EXCLUSIVE: Here are some figures you haven’t seen bandied about much in the Tony nominations numbers game: Competing in the all-important best show categories are four new plays, five new musicals, five play revivals and four musical revivals, 18 in all. Four of those shows come from a single source: The Roundabout Theatre Company, one of four non-profits operating Broadway houses (the others are Lincoln Center Theater, the Manhattan Theatre Club and the most recent addition to the club, Second Stage).
Best Play contender The Humans had its world premiere under the Roundabout banner earlier this season, where producer Scott Rudin picked up Stephen Karam’s play even before the critics polished its achievement to a fine luster. A pair of plays that couldn’t be less alike — Eugene O’Neill’s harrowing Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Michael Frayn’s rollicking farce Noises Off — are vying for Best Revival of a Play.
Competing for Best Revival of a Musical is Scott Ellis’s gem-cut production of She Loves Me, significant not only because it’s a great show but because more than two decades have passed since She Loves Me marked the Roundabout’s first musical revival on Broadway, in a production staged by this same Scott Ellis that drew 10 Tony nominations, winning one for leading actor Boyd Gaines. It’s the romantic story of two shop clerks who loathe each other in person while pouring out their hearts in letters to an unknown “Dear Friend,” only to discover that they’ve been writing to one another.
Since then, Ellis (who also repeats here as a Tony nominee for best director of a musical) has become integral to the success of the Roundabout while also carving out a parallel career as a television director and producer on such shows as Weeds, Frazier and 30 Rock. He came to Deadline’s New York office straight off the plane from Vancouver, where he was shooting the pilot for the Hulu, Lionsgate TV and Homegrown Pictures wine-country comedy Crushed, starring Bashir Salahuddin and Regina Hall.
DEADLINE: Before we get to She Loves Me, tell us what Crushed is about.
SCOTT ELLIS: It takes place in Napa Valley and it’s about an African American brother and sister who are really not in a good place in their lives so they decide to open a vineyard. We were supposed to shoot in North Carolina, but when they passed that bill, Lionsgate pulled, and I was so proud that they did that, I thought that was the coolest thing ever. But Vancouver is a little different than North Carolina and for me, going back and forth is a little tough being from family and stuff, but that’s what it is. So forgive me if I fall asleep, because I am so tired.
DEADLINE: How long have you been doing both television and theater?
ELLIS: I started around 10 years ago. [Writer/Producer] David Lee approached me. He was interested in getting more directors on Frazier who knew how to deal with actors. I thought that might be interesting. He said just come out for a week, just come out. So I came out, I watched him, and at the very end he said what do you think? I said, yeah, I can do this. What I’d realized is I knew how to talk with actors. I didn’t know the cameras, but I could learn them cameras and I’d rather do that than the opposite. Later on I executive produced Weeds for three years, and I saw that I was again grateful because some directors there didn’t know how to talk with actors and who could do great with cameras. So Frazier was my first shot and David told me that night, I’ll never forget it. He said, “I can give you the first one, I can’t get you the second.” Basically, you do a good job, they’ll ask you back.
DEADLINE: Did you have a mentor on the camera?
ELLIS: My mentors would be basically the DP.Multi-camera is so different from single camera. Single camera happened with 30 Rock because I was doing a play with Alec [Baldwin] and he said I have this show that’s coming up next year and why don’t you come and direct it? I’d tried to get into single camera work and nobody, nobody was letting you in. Out of the blue I got a call saying you’ve been booked on this new show called 30 Rock. I called Alec and I said, just remember, as I told you, I’ve never done a single camera. He said, yeah, that’s what the network said, and I said so what, he’ll learn. I got a shot at it because he just said I don’t care, he’s good. Then — how bizarre those things work out — I got an Emmy nomination for that.
DEADLINE: You were directing Baldwin in a memorable revival of the Joe Orton black comedy Entertaining Mr. Sloane. So let’s use him as a sort of pivot point to talk about the difference between directing for TV and directing for the stage. 30 Rock versus Entertaining Mr. Sloane.
