Monday, May 23, 2016

a conversation with Hector Coris, the director of Scottsdale Musical Theater Company's production of KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN

Hector Coris
by Gil Benbrook

John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote the scores for close to twenty musicals over their forty years of working together. While their songs for Chicago and Cabaret are probably their best known, their next most successful show is one that hasn't been seen in the Valley in many years but is coming to town for a week long run this week produced by Scottsdale Musical Theater Company.

Kiss of the Spider Woman won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book, and ran for two years on Broadway.  Kander and Ebb's score is sophisticated and full of superb ballads and heartbreaking songs, and is a dark show on par with their Cabaret.  

The musical is based on the famous novel and film about two political prisoners in Latin America who learn to use imagination as a way to survive. With a script by Terrence McNally it is also an emotionally charged, compelling, and somewhat unsettling musical. It's definitely not Mary Poppins.

This musical is also a bit of a change from the usual classic musicals, like Guys and DollsMusic Man and Hello Dolly, that Scottsdale Musical Theatre Company has presented in the past.

I had the honor to ask director Hector Coris some questions about the show and this production, which opens this Wednesday and runs through Sunday.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is a show that many people haven’t seen, and as far as I can tell hasn’t been produced in the Valley for many years. For those who may not know it, what can you tell them that the musical is about?

"Kiss of the Spider Woman is the story of a revolutionary named Valentin who is placed in a cell with Molina, a gay window dresser, in a prison in an unnamed Latin American country. The warden is cleverly using the window dresser as an informant to get a list of names of the revolutionary's collaborators. To escape the horrors of the prison, Molina recounts scenes from fictional Hollywood movies that feature his favorite actress, Aurora, who becomes this mythical figure throughout the show, including the 'Spider Woman' who is a figure of death."

Why do you think it is rarely produced?

"It's a tough show - physically and thematically. It's not a cheery, feel-good musical, but a powerful and intense drama about the relationship that forms between two men. So right there, you have what some might consider a 'red flag' in terms of selling the show to grandma or little Billy. It's absolutely R-rated in language and themes. So I would think that many companies would shy away from something to be considered as challenging as this - both commercially and artistically. But what a pity that this beautiful, brutal show isn't done more often."

Michael Schauble, Lindsay Kalby
 and Matt Newhard in rehearsals
photo courtesy Scottsdale Musical Theater Company
How did the decision to produce this musical come to be? 

"I was looking for a show to direct that was basically a unit-set, relatively small cast and would play well in the Studio Theatre at Tempe Center for the Arts. I have a short list of shows that fit the bill and this was one of them. Spider Woman is on the 'larger' end of the spectrum but I hadn't seen it since the Broadway run anywhere. And we definitely didn't want to do a show that people have seen a billion times in the Valley, sometimes in the same season."

Please talk a little bit about the casting of the show – was it difficult to find your Spider Woman?

"Casting is always a bit of a nail-biter. You never know who is going to walk through the door at auditions or if you know them, you never know if they will show you a spark or hint of their suitability for the part or show. We had quite a variety of women coming in for the Aurora/Spider Woman part. For those who know the show, it's hard to get visions of Chita Rivera out of your head. Just like any iconic part, for example Ethel Merman or Patti LuPone as Mama Rose, and Carol Channing as Dolly Levi. So, when Lindsay Kalby came in to audition, my interest was piqued. She's definitely on the younger side but as a dancer she has a wonderful poise and carriage even when she just walks that intrigued us. Lindsay was in our ensemble of Gypsy last year. We knew she could dance and sing really well and is just a joy to work with. So we thought how exciting it would be to have a more youthful Aurora."

At the core, the musical is a love story, yet not exactly your traditional love story. Molina and Valentin start out as rivals, then become friends and somewhat lovers, yet their relationship isn’t really about sex but about the shared humanity between the two and finding a partner in order to help you survive. How difficult is it to direct your actors, Michael Schauble and Matt Newhard, to play this wide range of emotions and emotional connections? 

