Podcast Episode 36 Transcript – Michael Arden
Ken: Hello everybody, I am Ken Davenport. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Welcome to September. I know, I know everyone’s sad summer is over, but don’t be . . . because you know what September is? September is Spring Awakening month on the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Woohoo! Each week for the next five weeks we’re going to have one of the key creative team members of my production of Spring Awakening here on the podcast, including authors Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, choreographer Spencer Liff, and the artistic director of Deaf West Theatre, DJ Kurs. But today we’re starting off Spring Awakening month with the captain of the ship himself. The guy who has given us a chance to see Spring Awakening in a whole new light, the director, Michael Arden. Welcome, Michael!
Michael: Thanks, Ken. This is my first podcast ever.
Ken: First ever?
Michael: Ever. So you’re really breaking me in here.
Ken: Yes, we will go easy on you today.
Michael: Okay, thanks.
Ken: As most of you know, Michael started his career on Broadway as an actor. His Broadway debut was as Tom Sawyer in the 2003 Roundabout and Deaf West production of Big River, which we’ll talk about in a bit, and I was one of the lucky folks who got to see Michael in the original production of Bare Off-Broadway. And I remember thinking, “Who is that guy? That guy is going to do some amazing things someday.” And I’ve only said that about five or six people in this business, all of who have gone on to big success, including Kristin Chenoweth, so you’re in Kristin Chenoweth company.
Michael: That guy went on to some great things.
Ken: That guy did.
Michael: He really did.
Ken: I listened to you on bootleg recordings of Bare for many, many a month. I had a nice cassette of that show. Michael went on to star in The Times They Are a-Changin’ on Broadway, did another Deaf West revival, this time of Pippin, starred in my guilty pleasure musical Aspects of Love at the Chocolate Factory in London . . . most recently he was Quasimodo in Hunchback at Paper Mill. He has been on a bunch of TV shows including Anger Management, he’s toured with Barbra Streisand and so on and so on and so on. Michael, take us back to the beginning. So where did you get bit by the theater bug?
Michael: Well, I was in a youth community theater troupe in Midland, Texas called the Pickwick Players. They’re still functioning, and it was this amazing sort of after-school program run by the community theater, and I started doing theater there. And my first play I was in in that community theater was A Christmas Carol. I played Tiny Tim, although I was kind of a fat kid, so I was like not-so-tiny as Tim. And then right after that I did The Secret Garden. I played Colin. And I just have been involved ever since. I ended up going to Interlochen Arts Camp and Academy. I begged my family to let me run away from home and I moved from Texas to Michigan to finish my last years of high school there, and then moved right to the city, went to Juilliard, and happened to go to an audition I wasn’t supposed to for Big River, got the job, left school, and the rest is the rest.
Ken: So you weren’t supposed to go to the audition because Juilliard forbid it?
Michael: No, you’re not supposed to audition while you’re in school, but I did. Actually it was going to work out really nicely because it was a show at the Roundabout, which are limited runs, and it actually was set to open and close all within my summer break. So I was just going to do a Broadway show on my summer vacation. And then the show was a big success, and we extended a few weeks, and the moment they announced the extension I got a call from Juilliard that said, “So are you going to be quitting the show? Are you going to be coming back to school?” And it was like, “Oh.” So I was faced with a certain dilemma. And Jeff Calhoun actually gave me some really great advice at that time. I was really struggling with what I should do, if I should go back to school or not. I was really afraid that if I didn’t go back to school I wouldn’t learn all I needed to know to work in the business, even though I was working in the business at the time. But he said, “Any decision you make, if it doesn’t involve you being scared shitless, you shouldn’t do it.” Which probably you can relate to.
Ken: I can relate to that every single day. And Jeff is a great guy, and a great director/choreographer. One of my first gigs, I actually worked for him as well, on Grease. Yeah, I’ll tell a funny story about him another time about being in a cab with him, thinking he was having a heart attack.
Michael: Oh no.
Ken: And his only concern was that “Greased Lightnin’” be good. That’s all that he said. “If I die, if I don’t make it, make ‘Greased Lightnin’’ good,” he said.
Michael: I’m glad those weren’t his last words.
Ken: Yes, and he did. And “Greased Lightnin’” was good. Did you enjoy Juilliard?
