The musical Once Upon a Time in New Jersey, by Susan DiLillo and Stephen Weiner, is described in press materials as an “Italian-American fairy tale set in 1956 Hoboken.” It’s a sincere, even heartwarming idea: a sandwich-maker falls in love with a counter-girl who has it bad, real bad, for Rocco, the local hunk, who can’t stop eyeing an eyeful of a dance teacher who — you guessed it — already has a husband.
Yes, it’s shades of Schnitzler’s famous rondelay, and why not? The idea still entertains.
Certainly the theatrical firmament agrees: DiLillo and Weiner won the Kleban Prize and Richard Rodgers Award for the piece, which was also presented as part of the Global Search for New Musicals Competition in Cardiff, Wales, and as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
All of which leads us straight to the New York premiere of the tuner, currently being presented by the Prospect Theatre Company and directed by the organization’s artistic director, Cara Reichel, in a “partner production” with the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The production is also a happy reunion for the creative team — tantalized tuner-fans are still agog over their last collaboration, Iron Curtain (Mills wrote the lyrics), which was a major highlight of Gotham’s 2006 theater season.
Reichel, it should be added, has played a bigger hand in more musicals during the past decade than most folks realize — and it’s surprising, frankly, that she hasn’t received more of her due. Not everything Prospect is staged by Reichel, of course, but there is no question that she and the company are synonymous; Reichel is also married to the man I think is the full heir to the Sondheim legacy: composer-lyricist Peter Mills.
More directors should tout their talents the way Reichel does on her website:
- excellent dramaturgical sense, experienced in collaborating with writers throughout the development process
- strong visual sensibility, with innovative musical staging and stage pictures
- comfortable working with large ensembles of performers, of all ages
- ability to work in a variety of styles: both broad musical comedy and more intimate, emotionally grounded pieces
- attention to transitions which maintain energy, pacing, and flow of a production
- extremely efficient with tight rehearsal schedules
So what makes Reichel tick?
The cast of Once Upon a Time in New Jersey includes Jeremy Cohen, Jason Collins, Denise DeMirjian, Mishaela Faucher, Jonathan Gregg, Briga Heelan, Jason Kappus, Theresa Kloos, Alex Krasser, Catherine LeFrere, John Mervini, Samia Mounts, David Perlman, Darcy Yellin and Noah Zachary. The musical director is Remy Kurs; the choreographer is Christine O’Grady. The designers include Jen Price Fick (sets), Isabella F. Byrd (lighting), Asa F. Wember (sound) and Sidney Shannon (costumes).
And now, 5 questions Cara Reichel has never been asked — and a bonus question:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I found this to be the most difficult question to answer! I do love it when someone sees a show of mine and, after the performance, I can have a really fulfilling discussion with them about their interpretation of my interpretation of a piece. Most often these questions come when I’m working on something where I’m adapting well-known source material (like Twelfth Night or Playboy of the Western World) and someone seeing the work can really hone in on the different choices that have been made.
However, the specific question that keeps coming to mind is the bookwriter-lyricist of Once Upon a Time in New Jersey, Susan DiLallo, asking me: “Do you ever eat a real dinner, like on a plate?” I think this was, like, the fourth time she’d found me eating a sandwich in the hall outside the studio before a rehearsal (ironic, considering we’re doing a show in which there’s a lot of sandwich talk). It’s not really about my work, but it is about my work process, and definitely speaks to the challenges of doing Off-Off-Broadway theater in New York City! I think the top relaxation experience for me might be sitting down and eating a nice dinner off a plate.
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I wouldn’t use the word “idiotic”… but every so often I get: “How do you manage to work so closely with your husband [composer-lyricist Peter Mills] and not kill each other?”
Most people are frequently forced to make the choice between spending time in their professional or personal life, often to the detriment of one or the other, and I’m always grateful when I can bring these two aspects of my life together. Of course, we each work on many projects where we collaborate with other artists as well — such as Once Upon a Time in New Jersey. Pete’s actually working on another show right now with New Jersey‘s composer, Steve Weiner.
I suppose I’m lucky, but probably my favorite thing to do is work on creating a piece with [Pete]. There’s such a level of shared knowledge and trust that we enjoy, which makes the process incredibly fruitful and rewarding. If we wanted to kill each other, we wouldn’t do it… and we probably never would have gotten together in the first place!
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Again, not sure if it fits the bill… but when I tell people in my hometown of Rome, GA, that I live in New York City and I work in the theater, I have gotten, as a first follow-up question: “Oh! Do you know anyone in Phantom of the Opera?” Nothing against Phantom, and I’m happy for my friends in the show who are getting a regular paycheck, but it makes me a little sad that this 14-year-old show still represents the epitome of New York City theater to many folks around the U.S.
