For Alex Timbers, Directing Theater is a Labo(u)r of Love
The busy wunderkind talks the Public's Shakespeare in the Park, German engineering, and why sleeping isn't a priority right now.
In 2010, Alex Timbers burst onto the uptown theater scene with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, his and Michael Friedman's angry-young-man rock musical about the life and times of America's seventh president. Since then, Timbers — who had been causing similar ruckuses with his distinctly downtown troupe Les Freres Corbusier — has been on a Broadway and Off-Broadway roll, following his Tony Award-nominated Bloody Bloody book with a directing nomination for his work on Peter and the Starcatcher.
The 2013-2014 season looks to be his busiest yet. After closing last season at the Public Theater with David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's immersive Imelda Marcos musical Here Lies Love, Timbers is reteaming with Friedman on the Public's upcoming Shakespeare in the Park musical adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost, the first brand-new musical the Delacorte Theater has seen in forty-odd years. Following that, he heads to San Diego's Old Globe Theatre to helm the Jeff Buckley musical The Last Goodbye. And in 2014, he will shepherd Rocky the Musical to Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre after a tryout earlier this year in Hamburg, Germany.
When does he get to sleep? In the Q&A below, Timbers fills us in.
Love's Labour's Lost rehearsals are going well so far?
It's really fun. We just did our first stumble-through, which was so terrifying and exciting. [The cast], they're all musical-theater geniuses, but they're also fantastic with Shakespeare. I'm really excited for people to see them do it.
How did a musical version of Love's Labour's Lost come about?
I love this play so much. I did it when I was in college; I played Don Armado. The show was terrible, and I was probably terrible in it, but I've had affection for this play for a long time. We were doing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson on Broadway and I was talking with Michael [Friedman] about what we were going to do next — if there was another show to do together — and I don't think either of us were really interested in creating something from scratch. I love the John Guare and Galt MacDermot musical Two Gentlemen of Verona; it's one of my top-five favorite shows. At the time, Oskar [Eustis] and I had been talking about my potentially directing a Shakespeare in the Park. As Michael and I were searching, we all came to the collective idea of "What if we do, for the first time in forty-some years, a new Shakespeare musical in the park?" We both thought it was a really fun idea. We looked through some titles, and obviously, I've never had the life experiences that would help illuminate how one would adapt King Lear into a musical.
When did you settle on Love's Labour's?
Michael had written music for a Love's Labour's Lost before. It's a coming-of-age story, but it's also about what it means to become an adult and engage in the world and risk your own pride for love. These are big questions. It's also incredibly emotional and rife subject material for a musical. We loved that. We liked that this was about love and very directly about matters of the heart.
All of your productions have an incredibly specific visual aesthetic. Can you describe how this show at the Delacorte, as designed by John Lee Beatty, will look?
One of the things that is a skill for any director is knowing what they don't know. I've been a fan of John Lee for years; he's one of the great working set designers today. He's designed a lot in the park, as well. I thought it would be really smart to put together a team that had real experience there because I knew I would learn so much from them. John Lee is able to say, "Here's a good entrance, here are the entrances you have to worry about," things like that that are just so valuable…I'm not such a huge fan, as you've seen in the musicals I've directed, of musicals that look like musicals. I like musicals that look more like plays. So I love the idea of having this set at Shakespeare in the Park that looks like a Shakespeare in the Park set. One that doesn't look like the set for a musical, but the version of a set you'd have for Love's Labour's Lost. And he's just designed something that's unbelievable.
The show itself is contemporary?
It's contemporary but I like to think it has a contemporary/timeless quality, where it also feels indebted to the fifties and the thirties, and also the eighties. It takes place today at a five-year college reunion of a school in the northeast, where the boys have decided to lock themselves up and put themselves away in seclusion for three years, and then these girls show up and screw it all up.
Switching gears, I'd love hear your take on your next show, The Last Goodbye, which is Romeo and Juliet with Jeff Buckley's music?
It's a great show. There was a production at Williamstown prior to me being involved, which apparently broke all these box office records. I'm going to take it in a more period direction. It's a dark story, Romeo and Juliet, and the beauty of the poetry and the sure sense of hope in Jeff Buckley's music is a stark contrast to the world where you need to understand the inexorable slide towards tragedy. My job is providing that context, I think, visually and emotionally.
And then there's Rocky, coming to Broadway in the spring of 2014, which tried out in Hamburg, Germany. Is that the ideal spot to try out a musical?
[Laughs] That's a good question. Germany was terrific. I saw a reading of it, and I was really skeptical of the idea of Rocky as a musical. The movie is so beautiful and dramatic and gritty, and the idea of boxing on stage sounded like just a recipe for how musical theater can be kind of tone deaf to reality. I reluctantly went to this reading, but it's Ahrens and Flaherty and Tom Meehan, who are people who do incredible work, and I wanted to see what they would do. I was blown away by it. When they said they were doing it in Germany first, I was all in. Wherever they told me to do it, I would have done it. It turned out to be a really exciting place to do a new musical.
Hamburg is the third-largest musical-theater market, after New York and London. It's the largest secondary market in the world for Broadway shows. Tarzan, which didn't run for too long on Broadway, has been running there for six years, and The Lion King has been running for ten years. And they love American musicals. They also really love Rocky. Hamburg, in particular, is a very sophisticated art town and they love musicals. It was very cool to do our out-of-town tryout with a sense of privacy and seclusion, but of course every theater owner went out there. You hear these things about German engineering and that's no joke. One of the tricks of the Rocky set is an engineering feat, and to try to learn that in America might have been impossible. So we really benefited from being over there.
Are you referring to the boxing ring?
There's a boxing ring that does a lot of tricks, including a big thing at the end which changes the perspective of the audience. For the final few minutes of the show, it sort of becomes like Here Lies Love. It's not like our chandelier or anything; it's not a gimmick. It's actually a piece of the storytelling puzzle. For someone who's a downtown theater person [who] has never directed a big musical, I was really excited to get to learn about that stuff out in Germany as opposed to on Forty-ninth Street.
So when do you have the chance to sleep?
[Laughs] These days, I'm a man without hobbies. This is the most fun and exciting time I've had in the twelve years I've been in the city. I love every one of these projects, so none of it feels like a pain or irritating. I also don't have children, so I'm sure that helps.