Michael: I did. I mean it was hard. I learned a great deal, especially about classical texts. And I can approach a Shakespeare play now. I think I have tools at hand that I wouldn’t have had before. And just technique work and voice and breath and physical work and stuff like that. And I think it’s actually been really helpful to me as a director. I had some incredible acting teachers there, John Stix, who is no longer with us, a teacher named Rebecca Guy, just some great acting teachers. But it was also really hard. I found it really . . . it’s not exactly a feel good place. I think most people . . . for a while Juilliard had a high suicide rate, really. So I think they had to change the windows in the dorms because of that. So I think it’s just a lot of pressure because you’re in this building . . . you’re in one building, that literally the windows don’t open, with the most talented musicians and dancers and actors supposedly around the world. And so that in-store sort of bubble of kind of looking around and thinking, “Oh I have to be the best, I have to be the best, I have to be better,” can become a little taxing on you physically and emotionally. So I definitely had a rough time, but I’m really glad for what I learned there. It’s funny, speaking to other people who left. Like I talk to Audra McDonald about it, and she had a similar experience to me. But definitely I’m so happy that I got the training I did there, and I’d love to direct there.
Ken: I’m sure they’d love to have you back now, as well. So let’s talk about the directing bit. Because you’ve had a very successful run as an actor. You work, it seems to me, as often as you’d like to work. And now you seem to be shifting gears a little bit to directing.
Ken: What’s drawn you to it first, as an artist?
Michael: Well, I think I’ve done a lot of plays and a lot of musicals and television and film, stuff like that. And I’ve had an opportunity to sort of watch directors for a long time. And I think I really started to become interested in it when I was working with Trevor Nunn because I found myself sort of obsessed with how he approaches a text. And I remember spending time with him in London during Aspects of Love and really just watching him and thinking, “I want to be him. I want to help actors and artists achieve their best work.” I think that’s much more rewarding, actually, than being on stage and letting the lights be focused on me. So I sort of got that idea, and I had been writing, and I decided to start a theater company in Los Angeles that does site-specific work called the Forest of Arden. And I had written an adaptation of this play, La Ronde, by Schnitzler, another 1890s German, well . . . Austrian . . . play, and mounted it in ten different locations throughout Los Feliz and Silver Lake. And the audience . . . all they were sent was a polaroid with a street corner on it, and they had to figure out where to show up. And they were taken from motel rooms to the back of limos to inside people’s homes in this neighborhood on this sort of journey, and I just really found that I loved bringing people together. I love assembling a team of designers and choreographers. That’s when I first started working with Spencer, and Blake Silver, my associate worked on that, and my designer Dane, and it’s just been something that I find really rewarding. I don’t think it’s easier. I think it’s actually much more difficult. Because you sort of have to do everything. As an actor, I think, you’re kind of required to know nothing. The best actors, can sort of . . . you have to know everything but then when you set foot on stage you have to be ignorant to everything because you have to just enter knowing what the character knows, which is usually not very much. And so I have such great respect for actors because I am one myself. I think as a director it gives me a chance to ask out loud all the questions that I had been asking as an actor. So yeah, I’ve found it a little difficult to be an actor since I started directing.
Ken: You just answered a question that I was about to ask! Talk about that. So, what makes it more difficult now to go back on a stage or in front of a camera?
Michael: Well, I think I’m a bit of a control freak, so that’s part of it. And like I said, as an actor you sort of just have to do your gig, and hope everything else falls into place. And the storytelling isn’t really your responsibility. You’re just responsible for meaning what you say and saying what you mean.
Ken: Have you ever had an experience as an actor where you’ve had a 180 degree differing opinion as to how to approach . . .
Michael: Oh, I’m certain of it. Yeah, I’m certain of it. I’m not going to say when, but . . .
Ken: No, we won’t make you. When I turn the podcast off.
Michael: But definitely. But I think also having been a director, having then gone back to acting projects, even when I’ve felt 180 degrees in opposition to where I’m being led, I sort of get now as an actor that it’s my job to just take the note or to, you know, if I’m asked to cross stage left, it’s my job to figure out why. I don’t need to stop the rehearsal process and say, “Well I don’t really feel my character would do that.” I feel like that’s such a waste of time.
