Once a month, a member of the theater community will pull up a chair to our cyber table and join us for a little conversation. I’ll edit the transcripts (removing the truly libelous parts) and post the results here on a Wednesday. For September and the unofficial kick-off of the new theater season, we’re going out guns blazing with the man behind two highly anticipated new musicals…
Jeff Calhoun is one busy man. An acclaimed director/choreographer (Grease, the Tony-winning Deaf West Theatre production of Big River) and veteran performer (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, My One and Only), he’s in demand now more than ever for his inventive staging and passion for telling entertaining stories.
After a day overstuffed with rehearsals for the world premiere of Disney’s Newsies at Paper Mill Playhouse and casting sessions for the Broadway-bound Bonnie & Clyde, he graciously invited me to share some rare down time (and a good strong whiskey) to discuss his career, his big fall premieres and the joys of smelling like Dolly Parton. Perhaps I’d better let him explain…
I’m a serious journalist, so I’m going to start with something very important and serious. You are in the movie of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
I am. And in every gay bar on musical Mondays.
You’re in the locker room/Aggie scene? [Watch it here.]
I’m the quarterback that starts the scene. I say, “Hey Governor…” I forget what my line was but that launches the number that takes us from the locker room to the bus. Then we get a flat tire and there are two people that go up to the top of the bus, and it’s me and my best friend. It was a just a coincidence that the director picked us. So we have a shot together in the movie. Then we get into the old man’s truck and the director was really nice and put me next to the old man…so I had more camera time. And then they let us off and we jump over the fences and we go “tada” and out walks Dolly [Parton] on the front porch.
Did you get to meet Dolly?
Oh! Dolly and I are buds.
Are you kidding me?
No. I just directed the National Tour of 9 to 5. The reason I got that job actually is I had to go down to Nashville and the minute I showed her the picture of us in the whorehouse she said it was divine intervention and it was meant to be and I got the job and we hung out for the next few months.
Everything you expect and hope she’d be and nothing less. She’s absolutely Dolly-perfection. I mean really, no BS. She is everything. And she smells so good.
Really? What does she smell like?
Well, you can imagine. I remember on the Whorehouse movie [writer/director] Colin Higgins used to say, “Dolly, less is more.” And she’d say, “I wish people would quit saying less is more. Where I come from less is less and more is more.”
She puts on the perfume. I got to really love it. You know she’s coming into a room 30 seconds before she enters. You do smell her. I made such a fuss over her beautiful scent, for an opening night present she took me aside and said, “You can’t tell anybody what this is.” And she gave me her scent. So I put it on and her secret service got really upset because they followed me instead of her. That’s how they know where she is!
I can’t tell you what it is. I’m sworn to secrecy. But if I ever I want to smile, I put it on and I go through the day knowing I smell like Dolly.
She has a movie coming out in January [Joyful Noise] and I only mention that because she would come to rehearsals and say, “I just wrote this song for the movie” and sing me a little bit of this gospel thing. But small world, the star of Bonnie and Clyde and Newsies is starring opposite Dolly and Queen Latifah in their movie.
Who is that? Jeremy?
Yes, Jeremy Jordan. Isn’t that crazy? It’s kind of remarkable.
How did you come across Jeremy?
Telsey Casting. Justin Huff brought him in.
You knew right away?
I knew right away, yes. Not everybody did. It just shocks me because talent and charisma to me is such an obvious thing. I was shocked that there were certain people that have a vote that needed to be convinced…He’s extraordinary. When I saw him, it reminded me of the first time I saw Sutton Foster, because I gave Sutton her Equity Card.
You did? On what?
I was doing the national search for women on the The Will Rogers Follies National Tour… I was in Detroit and this beautiful, tall teenager comes up and she was in flip flops. And I’m like, “I can’t believe young kids today. They would go to a dance call in flip flops?!” But even in flip flops you knew you were in the presence of star quality. And so she got that job.
What drew you to Bonnie & Clyde?
The music. I’d met [composer] Frank Wildhorn the year before and a mutual friend thought we’d get along. Frank would give me demos of his shows and…I never though I was right for any of them until this. This is probably the fourth or fifth demo he gave me in a year. I got it home and played it and the first song was just as good as it gets.
Do you remember which song?
It was called “This Never Happened Before” and it’s no longer in the show. Which goes to show you how you can’t be afraid [to cut], nothing is precious. But it’s a perfect song. And then I went, “Well, the second one’s not going to be as good” and it was too good to be true. And then the third one was just as good. And I thought, “How come I have this? How come Susan Stroman doesn’t have this?”
