There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Eric Schaeffer will probably tell you, if you ask him, that there’s no more perceptive take on the intricacies of theatrical production than Stephen Sondheim’s “Putting It Together,” that vaguely bitter peroration from Sunday in the Park with George. “Having just a vision’s no solution,” Sondheim insists. “Everything depends on execution. The art of making art is putting it together.” The song is all about the ugly side of the creative process—the patron-stroking, the grant-getting, the careful considering of what will or won’t get hung, played, staged, or sung—and what all that takes out of an artist.
But though Schaeffer and his 6-year-old Signature Theatre have made their reputation with intelligent stagings of Sondheim shows like Assassins, Into the Woods, and Passion, and though there’s burning interest in how Signature’s joint production (with Arena Stage) of Sunday in the Park will turn out later this season, it’s not Sondheim and his ideas that local theater types are buzzing about these days. It’s Schaeffer and his ideas—and how some of America’s theatrical heavyweights are starting to listen when Schaeffer talks about putting theater together.
Signature is in the middle of a new production of The Rink, a John Kander/Fred Ebb/Terrence McNally musical about a working-class mother and daughter with a decaying roller-skating palace on their hands and major relationship issues on their minds.
Schaeffer is in the Signature office early on a Monday morning, barefoot and slightly muzzy after what sounds like an uninhibited opening-weekend celebration with the cast the night before. Dead soldiers line the bar in the lobby—Molson, Molson, Molson, champagne bottle, Rolling Rock, Molson, Rolling Rock, champagne bottle—and there are rumors of cast and crew sleeping it off in the green room.
“At some point yesterday, a note went up on the board: ‘Naked Skate at 10 p.m.,’” Schaeffer confesses. “It went downhill from there.” Details are understandably sketchy, but there is some indication that lit sparklers were involved.
Kander and Ebb, the legendary songwriting team responsible for Cabaret and Kiss of the Spider Woman, wrote The Rink in 1984 with McNally, their Spider Woman collaborator and a formidable dramatist in his own right (The Lisbon Traviata, Master Class). The show fizzled on Broadway, opening to great expectations but closing after just over 200 performances, perhaps because critics and audiences couldn’t quite get their minds around the spectacle of divas Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli playing blue-collar types.
The three playwrights revised the piece for a New York workshop production last year, tightening the story, condensing two acts into one, and rearranging the songs. On the strength of that workshop, Schaeffer decided to stage The Rink at Signature, but once he got into rehearsals he realized there was still work to be done. So he did what damn few regional theater directors would have the nerve to do: He asked the authors, multiple Tony-winners all, for more changes.
“I had a meeting with McNally to go over the book,” he says. “There was this whole [flashback] scene he wrote that had this Catholic nun…and some of the male cast dressed as little girls at the prom….But I felt like that part of the show was really starting to crystallize between the two main characters. So I asked him, ‘How would you feel if I cut this scene and these characters out?’”
That takes nerve, and Schaeffer knows it. But he’d been at pains to involve all three of the authors in the Signature production from the first—itself something of a revolutionary move, given that top-flight playwrights frequently aren’t even aware of regional productions of their work until royalty checks arrive. Schaeffer outlined ideas for The Rink’s creators, pumped them for what they’d learned from the workshop, listened to their suggestions on casting. And his efforts paid off.
“Terrence was, like, ‘Go ahead, let’s do it’….He said, ‘If you find in rehearsal that something’s not working and you want to cut it, just cut it. If I don’t like it, I’ll let you know.’”
Schaeffer thinks about that a minute, then laughs at the sheer outrageousness of it: Regional theater director gets carte blanche from Broadway baron to tweak a show.
“I mean, how many times do you get to do that? It’s amazing!”
The fine-tuning continued right up until late in the week of previews at Signature: a new idea for a lyric here, a suggested cut there. Oh, and a new finale, written on the spot after Schaeffer hinted, ever so delicately, that the old new finale (as opposed to the original ending, which had been chucked in the first rewrite) wasn’t working.
“It was this long polka between Anna and Angel about the rink coming down and being turned into a parking lot, and skating, called ‘When the Antonellis Were Here.’ People were gonna remember “greasy fries on plastic plates, lemon ice and coke and beer, when the Antonellis were here.” I just felt it was much too up for the tone of the whole show. And it didn’t really fit with everything else they wrote.”
So he called Kander in New York. But not before he talked to McNally again. “I had a discussion with Terrence, and I said I really didn’t like this new finale, and he said, ‘I’m glad to hear you say that, because I’m not sure it works.’ And I said I have an idea, and he said, ‘Well, I think you should try your idea.’”
Schaeffer broached the subject with Kander, who warned him that Ebb was attached to the new finale. Eventually, though, the songwriters agreed to listen to the version Schaeffer had worked out with music director Jon Kalbfleisch.