Ken: I would agree. When I first heard your name associated with Spring Awakening I literally was like, “Oh, Michael Arden. He’s amazing. I wonder who he’s playing in this.” Because of course that’s by nature how people are going to think about you, and how people have. Has that been a challenge as you’ve started a theater company now?
Michael: Yeah, I think it’s been . . . luckily I started my theater company in LA where I think it’s a little easier to be a multi-hyphenate than it is in New York, I think based on a lot of people’s perceptions. Also I just think LA is a little thirsty for really good theater. Because a lot of people are doing theater as a means to be on television and film, and that’s not really why I want to make theater. I want to make theater for theater. But yeah, it’s been interesting to see people’s reactions to it. But the people who know me or have worked with me, it sort of makes sense to them. I don’t know if that answers that question.
Ken: No, it does. And I know a lot of people that listen to the podcast are wearing two hats. And some people that even talk to me like, “Oh, I’m an actor . . . I’m also a director . . . I’m a writer.” Do you struggle with that as well, about standing up and saying, “No, this is who I am?”
Michael: Yeah, I mean I think it’s difficult because it’s hard to say you are something unless you feel like you are confidently and successfully something. But I think that’s damaging in a way. I think you have to step into a room, and whatever hat you put on just wear it with pride regardless of how shabby that hat may be. So if I’m on an airplane and somebody asks me what I do, today I say I’m a director. A year and a half ago I said I was a writer because I had just sold a pilot, and I felt like, “Oh, this is what I’m doing.” I like to start walking into rooms and just saying, “I’m an artist. What can I do to help create something?”
Ken: That’s a great way to think about it. When you think about some of the greatest artists of all time . . . da Vinci did so many different things and was allowed to and applauded for it. And I think you’re right about Los Angeles celebrating people that do a lot more than here. Here we kind of look at people like, “Oh, God. You do six things.” And I’m one of them. I wear lots of hats myself. We talk a lot about Los Angeles and the theater scene. What would it take to have a great theater scene in Los Angeles?
Michael: Well, I think there is a great theater scene in Los Angeles. I think it’s just a matter of . . . I might seem kind of controversial for saying this, but I think it’s a bit oversaturated right now. It’s a bit of a Wild West because there’s so much theater happening, and yet because of the Equity guidelines and with the 99-seat plan, which is now like a different thing than it was when I was working in it even a year ago . . . it’s just, I think, good work needs to be recognized and new work needs to be celebrated more in LA than it is. I think it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy for people to say, “Oh, LA really isn’t a good theater town,” because it really is. Some of the best actors I know are making theater in LA. I think it’s just hard because you have to drive to the theater in LA. Here in New York, you can be at the theater in 20 minutes no matter where you live in the city. You can be at a theater. In LA it’s like 40 minutes, and then you’ve got to park. But I feel confident. I felt really confident with where it’s heading. If Spring Awakening was any indication, when we were at the Wallis Annenberg, 80% of our audiences had never been there before. And they had the most diverse audience, from age to ethnicity to everything in between. Deaf and hearing audiences. So I think there’s really a thirst for it. People just have to be unafraid to say, “Hey, we’re making new and important work here that doesn’t all have to be created in New York.” We can do it and do it not necessarily even with the eye of, “Oh, this is an out of town tryout.” Like no, we want to make good theater for people in LA. Because I guarantee everyone in LA loves theater. They just sometimes feel that they don’t have an opportunity. So I think we have to just create the opportunities.
Ken: So you audition for and get the role in Big River with Deaf West.
Ken: Tell me how your relationship with them developed over the years. You did Pippin obviously, and now you’re directing Spring Awakening. Was this a constant relationship with them over the last several years?
