Kathleen Marshall Is Living on Love With Her Williamstown Theatre Festival Debut
The three-time Tony Award winner discusses straying from musical theater as the director of Joe DiPietro's new play.
Kathleen Marshall is a multifaceted creative force behind some of Broadway's biggest and brightest hits. The Tony-winning director/choreographer (Wonderful Town, Anything Goes) is currently at the helm of Williamstown Theatre Festival's Living on Love, Joe DiPietro's new play loosely adapted from the Garson Kanin play Peccadillo. The show stars Renée Fleming as an opera diva out to get even when her famous husband (Douglas Sills) begins longing for the young ghostwriter of his autobiography. Film and television stars Justin Long (Galaxy Quest, Funny People) and Anna Chlumsky (My Girl, Veep) also round out the eclectic group of actors. Marshall's excitement and appreciation for this new play are instantaneously palpable. She chatted with TheaterMania on a break from rehearsal about collaborating with DiPietro for the second time and bringing together an eclectic group of characters. She also teased at what's happening with her next project, the musical adaptation of Ever After.
Much of your experience has been with musicals. What is the biggest challenge in taking on a new play in its developmental stage?
With the musical revivals I've done, I've always had the writer or the adapter to help make it, and the shape is already there. This is a play where we don't really know what we have until we put it in front of an audience. We think we have something fun, delightful, and amusing, while it also has something to say about aging and marriage, and what happens to celebrities as they get older and their careers shift in various ways. That's the part where there's a little bit of a question mark. Will audiences find us as delightful as we do?
With Living on Love you're working with actors known for different genres of entertainment. How did you find the right comedic performers for this type of comedy?
Renée Fleming is from the opera world and Doug Sills is mostly from the theater world, and Justin [Long] and Anna [Chlumsky] are known mostly from their film and television work, but they have also done a lot of theater. They're sort of theater creatures. In fact, Justin's the only one who's actually been in Williamstown plays before. What's wonderful is that everybody has a great sense of humor, no matter where they're from. Renée's great humor and wit onstage is going to be a delightful surprise for a lot of people.
What is the most interesting aspect of directing Fleming, for whom this is her first non-operatic production?
This is somebody who fills huge opera houses around the world through her music and also with her performance. She is a stage person in every sense. She told us how when she does an opera she can't change a word or a note, not even a dynamic marking. To have the flexibility in rehearsal to say, "Can we try it this way?," and then have Joe DiPietro editing or trying something new…it's wonderful to see her enjoying that process.
You also collaborated with Joe on the Broadway musical Nice Work If You Can Get It. How do you think your talents complement each other?
We trust each other. I think we have a similar sense of the kind of comedy we like: witty and smart, that can sometimes go to an absurd level…but we also want to make sure we balance it with some kind of reality and emotion. These are real people, and if they do something absurd it's out of desperate need; it's not campy. Aside from being unbelievably smart and funny, Joe is also a fearless editor of his own work. When we did Nice Work, he cut fifteen minutes out of the show in previews! I had said, "But that's getting a laugh!" and he replied, "Yeah, but…let's cut that because there's a bigger laugh coming up."
In Living on Love, the main characters hire ghostwriters to pen their autobiographies. If a ghostwriter were to take on the story of Kathleen Marshall, what would readers be surprised to discover?
Not a lot! My family saw everything: opera, ballet, symphonies, musicals, plays, Shakespeare…but I didn't start any dance lessons until I was already thirteen. I came to it late.
You're directing and choreographing the new musical Ever After for Paper Mill Playhouse next spring. Where are you in the stages of bringing it to life?
We did a very successful workshop last spring, and some additional writing has been done. I'm really excited about it. I'm starting to work on a new design a bit with Derek McLane, so the ball has started to get rolling. I love that show and that music so much.