An Interview with Susan Stroman

 Written by Victoria Myers

August 27th, 2014

Let’s just start with some facts. Susan Stroman has won five Tony Awards and has an additional nine nominations. She’s the first woman to ever win the Tony Award for Best Direction and Choreography at the same time. Her production of The Producers won a record twelve Tony Awards and made a record-breaking $3.5 million dollars in one day—because, yes, female-helmed shows can be critical and commercial hits. In the 2013-14 Broadway season, she opened Big Fish and Bullets Over Broadway, making her the first woman to ever open two new musicals on Broadway in the same season. She is also the first woman to ever choreograph a full-length ballet for the New York City Ballet. Coming up, her production of Little Dancer will be seen at The Kennedy Center, and she will direct The Merry Widow at the Metropolitan Opera. Okay, so those are facts, but what numbers fail to capture is the influence that Susan Stroman has had on the theatre. The scope of her work encompasses theatrical innovation and a sense of bringing Broadway back to itself. And then there’s her effect on women in theatre. There is no doubt that there are women pursuing theatre and succeeding because of Susan Stroman. Expectation can be a tricky thing—something she spoke to us about—but we’re glad to say she exceeded every one we had about what she’d be like: smart, funny, kind, and generous. Yet, when we think back on our conversation with her, there is one thing that stands out. She left us with a feeling of hope, of things being possible, and like all doors could be opened. A trademark of Stroman choreography is her amazing use of space and props—people dance on top of cars and over sofas. We’d jump on top of a car or over a sofa for her anytime.

(i.) Present

We’re really interested in the dialogue between different mediums. Your next show, Little Dancer, touches on a few different art forms. Would you mind telling us about it?
Well, Little Dancer is a musical, but it’s a real cross-fertilization of art, musical theatre, and classical ballet. You don’t really find all of those together in theatre pieces, so what I love about it is that it is something that has never been done before. I always would see that statue [Little Dancer Aged Fourteen] as a child—anybody who’s been in dancing school knows that statue very well—and I would always wonder who this little girl was, and my collaborators, [lyricist/book writer] Lynn Ahrens and [composer] Stephen Flaherty, felt the same way. One day Lynn said to me, “Have you ever thought about what that little girl is thinking about?” and I said, “Yes, of course !” So we started to work on a musical together. It’s not only a very famous statue that has inspired many little girls to dance, but what’s interesting about it is that when Degas created the statue he got the worst reviews he ever got in his life. He was so upset that he put it in his closet and it didn’t come out until forty years later when he died. And, when it did finally come out, it was hailed as one of the ten greatest statues. So the show is about art not recognized in its time.

We’re always interested in how women’s identities are shaped. It sounds like it touches on that as well?
It does, indeed. [The character] Marie is based on a historical person, and she had a younger sister and an older sister. The younger sister became a very famous ballerina and a very respected teacher at the Paris Opera Ballet. Her older sister, sadly, became a prostitute. Marie disappeared. No one knows what happened to her. She wanted to be a famous ballet dancer and, in fact, through Degas she became the most famous dancer of all.

You’re also directing The Merry Widow at The Met this winter. Opera always seems so heightened and theatrical. Does preparing for that give you a new perspective?
Well, what’s interesting is in the opera world you actually tech the show before you direct it. So I have just come from two weeks at the opera working on the sets and getting the lighting sorted and the set transitions. But, in fact, I don’t actually start rehearsing it until November. It’s a different world there because they work in repertoire. So, for me, it’s been embracing the different way of working. I find it very interesting. They’re amazingly wonderful people. And that space is inspiring; when you think of all the very famous opera stars that have come through there, and the famous operas, and what’s been sung there. Even when I rehearse down in the bowels of the Metropolitan Opera, you can’t help but think why The Phantom of the Opera was inspired by what happens in the bowels of the opera house. You hear music all the time. In the distance you hear sopranos, in the distance violins. It has a mystery about it and [is] so classical and I love it. I absolutely love it. Now, The Merry Widow is a bit more of an operetta because it has some dialogue in it and it’s a comedy. Renée Fleming is starring. She is The Merry Widow. It’s the first time she’s doing this role, so it’s a brand new production. But what’s wonderful about it is that it’s an opera that has gone through many, many years and is very famous and has stood the test of time, and it’s about a woman who gets what she wants, even back in the turn of the century—gets exactly what she wants. So I find the story very pertinent for today.

