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First Lady

Director Francesca Zambello discusses preparing The First Wives Club and Little House on the Prairie. logo
Francesca Zambello
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
While she first made her name in the world of opera, Francesca Zambello is now just as home with Wagner as she is with Broadway musicals. She directed Disney's The Little Mermaid, which remains on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre until August 30, and is now behind the wheel for both The First Wives Club, which is having its pre-Broadway tryout at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre with a cast headed by Barbara Walsh, Karen Ziemba, and Sheryl Lee Ralph, and The Little House on the Prairie, which begins a nearly year-long tour at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse in September starring Melissa Gilbert. TheaterMania recently spoke with this internationally renowned stage director about her work.

THEATERMANIA: When did you know you wanted to direct?
FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO: From a pretty early age. I was the kind of kid who got together the local neighborhood kids and I wrote, costumed and directed whatever story we invented. Clearly, I did not even know I was actually directing, but it was that sense of storytelling and drawing people together that was in my DNA. By high school, I was directing plays, and in college I started an alternative theater group to be able to direct things the university theater did not want to present.

TM: After you initially read the book for The First Wives Club and listened to the songs what was your emotional response? And how did you proceed after you took on the project?
FZ: When I came onboard, there were only a few songs written in response to the idea of a musical. They were powerful, captivating, and generated a real visceral response. They spoke to the emotions of the heart and had the Motown groove, which make characters want to physicalize their stories. Then Rupert Holmes joined the project to write the book and we worked with the composers, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland to shape the piece. It became clear to us that we needed to use the film and novel as inspiration, but also we had to make the story speak, not as a period piece, but as a contemporary story. We did not want to parrot the film. For example, setting the story for today made us revamp the performer character, Elyse Elliot, so she became a woman of color who was a big R&B star. Once we knew the characters and had settled on the structure, I evolved a fluid physical landscape to set our story that would evoke the architecture of New York City without being slavishly naturalistic.

Barbara Walsh, Karen Ziemba, and
Sheryl Lee Ralph in The First Wives Club
(© Craig Schwartz)
TM: You manipulate a number of disciplines when creating a musical. How do you begin to share your vision with your co-creators?
FZ: Communication. It is important to start to draw in your collaborators as the script and score evolve. The more input at that point will help shape the work. Once you have a structure in place, you can incorporate everyone's contribution to the storytelling. Sometimes a set informs a new scene, or you see you do not actually need a scene because a dance would tell that part of the story. Just as you want your acting company to be an ensemble, it is the same thing in working with your designers, music team and your choreographer.

TM: Working on a world premiere musical takes Olympian efforts. During the final stretch, such as after the final dress rehearsal and before the first preview, what do you reflect upon?
FZ: There is no time for reflection as there is a constant list on a yellow pad to be done. This time is pure anxiety.

TM: What was the process like transferring the story of Little House on the Prairie from a book and a wildly popular television program to musical theater?
FZ: Like developing all musicals, it was long, arduous, hard, challenging, frustrating, and joyous.

TM What opera projects await you?
FZ: I am completing the Ring Cycle at the Kennedy Center and the San Francisco Opera over the next two years, and this fall, I am directing a charming unknown opera and ballet by Tchaikovsky called The Tsarina's Slippers at the Royal Opera House.


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