we’ll just have this private little conversation, because it’s really my time and their time to see whether we’re a match. Do we speak the same language? It’s so brief, the time together where you have to make that really crucial decision, and I want to see both if we’re communicating, am I saying something that’s going to make sense to you? And it’s your chance to check me out as well. That being said, it really is instinctual. It’s kind of clichéd to say, but I’ve been in those rooms a lot and I do know that what you want, as somebody who is casting something, is you really are hoping for the best. You’re really hoping for that person to walk in the room. So there are things that I’ve learned from being in auditions on the other side of the table that I wish I’d known as an actor, which is . . . come in, do your best, share your take on it, walk out with your head held high, go have a hamburger and know that there’s nothing else you can do. Quite often . . . and you’ve sat in these auditions . . . you know that a really brilliant person will come in, give a fantastic audition and not get the part. I wasn’t aware that that was true when I was acting.

Ken: Do you have a preference of plays versus musicals to direct? If you had a choice of only one to do for the rest of your like which one would you choose?

Joe: It tends to be that I’m deeply enamored of the one that I’m not doing at the time. I think if I had a choice I would choose plays. I love directing musicals. I like the comradery of a lot of people in a room, that’s really invigorating. I think that there’s a kind of musical that I like that sometimes is in fashion and sometimes isn’t in fashion. There are musicals out there that I would just have no idea how to assemble because they don’t quite make sense to me. I like Sondheim, I like something like Once. I like a small, intimate musical where it’s about actors who sing, which is ironic given Wicked, the size of Wicked, but I think if I had a gun to my head I would choose plays.

Ken: Since you bring up the green giant, let’s talk a little bit about it, and I’ll tell you a little story. So I was at Angus, having dinner one night, when you were in rehearsals before Wicked went out of town, and Norbert Leo Butz comes in . . . your original Fiyero, right?

Joe: Yes.

Ken: And we’re sitting down at the table and he sidles up to the table and someone says, “Oh, what are you doing right now?” and he says, “I’m in rehearsals for Wicked,” and all of us are, “Oh, right, how is that going?” And he looked at all of us and he said, “You know what, this is either going to be the biggest hit that Broadway has ever seen or the biggest disaster in the world,” and obviously it went on to be the biggest Broadway hit that we’ve seen. Did you know? Tell me about that process early on. Did you have the same feelings of, “Oh my gosh, this is so big, so huge?” The San Francisco trial was a little “troubled,” right? It started late, it had technical problems . . . what was the beginning of that like?

Joe: First of all, I would say I remember Norbert’s skepticism very well. He may be skeptical to this day. I guess I don’t remember us having a troubled technical period in San Francisco. The show was still finding itself. I think I wasn’t aware that it was going to be the kind of juggernaut that it became, but I did think that it was a great idea. The story that I’ve told before, where it was kind of the defining moment for me, was on our first preview when Idina Menzel made her first entrance as Elphaba, as young Elphaba. Two doors opened at the back of the stage and she came running towards the audience, and the house erupted in cheers. And Idina, though sort of known at the time . . . it wasn’t entrance applause for an actor. It was a kind of great affection and excitement that people had at seeing the Wicked Witch of the West. I remember distinctly at that time having a moment of, “Oh, yes, right, we’ve got that in our corner. We’ve got The Wizard of Oz in our corner,” and people’s deeply felt passion for that story, and how it’s a part of all our growing up. But then, when you’re in the midst of something like that, it’s your job, so you just show up every day and you try to make it better. Maybe I was naive at the time. I think that certainly was part of it. But I just kind of showed up and tried to make this thing work.

Ken: Do you remember the bell that went off in your head when you first read it or looked at the material that was like, “This is something I really want to be a part of?” Because you have an innate ability . . . your track record is very successful in terms of the number of hits versus misses. I look at you as one of those people that, if you pick something, this is really something to watch, so I’m just curious about what it was early on.

Joe: With Wicked?

Ken: Yeah.