(ii.) Space

You mentioned the space of The Met being evocative. How does the actual physical space of the theatre affect your work?
Every space that I use is very different. Doing something like The Scottsboro Boys at the Vineyard Theatre is very different—the size of the space is very different, and the way the audience is raked up is different—than say the St. James for Bullets Over Broadway. And then the opera is so grand and so huge. So it does affect how you visualize. For the opera, there are about 65-70 people on stage, so that’s very different than The Scottsboro Boys , which was thirteen people, and in Bullets Over Broadway, there’s twenty-five people. It’s all very different, but the space does play a big part in the story. So when I’m creating a piece, I do want to take it to a place that’s appropriate. For something like Little Dancer, the original statue that Degas sculpted is actually at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. so it seemed the perfect place to take it to was the Kennedy Center.

And The Scottsboro Boys is playing in London?
The Scottsboro Boys is opening on The West End in London, which is great. That happens in September. It just had a sold out run at the Young Vic, so it’s moving to the West End. There are five Americans in it, but the rest are British.

(iii.) Stories and Music

You’ve crossed so many cultural divides in your career and, as part of that, you’ve directed shows like Contact and Double Feature that are dance, but have very strong narratives. You’ve spoken about visualizing music, but how does the story part come in?
I am a storyteller, and I grew up with a father who told “big fish” stories so storytelling is very much a part of me. It was a part of my family. It is true that I visualize music and, as I visualize music, I have some sort of story running in my head, all the time. I know a lot of choreographers prefer to do abstract dance and not be bothered with a story, but even when I’m asked to do classical ballet or a modern piece I still want to tell a story. It’s something that’s inside me. I tell stories through dance, and I think that’s why I’m so attracted to the theatre because even the choreography in theatre moves the plot forward at all times.

When you read a novel do you hear music in your head as you’re going?
I do. Absolutely. Even when I read a novel. And, of course, I always imagine what’s happening at the end of the page—the very last thing that I read—I always wonder what happens next.

So it’s almost instantaneous that you hear a story and then there’s music?
It is instantaneous. It’s very much a part of me. I love many different styles of music: jazz and Latin jazz and classical and then good old Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Is there a novel you’d like to adapt to the stage?
Yes, yes. There are several. I’d love to take Philip Roth’s novel called Nemesis and make it into a theatre piece. And also Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; I’d love to do a theatre piece on that. And even that latest hit The Goldfinch.

(iv.) Art

Is there a type of cultural collaboration that you haven’t done yet that you would like to do?
Let’s see! I love art, and I find myself at the MoMA all the time. Museums are a real refuge for me. I go to a museum for any break that I have, and I’m very inspired by art. So I think that would be a wonderful thing—to collaborate with an artist. I would love to do that.

When you’re walking through a museum do you have a soundtrack of music in your head?
I do. You know, the first piece in ContactContact was done in three stories, and the very first piece was based on the Fragonard painting The Swing . And that came to me while I was staring at The Swing and thinking, “What does that painting really mean? What’s really going on in that painting?”

Your shows are always very visual.
When you do the theatre, you collaborate a great deal with your set designer and your costume designer. So it’s very much a part of me. In Bullets Over Broadway, I worked very closely with William Ivey Long, the costume designer, to create costumes that would be evocative of the 1920s. And with Santo Loquasto, the set designer, to make sure the set really is about New York City in the 1920s, and really evoked the roaring twenties of gangsters and girls and prohibition. So the collaboration is always very strong with the visual artists on the team.

(v.) Actors

You’ve worked with actors from all different backgrounds and who, no doubt, have different processes. That seems like it would be one of the trickiest parts of directing. How do you balance that?
That’s a very interesting question because you have to recognize, right away, how an actor works. Some actors are very quick. Some actors are very slow. Some actors need a process that’s very much like The Method, which is very deep and every aspect of it is analyzed. Other actors need no help at all and want to find things themselves. You do need to recognize that, and try to give the actor what he or she needs. And that can even be how you call rehearsal time—how you bring in some actors and not others, and bring them in at different times. Because, in the end, you want the best result from your actors, so you do have to respect how they rehearse and try to give it to them.

