This music director turned stage director has a swoon-worthy resume -- especially if you're a fan of musicals -- and he now has a great regional credit to add to this list. The Other Josh Cohen plays at Paper Mill Playhouse through March 16th! For tickets and information visit papermill.org.
THEASY: Tell us a little about yourself. When did you start directing? Who were/are your mentors or other theatre artists you admire?
TED SPERLING: I grew up as a musician, first and foremost, and have worked as a Broadway music director for 30 years. My most recent show in NY as music director was the revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center Theater, where I conducted a glorious thirty-piece orchestra in full view of the audience, which was thrilling. But I also have been directing shows since 2000, primarily new musicals.
I had an artist-in-residence position with the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, and directed four productions for them, including a revival of Lady in the Dark and the premier of Striking 12. I then directed See What I Wanna See at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Public Theater in New York.
I've had the great fortune to work closely with many of the great directors of our era, including Jack O'Brien, Tina Landau, Des McAnuff, Anne Bogart, Sam Mendes, Harold Prince, Joe Mantello, Frank Galati, Graciela Daniele and Bart Sher, so in many ways I had the best possible assistant directorship possible! These directors were so generous in including me in all aspects of putting a new show together, so I thank and credit them all for helping me find my own style as a director.
THEASY: How did The Other Josh Cohen come to be? At what point in the process did you get involved?
TS: The authors, David and Steve, are friends of mine. I shared a dressing room with David in my one acting stint on Broadway, Titanic. And Steve and I worked on the recent revival of Guys and Dolls, as well as concerts of Knickerbocker Holiday and The Mikado. They wrote this show as a lark while waiting for some other work to materialize, and then were offered a slot in the NY Musical Theater Festival. They called to see if I'd be interested in directing the NYMF production, and I immediately said yes when I read the script...I could see how funny and original a show this would be.
THEASY: The Other Josh Cohen played a super successful run in NYC last year. Talk us through the show's production history.
TS: One of the unusual things about this show is that we've never done any readings or workshops... each time we've worked on it, it's been for a production. The NYMF version was put together incredibly fast, in the basement of the Drama Book Shop, and had to share a theater with three other shows, so we had virtually no sets or props. The limitations of the venue proved to be helpful in devising the language of the production, which leaves a lot to the audience's imagination. Lily Fan came to see us at NYMF, and shepherded the production to the next stage, which was an off-Broadway run with AMAS Musical Theater at the Soho Playhouse. We opened to rave reviews, and then were immediately shut down for a week because of Hurricane Sandy. When we finally resumed performances, we only had around a week left in the run, which was frustrating, but we enjoyed what time we did had, and started thinking about the future. On our last performance, Broadway producer Kevin McCollum came and fell in love with the show, and it was through him that we came to the Paper Mill Playhouse.
THEASY: What were the challenges in bringing the show to Paper Mill? Is the cast and design similar or did many things change for this new production?
TS: We're very lucky that the entire Off-Broadway cast is with us at Paper Mill. We've also added one more cast member to help fill out the stage and to add an additional musical element...all the performers in the show also play instruments, and there is no separate orchestra. Re-designing the sets and lights in a way that would retain the intimacy we had in NY and still fill the much larger theater here was definitely a challenge...we've been working hard on all that through previews, and feel we've found a great balance.
THEASY: What is The Other Josh Cohen about? Why should people check it out?
TS: One of the fun elements of our show is that the role of Josh Cohen is played by two actors (who are also our authors). David plays Narrator Josh, who is one year ahead of Steve's Josh. So Dave tells us the story as Steve acts it out in real time. The main relationship of the show is between these two versions of the same guy...not something you have seen before, and it turns out to be really satisfying and moving. The show is funny and ultimately moving, and the songs are great. One review from our NY production started with "imagine 'Seinfeld' meets Rodgers and Hart as directed by Woody Allen." That's pretty much what we were aiming for!
THEASY: What's next for you?
TS: A show that I directed last summer in Maine looks headed for a NYC production this summer... it's called Red Eye of Love and is another one-of-a-kind project. It's an absurd love triangle that spans a full century of American history, with a heavy dose of old-fashioned musical comedy in the style of the shows from the '30s and '40s that starred such oversize personalities as Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr and Danny Kaye. I'm also putting together a weekend of concerts for the 92nd Street Y later this spring celebrating the legacy of Fanny Brice and her contemporaries in the Ziegfeld Follies. I recently assumed the Artistic Directorship of the Collegiate Chorale, a storied chorus in NY, and I'm directing the NY premiere of David Lang's "Battle Hymns" aboard the Intrepid museum in May. And most immediately, I fly to Taiwan the night after we open Josh Cohen to conduct a symphonic concert of the music by Danny Elfman from the movies of Tim Burton. So a great variety to look forward to!