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Journey to Heartland

Ben Mordecai on producing his first musical. logo

Ben Mordecai, one of the most active producers on Broadway, has taken on his first musical.

How could the man who has helped to bring audiences such award-winning productions as David Henry Hwang's Golden Child, August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, and Tony Kushner's Angels in America have not yet produced a musical? According to Mordecai, he has never been drawn to "diverting entertainment," and none of the musicals he saw provided the kind of substantial content that is the trademark of his work.

That is, until he saw Heartland, the latest collaboration of Darrah Cloud and Kim D. Sherman. Perhaps best known for O Pioneers, this lyricist/composer team has now fashioned a moving, musical tale of three daughters who return home to Iowa to help their widowed mother. In the first New York staged reading for an invited audience of investors, theater directors, and friends at the Lambs Theatre, a talented cast brought the musical to life.

Mordecai first saw and loved Heartland at the Goodspeed Opera House in Chester, CT. Director Susan H. Schulman (The Secret Garden and the recent revival of The Sound of Music) eventually came aboard to present a new, staged reading for Mordecai, along with musical director Lawrence Yurman, choreographer Michael Lichtefeld, and an impressive cast. Then the two-week rehearsal and development period began.

I first worked with Ben Mordecai when he produced August Wilson's Seven Guitars on Broadway, and I met up with him again a few days before the Heartland reading to find out how he was adapting to the world of musicals.

SANDI: How do you feel about the upcoming reading?

BEN: I'm thrilled. I'm ecstatic, to be honest. We're not done. We didn't get all the way through; if the show will ultimately be two hours long, we have about 90 minutes. So we have a cliffhanger. I expect that we're going to need to do another [development] period like this before we start staging it.

SANDI: Where would you like to see Heartland performed?

BEN: Well, I'm very ambitious. I'd like to do this as a small Broadway musical, maybe in a 1,000-seat house. I'd love to put it in the Booth Theater or the Helen Hayes. (laughs) As if I have a total choice.

SANDI: So, what will happen after this reading?

BEN: I've produced a lot of plays. I'm very used to the developmental process with plays; but, if I could sort of put forth my primary theory about producing (dramatic pause), it has everything to do with time. To produce well, you need the time to develop the material properly. Some collaborators work quickly and some don't. As you know, I've worked with August on many shows, and you cannot predict when August will write. All you can do as a producer is establish an environment where the creative people feel most comfortable. In a way we've been working [on Heartland for] a year and a half, but one of the really critical moments in the process was just a few days ago. Every day there has been tremendous forward motion, but about four or five days ago, Susan [Schulman] said, "I think we should throw out the entire second act." She felt that the authors, particularly the book writer, were clinging to things they liked in that act; they were trying to fix it while saving what they liked, but really the whole thing had to be thrown out. And it took Darrah Cloud, particularly, a couple of days to be able to do that. It's painful.
SANDI: Do you find this process much different from the development of a play?

BEN: Well, it's a very different medium. It's much more collaborative. With a play, there is the playwright, who really is the center. There is the director, and then the designers and so forth. But in a musical, unless it's by Stephen Sondheim, there's a book writer, a lyricist, a composer; and there's not just a director, but a choreographer and a musical director as well. So it's not a matter of just working on the script, it's getting all of these collaborators to participate and really contribute. In the musical theater, I think, the director's role is even stronger than in the non-musical theater because, in a sense, the director orchestrates. At least, that's how it seems to me in my first experience. I really think Susan has orchestrated the work of the writers, the choreographer, and the musical director.

SANDI: If you receive the financial support you need on Thursday to move forward, how long do you think it will be before you arrive at opening night?

BEN: I don't know. I think the most important thing is to make sure we have the material the way we want. So I'm inclined to believe we should do another two-week period. Once we have the material, then we can go in one of two directions, or possibly both. One is to do a full workshop where designers actually create the design, although we won't build them except for a few elements. Then we will actually stage it and take a look at it. Or we will go somewhere outside of New York and do a production.

SANDI: Where?

BEN: I, of course, immediately think about theaters that I feel a collegiate relationship with. The Huntington [in Boston], Seattle Rep, Mark Taper Forum [in Los Angeles], are theaters that all have structures that are supportive of new work.

SANDI: How much input do you have in the development of the project? In terms of style and content?

BEN: That's a question my students at Yale ask me all the time, and it's a very hard question to answer. I feel I have a lot of input, but you couldn't tell it probably. Sometimes people equate input with some sort of authority, to be able to say, "I like, I don't like, change this." I feel very included in the process. I'm not a writer. I'm not a director. I used to direct. I stopped directing because I wasn't satisfied with my ability to realize work at the level that I wanted to be associated with. What I always try to achieve first of all: the confidence of the creative people. Your involvement isn't a kind of right that goes with the title; I think you earn it.

SANDI: Would you say, then, that the producer's most important input is to create the right environment?

BEN: Well ultimately, when I was producing Golden Child, the David Henry Hwang play, we had an opportunity to bring it to New York about year before we actually did bring it here. And I refused to. Because I didn't think the work was done. Now, that's the ultimate authority. But it wasn't ready, and they all knew it wasn't ready. It was my first time working with [the director and the playwright], and they weren't sure that I would not give up. It's so exciting now, about Heartland. I'm just stunned with how much they've accomplished in such a short time. There's something wonderful about musical theater if it's good, and not much of it is good. My taste is not necessarily popular taste. I loved Stephen Sondheim's Passion, which a lot of people didn't like. I thought it was stunning work.

SANDI: How involved were you with the development of this staged reading for Heartland?

BEN: Again, it was about creating the right environment. After I had spoken to Susan a few times, I gained, very quickly, tremendous confidence. I basically said to her, you tell me how to produce it. You tell me what you need. You lead me through the process, because I need to be led. I know from my experience a lot about rhythm, but I don't know how long it takes to do certain things, [a musical] moves a lot faster than I had expected.

SANDI: I imagine this sort of collaborative approach to producing is rare in the Broadway realm.

BEN: Well, I'm much more hands than most. I believe there are two ways of becoming a producer. One is you have a lot of money. And the other is, you have material that attracts money. You've got to have one or the other. I don't have a lot of money, so I'm a producer because I spend a lot of time finding material and developing material.

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