The musical adaptation of Fellini's 8 1/2 makes it to Elm Grove this month courtesy of Theater RED. In honor of the acclaimed movie that inspired the musical, Theatre RED's Marcee Doherty-Elst and Director Eric Welch answered 8 1/2 questions about the upcoming production.
1: How did the idea for staging NINE come about? What drew you to the story?
Eric: It came around when Marcee Doherty-Elst and I decided to watch the movie after I had told her how great the musical was. We watched it and immediately thought that this would be a perfect show to put on here in Milwaukee. It hadn’t been done in a really long time and there are LOTS of roles for women. The music is so beautiful and I think that’s what really drove me but the characters are very relatable for an audience.
Marcee: NINE was Eric’s idea completely! He and I have a big stack of movies queued up and NINE was on it and we watched it one night, as I had never seen it (also, I’ve never seen the stage production, but did know some of the more well-known musical numbers from the show). Eric really loves the music in NINE and even though the movie is quite different from the stage production, he really wanted me to see it. It’s not a show that is done very often and I was also drawn to the many female characters in the story.
At Theater RED we had been in discussions about the possibility of adding musicals to our seasons, following the success of A CHORUS LINE with Milwaukee Opera Theatre and our own love of seeing musical theater. We had also been talking about adding additional personnel to Theater RED as more permanent fixtures, so those 2 ideas sort of came together nicely at the same time was we were co-producing I’LL EAT YOU LAST: A CHAT WITH SUE MENGERS with Eric Welch. He’s been an HonoRED collaborator with Theater RED for some time now, as our resident Hair and Make Up Artist and he expressed a desire to join the production team, so it felt like a great opportunity to take that leap and when we did, Eric knew that NINE was the perfect musical for Theater RED with so many roles for women and his unique vision for how the story could be told with only 9 female performers in NINE. See what he did there? He really saw it as an intimate and up-close examination of Guido at this time of crisis in his life and wanted to do it in a film noir style on stage, stripped down with the beauty of the music, powerful storytelling by a talented cast, and a single grand piano (ivories tickled expertly by Chris Wszalek).
For me, I was interested in hearing from these women in Guido’s life and was excited to realize Eric’s vision that really puts the emphasis on them. As Maury Yeston himself said, “The great secret of NINE is that it took “8 ½” and became an essay on the power of women by answering the question, ‘What are women to men?’ And NINE tells you: they are our mothers, our sisters, our teachers, our temptresses, our judges, our nurses, our wives, our mistresses, our muses.”
2: NINE is a staged musical that was based on a movie that also became a movie. What sources do you find most inspiring in drawing from sources for the show?
Eric: The musical itself is wonderful. Truthfully, I’ve never seen 8 1/2, which the musical is based off of, and I do intend on watching it, but I don’t want it to influence me in any ways with how I’m directing this musical. I have seen the musical movie, which is very different from the stage production. Reading the script, I felt like it was such a powerful story. One that could stand on its own without a heavy set and costumes. I’m trying to make this show very film noir, which seems fitting.
I want to show an adaptation of an adaptation, which we think Fellini would be in favor of. Yeston said the movie “8 ½” had a certain impact on him, and it was NINE the musical that had a similar impact on me. I’m interested in the concept at play here of adaption and moving forward from works as they affect us.
Marcee: I’ve never seen the musical, but have listened to the music – it is beautiful (and complicated!). I’ve seen the movie version with Daniel Day Lewis and I enjoyed it, but it is very different from the musical. I also recently watched “8 1/2)” as part of my preparation for rehearsal this week and it was interesting to see the film that so heavily influenced Yeston and see what parts resonated with him and made their way into NINE. Eric’s vision is very different from any of these 3 in that he is stripping the production down artistically to black boxes, hand painted banners, and lighting with a film noir feel. Being done in black and grays, color will be important in signifying moments, characters, or other important shifts in the story and will be used sparingly for effect. I think the choreographer, Ashley Patin, has drawn inspiration from aspects of the movie but like Eric, she is looking to put a fresh and modern spin on it by emphasizing the women and their stories and the music. For me, I often avoid watching movies or seeing shows if I know I’m about to portray a character in a movie or musical because as an Actor, I like to put my own interpretation of the character forward and avoid influence by how it’s been done in the past. That’s not always possible – some characters are just too iconic!
3: I’m familiar with the musical, but the full reality of the ensemble didn’t become totally clear until I saw that cast list. It really is a whole bunch of women and just one guy. What was the casting process like for this show?
