Susan Stroman is an award-winning choreography and director whose Broadway hit The Producers scooped the Tony Awards and revitalised the Broadway theatre. Now, she follows in the footsteps of Rob Marshal, making her film directorial debut with the movie version of The Producers.
Stroman was born on October 17, 1954 in Wilmington, Delaware. Exposed to show tunes by her piano-playing salesman father, she began studying dance, concentrating on jazz, tap, and ballet at the age of five. She majored in theatre at the University of Delaware; her first professional appearance was in Hit the Deck at the Goodspeed Opera House in 1974. After graduating in 1976, she moved to New York City.
Stroman’s first big break came when director Scott Ellis hired her to choreograph his off-Broadway revival of Flora the Red Menace at the Vineyard Theatre in Greenwich Village in 1987. Her work there was seen by Hal Prince, who hired her to work on the dance sequences for his New York City Opera production of Don Giovanni. She earned her first Broadway credit for her collaboration with director (and future husband) Mike Ockrent on Crazy for You in 1992.
Suffering two major failures with Big (1996) and Steel Pier (1997), Stroman was approached by Lincoln Center’s artistic director Andre Bishop, who offered her assistance in developing the project of her choice. She and John Weidman, who had written the book for Big, began working on what would become the three-part “dance play” Contact. The show opened at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater in the fall of 1999, and later transferred upstairs to the larger Vivian Beaumont Theater (where it was reclassified as a musical).
While preparing for Mel Brooks’ musical version for The Producers, Stroman’s husband Ockrent lost his battle with leukaemia, and she assumed the reins of the production. Its huge success – and record twelve Tony Awards – proved to be a bittersweet triumph for the grieving widow. In 2005, who made her directorial debut as a feature filmmaker with this year’s big-screen adaptation of that musical.
In this exclusive interview with Garth Franklin, Stroman discusses the film, the stage and cinematic aspirations.
Question: Now they say that, from a directing standpoint or from a creative standpoint that the theatre is the actors’ medium and that film, is the directors’ medium. Having now done both of those do you find that to be true or no?
Stroman: I think that’s very true because when I create a show on Broadway, after opening night it belongs to the actors, and I’m not there every night, so the thing is the actors change their performance slightly because of the audience. If they feel the audience is a good audience they might expand on some particular moment or if they think the audience is too quiet they’ll drive through the show. So the breath and the life of the show changes every night with the audience, but with film, of course, I’m the constant that now goes through for a year with the film in all the technical parts of it, and the actors come and perform for me but then they go. So now I’m the one that has to be in charge of the timing and make decisions on how long they stay and how long they go.
Question: Do you feel that you had creative control over what you were doing and that this gave you – I don’t know if power is quite the right word – but gave you a sense of that this is much more your work that you’re creating as opposed to the work that was originated by Nathan and Matthew?
Stroman: Well sure I think being in charge of the editing does put you in more control and you’re sort of now the one with the last word and I think as a choreographer I’m attracted to the editing because of all the pictures. You know, I love that part of the process, being in charge of how long to stay on this particular scene or how to stay on this particular face. The thing is, in the theatre you watch everything in a wide shot and it’s a very different way to play comedy and play musical numbers than on film where I have the close up and the three-quarter shot, so things have a different rhythm to them with a camera.
Question: Now who did you rely on when working as a filmmaker the first time in terms of trying to ascertain what kind of lenses to use and all the kind of technical stuff, because you’re a theatre director, you’re an actors’ director, and this is much more of a technical medium, so was it very effortless for you to throw yourself into that world or did you have a lot of people that you needed to depend on?
Stroman: Well of course everyone who surrounded me were at the top of their game technically. I had a wonderful cinematographer named Chuck Minsky and we would share the lens together and the knowledge of it and he knew what he was doing. and I, So I’d absolutely rely on the technical folks around me. My editor, Steven Weisberg, understood the comedy and understands music because he himself is a musician, so I never felt like anybody was near that didn’t know what they were doing. I was pleasantly comfortable with all the technology.
Question: Why did The Producers, the play, strike such a chord with audiences do you think?
Stroman: You know, because it’s more of a comedy musical than a musical comedy, and I think people are attracted to the comedy. The comedy reigns supreme in the choreography and the lyrics and the sets and the costumes. Also the thing is, theirs is a story about working class people who have these wants and dreams, and in a musical you say what your want and dream is at the beginning and at the end your wish is granted, and that’s very satisfying to an audience.
Question: I mean your whole life has been in the theatre. You’ve become hugely successful on Broadway, what do you say to the accusation that Broadway theatre is still elitist in that it’s very difficult to get tickets to stuff, it’s very expensive, the working class can’t really afford to go and I’m sure there are people who live in New York who have never been to a Broadway play in their lives. Hugh Jackman, says every year at the Tony’s: ‘go and see a Broadway show’, but he doesn’t add ‘if you can afford to do so’. I mean do you think that’s unfair? There’s no government sponsorship here, is there?