Have you ever thought about directing a play?
Yes! Yes, I would love to direct a play. But I think when people look at me they see music and dancing and singing. Maybe someday.

(vi.) Groundbreaker

You’ve directed Broadway musicals that are basically blockbusters. If they were movies, a lot would be made of the fact that a woman was helming projects like that. Yet it seems like on Broadway less is made of it, but the fanfare is equally needed. Why do you think that is?
It’s true. You know, when I first started in the business it was really male-dominated. For a very long time. That is starting to change—I would say it’s starting to change in the last ten years—you see many more women directing. But when I first started, it was really male-dominated, so it’s just recently that other women have been—whether the word is “allowed” to direct I don’t know—but you do find more women. Now I do feel, when I really analyze these things, that women are criticized more than men; that’s in politics and every art form. I think a woman who is successful is critiqued more harshly than a man is critiqued. So I think that sometimes can be hard on women. It can be like, “why bother?” a little bit. But when you’re in the theatre—at least when I am—I consider myself a worker bee in the sense of I do the work, and I love the work of it. You don’t do any show to be celebrated. In fact, you don’t do any show thinking what’s going to happen in the end. You immerse yourself in a room full of talent and a room full of designers and you hope for the best. You really don’t come up for air until the first preview when there’s an audience. Otherwise, you’re just working on the piece and enjoying the artfulness of it. Whether one is celebrated at the end is not something one strives for. I love the work so much. I love the collaboration with all the different types of artists. I feel the theatre is the most unique one of all [the arts] for collaboration. I feel very fortunate to be in a field where I really do get to have long conversations with the visual artists, the actors, the musicians. It’s all art forms rolled into one and I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.

Do you feel there might be greater expectations put on you because you are a prominent female director?
Yes. I think it goes with what I was saying before about women, in anything they’re becoming more known for, getting criticized more harshly. So yes.

It seems like it would be daunting to have that much pressure put on you as arguably the most prominent female director on Broadway. But that might be a very outside perspective of what it is. How do you deal with those expectations? Or do you block them out?
Yeah, I block them out. When you’re in it, you’re in it. It’s later on you hear those things. If you love your art, and you’re immersed in it, that’s all you really care about—and that’s all you should care about.

Going along with women being criticized more, do you think your work is discussed differently than it would be if you were a man?
It’s tricky, I think. Because it’s been male-dominated for so long, I think people feel more comfortable with a man in charge, so they’re less likely to criticize, but when a woman steps forward and is in charge, it’s sort of like open season. And it’s not just in the theatre. It’s everywhere. I suppose as women become more equal in these different forms that are male-dominated, that will subside. But right now it is definitely something that is evident.

When you were younger, did you have a conversation with yourself like: I’m a woman and I’m in charge, and people might have an attitude about that, so I need to think about how I present myself?
When I started, which would be like 35 years ago, I actually would do everything I could to dress down. I would make sure that I didn’t wear makeup, and wore almost a suit, and put on a baseball cap. I wanted to make sure that my femininity would not get in the way of anything. Now I do not think women should do that today. And I wouldn’t do it today. But when I started out it was definitely something I felt I had to do. I thought, “If I’m going to get this job, I can’t look like a babe,” you know? So I was indeed aware of it when I started out. But now, no. And now, no, I don’t think women should do that today. At all. They should go looking fabulous and they should be themselves. I really believe that. But not when I started out. It was a different time.

(vii.) Representation

Do you think there are questions the theatre community should be asking about gender parity that are not being asked?
Yes, I think so. The theatre community, when a team is put together, should say, “How many women are on this team?” And, “Do we have the capability and room to put more women on this team?” Yes, I think they should be asking those questions.

