Today’s TOP FIVE comes to us from Josh Sazon, a prolific director and actor in Iowa City/Coralville. He has played such varied roles as Daddy Warbucks in Annie, Fredrik in A Little Night Music and the King in The King and I. And he has directed many, many shows. Here are the five shows Josh has selected for his TOP FIVE…
The term “Top Five” is a bit of a misnomer with this one. The shows listed below are not necessarily the best work I’d ever done, though I’m pretty well satisfied with how they turned out. More than anything, the shows listed are personal touchstones of sorts: productions and experiences that have resonated with me through the years. This is far from an exhaustive list — I’m mildly surprised to realize I’ve done as much theater as I have, and I’ve been fortunate to have had very good memories of my experiences. I’ve done quite a few other productions that may have been better received by the public, or may have been more (dare I say) artistically fulfilling or artistically relevant, but these are the ones that have stayed with me over time, the ones I look back on with great fondness.
In no particular order, these include:
5) She Loves Me by Joe Masteroff, Sheldon Harnick, and Jerry Bock. ICCT, 2008.
These days I’m probably best known in the area for directing musicals. I have directed quite a few of them, including a number of classic staples of the genre. But I still retain a great fondness for this, the first musical I had ever directed for the Iowa City Community Theatre. It’s not a particularly well-known show: it came out in the early sixties, written by the team of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, who later wrote Fiddler On The Roof. She Loves Me was an adaptation of a Hungarian play that was also adapted into the film The Shop Around The Corner (and decades after was re-adapted for the film You’ve Got Mail). The story is familiar: boy and girl are pen pals, but can’t stand each other in real life — until all is revealed and happy ending.
I was very surprised when ICCT decided to program it into their season. If nothing else, less well-known shows tend not to produce a terribly large turnout in terms of audiences and actors. But I was fortunate enough to get a first-rate cast: Jon Meadows and Megan Sands played the bickering couple with great aplomb, Nora Scherschel stopped the show EVERY time she recounted her Trip To The Library and Chuck Dufano proved he could actually sing onstage with a full orchestra.
It was my first experience as a director working with Ed Kottick, professor emeritus from the University of Iowa School of Music, who ended up working with me as music director for quite a few other musicals I directed in subsequent years. I tell Ed (and most anyone else who’d listen) that the main reason I direct musicals with him is so I can listen to the full FULL orchestra he so masterfully assembles play the overture live.
I’m not kidding when I say that.
I thought the whole production – script, score, performers – had great humor and charm and I was delighted when audiences seemed to agree. The show ran in the dead of winter for two weekends, and sold out — proof positive that audiences WILL flock to a new show if done well and if the material appeals to their sensibilities. While the next show I directed for ICCT was also relatively obscure (The Baker’s Wife, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz) and was also well received and did very good business, I can’t say I’d had much success in getting less well-known musicals produced in subsequent years (not for lack of trying). Which is a pity.
4) Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. City Circle, 2012.
Frank Loesser’s best-known work is a classic, and its reputation is well-deserved: chock full of great tunes (“Luck Be A Lady,” “Fugue For Tinhorns,” “If I Were A Bell,” the title number), frenetic and, above all, funny as heck if done well. I had actually been fortunate enough to be involved in TWO productions of Guys and Dolls in the area: the first was an ICCT production, where I got cast Nathan Detroit. It was a marvelous opportunity and I got to work with a wonderful group of people, but as a whole I can’t say the production was terribly successful.
A few years later I got the opportunity to direct the show. It was performed under the auspices of the City Circle Acting Company, and played at the Coralville Center for Performing Arts. While there is truly something oddly magical about performing shows in the Exhibition Hall of the Johnson County fairgrounds (aka The Barn), there is also something to be said about performing in an honest-to-gosh THEATRE (with an “re” because we are pretentious) like the CCPA or the Englert theater: the curtains, the lights, the full orchestra playing in the pit under the baton of Maestro Kottick.
It was a show that *looked* good, and I had Rich Riggleman (set) and Jeff Crone (lights) to thank for that. I was blessed with a wonderful cast, both principals AND ensemble, and it was nothing less than a thrill to watch the show take shape after night after night of rehearsal. The male ensemble (always difficult to cobble together even at the best of times) were great bunch of ne’er-do-wells who sang and moved with surprising conviction, and the Hot Box girls were HOT (in a wholesome, family-friendly sort of way of course). Somewhere down the line it may have slipped my mind that Guys And Dolls had a pretty decent amount of dance in it (else I probably would have decided not to direct it), and I was very fortunate in having Doug and Jill Beardsley handle that (very substantial) end of things.
Dancing is probably the most difficult component to address when doing musicals in a community theater setting — or indeed most settings. It is difficult to choreograph, it is difficult to execute, and by golly, there is nothing quite so painful as watching an ensemble flounder onstage in a big musical number. The big Havana number, where the hero whisks the heroine away for a night of dancing and dulce de leche, always took my breath away. Jill and Doug and the rest of that talented talented ensemble made it look sooo easy — exuberant and rousing and sly and even sexy, when it needed to be.