Stroman: No. See it’s different than in London and in Australia where there’s much more theatre to see. In London the government sponsors, but here, we don’t get that support and it’s difficult, as even this particular administration in the schools are cutting all the arts. So the thing is, having a child find their way through art, is really finding themselves and finding their souls. So the idea that we’re cutting money for arts is crazy.
Question: Why do you think that arts funding is so lacking in this country? I don’t understand why the, why that is.
Stroman: I don’t understand that either. Many of us try to fight it all the time and do what we can to make ourselves known, but I think it’s just this particular party that’s been in power for a while, that just don’t appreciate the arts like the rest of us.
Question: Could you have made the transition to film if Rob Marshall had not been around to pave the way?
Stroman: Well the thing is when we were recording the album and the show had just opened on Broadway and I was in a recording studio with Mel Brooks and Nathan and Matthew, Mel Brooks just jumped up and said we are making a movie and you are going to direct it and Nathan and Matthew, you are going to star in it.
Question: You probably would have said, yeah, right, and then Steven Spielberg will come along and… (Laughter)
Stroman: I did. I did. Yes. But I think at that time Chicago had not opened, but it opened shortly afterwards and with its success actually helped us with the backing of Universal and Sony, because I think they were more… they would lean towards helping us out rather than not helping us out. So absolutely the success of Chicago helped pave the way….
Question: And what about Rob Marshall himself who has obviously a very similar background to you and made that exact same transition. Would a studio have allowed you to direct this movie had Rob Marshall not been able to prove that somebody who’s worked in the theatre is quite capable of making a movie?
Stroman: I think I normally might say that, but I think in this case Mel Brooks was driving the ship.
Question: And he kind of insisted anyway, right?
Stroman: He insisted on all of us, yeah.
Question: Was it an effortless transition or was it fraught with problems that you didn’t expect?
Stroman: Oh, no, it was exciting being able to reinvent rather than recreate numbers, being able to open numbers up, being able to have a hundred little old ladies in Central Park or twenty girls with nothing but pearls. I mean I was a kid in a candy store. It was fantastic and the camera became like a dancer to me. It would partner the actors and if I wanted the actors to move at a particular speed with the music that cameraman would have to move that camera musically or else we didn’t get the shot. You know, it was really partnering, and I just loved it to death.
Question: Now Hollywood is a very young person’s game. Are you concerned about that or do you think that this might entice a younger crowd to go and see it?
Stroman: Yes. I’ve heard that the young folks have really been enjoying it, and that makes me very happy. I think normally a musical wouldn’t be geared toward them, and certainly when I was making the movie I was really just making the musical and it was going to be geared for whoever saw it, you know. It wasn’t being thought of that I should put somebody in particular in another kind of outfit or give them something else. That wasn’t even in my mind. But, I think it’s the comedy that is universally loved and I think the younger generation loves to laugh, they love comedy. I mean the thing is too, comedies even are somehow more present today with the younger generation with their Comedy Central and their love for the comics. So, I do believe that the young folks are going to love this because of that, you know.
Question: Now you’ve talked about the casting of Uma Thurman but in fact she was not your first choice for that role, and that in fact Nicole Kidman was all set to do it. What do you think she would have brought to it differently than Uma and what was it about her that kind of interested you initially?
Stroman: Well, you know, she was initially thought of but I think it was sort of the rehearsal time and I think she was booked with something else in Australia and then that didn’t work out or something. I don’t quite remember the story but in fact, you know, Uma was great. She brought a sweetness to it. She is 6′ 4″ in heels, she’s really Swedish, she loved the physicality of learning how to sing and dance and, you know, slide across a desk and… some things are meant to be. Some things worked out. And hopefully I’ll get to do a project with Nicole someday.
Question: Now are you kind of hooked on movies? [Laughter]
Question: Do you think you are you going to do a Rob Marshall and go off and make a Memoirs of a Geisha type thing? (Laughter)
Stroman: Well I have to say I had the time of my life, and I actually loved meeting all the people along the way – all the wonderful filmmakers that I meant, you know, and all their different departments. So I hope I get the chance to do it again.
Question: Are you actively looking at pursuing a film?
Stroman: Ah, actually people are throwing some scripts on my desk so I’m gonna just take my time to pick…
Question: And the stage? What can we expect next from you?
Stroman: Well, you know, I’ll never leave the theatre. I have a great passion for the theatre so, ah, I just have to – I have some irons in the fire and I have to make my right decision.
Question: If there was one musical you could redo…
Stroman: Oh, no – it would be something new.
Stroman: Yeah, sure. It would be something new.