Joe: I remember getting a draft . . . they had been developing the material for, I want to say, over a year without a director, so Marc Platt was kind of creatively producing it with Stephen and Winnie at that time, and they had done a workshop in LA and so I received that draft, which was vastly different than it is now, although the signposts along the way, all of the songs that people know and love from Wicked were all there. The story just started in a different way. And along with that draft of the script they sent a recording of that reading, and Kristin Chenoweth was in the reading. And I remember there was something about her performance that was educational to me because I thought, “She has exactly the right tone that this material needs,” so I tried to dissect what that was which, ultimately, for me was that there was a nod to the Glinda that we all know and love, and yet it was entirely her own creation. So in some ways that became our mandate for ourselves. We would often talk about it as if someone, while they were making the film, if they just panned right and you got to see something that wasn’t being filmed. That was what we always set out to do, particularly in the second act where it really meets up with the film of The Wizard of Oz. So it was something in her performance that spoke to me.

Ken: I assume you like to get involved, when you’re directing a new musical, early on in the process. Do you find that, as a director, it’s the same dramaturgical process for musicals as it is for plays? Do you get involved with plays as early as you do musicals and help the authors put all those pieces together?

Joe: It’s different case to case but I do think, for me, it is the same process, that you ask the same series of questions. “Does it make sense, are you staying on track, why does it need to sing here, is this the right song?” It’s just a series of questions that you keep asking yourself, and I think what I try to do when I come to rehearsal is to literally take a shower from the day before, sit down in my seat and approach the material from a fresh point of view and watch it as if I’m seeing it for the first time. And does it make sense? Are we tracking it? So, for myself, I ask the same questions if it’s a musical or a play.

Ken: Like I said, you have this huge Playbill Vault page with all these shows, lots of them hits, but of course not everything in this business can work. Is there a show of yours that you remember hearing that bell go off, like, “Oh, I really want to do this,” that didn’t work out that bugs you to this day?

Joe: Yes, I think there are a few. I think to me a vital invigorating creative process doesn’t necessarily always add up to a commercial hit. One of the best times I’ve ever had on anything I’ve ever done . . . and I think I can speak for the company and everyone who worked on it . . . is 9 to 5. I mean all of us, to this day, count it as one of our favorite things that we’ve ever done. It was not only fun, we enjoyed being with each other. We believed in what we made and we liked what we made. It was instrumental to me, at that moment in my life, to really start to identify the reason that I wanted to do something and to not just hand it over to the gods and say, “Fingers crossed, hope it’s good,” so that in fact I was going into something able to articulate what I hoped to achieve from doing the thing for myself so that, at the end of the process, I could say, “Yes, I was able to achieve that,” or, “No, I feel short of my expectations.” But 9 to 5 is still, to this day, one of my favorite things I’ve ever been involved with. It was infused with the energy of Dolly Parton. If you know Dolly, it was impossible not to have a great time.

Ken: When something doesn’t work out, how do you deal with that? 9 to 5, I had a great time. It didn’t have the longest run, obviously, but it still ran a very respectful run. How do you deal with it when something doesn’t get the reviews that you hope it will get? Do you read reviews?

Joe: I do read reviews.

Ken: When you’re proud of something and the bell has gone off, how do you deal with it when the industry or the public doesn’t respond?

Joe: Well obviously it’s disappointing. I’m a human being and, hopefully, by the time you’ve spent, in the case of a musical, years and years and years on . . . something like The Last Ship, which we worked over four years on. There was great passion for the material and it’s incredibly disappointing. Again, what I’ve been able to learn over the years is that I cannot let the critical or commercial outcome be the overriding defining moment of the experience. I’m incredibly proud of The Last Ship. I don’t think any of us would have done it any differently. It was so remarkable to be in the room with all of those people for that amount of time and that’s what I remember, that’s what I take with me. If you do this long enough you know that there are going to be those moments where, for whatever reason, smart people can come together in a room and it just doesn’t work. And if we knew why, someone would have done something about it. I try to have my own definition of what makes something a success. So, to me, The Last Ship was a success. To me. I claim it proudly, I carry it with me, I learned a lot that I will then hopefully bring into the next experience, and that’s how you continue to get better, if you’re going to get better. You have to have those moments where you fall on your face. It’s not about that, that’s inevitable. It’s how you deal with it. There was a moment several years ago where, in the midst of several of these . . . I hate to use the word “failure” . . . but these moments where things didn’t turn out, I had to check in with myself and say, “You’ve gotten away from something in you. You’ve lost track of something and only you can get it back,” and I made a definite decision at that point to go back and work Off-Broadway and to really embrace the restrictions of not being able to throw hundreds of thousands of dollars at a problem. And to really reconnect and go back to those early days at the Edge Theatre where we had literally nothing, so how we solved the problem was everything. And so for about a year and a half, almost two years, I really went back and said, “I have to, for myself, figure this out, because I’m dangerously close to losing the thread here.”

