Director finds a home in theater and film

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Michael Mayer was hardly a fan of the 1967 movie Thoroughly Modern Millie.

"I thought that it was just hideous," the Maryland-bred director says bluntly. "I thought it was racist, and I thought it was sexist, and I thought that the message of the movie was kind of offensive because it made fun of women's lib."

This reaction might make Mayer an unlikely candidate to direct the Broadway musical of that movie. It's not as if he's ever at a loss for work. To the contrary, the words "in demand" are often used to describe him.

In 1999, he had three shows running on Broadway - The Lion in Winter, Side Man and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. And this past July, his revival of Arthur Miller's After the Fall opened on Broadway the same week as the release of his first motion picture, A Home at the End of the World.

A telephone interview is rescheduled twice to accommodate rehearsals for the revival of Marsha Norman's 'Night, Mother that opens on Broadway on Nov. 14. During his dinner break, he'll meet with casting directors about his next movie.

Despite his feelings about Millie, Mayer spent a lot of time talking about the musical with Dick Scanlan, his close friend, fellow Marylander and the man who came up with the idea of putting Millie on stage. (The national tour opens Tuesday at the Hippodrome Theatre.)

Mayer and Scanlan met in 1976, as teenage tenors in the Montgomery County Chorus. Two years later, they were Jets in a summer theater production of West Side Story in Rockville.

They lost touch for a while, then met up again about a decade ago. Before long, Scanlan was discussing his plans to make a musical out of George Roy Hill's movie about a girl from Kansas who moves to New York in hopes of finding a job and marrying her rich boss.

In the course of their conversations, Scanlan - the musical's co-librettist and lyricist - convinced Mayer that, thematically, Thoroughly Modern Millie was "much deeper and more compelling than the film actually allowed it to be," Mayer recalls.

As Scanlan tells it, he explained that Millie is about a "young woman's drive to erase [her] small-town provincial life in favor of an urban life that she feels is who she really is."

Not only did Mayer understand what Scanlan was saying, he identified with Millie. Moving to New York to redefine your life "has huge resonance for me and for Dick because that's exactly what we did," he says.

Mayer still had a major reservation, however. The movie featured two Chinese characters who were part of a subplot about white slavery. On screen, they were stereotypes. "Until I can find a way to deal with the Chinese problem," Mayer told Scanlan, "I can't [direct] this."

And then Mayer found a way: The Chinese characters would speak their native language, which would be translated in subtitles. Their dignity would be restored at the same time that the show would "turn everything on its side and use the innate racism of the story to tell a different story about immigrants in America and in New York."

Scanlan loved it. "That's one of the things we really ran with - the idea that [the central characters] are all immigrants," he says. "It's kind of the American journey to say, 'I'm unhappy with my life. I want to change it.' "

Connected projects

Mayer's life began to change when he transferred from the University of Wisconsin to the theater program at New York University in 1980. His big break took another decade, but it also came at NYU.

A former fellow student, playwright Tony Kushner, asked him to direct a graduate student production of Perestroika, the second part of Angels in America. That led to directing the national tour of Angels.

In Mayer's career, one project frequently seems connected to the next. In this case, one of Angel's Broadway producers was Margo Lion, another former Marylander. Lion brought Mayer in to direct the musical Triumph of Love, which made its debut at Center Stage in 1996 and was produced on Broadway the following season.

While Triumph was at Center Stage, Lion invited a composer named Jeanine Tesori to help out with the score. A few years later, when Mayer and Scanlan were looking for a composer for Millie, they turned to Tesori. Her job was originally envisioned as combining music from the movie with period songs. In the end, she wrote more than two-thirds of the score.

Triumph of Love and Thoroughly Modern Millie followed similar paths to Broadway - both started out at regional theaters. But the two shows' fortunes were reversed.

Although Triumph fared well at Center Stage, it closed after three months in New York. Millie, on the other hand, suffered through a beleaguered tryout at California's La Jolla Playhouse, where it had what Scanlan calls "enormous technical problems." Then it won the Tony Award for best musical and ran more than two years on Broadway.

"With Triumph, we gave birth to something that I think was a beautiful hothouse flower. [With Millie,] La Jolla was like the desert. It was miserable. Everything we tried didn't work," Mayer says. But he adds, "The fact that I got through that - nothing scares me anymore."

Among the things that didn't scare him was his movie debut, for which he directed seasoned pros Colin Farrell, Robin Wright Penn and Sissy Spacek.

"I'd never really given film a lot of thought," Mayer says. But when actor-turned-producer Tom Hulce asked if he'd be interested in directing a movie based on Michael Cunningham's novel A Home at the End of the World, Mayer knew it would make a good film.

"There's such a cinematic feel to so much of it," he says of Cunningham's account of two boyhood friends and a young woman who attempt to create an unconventional family.

"It's a story that I so recognized - growing up gay in the suburbs in the '60s and '70s and moving to New York in the early '80s. That's what I did. That's very much my life," says Mayer, who lives in Chelsea with Roger Waltzman, an oncologist.

Family ties

The movie proved helpful on Mayer's next Broadway assignment - the revival of After the Fall, Miller's largely autobiographical play, which includes a fictionalized account of his marriage to movie star Marilyn Monroe. "My work on it, dramaturgically, benefited enormously from editing a film," Mayer says.

The production was Mayer's second Miller play on Broadway. His staging of A View from the Bridge won the 1998 Tony Award for best revival. He acknowledges that he's always felt a rapport with Miller's work. "Growing up in a lefty Jewish household," he says, "there are certain key things in American history that have always resonated in my family." (Mayer's father is a retired labor lawyer; his mother serves on the Montgomery County Board of Appeals.)

Mayer refers to family in a broader sense when asked if he feels a personal connection to 'Night, Mother, a drama in which a grown daughter (Edie Falco) informs her mother (Brenda Blethyn) that she plans to kill herself.

"The play is not about suicide," he says. "It is a play about the complicated love between a parent and a child. To me, it transcends the genre, as great work always does. It really is about how do you connect with someone that you love and have conflicted feelings about? How do you ask them the really hard questions? How do you prepare yourself to receive the answers?"

As Mayer's credits suggest, he's a director with a wide range. The movie he's meeting with casting directors about also concerns a parent and child, but it couldn't be more different from 'Night, Mother. A new adaptation of Mary O'Hara's boy-and-his-horse book My Friend Flicka, it will be called simply Flicka, and the boy will be changed to a girl.

Nor is that the only project lying ahead. For five years, he's been working on a rock musical called Spring Awakening, based on the German play by Frank Wedekind. "It's a musical cautionary tale about what happens if you don't talk to your kids about sex," says Mayer, who hopes Lincoln Center will produce a concert version as part of its "American Songbook" series.

Also ahead is Under My Skin, a movie starring Annette Bening. And he's developing a musical version of The Flamingo Kid with Triumph of Love collaborators Susan Birkenhead and James Magruder.

"I have been unable to carve out a very thought-through career plan," Mayer says of his varied projects.

"I love musicals and dramas. I love old plays and new plays. I love collaborating with writers and I love actors. I love it all so passionately, and I've really loved the most what's right in front of me. I fall in love with whatever I'm directing," he says, before heading off to tend to his latest flame, 'Night, Mother.

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Where: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.

When: Nov. 2-14. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $26-$71

Call: 410-547-SEAT

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