"Not difficult at all, if you have Schauble and Newhard in your show. You don't so much direct them as let them loose to follow their own artistic instinct and then focus and refine their performances. They already worked closely together as Cornelius and Barnaby in Hello, Dolly! so they had a camaraderie that took a lot of walls down. They surprise me every time in rehearsal with a new nuance or affect or movement. That is thrilling for me as a director. My favorite kind of actors are ones who come in with ideas, who are not afraid to jump in and try stuff and are open to changes on the fly. My rule - and a leading principle at SMTC is - "play, don't ask". My performing background started heavily in improvisation (not the schticky college, "dick-joke" kind, but long-form, relationship-driven improv) so that approach is so vital to the process. I'm not a director that dictates every movement and line-reading. That's no fun for me or an actor and certainly does not help them grow as an artist. It's my job to identify and define what they are bringing to the scenes as the perfect choice for the moment. And then encourage them to play more within that moment. It's one of the main ingredients that flavor SMTC shows.

While there are numerous “roles” that Aurora, the film actress that Molina is obsessed with, plays in the show, it is her role as the powerful Spider Woman that holds much of the power, since she signifies death. How are you instructing Lindsay Kalby in playing this part?

"The way that Lindsay carries herself as Aurora is so fluid and sensual. It's almost like the Hollywood leading ladies of the past where they play Marie Antoinette or a nun, but you never lose the fact that you're watching Rita Hayworth or Lauren Bacall. So the 'Spider Woman' is more dangerous and attractive than other characters portrayed by Aurora, but there's still that essence lurking underneath. We're just amplifying those attributes."

I remember on Broadway that the set design was incredibly elaborate, with large metal, cell walls moving and rearranging to form the various locations inside and outside of the prison. What can you tell us about the set design that you are using?

"Would that we had the budget and facility to replicate the Broadway design!  Luckily, this show plays very well as a chamber piece, too. Since we're playing the smaller Studio Theater at TCA, there's not a lot we can do in terms of set. So I came up with a simple unit set idea that wouldn't require elaborate set pieces or people hanging in the rafters. The script is very cinematic, too, with sharp cuts between the jail cells, the warden's office, and other locations, so we needed to be smart about those transitions, too. This production is extremely intimate, multi-level set that uses several locations within the theater as well. The audience will be closer to the action than in the larger theatre. The focus is on the relationship between these two desperate men and not the razzle-dazzle of set pieces flying around."

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There are two distinct worlds in the show: the gritty world of the prison scenes, and Technicolor world of the film fantasy sequences. How are you ensuring the shifts between these worlds will be easy for the audience to comprehend?

"Lighting is going to play a key role in the flip-flop or definition of 'where' we are in the play. Tylar Talkington, our lighting and set designer has some very cool lighting ideas that will enhance the action and locations. Costuming, too, will be a big clue. Emily Simzyk has given us a neutral palette for the prison world and more vibrant costumes for the 'film' world."

We spoke previously about how we both saw this show on Broadway and fell it love with it. But have you discovered anything new about the show while you've revisited it and from a directing perspective, since it is now more than twenty years since you first saw the show?

"Spider Woman - I think - was the first or second big Broadway musical I saw. Will Rogers Follies was other one. This was before I was even an actor or director. So I saw Spider Woman purely as an entertainment and I've lived with both cast albums (the Chita Rivera and also the one with Vanessa Williams) since they first came out. It never occurred to me that I would be directing this musical one day. But I approach directing a musical from two standpoints. First, the technical: how do I make this show work in the space I'm given and second, how do I interpret the show from a fresh standpoint - how do I bring my own slant to it and not rely on copying other productions. If I ever have the privilege to direct this show again, it will be an entirely different production. I would not be complacent to just repeat the same staging. There's no fun in that. The script informs everything so that's where I start from. It's the core of the show that I build around and upon."

Kiss of the Spider Woman is a very sophisticated musical with an intricate and complex structure. How do you think it’s going to resonate with Phoenix audiences, most of whom have probably never seen a production before?

"First off, I don't even think musical theater people would even know this is a Kander and Ebb score. It's so unlike anything they did before. Chicago and Cabaret have their iconic 'sound', but this score is so cinematic and sweeping and lush. And on top of that the intense rush of the story and the trajectory of these two wayward men and their beautiful love story - you've got a thrilling evening of theatre. It's not a show you sit back and enjoy, but you get pulled into it. In fact, last night in rehearsal as I was watching a good chunk of the show, I literally was leaning forward in my chair and not even taking notes."