Eric: The show is supposed to be almost a cast of 30 people. One man and the rest women. I decided to merge the ensemble with the main characters to keep the cast smaller. Going in, I had some ideas of what people I wanted to see for some of the characters. I held invited auditions and was able to cast the show that way. I had asked about two to three people per character to come in. It’s such a music heavy show that I had to think carefully on casting with such a short rehearsal process.
Marcee: Eric knew he wanted a smaller cast than what is traditionally done for this musical and in Theater RED’s production, the principals are also the ensemble. The Actors sing ensemble for every song that they are not singing solos in – it is a lot of music to learn and cover with a lot of tricky harmonies, but it is beautiful music and we have a cast of solid singers with a great deal of talent and experience – they are up for the challenge! We started with a pool of Actors who have auditioned for Theater RED before or that have expressed an interest in auditioning and looked at the requirements of the various characters, especially knowing that some dance would be involved and every single actor would be required to learn a lot of difficult music. The characters are onstage nearly the entire time in our version. Auditions were held and the show was cast based on the alchemy of Actors and how well they fit into the overall fabric of the show and its needs. Also, given that we have a very compressed rehearsal period, we needed to cast actors who could arrive having prepared their music, dialogue, and characters and we weren’t able to accommodate as many conflicts as longer rehearsing productions can sometimes absorb.
4: There is quite a lot of talent in the cast. I would imagine a cast with the level of experience makes for a wide array of different possible decisions to be made on staging during rehearsal. What have rehearsals been like?
Eric: We haven’t even started rehearsals yet. We start January 7th. Just from the auditions, I knew this cast would be able to pull this show off and I’m so excited to get started and see what they bring to the table. I know that each of these actors are fully capable of putting on an amazing performance.
Marcee: We actually haven’t started rehearsals as a group at the time of this writing! We had a cast read-through and Actors have done individual music work with the Music Director, Lydia Rose Eiche. Some Actors have had individual choreography rehearsals with the Choreographer, Ashley Patin, as well. We all come together officially to start rehearsing on January 7th, so depending on when this run, we will have had a limited number of rehearsals. When casting, we were looking for Actors we knew could arrived prepared so that we are spending time in rehearsal crafting the scenes and putting everything together versus teaching music or drilling lines – folks have to arrive prepared on Day 1 to be on their feet and off-book. I think rehearsals will be very exciting – it is one thing to learn your music by yourself, but quite another to layer all the harmonies together or get to interact with your scene partners with dialogue or dance instead of running those sings solo at home in preparation. I think because the cast is experienced and talented, we have the ability to do this and have a compressed rehearsal period for a show of this magnitude. No doubt about it that we can rely on the talent we have here to jump start rehearsals ahead of “square one”!
5: There are some really strong women in the story. But on one level this is really just a large group of women orbiting around one guy. How do you keep the dramatic dynamic balanced-out between the entire ensemble?
Eric: The plot very much follows Guido, yes. But the story is all about the women and their relation to Guido. The women are telling their stories and kind of run the show. It’s interesting to watch this show as Guido is a bit unlikeable at times and you find yourself really rooting for the women.
Marcee: This question is a great one because that is one thing we talked about as far as NINE and Theater RED’s founding principles. We look for shows that have substantial roles for women, and we often clarify that we mean roles of substance, not just leading female roles that center on a man. And here with NINE, the story does center on Guido Contini, so we talked at length about how we feel that guiding principle plays out. What kept coming to the forefront in our discussions was the importance and influence of these women in his life and their voices. It’s really powerful when you look across the many women in his life and see their hold on him, past, present, or even future. What is wonderful about this production and Eric’s vision is that by telling the story with 9 women who represent many characters in Guido’s life, you get a highly concentrated and personal connection with each of them – their voices are not diluted across a large cast and ensemble. The principals are also part of the ensemble fabric of Guido’s life and the women step in and out of ensemble to make their voice and story heard or fade back into the larger landscape of his life and current crisis. Each of the 9 women get her moment to shine (or 2 or 3) and I think that will really present NINE as an ensemble piece and strengthen the collective impact of the women in Guido’s life and how they have shaped his road to his current state and how they will help him move past it.
6: The studio theatre space at Sunset Playhouse poses all kinds of interesting challenges for a production. If used in the wrong way, it can feel like a conference room in a hotel, but I’ve seen some really inspiringly moody shows there. It’s such a blank slate. You have a lot of freedom to choose your own layout. How is the space being used for NINE?
Eric: We are having it set up in a cabaret setting. Audiences will be seated at tables and enjoying the show that way. I’ve decided to use minimal props and sets for the show as the most important elements in this show is the music and the story. We are painting portraits of each of the actors that will be hung up for the set. They are turning out great!