Ken: If the Smithsonian called and said, “Joe, we have room for one of your shows that you’ve directed in the Institute,” is there one show that you would want them to remember as a Joe Mantello-directed piece? Just one, you can only pick one.

Joe: I can only pick one? I would say it would probably be Assassins. I felt that that production came closest to the vision that I had of it in my head, and I think it sort of is the best of what I do because obviously it is a musical, but it’s very much a play as well. And it was an extraordinary experience, everything about it. It was another one of those experiences where, to be in the room with those artists, was like the pinnacle of everything.

Ken: You talk about the closest to the vision in your head . . . I think a lot of people don’t realize how challenging it is to direct a show on Broadway these days, whether it’s stagehand restrictions or budgetary restrictions. What do you think the greatest challenge is for you as a director today when you’re taking on a new piece?

Joe: I think it actually has very little to do with the practicalities of making the thing. There’s a certain inherent challenge in doing that with another group of artists. I think, to me, it’s that there’s a kind of . . . what’s the word . . . the world at large that is experiencing these things has become slightly cynical, and I miss kind of a discerning eye. What you get from the first preview is a sense of, “That’s not good enough,” kind of the art police, I guess, that start a lot of noise around something, and so sometimes what you have to do is there’s the narrative of the thing that you’re making in the room with that group of people and then, running parallel to that, is this buzz, say, particularly in the commercial theater, and buzz has, to me, no impact on the thing that we’re making . . . and yet it does. We have critical minds out there who acknowledge in the first paragraph of their reviews what someone is saying on a chat board. That, to me, is antithetical to making things. I don’t understand that. It’s very, very easy, I think, under an alias, to come to a first preview and make a pronouncement. My name is on everything that I do and I stand by it, so I find that not frustrating as much as it is irritating and unpleasant, and a reality that I’ve been able to . . . I don’t want to say make peace with, but accept.

Ken: What do you think the differences are between working at a large scale non-profit versus large scale commercial? Do you have a preference?

Joe: I don’t. What you have is a guarantee of an audience. That can also be the challenging part of it because they’re not choosing to see your show, they’re choosing to become subscribers or members of a theater. Whereas hopefully when you’re doing something in the commercial theater, someone goes to the box office and buys a ticket for your show because there are one or more elements that they’re very curious about or passionate about or interested in. That’s not the case of not for profit. So they both have their benefits and . . . I don’t know, I don’t draw that kind of distinction. I just make the thing.

Ken: One of the thigs I’ve noticed about interviewing lots of people for the podcast is that some of the most successful people I’ve talked to, especially in the theater, are amazing collaborators. So, from the beginning, you talked about your high school, which had all of these people that you were around, and even college. Obviously collaboration is such a key part of the theater, and you’ve collaborated with all sorts of folks, including a lot of big, big stars. You’ve worked with Julia Roberts, you’ve worked with Bette Midler, you’ve worked with Sting. What’s it like working with some of these people that have enormous personalities, shall we say, because they’re such enormous public figures, for the first time when you’re getting them in the room? Is it different than working with a journeyman actor or actress?

Joe: It is and it isn’t different. It is different in the sense that most of those people have reached a place in their career where they don’t have to do theater, so they’re choosing to do theater. So right off the bat you’re engaged with somebody who’s curious about the form and that’s great. But when you walk into a restaurant with Sting to have a meeting, you’re walking into a restaurant with Sting. I remember doing Three Days of Rain with Julia Roberts. If you spend a few weeks with Julia Roberts, Julia Roberts becomes the person that’s in the show. We were doing our first preview . . . it was a spring night and I was in her dressing room and she had the window open and I heard all of this noise out on the street and I stuck my head out of the window and there were throngs of people standing outside and I came back in and I said, “Oh my God, you’re Julia Roberts!” And she was like, “Yes.” I said, “You had become the actor in the play to me.” So I don’t know, I have been really lucky, I guess, in that almost all of those people that you mentioned have really approached it with a certain amount of humility, curiosity, a sense of bringing themselves and what they’re good at to the table, but also understanding that this was a new form for them. To me, honestly, in my experience, I would say it’s not the superstars that will mess you up, it’s the amateurs. I want to be associated with people who are really, really good at their job. That’s going to make me better, that’s going to make me stay on point. The amateurs will get you every time.

