Michael Greif takes on ‘If/Then’

Some choices are no-brainers.

If the musical team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey were in need of a director to pilot their musical follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal,” then the director and guiding force behind that production, Michael Greif, was going to get a phone call.

And if Greif were called for this project, then he would be inclined to clear his busy creative schedule to rejoin the team.

But if producer David Stone also found a way to get Tony Award-winning actress Idina Menzel to star in this musical — marking Menzel’s first return to Broadway since creating the role of Elphaba in “Wicked” in 2003 — that would be even more reason for Greif to jump onboard, having worked with the actress nearly 20 years ago on the groundbreaking rock musical “Rent.”

“It’s not like I needed any further incentive to want to work with Tom and Brian again,” said Greif, 56, a three-time Tony Award-nominated director. “But it was wonderful to imagine a reunion with Idina, particularly in a musical written by Tom and Brian.”

The result, “If/Then,” is currently playing at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through Jan. 3 as part of a national tour. The musical was developed through a series of workshops and played an out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C., en route to Broadway, where it ran for just under a year, closing in March 2015. 

In the musical, city planner Elizabeth (Menzel) moves back to New York from Phoenix after a failed marriage. A single, seemingly innocent choice she makes in Madison Square Park sets Elizabeth down two paths with radically different outcomes, both of which are played out on stage through the characters Liz and Beth. The musical follows what happens to Beth, who takes a high-powered job with the city of New York, and to Liz, who misses out on that job but finds love with an Army doctor.

“For me, the story was always about how a woman might fulfill her potential in a variety of ways,” Greif said. “I think that’s a generous and optimistic notion about the world — that we do have the opportunity to frame and perceive things. How we choose to think of something affects what it is. How we rise to certain challenges, how we confront terrible adversity all shape us, and the way in which we cope with those things makes us who we are.” 

Menzel has returned to the role of Elizabeth for the first leg of the tour — which includes the Los Angeles run — along with original Broadway stars Anthony Rapp, LaChanze and James Snyder. The involvement of the four principal cast members made rebuilding the show for the road that much easier, Greif said.

“When you’re making a new musical — and it’s probably been true of every new musical I’ve done — a lot of the development process involves some big changes and being able to withstand those changes,” Greif said. “Like how you cope with adversity when a song gets pulled or a song gets changed or a relationship changes. Often when you’re working on a new play, you’ve got your seat belt on, ready to experience any of those things and then to be able to investigate freshly what you actually are certain is there.

“So coming back together after they ran the show for over a year, knowing that they knew the next couple of weeks of rehearsals wouldn’t involve changes — that, I think, really allows us all to work at a level of great comfort.”

The Brooklyn-born Greif grew up in a working-class home in Brighton Beach. His maternal grandparents were observant Jews, and Greif attended Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah at an Orthodox temple.

“I grew up in a not very observant home close to an observant grandmother,” Greif said. 

As an adult, when he encountered the works of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies (“Dinner With Friends,” “Brooklyn Boy,”), Greif discovered that Margulies was writing about familiar territory.

“I recognized that he and I went to the same Hebrew school, in fact, because of the way in which he depicted certain characters,” Greif said. “I recognized the teachers and the rabbis he was writing about. It was a great discovery for me to get in touch with Donald and find out that we grew up in very close proximity to one another.”

Greif studied at Northwestern University and earned his graduate degree from UC San Diego. He had several New York and regional credits when he returned to San Diego to become the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse from 1995 to 1999. After the enormous success of “Rent,” which he directed for Broadway and on its national tours, Greif left the Playhouse and returned to New York. He subsequently earned Tony Award nominations for “Grey Gardens” and for “Next to Normal,” the tale of a woman struggling with manic depression.

Although he alternates freely between directing musicals and straight plays, Greif’s upcoming dance card will involve a lot of singing. For New York’s Second Stage, Greif will stage “Dear Evan Hanson,” about a young man trying to fulfill his dreams. In June, he reunites with his “Grey Gardens” creative team on the world premiere of “War Paint,” a musical that details the rivalry between beauty entrepreneurs Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, and their respective imprints on the industry. Featuring Tony Award winners Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone, “War Paint” will premiere at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in June.

