A first preview of a new production always requires nerves of steel, particularly for a director. Scott Ellis, the director of Dada Woof Papa Hot, told me the other day: “I remember sitting back at the first preview of this play and thinking: If the audience, particularly a straight audience, doesn’t respond to this, then I have no clue how to change it.”
Happily for Ellis, the production, which has since opened to some strong reviews, had a reassuring first preview. “Five minutes into that performance,” he said, “I realized that the audience was with us and that I could relax a little bit. The audiences have continued to be responsive. That’s very gratifying, because it’s a beautiful story and” – Ellis is a gay man with twins – “very personal to me.”
Other than that first-preview audience, the first few matinees were, said Ellis, the most nerves-testing. “Matinees tend to draw an older crowd, and I didn’t know how they’d respond to a story of two gay couples with young children.” Agreeably, he continued, “they were totally into it. I was reminded that we tend to presume the wrong things about audiences because of age or background. Older audiences respond to this play in part because it’s about marriage and children, and most of them can relate to that.”
To extend the point, Ellis told the story of how he came out to his grandmother. “She was from Hungary, and in her late 80s. I told my twin brother that I was going to tell her I was gay and he warned me not to do it.” Ellis went on: “I told her and she said, ‘Well, as long as you’re happy I’m happy.’”
Ellis himself has been fortunate in the variety of his directing career. He has staged a balance of dramas and musicals, new plays and revivals. “If you pushed me into a corner and asked, I would say that I enjoy doing new plays the most. There is no map, and there’s something thrilling about that.” With a revival, he continued, the material is proven, so the main question is one of approach. New musicals, he confessed, are “the hardest thing of all. If they’re not working when you’re in previews, it’s very hard to steer them back to something that does work. The process toward successful revamping is very slow, and you don’t always have the time you need to do it.”
Ellis will be directing two play revivals on Broadway next fall, and a musical revival this winter: Bock and Harnick and Masteroff’s beloved She Loves Me. “When the Roundabout first approached me about this,” Ellis recounted, “I said no. I did it for them twenty-odd years ago, and it was a big success. I didn’t want to do it a second time.” He continued: “Then we did a reading of it as a Roundabout benefit, and I fell in love with it all over again.” But, he added, “I insisted that everything this time be different – different designers, different orchestrations.”
Ellis may be looking at a 2016 with at least three Broadway assignments, but it’s hard to believe that the new year will top his hat trick of last season. He directed Broadway revivals of You Can’t Take It With You, The Elephant Man, and On the Twentieth Century. All were hits. “One day during the week last February when they were all running at once,” he remembered, “I took my kids with me and had us all photographed in front of the marquees of all three theaters. I can’t tell you how grateful that made me. My grandmother was right – it really is about happiness.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.