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Where Theatre History Is Born

I have always loved to look at the pictures in those big, beautiful coffee table books about the history of Broadway and dream about the golden age of musicals. You know the pictures I mean - Rodgers and Hammerstein at a piano covered in sheet music, Sondheim and Stritch in a recording studio…

You can almost feel the energy and pulse of those rooms, where theatre magic was being born. And you may think that those are moments from a time long-gone…until you find yourself working in just such a room.

Last week, I closed “First Daughter Suite”[1] at The Public Theater and it was one of the most incredible experiences of my career. To sit in a rehearsal room with nine of Broadway’s greatest divas[2] while 5-time Tony nominee Michael John LaChiusa writes a song for them was exhilarating to say the least!

Broadway Up Close guides you all around the bright lights of Broadway, but just 35 blocks south, in the heart of the Village, lives The Public Theater – a most magical place! Often, before shows make it to the Great White Way, they are incubated downtown! When you’re talking about the developmental ground upon which the most cutting edge musicals are made these days, you may not be talking about 42nd Street. Ever heard of “Hamilton”? “Fun Home”? Both started at The Public.

In the fifties, Joe Papp founded The Shakespeare Workshop in order to give up-and-coming playwrights and performers a place in which to grow. In 1967, he turned the old Astor Library[3] into what is now The Public Theater and it opened with the original production of “Hair”! In 1975, the original production of “A Chorus Line” was born there! Clearly if you want to stay ahead of the curve of history, you need to keep up with The Public Theatre!

To get to work, simultaneously, in a library from the 1800s and a legendary theater, is truly sublime. To get to create a new musical with ladies whom I’ve listened to on original cast recordings over and over and over, is an embarrassment of riches. And to do it on a Michael John LaChiusa show?! I count my lucky stage manager stars! I love working on original productions because they keep me and my team incredibly busy. Just when we thought the script was complete, Michael John wrote a new song for Caissie Levy.[4] Just when we’d timed out a tricky cue sequence for lights and sound, three pages of material was cut. We had 15 preview performances and each one was different than the one before! As we rushed to type up the list of changes going in each night, I would think This is what it must have been like for Rodgers and Hammerstein...minus the laptops! The thrilling anticipation of hearing an audience react to brand-new lyrics. The nerves as you approach a complicated sequence you didn’t have quite enough time to rehearse. The pride that fills you up as the cast takes their final curtain call to a much-deserved standing ovation.

As a lover of history, a lover of theatre history and a lover of musicals, the last few months were pretty darn special for me. I have had the great fortune to work on many new works with many amazing artists, but this show was particularly magical. The charmed thing about working on a show like “First Daughter Suite” at a place like The Public Theater is that we weren’t just doing a show about our history; we were a part of theatre history in the making.

[1] A musical fantasia focusing on four First Ladies and their daughters

[2] “Diva” in only the wonderful sense of the word! Mary Testa, Barbara Walsh, Alison Fraser, Theresa McCarthy, Rachel Bay Jones, Caissie Levy, Betsy Morgan, Isabel Santiago, Carly Tamer.

[3] Named for John Jacob Astor, America’s first multi-millionaire. He opened it in 1864 and it eventually merged with the Lenox Library to become…the New York Public Library! The lions outside the 42nd Street branch were originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, for the two founders. Mayor LaGuardia renamed them “Patience” and “Fortitude” during the Depression.

[4] And it was an awesome song.

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