With Sweet Charity and Finian's Rainbow, Off-Broadway Welcomes Little "Big Musicals"
"Don't you love the intimacy of being in the middle of a big musical?" asks Charlotte Moore, artistic director of off-Broadway's Irish Repertory Theatre and the director of its current revival of Finian's Rainbow. In this case, "big" is a loaded word. Finian's Rainbow is a "big musical" all right — the original cast numbered 56 and played a venue that had around 1300 seats — but Moore's production has a cast of 13 in a house seating about 150. In a situation like this, as Moore notes, "You're right in the middle of it."
Finian's Rainbow, which stars Broadway vets Melissa Errico and Ryan Silverman, is one of two "big musicals" this fall being economized for off-Broadway-size productions. The other is Sweet Charity, starring two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster under the direction of Leigh Silverman. The New Group, a company devoted to showcasing raw and adventurous contemporary theater, is producing Sweet Charity with 12 actors in the Pershing Square Signature Center's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, a venue that fits just over 200 patrons. The original Broadway mounting had a cast of 30 in the roughly 1,700-seat Palace Theatre.
True, there are obstacles that come with putting together a large-scale show in a small-scale off-Broadway house, but in both cases, a love of the genre and the opportunity to explore time-tested material in new ways make the undertaking worthwhile.
The idea for the New Group to present Sweet Charity was the brainchild of Foster and her director, according to longtime artistic director Scott Elliott. "Sutton and Leigh came to me with a very artistically valid reason to revive the show," he says. "It's a role that Sutton has always wanted to play, and she has an incredibly probing idea for the character." Elliott immediately latched onto the idea. "I was interested in the show not being directed by a man, and not letting the character be objectified." (Both Sweet Charity and Finian's Rainbow are directed by women, and have female musical directors and all-female bands.)
In Irish Rep's case, Finian's Rainbow was a show it had first presented in 2004, with Errico as the leading lady. This version came about as a celebration of the company returning to its Chelsea venue after an extensive, almost two-year renovation. "For my opening number, as we're calling it, I wanted to do one of my favorites, and I wanted to do a musical," Moore says. "I spoke with Melissa and Ryan, and they were very excited to be prospective partners in it, so I went ahead with it. I'm doing it simply because I love it, and I wanted to come back into our theater with something that I loved."
When it comes to doing musicals, there are certain considerations that need to happen, since, as Elliott points out, "They cost more than twice as much as plays. So it takes more preparation. In a nonprofit, you compile the budget for what you want to do and then allocate the funds," he says. Moore adds, "It's much more practical to do straight plays than it is to do musicals, [which require] an orchestra, and choreographers, and dancers."
Considering the size of the New Group and Irish Repertory Theatre as organizations, the planning of a full season that remains fiscally responsible while presenting a musical of this nature requires a certain level of savvy. "We have efficient directors of development and handlers of our financial stuff," Moore says of her staff. Being well-respected helps, too. "We are a more established institution now, so we get a couple of bucks a year more [in donations] than we used to.
With Sweet Charity, Elliott brought on a commercial producing partner, Kevin McCollum. "We never do musicals alone," Elliott says of the New Group. "It's almost impossible. Kevin and I had worked on Avenue Q together, and I knew he had a relationship with Sutton because of The Drowsy Chaperone.
The knowledge that a commercial producer is onboard to provide financial enhancements is usually the theater-industry's signal that a Broadway mounting is on the horizon. But here, anything goes. "It would be great for a musical like this," Elliott says. "It's always nice to look at it that way, because they are so expensive, and we all have hopes and dreams around them, but I'm a realist." There is a great deal of audience interest, though, and the show has sold well enough to warrant three extensions. "You can't really get in to see it at the New Group," he notes. "There aren't that many tickets left."
But on Broadway, it would be hard to achieve the level of intimacy that a production like Moore's Finian's Rainbow conveys, with 13 voices and four musicians performing Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg's score without amplification. So audience members shouldn't always think "cheap" when they hear "small." Finian's Rainbow might not be "a full production where everybody leaves the stage and [there are] multiple sets," but Moore has managed to use the newly expanded Irish Rep stage to her advantage. "We have almost twice as big a stage to work on now," she specifies. "It's simpler and much more complicated at the same time."
Similarly, Elliott points out that Silverman and Foster have "a concept that they use to fill the entire space," calling it "very immersive in a way." They deliberately chose a company like the New Group for their vision because they wanted to present the show "up close and personal," even if it meant having to figure out solutions for the creative challenges that came with the limitations of budget restrictions and a more compact space.
Those challenges resulted in an examination of the material that significantly differed from traditional renderings of Sweet Charity. Cy Coleman's iconic, brass-heavy score has been radically reconceived for a six-person band, with orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell that don't include a brass section. Similarly, Joshua Bergasse's choreography veers away from the original work of Bob Fosse, and Elliott asserts that Bergasse "makes the dances emotionally important in the show." And then there's Foster herself, who Elliott sees as "really exploring herself in a different way." Indeed, the intimate environment coupled with Foster's presence is the ultimate audience drawing factor.
Is this series of downsized musical revivals a trend that will continue off-Broadway? It certainly seems headed in that direction. Irish Rep presents at least one musical per season, or, "Whenever I can't stand it any longer not to do one," Moore says. In April 2017, Classic Stage Company will present Stephen Sondheim and John Weideman's Pacific Overtures, directed by one of the masters of musical minimalism, John Doyle (who currently leads the organization and has also helmed their revivals of Passion and Allegro).
But Elliott asserts that, at least in his case, it depended on the specific vision that was brought to the creative table by a star willing to take an unexpected route. "It's this interesting, weird character study, which fits in with what we do at the New Group, and that's what Sutton has embraced. She's got that TV show on now that's a big hit, and this is what she chose to do on her hiatus. She didn't want to do a Broadway show, she wanted to do something that she believed would make her feel fulfilled. To me, that was so moving."