Because when material is that good you think it’s going to go to the hottest director working… That’s what drew me to the show. And the title…it’s a sexy title. It’s got universal appeal. It’s very hard to have an original title and sell tickets. It’s why we’re allowed to create two stars in Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan, because the name is the star of the show.
At the same time you’re working on Newsies, which again comes from a known property, although one that wasn’t as successful. Though, to me, I think it came out at the wrong time.
It was sort of like a High School Musical or Glee before its time. Although it’s still one of the most rented videos…
It is. That’s why we’re doing this. You know that with all the market research, Disney wouldn’t be doing this…
How involved is Disney?
Disney owns the rights and they are partnering with Paper Mill. They get thousands of requests a year from schools to do Newsies, but there’s no such property so the schools just make up their own shows. So Disney thought, “Wow. This is crazy. With that kind of demand we should create a definitive property to license to all these schools.” So they hired Harvey Fierstein and the original composer and lyricist, Alan Menken and Jack Feldman. They adapted it for the stage.
It’s such a fascinating team. When you talk about Harvey and Alan Menken and you in the same sentence…
It’s so weird.
What is like in that room? You think of Alan Menken in such a specific light and Harvey in such a specific light.
It’s very successful people collaborating. But Harvey is a great collaborator. Actually as is Alan, but I spend most of my time with Harvey. It took me a while not to be intimidated because the first time I went to Alan Menken’s house to work, his desk is right under nine Oscars.
I don’t know if it’s intentional but…
And Harvey, of course, has won four Tony awards, I think… Jack Feldman and I are really the only two people that you’ve never heard of.
It’s true. Together, we haven’t won shit.
Do you have a little support group?
Yes. Yes. The “creative people without shit” club. Maybe it will rub off.
What’s it like for you to step back and let someone else be the choreographer?
It’s fantastic. You kind of feel like a parent with kids. Given where I am with four knee surgeries and a back operation, a show will be better with me hiring my favorite choreographer and working with them then it would be with me single handedly trying to direct and choreograph. There’s no question about that. It’s in my best interest to make the show the best show possible. It’s not about my ego. It never really has been. My motto has always been “the best idea wins”… But I do like the idea of having done it and understanding it. I learned from one of the best, if not the best, director/choreographers of our time, Tommy Tune. And I watched how he nurtured me. I hope that Chris [Gattelli] would feel that together, both of our work is better.
Does it feel like there’s a continuity between what Tommy Tune gave to you and now what you’re doing working with choreographers like Chris?
It does. Except, once again, Tommy has nine Tony Awards and Jack and I have none. [laughter]
Did you pursue working with Tommy [as a director/choreographer] or did he see something in you to pull you out of the performing role?
We were in the Kenley Players. I was a chorus boy and he was the star. To be honest, I didn’t know a Tommy Tune from any other tune. So I have to assume he saw something in me. I was 16 years old and I just didn’t know. I have to assume he saw something in me that reminded him of himself as a kid.
How did that relationship grow?
We just sort of became inseparable. He taught me everything I think I know about putting on a show. We got along, not just as friends because we hung out all the time, but we had everything in common, we liked the same things. It was just…next to my parents, he had the greatest influence on my life.
That’s very special.
From 16 until I was…it lasted like 21 years.
What was the last project you worked on together?
Busker Alley. And I thought we would never work together again. What’s been great is that now we are able to be friends and peers, as opposed to me having to rely on him for my paycheck.
It changes the relationship.
Absolutely. Because we did have a bit of a falling out about Busker Alley and, I have to be honest, I felt like Eliza Doolittle at the end of My Fair Lady if you cut the slippers line. And I was sort of adrift for years and it was a very sad time for me. But in retrospect, it was the greatest thing that could have happened because it forced me to forge my own way. And now that I have, our friendship is, in a way, deeper. The irony is, next spring, we’re actually going to work together for the first time in many, many years on a show starring Noah Racey, who is one of the greatest song and dance men of our time. We want to showcase Noah in his own show and so it will be “Tommy Tune presents Noah Racey directed by Jeff Calhoun”. So it’s a nice way for us to have a professional reunion.
That’s amazing. Where is it going to happen?
At the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota, Florida. It’s so great that it’s a song and dance man that brings us back together because that’s what Tommy and I were.
Do you miss performing?
Not at all.
I’m not good enough, first of all. Secondly, as a performer, you’re limited by your physical abilities. As a director, you’re only limited by your imagination.