Broadway's Busiest Director: Scott Ellis on Working With James Earl Jones, Bradley Cooper, and Kristin Chenoweth
Ellis is set to helm You Can't Take It With You, The Elephant Man, and On the Twentieth Century — all opening on Broadway in the next eight months.
"One second, hold on," Scott Ellis said as he picked up the phone for our interview. He was just wrapping up with his twin four-year-olds (a boy and a girl), who he had run home to be with before his next appointment. Ellis is directing three shows on Broadway this season: You Can't Take It With You, The Elephant Man, and On the Twentieth Century. In addition to those roles, he's also the Associate Artistic Director of Roundabout Theatre Company.
All three plays have appeared on Broadway before: You Can't Take It With You is Kaufman and Hart's 1936 comedy about an eccentric Staten Island family. The Elephant Man is Bernard Pomerance's drama based on the life of John Merrick, a man who lived with an extreme physical deformity in Victorian England. On the Twentieth Century is Comden, Green, and Coleman's 1920s musical comedy pastiche set entirely on a cross-country train. Ellis will now have the opportunity to put his stamp on each of them.
TheaterMania spoke to Ellis about his upcoming year, the different personalities with whom he's working, and the fine art of staging revivals.
You have a pretty busy year coming up. Did you plan to direct three shows on Broadway this season or did it just happen that way?
I was surprised that it all came together like it did. I certainly didn't plan it. In theater, if it happens, it happens and you go with it. I've never done them so close together, but it's fine. After raising twins, you get organized.
What does your average day look like?
I feel that once you go into rehearsal, you need to focus on the show in the room. When I was doing pre-production for You Can't Take It With You, I was doing a lot of stuff on Elephant Man as well. When I got into You Can't Take It With You rehearsals, I had already prepared myself to not be as busy with the other shows. Of course, there are constantly things you have to deal with.
The other day was unusual. I started the morning with a production meeting for Elephant Man. After that, I went to rehearsals for You Can't Take It With You. Then I had a car service pick me up and take me to a photo shoot with Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher for On the Twentieth Century. Then I came back and finished rehearsal. Most days are not like that.
You Can't Take It With You found you, correct?
That's correct. [Producer] Jeffrey Richards called and said there were scheduling problems with the original director, Michael Wilson. He asked me if I'd be interested in doing it…He told me that the only one in [casting] talks was James Earl Jones. I thought that was a great idea...So I agreed to do it. Casting is extremely important in this play. I didn't have quite as much time as I usually do to prepare, but I'm lucky to be working with a lot of great people.
You have Annaleigh Ashford, Kristine Nielsen, and Elizabeth Ashley, to name a few. Is it a challenge directing such a multigenerational cast, in which multiple eras of acting methods might be at play?
Part of a director's job is to get in and, if they don't work the way you work, you have to figure out how they work. With this particular show, the most important thing for me was getting a sense of family. That was all about detailing the family history and the relationships and hopefully creating a rehearsal room where you could have fun and relax and explore what this family is about.
The Elephant Man is a very different play stylistically. What attracted you to this project?
It started with Bradley Cooper. We talked about going up to Williamstown [Theatre Festival] and doing a play. He wanted to do The Elephant Man. Not in a million years did we think we'd be bringing it to New York. We both said, It could be a flop, but it will be a quick flop. We'll do it because we want to do it. When we were done with the run, we felt that we weren't finished with it yet. Bradley is terrific in the role. I think what he does physically is fairly remarkable.
On the Twentieth Century is a much larger project. Do you find musicals more challenging because there are more moving pieces, or less challenging because you have more help?
I think they're all hard. You Can't Take It With You has eighteen people onstage at one point. Musicals entail a larger collaboration and I love that. On the other hand, there are more opportunities for things not to work. Musicals are just really big. This one certainly is.
Why is Kristin Chenoweth right for the role of Lily Garland, the lead in On the Twentieth Century?
That's another one of those roles that you need to have cast before you do it. It's a stunning score and you need someone who can really sing it, someone who is funny and understands stardom. She's always been at the top of the list, for me...This was a role she was born to play.
All three of the shows you're directing are revivals. How much do you have to consider earlier productions when directing revivals?
Any director who comes into a revival owes a great deal to the original director. If I know the backbone works, it gives me as a director much more freedom to bring something new to it, or try something different.
Do you have some fantastic vacation planned for the summer, after On the Twentieth Century completes its limited run?
I'm going to go out and do my first Shakespeare at the Old Globe over the summer: The Comedy of Errors. So I told my partner we might have to postpone that vacation.