The Tony call comes early on the West Coast.
Marcia Milgrom Dodge was trying to get some sleep; the director-choreographer had only five days to stage the new Reprise Theatre Company production of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." But at 5:45 am Pacific time, Dodge's husband called to tell her she'd received a nomination for best direction of a musical for "Ragtime." She was astonished.
FOR THE RECORD:
Marcia Milgrom Dodge: An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge said that Edward Albee was among the clients of Creative Artists Agency agent George Lane. Albee is not one of his clients. —
FOR THE RECORD:
"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying": An information box that accompanied an article in Tuesday's Calendar section about the director of the Reprise production of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" at UCLA said that ticket prices ranged from $20 to $75. The $20 tickets are limited to seniors and students 15 minutes before showtime and are subject to availability. Most tickets are $70 to $75. —
"I'm floating," Dodge says. "It's a dream come true."
J. Pierrepont Finch, the wily young hero of "Succeed," rises to the top of the Worldwide Widget Co. in mere days. For Dodge, 55, the Tony nomination marks the culmination of a three-decade career that only recently led to her first directing gig on Broadway. "Marcia may not be a teenager," says Terrence McNally, who wrote "Ragtime's" book. "But she has a big, big future."
Right now, Dodge is just trying to get her latest show on its feet. Sitting in rehearsal at Screenland Studios in Burbank, she watches carefully as actors fling themselves onto the floor during the "Coffee Break" sequence. With her cropped blond hair, bright lipstick and black plastic glasses, Dodge seems like a cross between Rizzo from "Grease" and an unflappable den mother. She carries a doorstop-sized production notebook, filled with meticulous scene charts and visual inspirations. You have the sense she could probably run a small country. "I get a little obsessive," Dodge says.
Born and raised in Michigan, Dodge started dancing when she was 3, after her older sister dragged her to a class. "I seemed to have a facility. My sister not so much. This has plagued her her whole life." She left for New York in 1977 and remembers a pivotal modern dance class. " Martha Graham was teaching that day. We were supposed to do a relevé with a contraction. I was standing there in what I thought was the right position. She walked up to me, took her gnarly hand and punched me right in the stomach. At that moment I decided I preferred jazz."
Dodge started working as a choreographer, then as a director on the regional theater circuit, honing her craft. "Small budgets mean you have to be very ingenious. When you scale things down, you get to what a show is really about."
After McNally saw her work in a small show at New York University, he talked her up. Dodge was hired in 2006 to direct "The Who's Tommy" at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y. "I knew I didn't want to get bogged down in a real pinball machine. I told my designer, 'Just make the frame.' I like to include the audience on the journey, to give them opportunities to fill in the visual blanks." The New York Times called her take on the rock opera "exuberant, exhilarating, rejuvenating."
When the Kennedy Center was looking for a director for its in-house revival of "Ragtime," Dodge finally got her chance at a major production. "It was a risky choice. I was not, shall we say, a George Lane client," she smiles, referring to the Creative Artists Agency agent whose roster includes Edward Albee and "Spring Awakening's" Michael Mayer.
"Ragtime," with its epic sweep and soaring score by Stephen Flaherty, can challenge the best director. The lavish 1998 Broadway original, starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, featured fireworks and a working Model T car. Dodge and set designer Derek McLane chose a simpler, more architectural approach, creating an airy, multitiered scaffold set. Like Tommy's pinball machine, Coalhouse Walker's iconic piano was just a shell.
McNally describes the opening moment: "The curtain went up and there were 40 people just standing there looking out at you before a single note sounded. It was amazing, iconic. Marcia understands the power of an image." But the playwright insists Dodge is not just about flashy stage pictures. "Friends came up to me after the show and said, 'I love the changes to the book.' Not a word in the play had been rewritten," he laughs. "Marcia had just found things in the story that other people hadn't."
Dodge builds a production out of each character's physical behavior. "For me a show is always first about the movement. That tells you who the characters are." Scored by "Guys and Dolls" composer Frank Loesser, "Succeed" is unusual for a Golden Age musical. "This show isn't so much about dancing," she explains. "It's really gesture-based storytelling." As for the show's "Mad Men"-era sexual politics, she grins. "I think when you see what I do with 'A Secretary Is Not A Toy,' you'll get the idea."
"Enron" is closing on Broadway, raising the question of whether we want to see businessmen sing and dance. For Reprise artistic director Jason Alexander, " 'Enron' achieves theatricality through a lot of tricks. It is very 'directed' and 'imagined,' wonderful attributes when material may be less than theatrical. But 'Succeed' needs no such tricks. It was devised with theatricality in mind." ( Daniel Radcliffe is set to star in another Broadway revival of "Succeed" in 2011, directed by Rob Ashford.)
Reprise's production has a few aces in the hole, including John O'Hurley, playing the very model of a modern CEO. O'Hurley is known for his "Seinfeld" appearances as the catalog celebrity J. Peterman (he is now, weirdly, a part owner of the real company), and appeared as King Arthur in "Spamalot" at the Ahmanson. Simon Helberg of CBS' "Big Bang Theory" plays a Machiavellian mailroom boy, and Ed Asner will be heard as the voice of the eponymous self-help book.
Josh Grisetti, who became available after "Broadway Bound" closed early, takes on the role of Finch for Reprise. "Josh is like a kooky cocktail — a dash of Ray Bolger, a pinch of Jimmy Stewart, and a dollop of schmaltz. He's one of the best comic actors I know," says Dodge.
"How to Succeed" opens Wednesday at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. After that, Dodge — a Tony voter — will head back to New York to catch a few shows, including "Fela!" and Green Day's "American Idiot." Controversy has been growing over the fact that these shows were shut out of the best original score nominations. (The official rule holds that 50% of a show's music must be newly composed for the stage production.)
"I would encourage the rules committee when redefining the qualifications for awards to remember that we have an art form to preserve and nurture," says Dodge.
"I think each show needs to be evaluated individually rather than rubber-stamped ineligible. Incidentally, in 1993, 'The Who's Tommy' won the Tony for best original score. And that was a concept album turned into a stage musical."
The real question is, what will Dodge wear to the Tonys? She's already got that covered: It'll be a gown by "Project Runway" alum and friend Emilio Sosa, who won Season 7's challenge to dress host Heidi Klum. "He'll create something awesome for me."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun