Four-time Tony nominee Michael Greif is the rare Broadway director whose art and life are inextricably knotted. Start in 1996 with the seismic event that was Rent, Jonathan Larson’s cri de coeur for a generation set aflounder in an East Village that channeled the Paris of Puccini’s young bohemians. The musical’s reach extended from downtown to Broadway, Newsweek’s cover to the windows of Bloomingdale’s and into the ferment of global pop culture – none of which young Larson lived to see, having died of an aortic aneurysm just as the show was about to take off.
Greif’s empathic and intensely human post-Rent helming of another musical, Grey Gardens, traced the hermetically sealed lives of mother and daughter in a ramshackle East End of Long Island mansion familiar to many from its source, the Albert and David Maysles documentary of the same name.
Next To Normal, about a mother’s struggles with bipolar disease, was an equally risky business, given the outsider nature of the subject. It also afforded Greif a remarkable experience when his producer David Stone stuck with the show after the mixed reception it received off-Broadway and underwrote a second production in Washington. It returned to New York, this time to Broadway, where it won the Pulitzer Prize (as had Rent) and several Tony Awards, including a nomination for the director.
Greif’s own apprenticeship had taken him from New York to Chicago’s fervent theater scene and then to the La Jolla Playhouse, where he assisted Des McAnuff (The Who’s Tommy) and eventually took over the reins. This season he has two shows running: War Paint, which finds Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole competing for the Best Actress in a Musical Tony, and Dear Evan Hansen, a front-runner, if not the front-runner, for Best Musical. It stars Ben Platt as a high school boy so shy he won’t order dinner for fear of having to talk to the delivery person. When it appears, mistakenly, that Evan was the best friend of a young bully who has taken his own life, Evan becomes a local hero and, through the miracle of social media, a global sensation. It ends with complications that include a touching reconciliation with his mother, who’s got her own share of bad choices to live with.
Like Next To Normal, Dear Evan Hansen was first presented in New York off-Broadway at Second Stage (after its debut at Washington’s Arena Stage), but wildly enthusiastic reviews and audiences showed no need for a second tryout and it moved quickly to Broadway’s Music Box Theatre, where it’s been playing to full houses and made a star of the very young, very talented Platt. I met with Greif recently at the office of his producer, Stacey Mindich.
Deadline: You had two opportunities to freeze Dear Evan Hansen, first at Second Stage and then on Broadway. How were they different?
Greif: Well, you’re never ready. When you believe that perhaps what you do will be more detrimental than helpful is a good time to freeze. It has to do with my knowledge of the company and how much time do I feel they need to do the same show before the critics come in. In some cases it’s wonderful to keep tinkering, it keeps the company very fresh, alive and lively. Other times, it’s good to recognize that a company wants more time. When we started preparing for Broadway, we were not imagining enormous changes. This preview period was really about the details.
Deadline: What’s it like to work with a talent like Ben?
Greif: It’s thrilling. From the very beginning, his instincts were sensational and he was very helpful to all of us in seeing where the play could go. He understood the relationship of humor to seriousness. He found the truth in Evan’s humor and I think it helped inspire Steven [Levenson, author of the show’s book] to continue to find that humor. He had a very good sense of the physical expression of Evan’s distress, a variety of those mannerisms and gestures and tics that he would experiment with throughout, where he allowed me to edit them and to see them. It gave us all a good shot in the pants to know we could try anything because we had somebody who’d be able to handle it.
“Dear Evan Hansen had to be something you wanted to completely give your heart to, but it was also suspenseful. While you were rooting for Evan, you also were worried about Evan and condemning Evan and feeling a little complicated about what Evan was doing, And that duality was really thrilling to me.”
Deadline: What’s your own connection to material like this?
Greif: First of all, it’s that incredible specificity that leads to universality in the writing. But I certainly identify with that kid who felt lonely and misunderstood and frightened to express himself, I felt that connection. I feel some particular, deep connections to moments in the play, where Evan is essentially describing some of his unloveableness, which were things I felt as a teenager and younger. I’m also now a parent, of a 22-year-old and an 18-year old, and I identify very fully with all of the inadequacies and the inability to fully understand what your children are thinking. As hard as me and my kids’ two moms try, there are always going to be moments when you feel deeply inadequate.
Even before much of the music you now hear in Dear Evan Hansen was heard, I read something of a first act and an outline of a second act. I met those three writers [Levenson, along with Justin Paul and Benj Pasik, who wrote the score] here in Stacey Mindich’s office, and I heard a very compelling story that I believed would work dramatically. I was excited about a play in which you needed to depict online scenes. I then went away with those writers and spent about two weeks working with them, outlining and plotting the story, and that’s when the story very close to the one you see now was hatched.
Deadline: What was the biggest challenge for you as director?
Greif: This musical had to operate on two levels all the time. It had to be something you wanted to completely give your heart to, but it was also suspenseful and there was intellectual rigor to it. While you were rooting for Evan, you also were worried about Evan and condemning Evan and feeling a little complicated about what Evan was doing, And that duality was really thrilling to me. I thought this was pretty original. The audience gets to completely go with this kid’s yearning and fantasies – which is what musicals I think always have to do – but you also have a voice in the back of your mind, saying, “Wait a minute, there’s something so inherently off about this.” I thought that duality was thrilling. There’s probably less irony in Rent than in other shows I’ve done. There’s a tremendous amount of irony in Dear Evan Hansen.
Deadline: Who were your mentors?
Greif: I studied with Frank Galati in college and saw a lot of his work. I was in Chicago in the late seventies and early eighties, and the highlight for me was Steppenwolf’s Balm in Gilead with Laurie Metcalf and John Malkovich directing and Jeff Perry and Joan Allen.I went and saw Balm in Gilead when it was in Chicago, like twice a week. That kind of ensemble performance and the use of music in the play was something that really, really rocked my world.
Andrei Serban’s Cherry Orchard was very important to me, Mike Nichols’ Streamers. I went to graduate school in San Diego and Des McAnuff became a mentor. The La Jolla Playhouse was a great place for me. And when I came back to New York, I was fortunate enough to meet up with Joe Papp was very important in framing how I thought about theater, what stories could we tell and how they could be told, also the variety of stories I could be interested in. That’s Joe’s greatest gift to me.
Deadline: What do you hear from people who’ve seen Dear Evan Hansen?
Greif: It reminds me a lot of the mail we got at Rent and Next To Normal. It’s amazing the ways in which this is reaching people and I do believe helping them out in terms of seeing their problems and also imagining some solutions in the way the play works itself out. I do believe in the true catharsis of Dear Evan Hansen. When a critic doesn’t get a play I’ve directed, I take that rather seriously.
Deadline: I have to admit to you, I didn’t get Next To Normal.
Greif: Which version did you see?
Deadline: At Second Stage and then on Broadway. I didn’t see it in Washington. I couldn’t get past the use of electroshock therapy as a theme. I was in the minority.
Greif: So you saw a different version from the first time. Among the things that we all took and addressed, we hope rigorously, was the way in which electroshock therapy was depicted. The show required a certain amount of suspension of disbelief in terms of the extent of her memory loss, but that’s the only aspect that I feel really required that. I was thrilled with the way Brian Yorkey found a way of attaching Diana’s hallucinations to her manic depressiveness. What I found most moving and credible about that piece was that she reminded me of women I knew who were struggling with that disease.
“There is a universality in feeling inadequate. It’s esteem issues. So much of the part I loved most about Rent was the low self-esteem of those characters, of Roger and Mimi, who felt they didn’t deserve to live.”
Deadline: Stepping back again, it’s impossible to imagine what you and your team went through when news of Jonatan Larson’s death came.
Greif: We were just reeling – I was reeling – from Jonathan’s death. We were working with a kind of fiery devotion but everything was dwarfed by the – talk about there being no irony in Rent other than the most extraordinary tragic irony of all, that Jonathan never got to enjoy its seismic effect on American musical theater. It really took awhile for that to sink in. Dear Evan Hansen feels like the same phenomenon. It feels like, You’re helping me. You’re helping a lot of us. There is a universality in feeling inadequate. It’s esteem issues. So much of the part I loved most about Rent was the low self-esteem of those characters, of Roger and Mimi, who felt they didn’t deserve to live.
Deadline: We’re shocked when confronted with how little we know about the inner lives of our children, which are being lived out so publicly on the Internet. That’s irony…
Greif: Yes, and it was always those young writers’ brilliant notion to set this really interesting, really tight story against the backdrop of that public world. It may be the original germ of the idea: How a community was expressing grief for one of its fallen.