We’ve seen changes in technology that make it easier for there to be more diverse voices in film and TV. Theatre hasn’t benefited from that so much. From your perspective, do you think there’s something the theatre community is missing in terms of opening things up to more voices?
What’s interesting about the theatre too is that it disappears—when a show closes it just disappears. It’s not quite like a film that lives on forever. It is an art form that you know has an ending. And what’s exciting about the theatre is that it’s live, and that it’s live every night. When that cast does that show they are doing it for that specific audience, and it will never be the same for any other audience. So that is what is very special about the theatre and different than the film or TV world. And I think it will probably always remain that way. There are talks of filming shows now and allowing them to go out in more places, but I don’t know if that will ultimately ever happen. I think theatres will always remain a sacred place where people go for something live and [to] experience things live, which is very different than the experience of film. I mean, you can’t remember what movie you saw two weeks ago, but you can remember what Broadway show you saw two weeks ago and where you ate dinner—everything about it. There’s something about live theatre that hits you in the heart. But as far as getting it out there, I feel it would be great if there were more organizations for women to observe and to partake in the different art forms that are involved in the theatre. My union the SDC [Stage Directors and Choreographers Union] has an observership program for young, upcoming directors to observe—and I always choose a woman. I always have a young woman observe whatever show I’m doing. I’ve chosen a young woman for Little Dancer to observe and she hopes to be a director someday. But they should do that with everybody, like the set designers and the costume designers and musicians and everybody. I think allowing women to observe the different art forms that they might long to do is a wonderful thing, and a lot of those young women whom I’ve had observe on all of my shows have gone on to become directors and choreographers.

(viii.) Economics

Broadway shows are expensive to produce—it’s expensive just to keep the lights on—do you think there’s something about the infrastructure of Broadway that could be adjusted to open it up to more voices?
I think producing has become more difficult now because things are more expensive. In the olden days there was one big producer, whether it was David Merrick or Hal Prince—there was always one famous impresario who would produce your shows. But now, if you look at the number of producers above the title of a musical, there’s like seventeen people. It just takes a lot of investors and a lot of people to put on a show. The costs are exorbitant for stagehands and crews and theatre rentals. And theatre owners are probably the ones who make the most money of all. But I’m not sure how to re-think the producing end. And [as another thing that should happen], I know they do it a little bit, is rush tickets for students, and I think that’s very important. I think even hit shows should allow students to come in and watch for hardly anything. But it is difficult to figure out a new way to produce. I know someone would love to do that, but I don’t know if it’s in the cards that it’s going to change soon, because I know how expensive things are. It is a miracle a musical gets up because of all the different departments and how much it costs. It is a miracle.

(ix.) Past

What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
When I was little my brother took me to see the movie musical The Sound of Music and I was really taken by it. It was not only this wonderful, jolly musical about this family, but it also touched on important issues about Nazi Germany and what was happening in Europe at that time. So I couldn’t believe that I was watching a story that was not only a lovely, fun story but that had such deep and profound aspects to it. I wasn’t sure what everyone was talking about, but I knew it was serious. So I think that was the first time—watching The Sound of Music and knowing about that story. I thought it really encompassed more than just a normal short story that a child might know. I knew it was a big story.

What was the first piece of music that had a major impact on you?
I was a bumblebee in my dance recital and the song was Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee. And that was the last time I wore horizontal stripes, I think. That was the song that I learned to sing as a little kid and danced around to.

What shaped your sense of humor?
My father was very funny, so I grew up with humor in the house. And I was always really attracted to comedies on TV. I was always really attracted to comics. I’m very fortunate to have worked with Mel Brooks and have Mel Brooks as one of my best friends. And to have worked with Woody Allen. I’m very lucky that these very funny artists have come my way. I think I understand it in a sense too. And I’m always there to support the comic and be there for them, and help them do what they do best.

(x.) Defining Moments

What was the first moment where you felt like a grown up?
I don’t know that that’s happened yet. I think probably… well… let’s see… I don’t think it’s happened yet.

Do you have any moments you feel were very definitive in your creative development?
Well, something like Contact, I think, was very definitive in my career and in my life. It was a show that wasn’t based on a book or a movie or anything, and it ran for three and a half years at Lincoln Center. And it really moved people. People were taken by it. So I think that particular show, because I created it just from visions. I think that’s the one show that probably means the most to me.

