By Jonathan Flom
David Cromer is a Tony Award winning American theatre director and stage actor. He has received recognition for his work Off-Broadway and in his native Chicago. Cromer has won or been nominated for numerous awards, including winning the Lucille Lortel Award and Obie Award for his direction of Our Town. He was nominated for the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for his direction of The Adding Machine. In 2018, Cromer won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for The Band's Visit.
JONATHAN FLOM: I saw The Band’s Visit on Broadway in January 2019 (during the MTEA conference weekend), and I loved it so much that I returned for a second time, catching the musical in its penultimate performance at the Barrymore. I have spent a good deal of time reflecting on my experience at the two performances, and while I wouldn’t say the musical itself is necessarily my favorite piece, its Broadway incarnation is certainly the best production of any musical I have ever experienced. And it was no surprise to me that it was directed by David Cromer, who attracted mainstream attention for his 2009 revisionist take on Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre. I reached out to Mr. Cromer and asked him if we could talk a bit about The Band’s Visit, as well as the state of musicals in general. What follows is a transcript of that conversation.
JF: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I was thinking about writing an article about the state of musical theatre today and all the recent shifts in style. The Band’s Visit really had a huge impact on me, and I feel like you’re treading new ground with it. So, I wanted to talk to you about that process, to maybe see how we could incorporate that kind of work into more musicals.
DAVID CROMER: Thank you very much, that’s very nice to hear. We definitely were aware that the piece was asking for different things. And the writers kept wanting to obey that. And it didn’t yield a particularly pretty film musical, so we just kind of stuck with that. We didn’t have anyone forcing us to do anything else, so that was nice.
JF: In terms of the acting style, is that something that was written into the script or is that something that was your touch? Specifically, the naturalism, and the silences, and the honesty. Because it never felt at any moment like we were heightened into musical theatre world and we were suddenly jumping into song or dance. It really felt like you didn’t even notice that the characters were singing.
DC: I would say that it seemed like what the guys [music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Itamar Moses] were writing. And I think they were getting notes occasionally that said: “Shouldn’t there be more group numbers?” or “Shouldn’t there be a big scene with everyone?” or “It’s so beautiful at the end when everyone sings. Let’s do that all the time,” or “Let’s do that more.” And I don’t want to speak for them—I don’t know. I came on part- way through the process, a couple of years in, and I spent nine months on it before we went into production. But the silences, that started out from the film; the film has a lot of negative space, and it’s very methodical. And I think the reason was that Eran Kolirin [the film's writer and director] was trying to paint a picture of what it was like to live in a world that was that slow, where there was that little going on. And how that can drive you crazy, or what that feels like. And I think that there is always pressure in the theatre when they say, “Well, if it’s supposed to be a boring town, you don’t really want it to be boring. It’s gotta be interesting.” There is a conventional wisdom that says, “If the character is mean, they can’t be too mean,” or “If the town is boring, it can’t be too boring.” Otherwise people will be bored. And that’s true to a certain extent.
But I always think you can go the other way—you can drive into what is the nature of boredom or what is the nature of stillness, what is the nature of stagnation. And within that, people want motion and they want things. People want things more and more passionately. If we’re going to talk about how boring the town is, and the town isn’t boring, then we’re lying and the show isn’t truthful. So you can just decide to stick to your guns and embrace what it is. And say that that has fascination too.
So I felt like the guys were writing that. I don’t know for sure if they were confident that they should, but it’s definitely something that I feel strongly about. So I would say that I encouraged them to let it be what they were writing. And I think that I said, “Silence is okay and stillness is okay.” And so it ended up being a very fruitful collaboration. And I was always going too far one way; Yazbek wanted it somewhere else; Itamar was only ever doing the purest—he wasn’t saying what it should be, his thing was just to show what it is.
And so between the three of us, the tension (and it wasn’t an unpleasant tension, but there was a push and pull) worked well. So that when I was trying nine big silences in a scene to make my point, Yazbek would say, “That’s fucking too many. I stopped listening.” So that was good. So I would say that it all started with the material. I think it is what they were writing and I tried to encourage that. And I certainly pushed my own agenda. It’s a thing I’m interested in.
I would only quibble with one word you used, which is “naturalistic” acting. And I know what you mean by that, but I would say “naturalism” almost doesn’t exist because naturalism takes too long and it isn’t interesting. Any piece of theatre is always totally artificial and all events, all choices, all words, all moves are making a point. And since in real life, there is no point, I guess I want to use the term “truthful behavior.” Truthful to the circumstances.
You know, we all learned that in school: Living truthfully in the imaginary circumstances. I just have a thing about musicals. The transition from scene to song has often been very jarring to me so I was very excited about the opportunity to work on The Band’s Visit to try to solve that. Or to try to address that. I have addressed that in other musicals I’ve directed, to less success than with The Band’s Visit. It’s been something I’ve done for a while in the few musicals I’ve done. It often drains the energy and just turns the thing into a false naturalism. It does not exist in the world...I was doing things that don’t exist in a world where people sing. So [with] The Band’s Visit, I think finally, because I had such an experienced musical theatre writer in Yazbek as one of my partners, I was able to find the place that exists.
