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Quick Wit: Jeff Calhoun

Geoffrey Soffer talks with the director-choreographer, who is currently guiding five new musicals toward a much-anticipated public presentation.

By New York City

Broadway director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun launches into his latest venture with the Musical Writers' Playground's DownBeat II: The 2nd Annual New Musicals Event. This organization, created by Leslie Becker, D.J. Salisbury, and Vincent Paul Boyle is on the fast track to be the #1 musical theater development company in New York City. Calhoun's brings to his directors chair a long list of credits, including the Tony Award-winning revival of Annie Get Your Gun, Grease! (for which he was Tony-nominated for Best Choreography), Tommy Tune Tonight, City Center Encores! Strike Up the Band, and the upcoming revival of Bells Are Ringing. Jeff recently got quick witted with Geoffrey Soffer about his involvement in the Musical Writers' Playground and his always-moving career.

How did you first hear about the Musical Writers' Playgorund? Through [Artistic Director] D.J. Salisbury. We met during The Will Rogers Follies and have been good friends ever since. He called me and told me about it. I am in a place where I want to work on new material. That's really what is artistically fulfilling for me. What was it that drew you to directing their annual New Musicals Event? Well, they asked me to do it. It is so unique simply because it exists. There's really no place out there that I know of where musical theater writers can get their work up in front of people. It's a wonderful opportunity for all involved. I want to be a part of the creation of new work. It's very exciting. At what age did you realize that show business was the profession for you? Oh my god, just my whole life! There's nothing else that I've ever wanted to do...or that I've ever done! (laughs) Ever since I was kid, really. I put on these shows in my grandmother's garage. I would direct the kids in the neighborhood in these talent shows. Very dramatic! (laughs) It was fabulous. Where did you train? I started as a dancer, and I took tap from a woman who was the daughter of Gene Kelly's teacher. How did you make the transition from actor to director/choreographer? I consciously said "I want to move on." I always felt lucky to get where I was and I wanted to move on before they figured me out or before I was busted! The last job I had as an actor was as Tommy Tune's standby in My One and Only. When he left to mount the tour of Nine, they had me to go on for him for two weeks opposite Twiggy. And, I figured, I should quit while I'm ahead! (laughs) So I then decided to move to L.A. to learn how to direct and choreograph. Since I had already performed in My One and Only, Whorehouse, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, I made a career directing those shows in California dinner theaters. I also directed lots of benefits, including the very first AIDS benefit--Hollywood's Salute to Broadway--hosted by Bob Hope at The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. What's the biggest difference between directing a revival, and directing new material? When you direct or choreograph a revival, the material is already there. It already works, or else they wouldn't be reviving it. You might give it a couple of ideas, possibly breathe some fresh sensibilities for a new generation...but really, the work is done. With new work, you really get to be a part of the development and the progress of it. Who has inspired you? Spiritually, I'd say my parents--no question. They have been the most supportive people in my life. And as a kid, I grew up watching Dick Van Dyke and Fred Astaire. They were my favorites. I'd also have to say John Kenley, who owned The Kenley Players in Pittsburgh, inspired me. He hired me when I was 16 to dance with Ann Miller in Anything Goes. What's your most rewarding experience? This project I just did for the Theater for the Deaf in Los Angeles was by far the most rewarding experience in my professional life. Half of the cast was deaf and half was hearing, and we created something that I've never seen before that I was extremely proud of. It was magical. What was it like working with Bernadette Peters? She's wonderful. I never saw Bernadette have a bad day. I don't think she ever gets out of the wrong side of the bed. (laughs) Aside from the June 5th Musical Writers' Playground event, what's coming up for you? There are a couple of exciting ideas I am working on for new shows. However, I am really thrilled about Bells Are Ringing. I've always been a huge fan of Betty [Comden] and Adolph [Green], and [director] Tina Landau is quite remarkable and very innovative. With a team like that, how can you go wrong? It's going to be very classy. What are your hopes for these future Broadway composers and lyricists involved with the Musical Writers' Playground? I hope that they are inspired by what they have created. I hope they keep creating good work and keep marching. You know?--as [Agnes] DeMille said?--"Keep marching!" Who do you dream about working with? Bette Midler...always have. I'd also like to work with Audra McDonald. Morning or Night? Well...morning. Boxers or Briefs? Briefs. Country house or beach house? Both! Director or Choreographer? Director. Composer or lyricist? Hmm...both. Waiting for Guffman or Waiting for Godot? Waiting for Guffman.


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