Michael: It’s been sort of off and on, but always sort of a quiet part of my life, no pun intended. Having walked into that audition room not knowing a single deaf person or a single sign in sign language for Big River to now being so immersed in the deaf world that I can’t imagine life otherwise, it’s been a real journey. After Big River I did other projects and didn’t work with Deaf West for a while. And then actually both Jeff Calhoun and Stephen Schwartz got me involved in Pippin. It was sort of a two-handed move there because I had done it twice for Stephen before without ASL, and he said, “Well, I want Michael to do this,” and I had worked with Jeff, and so that seemed like a natural fit, I think. And it was interesting. In that show I was a voicing actor, so I didn’t really sign that much. So I had a different perspective than I did during Big River, and I think that’s when I started thinking, “Oh, I would love to work with Deaf West, and for the first time possibly, as opposed to trying to highlight how everyone is the same, I think it might be really interesting to highlight how everyone is different by having characters who are deaf and not just in a musical or living in a world where everyone knows sign language.” Because everyone doesn’t know sign language. I mean, it’s really a divide, I think . . . what it highlights is that language is such a dividing thing. Not only for sign language but, you know, to have a language divide when we visit China, or with tourists on the street here who you can’t speak to. It’s a tangible line. And so I became really interested in finding how by highlighting the fact that there are differences, how then that brings us closer together. I don’t know if that makes sense. It’s just been something that’s been on my mind ever since I did Pippin, and how we interpret for each other and why we need to communicate across a language divide. The necessity of communication has become really interesting to me. And when people choose not to communicate, what that means. And in theater you can’t just show the good, you have to show the bad too. You have to just be honest, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do here. I don’t know if I answered the question but it’s been this thing I’ve just kept coming back to, Deaf West, throughout the years. And I think it’s because what they do by creating theater that’s simultaneously done in two languages elevates the material in a way that, even if you’re a hearing person that doesn’t know any sign language, you’re able to somehow understand the text more by seeing it come to life. Even if it’s not a language you understand, just like going to an opera and hearing music sung in Italian, you’re able to understand some of Puccini’s romance more than if you’d heard it in English, even though you don’t understand it. I think it’s all sort of . . . we understand more languages than we give ourselves credit for. Just by osmosis, I think.
Ken: So tell me how Spring Awakening came about.
Michael: Well, I’ve always wanted to direct Spring Awakening, just sort of a random production of Spring Awakening. It’s been something I’ve thought about a lot because I happened to be at the first preview at the Atlantic and loved it.
Ken: You were a super fan.
Michael: I was a super fan, as Steven Sater likes to say. I had some friends in the company, and I was actually Lea Michele’s date to the Tony Awards that year that it won. So I was a fan of the show, and then DJ approached me about possibly directing something for Deaf West. And I had been introduced to him by my friend Coy Middlebrook, who was the associate director on Big River and Pippin and had directed quite a bit with Deaf West before. And he said, “You know, you guys should talk.” And I was talking to Andy Mientus, my fiancé, who had done the first national tour of Spring Awakening, and weirdly we sort of reconnected in life . . . we’ve known each other for a long time, over ten years now, but we reconnected when he was doing Spring Awakening and I was doing Deaf West Pippin an the Music Center in LA. Funnily enough, Spring Awakening and Deaf West were just across the hallway from each other at that point. And it was actually his idea. He said, “What if you looked at Spring Awakening?” And I remember sitting in our living room and hashing out what it could be and what it would mean, and ultimately we thought that at its root it’s a story about the perils of miscommunication. So what better metaphor than these kids who are denied a voice? Spring Awakening, I think, is about any group of people who is marginalized, whether that be just people who are too young or an entire culture. So then we met with DJ at Intelligentsia Coffee on Sunset Boulevard, where the coffee’s just okay but the ambiance is great. And there was an interpreter there with us, and we pitched this idea about doing Spring Awakening. And DJ seemed to like it, and we pulled together the funds to do a one-week or two-week little workshop. We just met a few hours a day in random rooms in LA and tried to see if this was even worth doing. We talked about what characters would be deaf and who would be hearing and why. We worked on a couple of numbers just to see if the signing lent itself to the poetry in these lyrics, and it did, I guess.
Ken: So talk to me about your approach as a director. So you have this idea. You’re sitting in your living room like, “Oh, great.” And tell me about the research that you do for this. Because every time I’ve heard you speak about this you talk a lot about the historical aspects of this show and then of the concept. Where does your research begin as a director in general?
Michael: Well, I think it begins just . . . research first begins with the initial play. So learning about why Wedekind wrote this play and what was happening politically at the time in 1891 in Germany and the fact that this was just after the unification of Germany and how these ideals eventually led to what became what we know as the Third Reich. And so it’s just a fascinating time in history. So I think you start there, and then I actually didn’t even know anything about the Milan Conference until we were in rehearsal for the first production at Inner-City Arts. Because it’s this thing that no one really knows about. I mean, deaf people know about it, but even some deaf young people aren’t aware of their own history.