And so we were able to structure and to finesse how we get into “Omar Sharif,” as the big example. Her speech had to start turning. She had this speech about when she was a little girl, these mysterious people she would never meet would come to her through the screen, Umm Kulthum and Omar Sharif. And Itamar rewrote that speech a thousand times, until it just floated into the song. And there was a long period of discussion about whether there should be any dialogue within the song. And we finally settled on these three lines about a river of love that they say in between the first and second verse. And that turned it into words that turned it into a song that stayed a conversation then turned into an experience, and then turned back into a conversation. So that was very rewarding to do. And I had the right partners to try to address that. That one I liked.
JF: This is great. You know, as I mentioned, we have this Musical Theatre Educators’ Alliance, and we have conferences, and we have this journal and so much of the conversation and the dialogues we have are focusing on vocal technique or how to incorporate dance into musical theatre, and I’m just feeling, as an acting teacher and a director myself, that there’s this thing that we call “musical theatre acting” and it sometimes can be anathema to me, and that’s what struck me. I guess maybe this question is sort of already implied or answered, but I’m curious if you feel like, especially on the heels of The Band’s Visit, can this approach, can this style be applied to musicals that already exist that aren’t traditionally done like that? Is there a way to bring us closer to an honesty in the acting? Obviously it’s heightened because it’s a musical, by its very nature—they’re singing and they’re dancing, so it’s heightened.
DC: You know what show already does it? This is just popping into my head. You know what show already does it really beautifully and did it a long time ago, is Sunday in the Park with George. I would say, I haven’t seen many productions, but I don’t feel like I have to see another production other than the original. Lapine’s production is pretty spot-on to me. And it exists in a world that’s a little like a painting, it’s a little like a play. You know what I mean? It has its own set of rules and it has its own... it’s not naturalistic, but it has its own truth. It’s absolute and it’s seamless. And it flows in and out of songs and conversations. You know, sometimes Bernadette’s a little big, but she has to get into a song. But they’re doing these beautiful things with their bodies and their voices that sounds like singing even when they’re not singing. So I guess I would say, I think it already existed.
I know exactly what you mean about the term “musical theatre acting,” and one of the things I found is the actors who spend a lot of their time in musical theatre really know what you mean by that. There’s a bad version of everything, you know what I mean? There’s shitty Shakespeare choices. There’s shitty musical theatre choices. There’s shitty Chekhov choices. There’s shitty Arthur Miller choices. There’s a shitty version of everything. And most of the time, that’s what you’re doing. I don’t know why. Maybe there’s not a million artists, maybe there’s only a thousand artists, but a million people doing it? I don’t know. Maybe it’s what people want. It still reaches people and it still moves people so it’s all still valid, but so there’s a shitty version of everything. So there’s definitely a shitty version of musical theatre and the musical theatre actors I know, know about it.
There is often this conversation where we’ll be trying to approach a scene in a slightly more truthful way or trying to justify the emotional trajectory of how it should go, or what the circumstances are that make it go from scene to song, in the same way that you have to justify a really major beat change in a Chekhov play. And they go, “Oh fuck, I have to do it, and you know, just go for a lot of results.” You know, the books get whittled down because the audience gets restless. So the books are just borderline dialogue to lead you into the song and there’s a bunch of jokes, and then once you get into the song you just start singing. And if you don’t do that, a lot of times the pieces don’t work. The shows don’t work.
So I know what you mean—there’s room to the extent that you’re willing to do it or you think that it’s going to serve the piece. You know, there’s shows that can’t quite bear it.
Now I just went back to Chicago to Writers’ Theatre, which is a theatre that I’ve worked at a long time, and I just did a production of Next to Normal, which is a musical I love. But Next to Normal, the production we all know and love (and I saw it three times on Broadway and I listen to the recording all the time) is really at 11 the whole time. It’s emotionally at 11, it’s vocally at 11, because it’s about this slow-motion train wreck of these people struggling with this illness in this household. So I was super nervous about approaching it the way I tend to approach things, but I was curious coming out of The Band’s Visit what was applicable.
We had a very satisfying experience doing it. The writing of the show, the detail...I would say that by treating Next to Normal the way we treated it, I heard a lot more of the plot and of the moment-to-moment changes in her illness—the evolution of the ways they kept trying to solve the problems they were facing—than I was used to experiencing with that show. People don’t often remember that she attempts suicide in the middle of Act I. They say, “I love that show! Oh wait, she tries to commit suicide?” And you go, “Yeah, right in the middle of Act I.” Things keep changing—the disease evolves past any of their solutions. The virus keeps mutating. And there’s moments in the piece where those things change. And if it’s just a big wash of brilliant singing, and high emotions, and lights flashing, you can kind of miss that.
That being said, is it as thrilling a night in the theatre if you don’t do that? It might not be. So it’s a trade-off. I was very proud of that production. I had this brilliant, brilliant cast that threw themselves at it and I thought they were doing gorgeous work. And it was very well received, but the way it was received was in that same kind of back-handed way that The Band’s Visit was received, which is, “Well, it’s not a regular musical.”