Marcee: It is kind of interesting to note that Theater RED’s very first production was at the Studio Theater at Sunset Playhouse, so in a way it feels like a homecoming! There have been some updates to the room since then and I believe we may be the first group performing on the new stage they will have in the room! As an itinerant theater company, we have performing in a number of spaces, including theaters of varying sizes and a ballroom in a hotel! The room will be set up cabaret style with seating at tables and the Actors will move through the entire space. We think this will help us create that intimate connection with the audience that we are aiming for and really bring this story up-close to them in a way that they may not have experienced before, even if they have seen the musical done on stage. The stage itself will have minimal dressing. We are using black cubes and painted banners and backdrops (by Andrea Klohn with images taken of the cast by Traveling Lemur Productions). The concept is very film noir and intentionally minimal so the music and storytelling are the feature. Props are minimal and there are no costume changes.
7: There’s a classy stylishness in promotional materials for the production. How does that stylishness translate to the stage for the show itself?
Eric: Like I had mentioned before, we’re going for a film noir feel. Everything will be in black, white and grey. There will be color with special lighting. I want to keep this show feeling very dramatic as Guido, our central character, is going through a midlife crisis. And it seems also fitting because Guido is a film director.
Marcee: Traveling Lemur Productions did a fantastic job with the promotional photography and Eric Welch hit hair and makeup out of the park, as always (insider scoop: every female character is wigged in the show). And Briana Rose Lipor’s costumes are spot on for each character and how Eric wants to represent them to the audience. Theater RED and Eric have worked with Nate and Maria of Traveling Lemur a lot, so we work really well together. Eric shared his film noir vision and talked about the concept and it really was them, along with Christopher Elst (co-founder and Producing Director of Theater RED), that packaged that together into the look and feel that you see today! Each character has their own single-word descriptor printed on individual promotional business cards and we believe that adds to the intrigue of the show!
PS – Never would I ever have thought that I would be handing out business cards with my photo on them that simply said “Prostitute” on them (show information is on the other side, but still!). Quite the holiday conversation-starter!
8: There’s a Facebook post from December 19th. Eric Welch and Tim Albrechtson both working on a very, very large painting for the production. What’s it like working that closely on a set for a show that you’re also directing?
Eric: I love it. I love being involved in every aspect. I’m really able to see my vision coming to life working that closely with the designers and crew. They are all doing such an amazing job. Putting on a show is a team effort and I’m helping in every way I can.
Marcee: Using Traveling Lemur’s individual character photographs, Scenic Designer Andrea Klohn is paining individual character banners that will dress the Studio Theater space and flank both sides of the stage. She is also paining a series of banners that will serve as the backdrop. We are using banners versus single backdrops for artistic reasons, one of them I won’t spoil for you here (you’ll have to come see the show)! But, for example, the broken visual of banners represents Guido’s broken spirit and the many pieces of his life that are falling apart. The banners are being hand painted (beautifully) by her and a number of friends are pitching in to help out (so far, Eric Welch, Tim Albrechtson, and Marcee Doherty-Elst have all helped Andrea paint, but we’re still painting so I’m sure more will be added to this list).
Fun “you heard it here first” tidbit: the banners are also being used as a semi-fundraiser for the show itself to allow friends, fans, and family to Sponsor a Character! For a $100 donation you can Sponsor one of the characters and take the hand-painted banner home with you after the show closes! It’s a great way to own a 1-of-a-kind piece of the production and support Theater RED! Only 1 sponsorship per character is available, so interested parties should let us know! We’ll be sharing details on social media soon!
For me, this is the norm and not the exception. As a small theater company, I’m used to wearing lots of hats. Producer, Actor, Media/PR/Communication, Props, Paining, Costumes, Wardrobe, etc. – the list goes on and on. For Eric and Christopher, the same is true! Eric is directing, helping to paint, performing producer duties as Theater RED’s Artistic Associate, styling and designing wigs, hair, and make up, etc. and Christopher is doing sound design, web, graphic design, performing producer duties, handling violence, etc. Many people would describe me as a “Type A” personality who has a hard time delegating and gets involved in details anyways, so even if I wasn’t forced to wear so many hats, I’d probably still be overly involved in many of the aspects of the production. As a small company, it’s something you often have to do and then it becomes something that is hard to let go of …
8-1/2: How would you … ?
Marcee: How would you...“be Italian” in January? To which I’d answer, join us for NINE the musical at Sunset Playhouse’s Studio Theater January 25, 26, and 27th! Savor a beverage while you sit back in our comfortable and intimate cabaret seating and enjoy the show!
For ticket reservations and more, visit Theater RED online.