Is the challenge of directing a musical like Kiss of the Spider Woman, which most people don’t know or are only familiar with the cast recording, exciting or daunting?

"It's definitely exciting. There's very little expectation in terms of the audience thinking "I wonder how they'll do this or that?" There will be very few people who can say "Well, when I saw it on Broadway, they did it like this..." There are some musicals that you are forced to do a certain way because of its 'legend', like Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, etc. The challenge is never to buck familiarity but to present the show as strongly and clearly as you can. The exciting part is to finally put a 'face' to the 20+ tracks that musical fans have been listening to for the last two decades. You get to - and have to - focus on every aspect of Spider Woman and not just sleepwalk through a plot you've seen a billion times."

Last Fall you directed Sondheim on Sondheim for SMTC. Do you find it easier or more difficult in directing a more traditional musical like Spider Woman versus a revue like Sondheim on Sondheim

"I love the musical revue format for its simplicity and entertainment value. It's my favorite format of musical. My performance background is split between cabaret/concerts and traditional theater. In NY, between 2006 and 2009 I wrote several cabaret musical revues - mostly lyrics - and just had a blast with those. Directing book musicals I started around the same time with revivals of some notorious flops like Bring Back Birdie and The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. Obviously with a book musical now you have sets and multiple characters, an ensemble, elaborate choreography and a storyline to convey - so sure it's a little more challenging. I've been fortunate to have great design and creative teams to work with to help with the bigger picture. With either format, my job is to make the whole thing make sense. When it makes sense, the entertainment value is inherent. With a show like Spider Woman, as intense and serious as it is, it's still entertaining. Not in the knee-slapping, toe-tapping way, but in a suspenseful and emotional way, like a roller-coaster accompanied by a live orchestra."

Did you encounter any difficulties in directing the show? 

"Nothing out of the ordinary. The one big challenge was to adapt this sweeping big Broadway musical into an intimate chamber-like piece. I tell you, every inch of that stage is accounted for. One fun challenge is to take this group of actors who all come from different backgrounds, disciplines, training, experience, ages and have them all telling the same story together. This cast has been nothing but eager and enthusiastic to jump in, guns blazing, ready to follow me on a tangent to try something, then change it. I love to see the palette of actors I get to work with and build the show around their strengths - and then push them a little further."

Hector Coris and Michael Schauble in rehearsals
photo courtesy Scottsdale Musical Theater Company
Did you learn anything during rehearsals that made you change your original ideas of how to direct this play?

"Yes. Get out of the way of the story. The script is so lean and muscular, there's no room for indulgences. Don't allow anything to distract or detract from the trajectory. Once the train leaves the station, it's seat-belt time."

Is the challenge of directing a production of a Tony winning musical, which most people may not be familiar with, exciting or daunting?

"Even if they never saw the musical, they may have read the original book my Manuel Puig...or saw the movie from the 80's...or saw a production of the play that was adapted by Puig for the London stage...that's the mark of a good story that it can be adapted into so many mediums and still resonate at its core. So many people have said to me, 'I've never seen the musical before,' and that's exciting. Their only expectation is the thrill of seeing something they haven't seen 8 times in the last 2 years."

Do you have a favorite moment in the show?

"There's several but the two that stand out for me are the opening 'movie' sequence in Act 2 - the 'Flame of St. Petersburg.' It's a moment where the prison world and the movie world meld together and the scene is entirely underscored as if it were a real 1950's sweeping epic. The other is a song that Molina's mother - gorgeously played by Janis Webb - sings to her son in a 'dream' sequence called 'You Could Never Shame Me.' It's a song about her acceptance of his homosexuality. It's a sentiment that every gay man wishes they could hear from a parent that may have difficulty to their coming out or with their lifestyle. There's no grey area with Molina's mother. She fully loves and accepts her son. There should never be a grey area regarding this topic between a parent and child."

What do you hope audiences will take away from it?

"I'm hoping audiences will not only venture out to see a musical they may not be familiar with - and one with a weird title, at that - but enjoy something with some backbone and bite. By taking the chance to see something unfamiliar, that will only encourage other theater companies to stop doing Shrek or Seussical 800 times. Frothy musical comedies are fun but here is a story with an emotionally rich storyline that happens to have some singing and dancing in it. No matter what the orientation or genders of the main characters may be, it's a powerful love story and I hope they get that from the show."

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