And though he won’t be part of either experience, “If/Then’s” Rapp knows that the “Dear Evan Hanson” and “War Paint” companies will be in the surest of hands. Like Menzel, Rapp was part of the original company of “Rent” and worked as Greif’s assistant on an early incarnation of “Next to Normal.” 

“He’s a real collaborator,” Rapp said of Greif. “Michael has always had a strong aesthetic and strong vision in bringing material to life. Every moment you’re in that room, there’s a possibility of doing really intentional, deep, rigorous work with the material. There’s not a moment wasted.

Hello Jacobowsky!

Jerry Herman doesn’t play favorites with his musicals. Ask him to rank “Mame,” “Hello, Dolly!” or “La Cage aux Folles” and he’ll tell you, “I love them all.” But as for which character he most wants to emulate, he’ll admit that it’s the Jew who calls himself S.L. Jacobowsky.

“I want to be him,” says Herman of the main character in “The Grand Tour,” his musical that originally appeared on Broadway in 1979 and closed after 61 performances. “He’s this man who creates joy in the face of horror. He never lets other people take away his optimism.”

The 74-year-old composer and Broadway icon has another opportunity to see his beloved character realized onstage when a revival of “The Grand Tour,” of which Herman wrote the music and lyrics, opens Nov. 5 at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. Featuring Herman’s Tony-nominated score and an extensively rewritten book by Mark Bramble, the show stars veteran theater actor Jason Graae and has sought to rectify “the problems” of the original production, according to director Evan Weinstein.

“The show had disparate elements that never gelled,” said Weinstein, particularly with “maintaining an appropriate balance between the natural ebullience of Herman’s music and the seriousness of the story.”

“The Grand Tour” arose out of one of the earliest theatrical attempts to explore the Holocaust. The musical is based on a tragi-comic play by Franz Werfel called, “Jacobowsky und der Oberst,” which was adapted into a 1944 Broadway production of “Jacobowsky and the Colonel” by S. N. Behrman and a 1958 film called, “Me and the Colonel.” “The Grand Tour” chronicles the plight of S.L. Jacobowsky, a Polish-born, Jewish refugee trapped in Nazi-occupied France. Accompanied by an anti-Semitic Polish officer carrying important underground papers, the indomitable Jacobowsky attempts to flee France for England. Along the way, he falls in love with Marianne, the colonel’s charming French girlfriend, pretends to be a circus performer, hides in a brothel and, above all, forges a friendship with the initially hostile colonel.

After its Broadway run, “The Grand Tour,” aside from a 1988 Jewish Repertory Theatre production, fell into obscurity. In the original script, “The Nazi characters were more farcical elements, think ‘Hogan’s Heroes,’ and today, are out of step with where Americans understand the Holocaust,” said Weinstein, who has a day job as the co-executive producer of the CBS reality series, “The Amazing Race.” In the new version, “the Nazis are a more constant presence so the audience gets a better sense of the terrible reality the characters face. At the same, there’s humor that the characters use to put a wall between themselves and the horror.”

The challenge of striking this balance played out in a recent rehearsal. In the part of the show where Jacobowsky is singing of his love for Marianne, actor Graae had to stop several times to consult with Weinstein.

“It’s such a lovely song and so casual,” Graae told the director. “But I’m in the middle of fleeing the Nazis. I need to play against the loveliness of the song.”

With the nuance updated and otherwise adjusted through Weinstein’s direction and Bramble’s book, Herman said that now, “all the song and dance numbers are inherent to the production. There’s no mindless dancing, no people sliding down staircases. And the hope is that you get a sense of the genuine threat that wasn’t in the original production.”

For Herman, “The Grand Tour” has always represented a return to Jewish roots. After his first Broadway musical, “Milk and Honey,” about the founding of the State of Israel and, premiered in 1961, producer David Merrick “told me I had to prove I could be more American,” Herman recalled. “So I started tackling shows with more American characters like Dolly and Mame.”

Herman lost no close relatives in the Holocaust, but his maternal grandmother would tell him stories “about running from the czar. The story of the Jewish refugee was a familiar one to me,” he said.

Growing up in New Jersey, Herman learned to play the piano without formal training and received his big break at 17, courtesy of his mother who taught Jewish music at the local Y. Though he wanted to be an architect, his mother had arranged for him to meet famed Broadway lyricist Frank Loesser.

