Seek out and interview 12 of the most creative and highly respected directors of the American musical theatre, and let them reveal how they went about directing some of the most important and influential musicals of the 20th century. No easy task, but that’s exactly what Lawrence Thelen (’93 M.A.) successfully accomplished in his new book, The Show Makers: Great Directors of the American Musical Theatre.
The book brings together the wide-ranging and diverse approaches of its contributors, and reading it is like bringing these famous directors into your own living room for a casual, yet highly informative chat that is peppered with such phrases as “it’s OK to be bad, but not boring” or “the enemy of excellence is good.” The directors—Martin Charnin, Graciela Daniel, James Lapine, Arthur Laurents, Richard Maltby, Jr., Des McAnuff, Mike Ockrent, Tom O’Horgan, Harold Prince, Jerome Robbins, George Wolfe, and Jerry Zaks—reveal their individual approaches, their inspirations, and what they believe the future holds for musical theatre. As different as they are from one another, the common threads in their stories are their ever-present desire to learn and their adventurous spirit.
Each chapter is devoted to a specific director, and each of Thelen’s lively portraits is accompanied by a brief outline of the career and significance of the director being interviewed, including key productions and bibliographical data. Theatre is a collaborative art form, and the directors tell us how they go about empowering actors, designers, and others to achieve a particular vision for their productions. Arthur Laurents tells us, for example, that directors “must be secure enough with themselves and their talent to trust other people.” All of the directors share with us anecdotes of their careers, such as Tom O’Horgan’s use of insect imagery in Jesus Christ Superstar or Arthur Lawrence discovering Barbara Streisand in I Can Get It for You Wholesale.
The role of stage director, whether for musicals or straight plays, is all-encompassing: storyteller, interpreter, collaborator, people-manager, producer, visual artist, counselor, literary consultant, and creative artist. What makes this book eminently enjoyable is that the role of the director in the American musical theatre is explained by the directors themselves. And by listening to them it becomes increasingly obvious that there is no single approach for directing musicals. By comparing and contrasting one director against another, the book is obviously a great resource for student directors. But this is not just a book for aspiring musical theatre directors. Anyone interested in the creative process or bringing out creativity in others will find it hard to put this book down.
— Terry Converse, associate professor, WSU School of Music and Theatre Arts