ELLIS: Well, obviously the first thing is time. You just have time, exploration of time, for theater, and you don’t have much time in TV. I find that no matter where you’re at, theater-wise, actors want feedback and they want to feel they can trust somebody and that you’re not just sitting back and going along.
When you walk in as a director in any situation — television, theater — an actor’s wall is halfway up. It’s just self-protective. They’re like, Am I going to have to take care of myself or not? That wall will slowly, slowly come down and then you’re fine. But if that wall goes up, if there’s no trust, you will never get that wall down, ever, I don’t care what you do. So that beginning is very important.
DEADLINE: Theater is still your preferred medium?
ELLIS: The reality is, TV affords me the ability to say no, which is the gift that you really want in the arts. It also allowed me to have kids and I have a family now and I’m married. I made a deal from the very beginning saying I will not say yes to television unless I know what my next theater is, and I stuck with that.
DEADLINE: Which brings us to She Loves Me. It was written in 1963 by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, whose next show would be Fiddler on the Roof. She Loves Me is based on the same play that became the James Stewart-Margaret Sullivan classic The Shop Around the Corner (and later, Nora Ephron’s update, You’ve Got Mail). It marked Hal Prince’s debut as a director from start to finish –which came too soon, since the original production had a disappointing run. Your first production probably did more than anything else to show what a jewel it is. How did that first revival, in 1993, come about?
ELLIS: I had done a Kander & Ebb revue called And The Word Goes ‘Round. [Roundabout artistic director] Todd Haimes said he’d love to find something for me to do, and I said great. A few months later I told him I have this show that I’m not sure if you know about and it’s called She Loves Me, and I think it’s literally a perfect musical. He had never heard of it. I gave it to him, and he was, I guess, dumb enough to go okay to a kid who had never directed a Broadway show.
I will say two things that I know I’m good at. I’m good at casting and I’m good with collaborators, especially choreographers. I work well with them because I think underneath, they’re all great directors. I don’t have an ego with the choreographer. I don’t think anyone knows this, but I was the first one that said choreographers should have equal billing. A choreographer to me in a musical is as important as a director if you’re working as a team. So I was smart enough to work with just fucking great choreographers, you know? Robbie Marshall on that first She Loves Me, Susan Stroman, Warren Carlyle.
I went to Bock and Harnick and they didn’t know who I was. I said I’d like to do this and they were like OK. I called [set designer] Tony Walton — I thought, I’m just going to go for the best. He said, Well, my ex [Julie Andrews] was supposed to do that show, she loves you, so yeah, we can sit down and talk. And he came down to the theater, walked to the bottom of the stage and started sketching. I thought, Oh, shit, I think Tony Walton is going to say yes to this! My first Broadway show.
DEADLINE: And 23 years later…
ELLIS: She Loves Me, the first show, it was in my bones. It was an incredible time in my life. It was a great collaboration with Rob Marshall. It was perfect. Perfect. I’m a different person than I was in 1993. Everything changes when you have kids. So I said, you cannot repeat one single thing in the original production, not one thing — to the point that I even put the entrance to the shop on the other side and took a door away. It was so hard, so hard to do, to push myself away.
But the core of it is I had never even fallen in love, I was barely out of the closet, so it was a different thing. Today I’m married, I have children, I understand what love means later in life because that’s what happened to me. That’s what I love about the show. It’s not about young love. It’s about last chance. At that time, I didn’t really understand that. I didn’t have it in my gut. I had to look at this beautiful child anew.
DEADLINE: And what did you see?
ELLIS: When they both have that one moment of realization, of, this will be everything. . .or it’ll be nothing. The song “Tonight At Eight” — this will be everything that I’d hoped for — or it will not happen. Underneath there’s the fact that when you really want something so much in a relationship and you feel someone is getting in your way, even if it becomes that person that you ultimately love, how much you fight for that. For both of those people, so much is at stake. That was much clearer to me this time around, what those stakes were. That shifted everything a little bit. For me it did.