Ken: So tell our readers what this Milan Conference is.
Michael: So the Milan Conference was an international congress of educators of the deaf which occurred in 1880 in Milan, so it’s commonly referred to as the Milan Conference. And all of these educators of the deaf, all of them hearing people, by the way . . . I think only two of this entire congress of people were actually deaf individuals. So all these hearing people met to decide how to best educate deaf children and deaf students, and how best they could gentrify them into society. And it was decided after many arguments that oralism was the best approach, which meant all deaf students wouldn’t be allowed to sign, that all sign language would be forbidden in schools and in the educational system and that students would be forced to lip read and to use their voice and speak. So spoken language was the only way to really be a “person” in society. And so, 1880. This was decided. All these educators went back all across the world, and this was the law of the land. So students weren’t allowed to sign, they weren’t taught sign. So students coming in who were just at the age they would be learning sign language weren’t taught sign. So just imagine not having a way to communicate. At all. Maybe their parents could sign, but then they were told that was wrong, so striking bean to occur within deaf families and deaf individuals were told they shouldn’t marry at all, and in parts of Europe and elsewhere sterilization of the deaf began to occur. So this was a real genocide in a way, not only of language but of a culture, that was beginning. It’s commonly referred to as the Dark Age of deaf history, which a lot of people believe we’re still in, even though sign language is now taught and seen as a real language, which it is. So it was happening at the time the play was written, and it just all sort of clicked into place. One night I think I was on a Google rabbit hole, as I get into when I’m working on a project about, like, “What would fireplaces have been like back then?” And I just happened to look up “deaf students,” and I stumbled on . . . “Well what’s the Milan Conference?” And I just started googling. And I stayed up all night. And I remember we were just at the beginning of the rehearsal process for Inner-City Arts downtown, the first production we did. And I came in the next day, bleary eyed, and I was like, “Why didn’t anyone tell me about the Milan Conference!?” And I remember the shock on their faces being like, “Oh yeah. The Milan Conference.” And I was like, “Tell me more.” And then my whole sort of concept for how the show was going to be done changed. I thought, “Oh, we have actually a much more interesting and important story to tell in this.” And so it’s sort of been my fight in directing it to be able to tell that story that isn’t on the page of Spring Awakening by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. And so it’s just been clarity of, you know, casting and what’s happening on stage. Trying to bring light to this huge event and the fallout and aftermath of this awful, awful series of decisions that were made by people who had no right to make them. Which is exactly what’s happening in the play. These adults are choosing the fate for these children that they have no right to. It’s kind of amazing. So I just thank God for the kismet of Wedekind having written this play 11 years after this thing happened.
Ken: It’s amazing. And you know as I saw the show in Los Angeles . . . I had seen Big River, I had seen Pippin, and I loved them. But there seemed to be something much richer and enhanced, if you will, about this production. And when I hear you talk about it now, it’s just . . . “Oh yeah, that’s what it is.” Your concept seems to make the original musical and play just that much more brighter in terms of its story telling.
Michael: Well, I think that the play originally isn’t . . . it’s not so much a play as it is a comment. And as Steven Sater said really eloquently at our first rehearsal, “It’s an indictment of society.” But it isn’t necessarily dramatically the most interesting work there is.
Ken: There are no revivals of that play going on.
Michael: No, no there aren’t, because the structure of it isn’t quite as dramatic as audiences are used to. So putting it in this context I think actually makes it a better play, the actual source material. Because there is a problem, and now there is a world in which the problem can exist that is immediate for the characters and the moments, so I think that lucky us theater makers here in 2015 that we have this dark history to look back on. Not lucky for, you know, children growing up without a language that were sent to asylums, obviously. But I think it’s great that we get to tell this story. It’s great that we get to not only tell a beautiful story about the human experience but we get to educate and bring to light history. It’s rare that that happens, with a revival especially.
Ken: So I’ve directed a couple things in my day, and they were extremely challenging processes.
Michael: Uh huh.