“I was scared to share my work and my mother said, ‘Would you please waste a half hour of your life?’ That line of my mother’s changed everything,” he said.

From the music of his idol Irving Berlin, Herman “learned the value of simplicity, how to say something in fewer words and create melodies that audiences can hum as they leave the theater. I think I’ve allowed my work to be accessible,” he said. “I’ve always written optimistic shows about optimistic, larger-than-life characters whom audiences can take into their hearts.”

Lamenting the current, increasingly corporate state of theater in America (his most recent revival of “La Cage” cost $10 million), Herman said he’s devoted the rest of his life to “reviving the shows that were not the super hits. ‘Dolly,’ ‘Mame’ and ‘La Cage,’ will be here long after you and I are long gone,” he said. “But while I’m still here, I want to make sure that all my children are healthy.”

“The Grand Tour” runs Nov. 5-Dec. 4 at the Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank. Fri-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. at 2 and 7 p.m. Additional Sat., Wed. and Thurs. performances Nov. 12, 19, 23 and Dec. 1. Tickets range from $43-$48. For information, call (818) 558-7000, ext. 15.


the Spectator With Reprise, Marcia Seligson banks on the public’s desire for the return of the

Marcia Seligson is the prime mover and shaker behind Reprise, a new theater organization determined to mount local, first-class revival productions of Broadway musicals.

Marcia Seligson is a self-described “musical theater fanatic” and the prime mover and shaker behind Reprise, a new theater organization determined to mount local, first-class revival productions of Broadway musicals that just don’t get dusted off and given a professional run anymore.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past, Seligson pointed out, when hit numbers from Broadway were the songs people hummed in the street.

“When you look back at musicals by George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and these other artists, the score was the star of the musical, and those songs were the popular music of the day,” she said.

“Growing up in New York, Broadway musical theater was my popular music. I’ve been a fan my whole life. The first show I ever saw was Ethel Merman in “Annie Get Your Gun.” I never forgot that experience.”

Although she was a music major in college, Seligson worked primarily as a journalist upon her arrival in Los Angeles 26 years ago.

“When I realized that I didn’t want to do that anymore,” she said, “I began to think seriously about producing musical theater here. I was inspired by the Encore series at New York’s City Center. It’s really an appropriate and spectacular idea for our times. I just saw so clearly how it isn’t absolutely necessary to have all this tremendous spectacle and these special effects to succeed these days.”

Although Encore is an older organization with deeper pockets, Seligson adapted their budget priorities for Reprise. Money goes into the musical where it will count most. Only Los Angeles performers are cast, thereby avoiding costly air fare and hotel tabs and making this a true local effort. There are no spare production dollars for pricey stage props or saturation publicity campaigns.

“Instead of doing a $5 million or $10 million production, which is what a lot of these big new shows cost, our first production is costing $160,000,” she said. “It’s fully casted, orchestrated and choreographed. What is different is that it will be a very simple set, and there will be no elaborate costume changes.”

Reprise’s first season began, on May 14, with a two-week revival of “Promises, Promises.”

A look at the cast indicates that Seligson and her fellow board members are the real deal. Stage veteran Jason Alexander, best known for his role on TV’s “Seinfeld,” has been cast in the lead role. Co-starring with Alexander are Jean Smart, Alan Rachins, Karen Fineman and Fred Willard.

In September, Andrea Marcovicci and Keith Carradine are slated to star in a revival of “Finian’s Rainbow.” The third and final show of Reprise’s first series will be “Wonderful Town,” with Tyne Daly. All three productions will be staged at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse.

The response to Reprise — within the theater community and from the ticket-buying public — has been wildly enthusiastic, Seligson said. “We had 3,500 subscriptions to sell for this series,” she said. “We sold 3,000 of them before a single ad ran.”

Additional dates have been scheduled to meet the demand, and seats for some performances are still available, although going fast.

For tickets to upcoming Reprise performances, call the UCLA box office at (310) 825-2101 or Ticketmaster at (213) 480-3232.

Jason Alexander, best known for his role as George on “Seinfeld,” has the lead role in “Promises, Promises.”