Director David Lee has won 9 Emmy Awards for producing, directing and writing such TV megahits as Frasier, Cheers, Wings and The Jeffersons. He has also directed award-winning productions on stage here and in New York, such as Can Can @ the Pasadena Playhouse.
In our interview, he talks about the Reprise Theatre Company, his direction of their upcoming A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, opening March 17, and other theatrical favorites.
I loved your production of Camelot. Was the staging based purely on economics, or did you have other reasons for scaling it down?
Not at all based on economics. I fell in love with the show because of the score but always seemed to be disappointed in it when I saw it--and I saw several incarnations. I always wondered why it always seemed like such a slog to get through despite that score and what at its core is a great story. And I was not alone.As I studied it, it seemed like there was just a lot of extra "stuff". Well intentioned and well written stuff, but nevertheless extra, that made one lose track of the emotional thru line. Even though CAMELOT has big ideas it basically is about the relationship of three people. So just for fun I went through and eliminated everything that didn't directly relate to that core story. What I had left was the same emotionally strong, beautifully written story, a lot shorter show, and room for songs often left out. The discovery that it could be told by only eight actors on a minimal set was a found opportunity. From there it was all theatrical fun figuring out exactly how to do that. I think if my initial goal was to find a cheap way to do CAMELOT I would not have found the piece I ended up with. That it now happens to be economically more feasible for a lot of theaters-is a nice side effect, though.
Can you give away any surprises about your staging of A Funny Thing...?
I am using the book from the 1973 revival (the one with Phil Silvers,directed by Shevelove) , so it will include the song Sondheim wrote for Nancy Walker in that version, "Farewell", and "The Echo Song" , which is usually not heard.
What is the favorite show you've directed so far?
CAN CAN, which I also co-authored a new book for, was a blast. Did it at the Pasadena Playhouse a couple of years ago, and now a national tour is in the works. Loved my "CAMELITTLE" too.
Any show you really want to helm that you haven't yet?
The show where I have a workshop and then eight weeks of rehearsal and a month of previews.
I also loved Do I Hear a Waltz? Hardly ever done. Talk a little about that show.
Like CAMELOT, I had fallen in love with this show because of its score. I had heard, as many had, of the animosity between its authors during production, and because each of them (Sondheim, Rogers, and Laurents) had spoken of their experience with such vitriol, I assumed the show was no good. Then I finally sat down and read it. I thought it was terrific but needed a few tweaks. Just about that time I heard that Laurents and David Saint had done a rewritten version at the George St. Playhouse. I got the script, thought they had totally fixed it, and did it. It's a lovely little show. We did a nice recording of it too which is still available I believe.
Talk briefly about the challenges of doing stage versus film or TV!
In TV you have an idea in January, pitch it in February, write it in March, film it in April and it's on the air that fall. Do you have an example of anything in the theater that has moved faster than molasses in winter?
What is your favorite musical show of all time? Why?
I think SWEENEY TODD is a masterpiece. Not a wasted word or note. About big themes and little people.
You seem to prefer directing musicals to straight plays. Any particular reason?
I always find myself at some point when I direct a play asking "Where's the orchestra?" I like the extra excitement music brings to the theater.
Talk about working with Reprise!
I'm so thrilled I have Reprise as a home base. Not that FORUM fits in this category, but I do tend to like what I call "orphan" shows. Shows that are lacking a bit of attention because they are not perfect or may be a bit too old. Reprise is one of a couple of places that lets me revisit those shows for better or worse. And that's a treasure to have.