Don Stephenson's Comedic Return to Paper Mill
DON STEPHENSON’S COMEDIC RETURN TO PAPER MILL: THE PRODUCERS…IT’S NO FARCE
By Rich McNanna
It’s homecoming season at Paper Mill Playhouse, and what a pleasure it is to welcome back the comedic stalwart Don Stephenson to direct this year’s fall production of The Producers – the legendary musical comedy sure to keep audiences warm with laughter as the annual nip of October descends upon South Mountain once again.
No stranger to Paper Mill, Mr. Stephenson’s directorial talents were on display in last season’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and in 2013’s Lend Me a Tenor; on stage, loyal denizens of our theater may remember his performance as John Adams in the 2009 production of 1776 – a performance the New York Times characterized as “capture(d) perfectly.”
Considering this body of work, one may conclude that Mr. Stephenson has cornered the market on farce at this theater – after all, with the exception of 1776, a musical about Congress attempting to bridge multiple points of view into one cohesive and functioning compromise – the rest of his credits fulfill the definition of the genre just fine! (Insert sarcastic sigh here.)
But what is no farce is the graciousness and honesty with which Mr. Stepehnson met with this blogger last week. Just minutes after Opening Night bows, amid the afterglow and limelight of press photos and cocktails, Mr. Stephenson humored me with a few moments of his time.
The topic? Directing a production of, what Mr. Stephenson characterized, “maybe the greatest, funniest show ever written.”
And who can argue that?
The Producers. Winner of twelve Tony® Awards, including Best Musical and Best Book, Score, Choreography, etc., etc. etc.
In taking on this show at Paper Mill (itself, the newly-minted 2016 Regional Theatre Tony® Award recipient!) it is worth noting that Mr. Stephenson brings with him a unique perspective to the show already. As actor, Mr. Stephenson portrayed Leo Bloom in the first “National Tour” of The Producers, and subsequently taking over the role on Broadway. Of this experience, Mr. Stephenson shared with me, “It was one of the great thrills of my life. It’s one of the great parts (Leo). And when I did it the first time, it was with Susan Stroman and Mel Brooks and Tom Meehan in the room. You know? All the creators of the show taught me the show.”
I need to stop to note something wonderful here. Remember that Mr. Stephenson and I were speaking the evening of Opening – not thirty minutes after final curtain; as he talked with me, the cacophony of the press party played its melody in the background: the deep bass of music thumping in the background, triumphant laughter, pleas from photographers echoing in the distance amid the clanging of festive wine glasses. And while he was genuinely gracious in speaking with me, let’s be honest here: I was one minor pit stop on this man’s press route for the evening. But as he began to recount those first experiences with The Producers, Mr. Stephenson’s countenance took a turn towards the reminiscent, and with a coy grin, he seemed to transport of another place. And then he added this, “‘Stro’ was my Ulla. I learned all of my dances with her. Mel was in all of my staging rehearsals. And he’d say (imitating the cadence of a line), ‘No! Not that way! It goes duh, DUH, duh!’ with the rhythm of all the lines. These people were legendary and I was in there with them. To be a part of that…you know, it was like a real phenomenon. And so, to be a part of that was a real thrill.”
Living vicariously through Mr. Stephenson for those few minutes was thrill enough for me…never mind his experience. And considering this legacy with the show, who better to direct this show for Paper Mill. On changing his role to Director, Mr. Stephenson added more candor: “I definitely had a point of view on how to play Leo – and I hope I was gentle enough with David (Josefsberg). You know, when you’re an actor, it’s very myopic – it’s ‘me’ and ‘my part’ and what I need in my glass, my envelope, in my phone, on my shirt, right? But when you’re director, it’s the whole shebang! It’s lots of decisions, so it’s a completely different point of view.” Adding with a laugh, “As I get older, I don’t like to be told what to do anymore! When you’re the actor, you get all the glory. When you’re directing, you don’t get that same sort of thing. It’s more like you’re proud of a child as opposed to ‘It’s all about me.’ That’s the big difference. Yet, at the same time, sometimes I do get tired of telling everyone what to do! So it is good to hope back and forth (from acting to directing).”
The natural follow-up, “Will you be performing in the near future?”
His response, “I’d love to. Are you making me an offer?”
Touché, sir. But alas, no. Not unless you would like to perform at Edison Intermediate School in Westfield, NJ, the place of my day job…but I digress.
Now, regardless of Mr. Stephenson’s upcoming performing schedule, I know I am looking forward to his quick directorial return to Paper Mill this winter for 2017’s production of A Comedy of Tenors, the grand-slam comedy sequel to Lend Me a Tenor. And in the same way that Mr. Stepenson’s directorial duties in The Producers hearkens back to the origins of the show itself, in a similar way, the cast of A Comedy of Tenors hearkens back to its prequel: much of the original cast of Lend Me a Tenor are cast in this production!
Who would have the acumen to sign up for such a task as directing actors who originated the roles in which you now lead them?
Only a master. Someone Mel Brooks, Tom Meehan, and Susan Stroman have all shown due trust in, and who has delivered time and time again to audiences world wide.
And as I said goodnight to this man, I added a quick, “Have a good run.”
To which his response was, “You mean ‘break a leg.’”
Indeed I did.
I guess it’s true what they say: you can take the actor out of the role, but you can’t take the role out of the actor…especially if it is Leo Bloom.
And that’s no farce.
All photos c/o Rich Mcnanna
Having originally hailed from Newark and a graduate of Seton Hall University, Rich McNanna grew up a stone’s throw from Paper Mill Playhouse in Springfield, NJ. Now a teacher in and resident of Westfield, he and his wife and son experience theater, music, and art with the same vigor as they do baseball. Paper Mill Playhouse is one of their favorite destinations.