JF: The funny thing is, in addition to The Band’s Visit, you’ve now mentioned two of my favorite musicals. Sunday in the Park has always been my favorite show from that Broadway original one, until I saw The Band’s Visit. And it could be that there’s just a particular...you know maybe it’s people who like both Chekhov and musicals?
DC: I would throw Little Shop in there too.
JF: Really? Interesting. So, that’s my next question. In terms of your aesthetic, in terms of the kind of shows that you’d like to direct, in your style, are there shows that exist out there currently that you feel...obviously, what you did (and I know this is not a musical) with Our Town, I mean I hate to sound like a kiss-ass, but it was revolutionary. And people speak of that production as the “new way” to do Our Town. And it was so influential. Are there musicals—
DC: Purely accidental.
JF: Purely accidental?
DC: Purely accidental. I mean I had an agenda about the show. I wanted to strip it of the sort of “Pepperidge Farm” thing, and I wanted to hear it in a very pure way. So that was an agenda. But that it was going to have that kind of effect on people, that was purely accidental. We had no idea. We did it in a theatre basement in Chicago. And then of course you start pretending you did it all on purpose.
I mean, we know it’s about life, the universe, and everything, and we wanted to make something that was really pure, so that was on purpose, but that’s about it.
JF: One of the exciting things about coming out of Chicago is that you can take bigger risks and do bolder work, I think.
DC: Yeah, yeah.
JF: But are there other musicals that could use a revision with the “David Cromer Touch?”
DC: There are musicals I would like to do. There’s a musical that I really love that I really, really want to do, and this is gonna sound like a bad idea, but it’s Annie. And the reason I want to do Annie is not because I want to make it dark and strange or kind of dull or naturalistic or anything like that. But what I’m fascinated by, what I love about Annie, is that it’s about a really defiant optimism in the face of really difficult circumstances, in like a Dickensian way. So, there’s a Frank Capra film called Lady for a Day, from the 30’s that is sort of the template for how I would approach Annie. And it’s beautiful and emotional and it’s really funny. But it’s really gritty—like It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s really gritty. There’s death, and he uses a legless man on wheels as a street beggar.
The Depression was a very brutal time in this country, and people were terrified. And it was scary. And these kids are all alone and they’re in the hands of dangerous people. And the stakes are high. You know what I mean? And the triumph over that is very moving. So I think the danger has to be real, the poverty has to be real. The attitude and defiance in the face of all that adversity is therefore much more inspiring than if you’re just in a fun little romp.
So that’s something I’m drawn to. I don’t necessarily know that I’m going to do a million more musicals. There’s only certain shows that would be well-served by the things I think are important. Some of them wouldn’t.
I don’t want to do Sunday, because like I said, I don’t know what else you do, you know? The ideal is never to say, “I want to do a show because something has to be done to it.” I’ve come to terms with the idea that there are trends in the way I work that people have identified. You know what I mean? People say, “I’ve seen a show that he directed and these are his concerns.” I’m not an invisible director, although I try to be more so. You try to just listen to the material. So it depends on the material.
You know there’s a really beautiful musical by the people who wrote The Drowsy Chaperone that is still in development that I’ve been to some readings of that is something I really want to do because it’s about London during the Blitz. It’s a love story set during the Blitz, so that seems sort of fun. I guess I like the stakes to be real.
Have you seen the Daniel Fish Oklahoma!?
JF: No I haven’t seen it yet. I’m going to see it in September when I’m in New York. [This interview occurred in Summer 2019.]
DC: I think it’s pretty great. I think it’s pretty fucking great. It’s pretty fantastic. I would quibble with maybe 20 things about it, but also the things I would quibble with are, like, who gives a shit whether I didn’t like them or not? The show was awesome. Doesn’t matter, the fucking show is awesome. So it’s like, fuck my quibbles, the show was amazing. So that’s a show I’ve never liked because I’ve never bought it. Because I’ve thought, “Why are all these musical theatre people bouncing around pretending to be cowboys?” And this is about people who left the east and went to get free land in the middle of fucking nowhere, and lived in the wild and tried to build a community. So that’s what their story is, and that’s what this production is.
JF: I think the pushback, or the negative reaction is just because people are stuck on their grandmother’s Oklahoma!. There’s a certain preciousness to it because we all did it in high school or saw it at a high school.
DC: Good lord, have you seen the response to the trailer for CATS?
JF: My Facebook has blown up with it.
DC: Blown up. People are losing their goddamn minds. Which is interesting in a lot of ways because what did they think the movie Cats was going to look like? “It should have been animation!” Well rst of all, it is animation. And second of all, if it was animation, you’d have said, “But, what about the dancing?”
JF: Right. Well, this is the society, unfortunately, I think that we’re stuck in now—especially with social media, which I’m a culprit of as well—but everyone’s opinion has to be heard and it blows up. Thank you so much for the time, and congratulations on the production, it was stunning.
DC: Well, thank you.