The Tonys are right around the corner, so we’re chatting with the men who made the most-nominated play of the year fly. Last week, the witty and winning playwright Rick Elice filled us in on the making of Peter and the Starcatcher and his other Broadway hit, Jersey Boys. This week, the co-directors of the show, Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) and Roger Rees (The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Cheers and more), play email interview with me.
What’s worth noting here is that these two men from such diverse backgrounds reply in such different ways: the young and voluble Timbers giving intricately thoughtful answers, the seasoned and erudite Rees dropping mysteriously cheeky haikus. With this kind of partnership, it’s no wonder the show they directed is such a joyous mash-up of styles and techniques.
First up, Alex Timbers:
Peter and the Starcatcher has an exhilarating anything goes, cultural mash-up quality that infuses much of your work (whether Peter’s British Panto meets 19th century boy’s adventure story or Bloody Bloody’s rock concert meets historical bio). How do you work to integrate these juxtapositions in your direction? Was there anything you tried that you felt was too out of place as an anachronism or as a cultural reference?
I love juxtaposing seemingly dissonant ideas and periods in order to better illuminate each and give us fresh perspective on what we think we already know. It’s also a great, fun tool for delivering exposition. Overall I don’t have a set of rules as to when something fits or when something doesn’t; instinct is really my guide as I’m developing the world and the show’s unique sensibility. Unlike on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson though, I’m not the playwright of Peter and the Starcatcher so those questions fell mainly on the shoulders of our talented writer Rick Elice. I would say generally we found in the move from downtown to uptown that on “Peter” less was more. So a lot of the contemporary references, including an entire modern infomercial sequence in the first act, were cut.
How do you know when to edit when the worlds of the shows feel so open?
Story is key, so is pace. And therefore concision is your friend. The novel that Peter is based on is quite expansive, and big choices had to made when deciding what was in the world. Our first decisions were fundamental: let’s have 2 ships instead of 3; the first act will be at sea, the second on land; let’s have 3 orphans instead of 5; unlike the book, Peter won’t fly until the end of the play. Later, even after the New York Theatre Workshop production, we combed through the script beat-by-beat asking ourselves, “Does this moment advance the story or reveal character in a new and interesting way?” If it didn’t—even if it was a hilarious or visually spectacular moment—it had to go.
You co-directed Peter with Roger Rees. How did that collaboration actually work in the rehearsal room? Was it Bad cop/Good cop? Mom and Dad? Spokesperson/Silent Partner?
Co-directing a play was a new experience for both Roger and me, but we enjoyed it. There weren’t any defined roles as to our dynamic with the actors. The show is so technically complicated that it is great to have two eyes on it at once.
We can list the ways that you and Roger seem to be so different, but what do you think you have in common? What drew you together and why was it right for this particular project?
Roger and I respect each other and believe we have a lot to learn from one another. Our backgrounds are quite different, and that’s an asset. Just as important, our strong friendship has guided us through the creative process as we decided, along with Rick Elice and our invaluable dramaturg Ken Cerniglia, on what the show should be.
You seem drawn to works that are envelope pushing and of the cultural moment…so much so that it is hard to envision you taking on a job as director of, say, Oklahoma. Which classic musical would you most enjoy getting your hands on and why? Would you feel it needs a revisionist twist or can you imagine playing it “straight”?
I’ve never made a conscious choice to steer clear of directing revivals but have just happily gotten waylaid by a wealth of great writers asking me to work with them on original shows. When Bobby and Kristen Lopez or Ahrens and Flaherty want to develop a new musical with you, you of course jump at the chance. But I love the long history of musicals, and there are so many I’m eager to direct. Some of my favorites have been produced in New York recently: How to Succeed, Merrily We Roll Along, Out of this World, and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Or there are those productions that are so transcendent that it would be hard to imagine following them up, like Des McAnuff’s Tommy. That said, two shows I think about a lot are In Trousers and The Robber Bridegroom. The score for In Trousers is one I treasure. And Robber of course shares my sensibility in spades. Its humor, style of bluegrass, and metatheatricality today feel incredibly modern and inventive.
There has been much buzzing about your transition to possible film work. What will you be working on? If you could choose any of your theater work to adapt to a film world, what would it be and why? Which show would never work on film?
Right now I’m helping MGM develop a really cool film called Heck. It’s a fantasy adventure set in a fun, comic version of the underworld. The vibe is a cross between Beetlejuice and Labyrinth. I’m not sure how great any of my theater projects would be as movies. If I’ve succeeded, then they’re innately theatrical beasts, I suppose. Hell House, Heddatron, and Gutenberg would all make lousy films, and that’s what makes them such great theater.
The enduring appeal of the Peter Pan story is bound up in our wish to be a child again and never have to be a grown up. Was there a moment in your professional or personal life when you finally knew you were “all grown up”? What is one thing that always makes you feel like a kid again?
There’s a moment or two on any large show where you become aware of the scale of the budget, and there’s a real responsibility there to your job as director that’s significant. Taking responsibility for your actions is a key to growing up, and I think the balance one needs to find as a Broadway theater director is between taking that responsibility to the show’s scale seriously while still allowing yourself the mental freedom to experiment and create. Specifically I feel most free and happy when working on a new comedic bit with a favorite actor like Greg Hildreth or in tech trying out some new visual trick with my designers. That sense of discovery and friendship is when working on a play truly feels like “play.”
From Roger Rees:
Peter and the Starcatcher overflows with the love of performing and theater. Does the actor part of you ever wish you could hop up on stage?
I’ve fun enough already sharing directing responsibilities with Alex; it’s a lovely job.
I asked Alex the same thing, but I’m curious about your take. It’s easy to point out the differences between you and your co-director but what do you think you have in common?
Maybe our recognizable differences are what we have in common?
I loved how passionate and supportive you were as the Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival; you literally seemed to glow. What did that experience mean to you and how has it influenced your career and your feelings about theater?
This is a disappointing answer, however, I glowed long before Williamstown – I took it there with me; I still have it. I learned it from some great people.
It is exactly 30 years since you won a Tony as Best Actor in a Play for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and now you’re back nominated as Best Director of a Play. Compare what it means to you to be nominated now versus then?
I’ve no comparative reference; I was in Bangkok when I won in 1982.
Peter is in some one respect an origin story, a look at the moment a boy became Peter Pan. What would be the moment in your life or career that you can pinpoint as your “origin” story — a particularly influential time or decision that shaped the person you are today?
I never knew I started, and I’ve no plans to finish.