Over the course of the past two decades, Leigh Silverman has spent most of her time as a director working on new plays, collaborating with writers and helping shepherd their work through years of development. Her partnership with playwright Lisa Kron led to her directing Kron’s quasi-autobiographical Well, which marked Silverman’s Broadway debut 10 years ago. At age 31, she joined that extremely exclusive club of female directors working on Broadway. That group has grown larger in the intervening years, and Silverman herself went on to direct the Broadway premiere of Chinglish by David Henry Hwang, with whom she enjoys an enduring collaborative relationship.
Under Silverman’s sure-footed directorial guidance, several actors and writers have received Tony recognition, but it was for her direction of the 2014 revival of the musical Violet that she finally garnered her first Tony nomination. Now Silverman is directing Violet star Sutton Foster in the New Group’s Off-Broadway revival of the 1966 musical Sweet Charity, playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center. We talked recently to the director about her current production and her relatively new foray into the world of musicals.
We know you best from your work developing new plays, so is it surprising for you to be directing musicals revivals—first Violet and now Sweet Charity?
It was really surprising to me that my big moment of Broadway success came with a musical after spending 18 years developing new plays. Yes, it’s an extraordinary, fantastic left turn in my career that I didn’t see coming. I love musicals and I also love to tell a story. I feel like the thing that’s actually made me a good director of musicals is that I’m so invested in story and character. To be able to bring that to a larger canvas that includes a composer, a music director, and a choreographer, and to bring to it the same rigor that I feel I bring to the plays, has been a really exciting challenge. So when Sutton Foster called and said that she was really interested in doing Sweet Charity, I immediately said “yes.”
Did you take on the project because you worked with Foster on Violet?
Sutton and I were actually at Carnegie Mellon together 20 years ago. She was a year behind me and we were sort of just ships in the night. But I’ve been such a mega fan of hers. Then [composer] Jeanine Tesori asked me do the concert of Violet. And then the concert turned into a show on Broadway. It was truly a miracle. I was so lucky because it allowed Sutton and I to begin this deep relationship. Then we worked together again last year on The Wild Party. I feel like she’s one of my most trusted collaborators now. We share a lot of the same hopes about the ways to make theater and what we hope to get out of it. And she’s also interested in doing things that’re unexpected. She’s a constant source of inspiration both in life and also in work.
Do you have a special take for your production of Sweet Charity?
Of course, Sutton playing Charity is reason enough, but I thought I had to do my work on what makes the show relevant now. Look, this show was made by the masters of musical theater: Bob Fosse, Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, and Dorothy Fields. We don’t need to do that production again because it was told that way to perfection. So the choreographer Joshua Bergasse and I set out to tell the story in a way that it hasn’t been told. At the time, according to the taste and the style of musicals, particularly in Fosse shows, someone would walk into a room and then everybody would dance. There wasn’t the same interest that we have now in keeping our main characters on stage. Also, at the time there were other shows like Cabaret and Chicago, which all had this kind of vaudeville quality; there were short little scenelets, often punctuated with Brechtian devices like signs. All of those devices are gone in our production. Instead, we’ve been looking for ways to keep Charity foregrounded, as well as the dance about Charity’s story and the experience of someone who’s really desperate to change her life but unable to so.
Have you made any changes to the text or the music for this revival?
We’ve made some edits to reflect the fact that I have a cast of 12 and not 28. So, a lot of change just comes from the cast size and the doubling, trebling, and quadrupling that I’m doing. We’re keeping Charity in some of the bigger group numbers that she isn’t usually in for the sake of keeping her story always in the foreground. And with the musical arrangements, by the brilliant Mary Mitchell Campbell, it’s a very different way, sonically, to tell the story. Mary Mitchell, who did that new arrangement of Company with Raúl Esparza, really knows how to take a sound that’s beautiful and stay pure to how it was intended and also update it. I have a six-person all-female band, so there’s no big orchestra. And I would say we had some big ideas on how to reconceive some of the numbers, which is reflected sonically and also in performance. An example is “I’m a Brass Band.” We made some artistic choices based on the fact that we have a lead character singing about a brass band but we have no brass. So what does that tell us about that character and how do we make that part of the storytelling of that song?
I also really wanted the production to be intimate. I didn’t want to do it on a proscenium stage. So, “Big Spender” can’t be a bunch of women behind a bar, because that immediately changes the way the number is received. It’s forced Josh and I and Derek McLane, who’s doing our sets, to think about how to hold on to the original’s intent, but change the staging to include new ideas.
Did you refer to the Nights of Cabiria, the Federico Fellini film on which the musical is based?
Oh, sure. That film is incredible and I studied it quite a bit because I was fascinated with the way that Fellini told that story. That woman [played by Giulietta Masina] is such an incredible hot mess and yet we care about her so much. I like to put complicated women on stage. Charity is no exception. She’s a mess, as we all are.
You might find this question irritating, but would you say that this production differs from others because it’s being directed by a woman? I ask because Sweet Charity embodies a certain male view of the world.
I love that quesiton and I hate that question, and I think about it a lot. I love that question because it gives me a chance to say that there are all kinds of ways that being a female director is different. And it’s interesting to me because there hasn’t been a major revival of Sweet Charity directed by a woman. The paradox of Charity—that she’s so empowered and so disempowered—is for me what makes her a very important character for us to see on stage. I have a lot of investment in seeing a Charity that isn’t a hooker with a heart of gold and isn’t seen in the stereotypical cutesy way that she’s been seen. I think that—and this is to Sutton’s great credit and her skill—we’re going to see so many sides of Charity. In the entire show, Charity is only off stage for two mintues and 20 seconds. I don’t know a lot of women who can hold the audience so carefully and with such great joy as Sutton does. So it feels like Sweet Charity is very tailor-made for Sutton.
Was it a deliberate choice to use an all-female band for this production?
Yes, aboslutely. Because Charity dances for men for a living, it felt really right to me that the music that came out of her was music made by women. The actual heart of the show—the female heart of the show—hasn’t really been seen in quite this way. It felt to me that if we’re only going to have six musicians, we keep them in the room—and the way that music wants to be played feels really different when it’s woman playing that music.
What was the most challenging thing about directing this revival for you?
Sweet Charity is tonally a very difficult show. There’s a lot of hilarious comedy, as the writing is so funny and I want to preserve all of that, but there’s also a very dark world that Charity lives in, and it’s all inside a big confection of musical theater. I think the biggest challenge for me is how to embrace the tonal shifts and let wierdness of them be the virtue of the show and not a detriment. I want to embrace the form and at the same time I don’t want to sanitize the world that she’s living in. How do we guide the audience so they feel free to laugh and also feel free to feel Charity’s pain? It’s an opportunity for people to get re-excited about the show. I hope it feels familiar and also feels incredibly fresh.