Ken: Everyone’s looking to you for answers to everything. You’re running a room of however many people, musicians running around . . . it’s challenging to begin with. But this, I’m sure, brings its own set of challenges because you’re dealing with a company that in this case is 50% deaf. Talk to me about what it’s like to rehearse a company like this. What are the challenges there?
Michael: I mean, it’s not for the weak of heart. Luckily, I have been in those rooms before. I, on Big River, had a crash-course, and I learned from the best. I learned from Jeff Calhoun who sort of cracked the code in terms of . . . okay, we have an interpreter in the room, and we need to make sure that both languages are honored at once. So I sort of had a really fantastic sort of manual to go by that now I’ve decided to break all the rules of. But it’s difficult. Everything you want to impart has to be communicated into two languages, which actually forces you to be more clear, so it turns out to be a better thing for me. Getting everyone together with the music is a difficult thing. Being in tech right now, you know, it’s something that people say, “How’s it going?” “Well, it’s slow.” “Oh yeah, tech is slow.” “But no, you can’t use the God mic. Like you can’t say ‘hold’ if something’s going wrong or if someone’s in danger.” You just sort of think about the actual technicality of making this thing happen. It’s really, really insane, what we’re trying to do.
Ken: Now you tell me, Michael!
Michael: And in the theater where you’re backstage, and you can’t see the stage or can’t see what’s happening, it just requires every single person involved, from the prop person to the dresser to every single actor to have 100% concentration at all times. Which is kind of exhausting mentally. I go home, and I feel like my mind is melting after each day. It’s hard to concentrate both with your ears and your eyes and just your attention for so long. We have cue lights backstage to let actors know when to enter and exit, and our stage manager, TJ Kearney, is a genius. I really owe so much of the success of this production to him because he’s able to sort of manage that stage in a way that most stage managers don’t have to do. It’s just a lot of things that you have to take into consideration. And we have an actor in a wheelchair too, so that’s an interesting thing. We don’t have a crossover on our stage, so it’s about figuring out how we stage the play where she never has to enter and exit on different sides. Things like that. But I’ve found that every time we come up against a challenge, it forces us to sort of examine, “How can we not only solve this, but how can we make it better?” And every time we come up with a better solution. I was recently watching this great show on Netflix called Chef’s Table. Have you seen it?
Michael: You have? This one chef was very much into classically cooking his Italian classic dishes. And he had sort of a life change because of art. And at one point when a critic came into his restaurant his sous chef dropped the lemon tart. And it broke across the plate, and he thought, “Oh, it’s over. We’re getting terrible reviews. This is the last tart they had to send out.” And he looked at him, and he saw this broken piece of pastry on the table in front of him, and he said, “Wait a minute, this is actually interesting.” And he framed it on a plate a certain way and called the dish “Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart.” And now it’s his best seller. So, you know, I think sometimes our greatest challenges become our greatest sort of moments of achievement.
Ken: That is so true, and I’m just thinking about it in terms of that Milan Conference, because it seems to me you have a choice in life or in art. You can choose to do what they did in the Milan Conference and say, “You know what, we’re just going to ignore it. We’re not going to figure out how to incorporate it because we’re too lazy to actually learn it and teach it and figure out how to develop it. We’re just going to say, ‘You can’t do it.’” Or you can figure out the new solution to the problem, and that seems to be what you’re doing every day over there.
Michael: Yeah, I guess so. And it’s like just trying to at all times tell the truth on stage. If there are two deaf characters in a scene together it’s silent. Because in the minds of those two characters, there wouldn’t be an audible language. And if there are two hearing characters speaking to each other, we don’t sign those scenes. Those are projected in the same way that the silent scenes are projected. So at all times trying to just honor both history and truth always sort of brings us to a better idea.
Ken: So what’s next for you and the theater company? Do you have other projects in mind?
Michael: Yeah, we’re working on a production of actually another Wedekind play, called Lulu. We wanted to do these three German morality tales. And it’s Wedekind’s later play, which was also incredibly controversial and still is. It’s incredibly dark. It’s about a woman who is irresistible to men and then because of how she uses that to her advantage is led to her demise in the streets of London. So we’re working on that. We’ve done a few readings of it. And also La Ronde, that we had done a few years ago, is now being developed into a film. There’s script for it, and hopefully that will be made in the next year. So sort of diversifying. I’m working on a project in Los Angeles for an art gallery after this. But I don’t really know. I just want to get to September 27. The amount of work I need to do between now and then is sort of overshadowing what’s beyond that.