4) What is the one approach you take to directing musical theater that other directors, to your knowledge, do not take? Has this approach always paid off for you? Why?
Because I’ve frequently collaborated on building shows from the ground up — i.e., concept, character and story first, then the script and songs — I tend to think of shows more in terms of these big ideas and less in terms of details. Or at least I try to look at all the specifics of the text in relationship to these fundamental elements. There are probably many other directors who work this way — keeping an eye on the big picture is what directing is all about — but I do think my experiences working with writers from the ground up have provided me with a different dramaturgical viewpoint.
I love to go into a room with actors and writers and explore a scene or song idea before the entire show was been shaped — to discover what style for a piece seems to work the best. This approach also provides great opportunities to think about how the theatrical form can best serve the overall storytelling, and ultimately the effect one hopes to have on the audience — and to find ways to incorporate these moments into the show from the get-go, so they seem organic. For instance, when Pete and I began workshopping Honor, we started by having a group of actors learn samurai sword technique and then figured out how we could best make use of this spectacular visual element in our show. Of course, this doesn’t work for every project — and not every writing team is comfortable creating in this manner. But it’s when I feel the most creative.
Although I wasn’t able to be a part of the initial development of Once Upon a Time in New Jersey, I do think this approach has helped me work with the writers to assure the comedy in our production is always in service of the story. Luckily, I’ve been able to work with Steve and Susan on a previous show, Iron Curtain (2006), where we did collaborate from the ground up. We’ve subsequently worked on that show at both the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and National Alliance for Musical Theatre, so there’s a great creative history and vocabulary there we can rely upon!
5) Say you met a theatergoer who said they disdained musical theater because they found bursting into song implausible. How would you respond? Is there a song in Once Upon a Time in New Jersey you might use to change their mind?
Bursting into song may actually be one of the most plausible things that happens in Once Upon a Time in New Jersey.
Whenever I’m on an airplane, I’m always baffled by the moment when this huge metallic object leaves the ground. It really doesn’t seem “plausible” to me when I think about it closely, and yet it works. I think one of the fantastic things about musicals is that song can channel the emotion underlying a scene and take us to a new place, escaping our mundane, “plausible” lives. When I direct, I strive to make sure that transitional moment from scene into song is as believable and emotionally justified as possible. So that, even if it’s a heightened experience, it’s a truthful one. I think what most people who “don’t like musicals” object to is a sense of the often fluffy, sugary and superficial that seems fake — as if the show is trying to deceive the audience into a false emotional response.
There is a number in New Jersey in which the main character, having been stood up for a date, is grating cheese and weeping — and suddenly the weeping becomes the beginning of a typical 1950s girl number, filtered through the lens of this character’s utter heartbreak. As ridiculous as this moment is on one level, it’s a perfect example of how a song moment can arise from a scene. While never naturalistic, New Jersey certainly captures a sense of emotional intensity, joy and enthusiasm in its music and lyrics that rings true. I suppose I would challenge this doubting person to come see our production and really let themselves experience it — and see if they feel better when they walk out of the theater than they did when they walked in. I bet they will!
6) As artistic director of a nonprofit theater in New York City, what is your biggest asset? What can city government, beyond more funding, do better? And finally, what’s the quirk about the typical Prospect audience member that you love the most?
Undoubtedly, the biggest asset of Prospect Theater Company is its network of extremely talented artists and administrators. Because we work in an Off-Off-Broadway setting, we are constantly asking everyone to do a lot with a little, on a tight timeline, and I’m always impressed with the creativity and dedication of our team. More than any one individual show, I’m proud that we’ve been able to build and sustain a community where those interested in creating new musicals can come, play, take risks and make shows. That’s what inspires me to keep the company going — our mission is to provide opportunities for these artists. I can’t wait to see what they will do next!
I wish I had a good suggestion for how the city can do more to help arts groups. Unfortunately I’m not very politically minded, as my siblings who live in D.C. will tell you.
There are several Prospect audience members I’ve gotten to know over the years simply from chatting with them before and after shows. I don’t know if I’d say they are “typical.” What always amazes me is their voracious theatergoing and the level of history and knowledge they posess. They have literally been to see 100-plus shows a year for the past 20 years!!! I love to talk to them because of their passion for theater and deep understanding of what it takes to make a good show in New York City — they can really put each production they see in context of the body of work they’ve experienced, and I feel like I learn so much from them!