“We put it on tape and I FedExed it up to him. The next day we didn’t hear anything, and I was, like, ‘Oh, fuck.’ Everybody was asking if I’d heard from John, and I was, like, ‘No, and I’m afraid to call him.’
“And then he called me on Saturday morning. He said, ‘Eric, I talked to Fred. Let’s do it.’”
Again, remarkable. But not entirely unheard of.
“I’m the original tweaker,” says Ebb, the lyricist half of the Rink songwriting team. “I tend to get nervous about things and want to change them and improve them. And I’m not always right. I keep fixing things that aren’t really broken.”
He admits that once, during a Hartford tryout of a Broadway-bound play, he scrawled new lines in lipstick on an actress’s dressing-room mirror each night, trying desperately to fix a punch line that wasn’t working. “Very inconsiderate to the performer. John has to kind of hold me down.”
Sure enough, Ebb wasn’t finished with The Rink. This time, though, Kander was right alongside. They had come down from New York at Schaeffer’s invitation to look at the show in its last week of rehearsals. McNally was there, too. Two days before the first preview performance, they all went through the script, page by page.
“John and Fred heard the finale, and they were, like, ‘Hmmm. It’s not quite there,’” Schaeffer says. “And John just went over and started playing around on the piano.” He grins boyishly at the memory. “We’re all just sitting around this table, and John Kander’s playing the piano! And Fred Ebb just gets up and starts messing with the lyrics: ‘Johnny, wait. Go back there. What if she said…’”
The two Broadway legends spent another 20 minutes hammering out what amounted to a third revision of the Rink finale, adding a key modulation and a whole new verse while the Signature staffers watched.
“It was really kinda cool,” Schaeffer says, laughing. “Ronnie Gunderson, the stage manager, just went, ‘Somebody pinch me.’”
“Finally, everybody was happy with the music. Fred’s, like, ‘OK, the show is frozen! The show is frozen!’” But it wasn’t: Kander pointed out that with the new version, some of the lyrics didn’t make sense. So they tweaked a little more. “And Fred’s, like, ‘OK, now the show is frozen!’”
So why were Kander and Ebb willing to spend so much time smoothing out what somebody else saw as rough spots in a work they’d already heavily revised? Partly because The Rink is the show closest to their hearts. “The Rink is one of our favorite pieces,” Ebb says, “if not the favorite piece we ever wrote.”
Schaeffer’s gentle courting of the playwrights—the careful suggestions, the consultations, the requests for advice—didn’t go unnoticed, either. “I could tell by the way he treated me and John and Terrence…that he has respect for the authors,” Ebb says. “And that respect shows in his work.”
And Ebb says he sees an unusually collegial style at Signature that other companies would do well to imitate. “What I saw there I was extremely impressed by. The choreographer is in touch with the director is in touch with the scenic designer….It should be a blueprint for all regional theaters.”
But there’s more: They saw in Eric Schaeffer someone who’d be as careful with their show as if he’d written it himself. “It was of real moment to know that someone cared about it the way we do,” Ebb says. “He has my total trust and faith; I knew whatever decisions he made would be for the good of the piece, and I would almost automatically say go ahead.”
How long can it be before a director who inspires that kind of praise jumps the Signature ship for bigger things? Schaeffer won’t talk about it in anything but the vaguest terms. There’s a chance he may go with The Rink to its next regional stop, and maybe even to a New York production. But he knows he’s still got long-term work to do in Washington. Signature’s straight plays don’t generate the kind of excitement or critical acclaim its musicals do, for one thing, and Schaeffer is still trying to figure out how to correct that.
But he’s willing to dream out loud. “I would never abandon this place. But having held down two jobs before, I think you can do outside work.” A few months each year in New York, while maintaining his base at Signature—that might be nice. He weighed an offer recently, he says, that would have had him directing the U.S. tour of a musical now playing in London, but he decided in the end that it wasn’t the right project. And he’s had proposals, he says, from producers interested in trying out musicals at Signature before moving them to Broadway. “If they’re right for the theater, for our mission, we’ll do that. But if it’s not right…”
There’s a chance Signature might take a swing at Muscle, originally intended as a companion piece to Passion but never produced; writer James Lapine is working on revisions now, and may offer the script to Signature first. For now, Schaeffer is pushing to create a brand-new musical for Signature based on a children’s story; he’s been working with writer John Strand, and he’s shopping around for a composer.
If he’s really pressed, Schaeffer will admit to ambition. He’s been thinking how great it would be to direct the premiere of Sondheim’s Wise Guys at the Kennedy Center next year. He’s gone as far as floating the idea with his agent, who’s also Sondheim’s agent. And why not? Sondheim, he says, told him earlier this year, after seeing Signature’s Passion, “You can probably do anything you want.”
“I think that’s really blue-sky,” Schaeffer says. “But then again…”