Ken: So on a scale of 1 to 10, and don’t think of me like the producer of Spring Awakening now, how nervous are you about the show? We know the show is going to be a great show. I saw it in Los Angeles, the critics loved it, but in terms of just you personally, this is a big deal.
Michael: Yeah, it’s a big deal. It’s not like I’m directing a show at the Rattlestick and then hoping I get something underground and work my way up through the ranks. I mean, it’s like my first directing gig in New York, and it’s on Broadway with a cast of thousands.
Ken: Half of whom are deaf.
Michael: Yeah, yeah. But I figure it’s go bold or go home. So I’d say I’m like 70% nervous. But I think I’m just more nervous as to . . . it’s just my hope that audiences walk in the door with an open heart. But I think they will. I think this is a fantastic season that we’re in. I think it’s the most diverse season ever on Broadway, probably in history. It’s just overwhelmed with . . . I think people are creating theater in a non-ironic and non-self-loathing way right now, and I think it’s really great. I think there was a time when every show had to make fun of the fact that it was a show. And now we’ve sort of left that behind a bit. And so people are telling important stories and audiences are acknowledging that and appreciating that. So 80%. I’ve changed my answer.
Ken: It went up!
Michael: Yeah, yeah. That being said, we’re in tech right now, so . . .
Ken: Well, Jeff Calhoun said, “If you weren’t scared shitless, it wouldn’t be worth doing.” So I’m glad to hear it.
Michael: It’s true, it’s true. And we’re attempting to do like the hardest thing ever done, so I have to remain positive. But I am. I’m extremely heartened by this company and every single person involved, creatively, and our crew at the Brooks, and you. To have somebody like you who believes in something enough to take a terrifying chance, it lets me sleep at least four hours a night, so thanks for that.
Ken: Okay, I’m going to ask you my last question now, which is my infamous genie question. You ready?
Michael: Okay . . .
Ken: I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to visit you while you’re not sleeping at night and says, “Since you’re up, I want to tell you that you’ve done such great work not only as an actor, but now you’re directing. You’re doing groundbreaking work with the Deaf West Spring Awakening and for an entire culture. I want to thank you for that by granting you one wish.” I want you to imagine . . .
Michael: Only one?
Ken: Only one, and no wishing for more wishes.
Michael: I’ve heard that before.
Ken: I’m not going to tell you who wanted to do that. One wish. What is the one thing that really keeps you up at night about Broadway? The one thing that drives you so crazy, that makes you so angry, that you would ask the genie to change with a snap of his finger. The one thing that you could wish away about our industry. What would it be?
Michael: If I could wish one thing away about the industry, I think it would be wishing away the idea that one project or person’s success is another’s shortcoming. I think it’s really easy to look sideways and say, “Where am I in this line?” as opposed to us all looking forward in a common direction and saying, “How can we all take a step forward and create the best work?” There are a lot of people trying to do this, and no one is trying to make work that is less than spectacular. I think we have to just treat each other really, really well and support each other because we’re all fighting. We’re all, you know, marching in that Les Mis triangle forward. And it’s just really exciting that we all get to tell different stories, and so we should celebrate each other a little bit more.
Ken: I think that’s a terrific, terrific answer. I’m now going to let Michael get back to tech because there’s a whole bunch of stagehands and designers and all the folks that I’m paying actually just waiting to get to work. They’re waiting for him. Thank you so much for spending time with us today, and thank you so much for this incredible vision of Spring Awakening. Spring Awakening is already one of the shows I’m most proud of producing, and that’s because of you and the vision you had and what I saw in Los Angeles, and what all of you are going to get a chance to see in, what, seven days from the recording of this?
Michael: Seven days!
Ken: Michael just got a little bit more nervous there.
Michael: I did.
Ken: He went to 85%. Thanks again for listening. See you all next week as Spring Awakening month continues!
See the entire list below, including the shows currently running,…
See the entire list below, including the shows currently running,…
See the entire list below, including the shows currently running,…
See the entire list below, including the shows currently running,…
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.