Jeff McCarthy and company in Urinetown(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Jeff McCarthy and company in Urinetown
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
I had planned to write a column on New Year's Resolutions. It was going to be called "I Resolve," after the song that Ilona sings in She Loves Me, and it was going to have such allegedly funny lines as: "I resolve that I won't once make fun of Man of La Mancha this year." Then I was going to ask what your New Year's resolutions were. But all that went by the wayside when I had breakfast with John Rando, the 40-year-old, bespectacled, erudite-looking, six-foot-tall director who, in 2001, had three shows running on Broadway. Granted, The Dinner Party was winding down, and A Thousand Clowns didn't do as well as all had hoped--but Rando did have a blue-chip title with the unlikeliest of the three that reached hit status, Urinetown.

He grew up in a Houston suburb, and didn't expect to have a career in theater. Rando smiles fondly when he relates that "Some kid told me in high school, 'Hey, I hear speech class is fun and an easy A'--so I took the class. I did find it was both easy and fun. Somehow, that led to my getting into the drama club." Rando's father was an aerospace engineer with NASA who helped put a man on the moon, as well as having worked on the space shuttle and a space station. "Doing theater," Rando tells me, eyes widening, "seemed like such an oddity to [my father]." The word he uses to describe his mother's reaction is "surprised." (Imagine how surprised she would have been had he told her then: "Someday, I'm going to direct a show called Urinetown!")

"Neither one of my parents really did quite understand what I was doing," he says. "But they sort of felt, 'Well, he seems to be having a good time and he's working very hard at it and his grades are okay, so let him do it.' " Rando became a powerhouse in the Clear Creek High School drama club "where I did anything I could," he says: "Stage managing, sets, lights, assistant directing Hello, Dolly! and The Wizard of Oz. My parents thought I'd use these skills to become a lawyer. They were very keen on that." Though John wasn't keen on it, he took courses at the University of Texas that could be considered pre-law. "But I was soon in the German department doing plays in German; the director there had been with the Berliner Ensemble," he tells me, his voice tinged with admiration. "Then I joined a local Shakespeare Society and performed Hamlet. I constructed a degree in the humanities department with an emphasis on English, German, and Italian, and said I wanted to be a director. Now my folks were really concerned, because they knew I wouldn't make any money--but they were impressed when I got a Fulbright [scholarship] to study German theater. I did that and then came back...with no prospects."

So Rando did what so many do in such dire circumstances: He applied to grad school. "To appease my parents," he notes, "I applied to two schools for two different things: theater directing at UCLA and international relations at Columbia. Well, Columbia rejected me outright without even an interview, while UCLA called me, sent me airplane tickets, wined and dined me." That settled that. But what would happen once he graduated? By then, his mother was beginning to suffer from a heart condition and Rando would have been welcomed at home. However, one of his UCLA professors was appearing in a play at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and recommended Rando for an internship there. He and artistic director Jack O'Brien got along splendidly--"friends from the moment we shook hands," Rando says. "I made myself indispensable to him for a year, but I had to take a job as production assistant in talk radio just to pay the bills. By the end of the season, I really was financially strapped."

Rando was now 29 years old. He got a phone call that his mother's condition had worsened, so he returned home for a quick visit but soon had to return to the Old Globe and his talk radio job. "My dad was driving me back to the airport," he recalls, "and he started saying, 'Look, I work with guys your age who already have a house, two cars, a wife, and kids.' But then Dad said, 'All those guys sit at their desks and push papers and they're incredibly unhappy. You love what you do, so go out there and do what you have to do.' Even though I was heading in a direction they were not quite happy with, what Dad said made me put my nose to the grindstone even more."

Which is why, when The Acting Company called the Old Globe asking if anyone at the theater knew someone who could be a company director for their touring company, Jack O'Brien recommended Rando; he even paid his airfare to New York, where the young director got the job. And when the Manhattan Theatre Club needed an assistant, they hired Rando...which led to his getting a chance to direct at the Pearl, where playwright David (All in the Timing) Ives saw his production of The Venetian Twins...which he so liked that he wanted Rando to stage his Mere Mortals...which casting guru Jay Binder so liked that, when Neil Simon decided he wanted someone new to direct The Dinner Party, Rando got an interview and then the job.

So if you haven't made your New Year's resolution yet, may I make a suggestion? If you're a parent, resolve that you'll be supportive of your kid as John Rando's dad was. And if you're a kid who has a big dream but you're wavering, resolve to keep going as John Rando did.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]