Ken: What about working with producers? You’ve worked with, obviously, some great producers out there . . . David Stone, Bob Greenblatt, all of these people. How is that relationship for you? What kind of characteristics do you look for in the producers that you want to work with?

Joe: You want somebody who has a great track record in terms of their taste, their ability to keep something running. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but Wicked opened to very, very divided reviews. The dailies were almost all terrible and the weeklies were pretty good and, as much as I really attribute the creative development of the show to Marc Platt, I would say that the ability to find an audience that wanted to see Wicked was really David Stone. David and I did our first Broadway play together, and it closed after two weeks. And what I’ve always admired about David . . . because it was humiliating for both of us, but certainly for him because I had Love! Valor! Compassion! that same year, but for David it was really his first time out on his own. He had been working at the Weissler office, and I think he would say to you it was embarrassing. And what I’ve always admired about him is that he didn’t let that experience define our relationship. He didn’t cast me aside because it didn’t work out, and in fact it’s the longest relationship that I’ve had with a producer. And sometimes we work together and sometimes we don’t but he wasn’t a fair weather friend. He was loyal, and that goes a long way with me.

Ken: Okay, the last question, which is now called my genie question. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin shows up at your door and says, “Joe, your contributions to the American theater are so vast. I want to thank you for that and I want to grant you one wish . . . just one.” What’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that gets you so mad, that keeps you up at night, that you just wish that genie could wipe away in an instant? Is there anything that drives you insane that you’d want changed just like that?

Joe: I wish that there was an innate understanding that . . . the people that are making the shows and the audience, it’s not an adversarial relationship. No one is setting out to ruin your night. And that sometimes, it takes a while for the project to find its legs, it takes a while. I’m not asking for preferential treatment, but just a kind of understanding that if you’re someone that wants to see the final, polished form of it, I wouldn’t go to the first preview. But if you’re someone who’s fascinated by process and wants to come back again and see it, or doesn’t want to come back and is just interested in seeing the first time, then come. I understand the arguments of, “Well, if you’re paying top dollar for full price tickets, then that first preview is a show.” I don’t know what the solution is, I just know . . . and this is true of almost everything I’ve ever worked on . . . that it takes a few weeks for it to find itself. I wish that there was a kind of understanding and appreciation and respect for that.

Ken: We’re one of the only art forms that debuts something brand new and continuously performs it. It’s expected to get better and be ready the next day. We don’t take a break, we don’t release a film or a play in certain markets and then take it away and recut it and put it back out again.

Joe: Yes, and you need to have . . . that exchange between the piece and the audience is the final chunk of the puzzle in some way. I’ve never figured out a way to make the thing in the room so that, come what may, the outcome was foolproof and that transition from the rehearsal room to the stage didn’t have growing pains. And in fact introducing that element of the audience is the final bit of alchemy that is essential for it to take place, and an audience is actually very, very useful in the shaping of it. But this kind of disgruntled, “Show me, prove it to me,” attitude isn’t . . . I don’t know, it doesn’t really do anything, it doesn’t really help anyone along, it doesn’t help anyone get better.

Ken: I’m trying to imagine a world . . . and I guess this is sort of what we do sometimes with Off-Broadway, like The Humans, which you’re about to transfer . . . but imagine a Broadway show where you could have a month of a run and then shut down for a month, go back in the studio, work without stagehands, and then come back and continue on.

Joe: Yeah, but you will have played a month, and in that month a lot of noise can start. The first performance of The Humans was very different than it was on opening night. The play demands that. The play demands a kind of subtlety and a balance that you can only get by playing it for an audience and learning how to surf it. You can’t do that in a room. Those bodies in the seats are important. That exchange between actors and audience is very, very important. I’m not saying you have to like it. I guess if you gave me a wish I would say that I wish that there was a kind of empathy or compassion for it.

Ken: Well thank you so much for that. I wish the exact same thing, especially for all of my shows early on. Catch The Humans when it transfers to Broadway in the spring, also catch Blackbird, which is one of my favorite theatrical experiences of the past decade or so, in the city, coming back. Thank you so much for being here.

Joe: Thank you.

Ken: Thanks to all of you for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe. We’ll see you next time!

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.