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With Violet on Broadway, Director Leigh Silverman Journeys to Her First Tony Nomination

Silverman shares her thoughts on bringing this cult-favorite musical to the life it fully deserves.

One of off-Broadway's hardest-working directors is Leigh Silverman, an expert in new play development who has helped shepherd the works of David Henry Hwang, Lisa Kron, and Liz Flahive, among many others, to the stage. In 2013, Silverman branched out into the world of musicals, bringing Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's Violet to life, for one night only, as part of the newly created New York City Center Encores! Off-Center series.

The Sutton Foster-led concert won so much acclaim that it transferred to Broadway's American Airlines Theatre via Roundabout Theatre Company nine months later and received Tony nominations for its stars, Best Revival, and for Silverman's staging. Never one to take it easy, Silverman celebrated by going into rehearsals for her latest off-Broadway show, Bess Wohl's American Hero at Second Stage Uptown.

TheaterMania chatted with Silverman about how she began her journey with Violet, a musical that follows a badly scarred young woman on her quest to be healed, and how she used her years of experience developing new works to breathe fresh life into this little-known show.

Violet director Leigh Silverman (right) poses for a photo with the musical's composer, Jeanine Tesori, star Sutton Foster, and book writer/lyricist Brian Crawley at the opening night celebration.
(© David Gordon)

How did you get involved with Violet?
Jeanine [Tesori] called and said she wanted to me to reinvent it [for Encores! Off-Center last summer]. She wanted to get back into it so she could put it to bed. She thought, "We'll do this one-night-only concert…" It became clear that it was not time to say goodbye; it was that Violet's time had come.

Why does it work better now than it did when it premiered?
I think the theatricality of the show was ahead of the time. It wasn't so much the taste 18 years ago. I think that the work they've done on it since has made it a more accessible piece. In condensing the form and making it a one-act, you really get the urgency of [the character] Violet's journey. In a way, we've caught up to it and it's caught up to us. This story feels more important now than when it was first done.

This is your first Broadway musical. Is that terrifying? Intimidating?
Yeah. Oh, yeah. Humbling. And intimidating. Because I do so much work on new plays, I felt like I had to approach it the same way, which was how to tell the story in a theatrical and a surprising and intimate way. We had the success of the Encores! concert, so I wanted to hold on to that while turning it into a Broadway musical. Compared to what you really associate with Broadway, the kind of glamour and glitz, this is kind of the antithesis to that. Early in previews, I'd sit in the back of the house and think we were so vulnerable. We're so spare, it's such an intimate story, and if people come in wanting Rocky, they're really going to be disappointed. The things I feel made us vulnerable are the things that people are really embracing, and that makes me very happy.

How did you come up with the concept for the production?
I just wanted to figure out a way to imagine that bus [at the center of the show]. When I started working with set designer David Zinn on the Roundabout production, having them sitting in these chairs was something he felt like we should hold on to, and we shouldn't try and make a literal bus, and we shouldn't get literal bus seats. It would be more interesting to create this one space where everything could happen. If you think about it, because we don't show the scar [on Violet's face], and you just start with that basic choice, you don't need to show very much. It's all metaphor. We were striving for clarity, but also theatricality.

Why don't we see Violet's scar?
In the first production, they didn't show the scar, either. I think it undermines the story, which is really about the ways we are scarred and how we carry that scar forward in our lives. And how we are healed from it.

And yet, while watching Sutton, you feel like you see something on her face.
You're not the first person to tell me that. It's a testament to our imagination and that's all Sutton's exquisite specificity up there. We see the way the company reacts to her and looks at her and it tells the story of how bad that scar is.

Let's talk about some of the plays you're working on at the moment. You've got American Hero, to start.
American Hero is a play by Bess Wohl that we premiered at Williamstown last summer. It's about three sandwich artists who have found themselves in this existential sandwich shop. It's a comedy, but it's the darkest, bleakest kind of comedy. Not making a sandwich in under twenty seconds provides a huge amount of despair for the people onstage and a huge amount of comedy for us.

David [Henry Hwang] and I are continuing to work on Kung Fu, so there will be another moment on that. Working on that project was such an interesting collaboration. I've said a couple of times that Kung Fu is a play that acted like a musical and Violet is a musical that acted like a play. To be able to work on plays [that] are stylistically that adventurous? It's the greatest.

Do you see more musicals in your future?
I would love to do more musicals. I'm a little obsessed with this whole "revisical" idea. For me to be able to work with writers, I feel excited about that. I did this 54 Below concert of High Fidelity last summer, and I feel like that kicked off the trend. [Composers] Amanda [Green] and Tom [Kitt] and I have talked about how to try and get back in there with it. Sutton and I are talking about our next project, too. I would follow Sutton anywhere.

Scenes from Leigh Silverman's current projects: Sutton Foster in Violet at the American Airlines Theatre and Jerry O'Connell in American Hero at Second Stage Uptown.
(© Joan Marcus)

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