(xi.) Movie Musicals

So many people who grow up far from Broadway are informed by movie musicals. How do you think they shaped your sensibilities?
Watching movie musicals did shape it. I grew up watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie musicals, and it was always a big deal in my house when they came on TV. It was made into a big deal—my father, my mother, everything would stop—you’d eat dinner in front of the TV if one of those movies was on. Any kind of Fred Astaire movie. And I was able to recognize, as a child even, how the music would support everything that Fred Astaire did. I was able to recognize that, and I’ve been able to apply that to my own work. I think I was influenced a great deal by Astaire. And I think by my parents making it a big deal—showing me that there was no one like this and there never will be. And they were right.

What are your top five favorite movie musicals?

  1. Top Hat
  2. The Bandwagon
  3. Swing Time
  4. Center Stage (because I worked on that one)
  5. Holiday Inn

(xii.) Heroes

Who were your heroes growing up?
I aspired to be like Jerome Robbins, who was a very famous choreographer, because whenever he choreographed he’d choreograph in character—they wouldn’t stop being a sailor, they would dance like a sailor. He really did dance in character and I loved that. Balanchine and Robbins and Astaire, I think, were my heroes choreographically. I think though the biggest heroes in my life would have been both my mother and father. My father because he was very brave and a kid from the Depression. And my mother, a child from the Depression too, who always remained so lovely her whole life. And for how much they brought music into my life. I think music really does shape a child—and art [shapes a child]—and they introduced all of that to me. You know, I grew up in a very working class household, and somehow they made the effort and made the time to bring art into my life. So my mom and dad would be my big heroes.

Did they always make you feel like you could be anything you wanted to be? And that going into the arts was a complete possibility?
Yes, they did. And as difficult as they knew the arts were to take a chance on, I think they always felt that people who were involved with the arts were good people. And I think that’s why they steered me that way.

Did they look at it as a higher calling?
I think they might have. Although, I know that they thought it was—not dangerous, but possibly might not be lucrative—they thought it would be a gamble and sort of a gypsy lifestyle. But I think they always thought the arts really shaped one as a person; I think that was more important to them.

Who are your heroes now? Who do you look to for inspiration?
Well, I have to say, I’m inspired by a lot of female artists. People like Kara Walker. I’m inspired by Hillary [Clinton]. And novelists—Donna Tartt who wrote The Goldfinch. I’m inspired by all of those women who have accomplished things in their different fields. Absolutely.

(xiii.) Bravery

You wanted to choreograph and direct from the time you were quite young. Did you ever have a moment of, “All of my idols doing this are men and I am not?”
My father was a wonderful piano player, and I was that little girl that would dance around the living room when he would play the piano. I would create dance, create movement, and create stories when he would play. And that’s from ever since I was about five. But I don’t think I was consciously ever aware that it was always a man. I don’t think I was. Not until I was in it, and all of a sudden had to put a baseball cap on. I don’t think I was consciously aware of that until I went out to grab it.

We’ve been frequently quoting Lucille Ball’s advice to young actresses which is, “Develop as a person first and artist second.” What would your advice to emerging artists be?
I always say that you can’t be afraid to ask the question. What’s the worst that could happen? The answer could be “no” and you go on. But you’d be surprised. If you really want to do something you should go after it and ask that question: “Can I do this? Can I make your book into a musical? Can I take your show off-Broadway?” Go up to someone you admire and ask, “Can I observe you when you work?” The worst that happens is someone says no. But you should always try to ask the question of people you admire or something you want to do because some people are too afraid to even ask.

Do you consider yourself to be brave?
Yes, I do consider myself brave. I do feel like I have something in me that believes to be brave.

What do you think informed that sensibility?
My father. He definitely perceived himself as very brave. And I bought it.

(xiv.) Future

What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
I think there should be more programs allowing women to observe and assist. Women coming out of colleges, women coming out of different art schools, there should be more programs put in place for women. There could be more celebration of women artists or celebration of when there’s a group of women artists—composers or lyricists or directors or choreographers. More of a celebration of women. To put it out there. Because the more you can celebrate women, then someday it won’t be woman director, it will just be director. But right now it needs to be clearer. It needs to be more present that there are a lot of women out there that have complete ability to be a part of a lot of these art forms.