Asking me to choose my favorite show I’d worked on is difficult. Some shows are better than others, I’ll admit, but all productions have their virtues. But if pressed I would have to say that *my* Guys And Dolls was the most satisfying experience I’ve had directing a musical overall.
3) My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. (2011)
I had introduced the concept of mounting a “concert” production (or a “minimally staged” production) in the off-season as a fundraiser for ICCT, which had been going through some financial problems at the time. It was a relative no-brainer: do a somewhat abbreviated production of a well-known musical with no sets or fancy lighting or costumes (but with a full orchestra) in the space of three weeks. Theater groups like it because it’s so much less expensive than a “full” musical. Performers liked it because they did NOT have to commit to a show for an extended period of time. Respectable theater audiences liked it because they got to see (and occasionally hum along with) one of those warhorses no self-respecting theater connoisseur weaned on Jason Robert Brown would be caught dead with.
And truth be told, I liked it because I could get my grubby little hands on material that seems to have been done to death and breathe new life into it. It also gave me the opportunity to work with seasoned performers like Steve Swanson, John Muriello and Kristin de Grazia — professionals all who were unable to commit to a full production, but were more than gracious in spending their time and considerable talent with enthusiastic amateurs.
The first concert production produced was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, which played at the Englert Theater. Produced in the dead of summer at a time when no self-respecting theater company would ever dream to put on a show, it garnered an audience (and ticket sales) that made the Powers That Be eager for subsequent productions. We eventually ended up doing productions of Sound Of Music, and later Carousel and Anything Goes at the Coralville Center for Performing Arts. But the second concert production we did was My Fair Lady.
Casting one’s self in a show one directs is not always smart. I can’t say I was all that smart when I did just that. And I don’t think I’d ever do it again. And yet, I can’t say I’d have done things differently now that I know better. I don’t consider myself a musical theater performer (can barely stay on pitch, cannot dance to save my life), even if I had been very fortunate to have performed in musical theater (usually the non-singing, non-dancing part).
But this was Henry Higgins, who neither sang nor danced in the show (perhaps tangoed a little). And while this wasn’t necessarily Shaw (and when would anyone ever do Pygmalion?), it was Lerner and Loewe and I’m a fan. So I cast myself. I can’t say I’m all that proud of that decision, but then no one else would do it.
No costumes, no sets, but a wonderful orchestra once again conducted by Maestro Ed, and a wonderful cast: Megan Keiser made a wonderful Eliza and John Muriello from the University’s School of Music pulled off a wonderfully comic Alfie Doolittle. The show came out in the dead of winter (there is something bracing about doing musicals in the dead of winter — I suspect it’s the thrill of the gamble that the weather won’t have a turn for the worse come show time) and was fairly well received, thank goodness. I can’t say it’s the best concert production I’d ever done, and it would be nice to have the opportunity to play Higgins in a full-blown production. But on a very personal level I was pretty satisfied with it.
2) Eye Piece by Rinde Eckert. University of Iowa, 2010.
One of the truly lovely things about doing theater in this town is the opportunity to be able to work with the University of Iowa’s Theater department. I had the good fortune of performing original material written and directed by students in the department, including works written by MFA students in the University’s playwriting program. Quite a few of them: Mel Larson and Andrew Saito among quite a few others, have since gone on to do work in regional theaters around the country. It’s a different, much more intense experience doing a University production, and mounting a new play for the University’s New Play festival, particularly, is as fascinating and frustrating as mounting a musical, albeit for different reasons.
But easily the most memorable experience I’ve had with the theater department was working in a show commissioned by Hancher Auditorium called Eye Piece. Drawing from interviews with doctors, nurses, and patients in the UI Center for Macular Degeneration, Rinde Eckert (writer, composer, musician, performer, director and former Iowa City native who has since gone on to carve quite the notable name for himself in the world of performing arts) created a music-theatre piece that explored the subject of blindness — social, cultural and spiritual as well as physical. At the center of the play was a painter grappling with the agony of losing his sight. Surrounding that story were snatches of medical lectures, songs, dances, and scenes, also drawn from research.
The production grew and evolved over time, in a manner quite unlike anything I’d ever experienced before or since. It coalesced around the talents of sixteen very unique and gifted performers: MFA acting students, certainly, but also undergraduates and other performers in the community. There was no real “plot” to speak of, and the show was built on individual moments that at times almost seemed to be a series of non-sequiturs, but built to a moving, even cathartic, conclusion. For a show that dealt with blindness, the resulting production ended up very visually striking. One of the more memorable moments in the production, I thought, was a “dance of the blind,” where performers writhed onstage to music, mimicking the blind “seeing” with touch. The moment came late in a fairly long production, and depending on the proclivities of the individual audience member, it was either deeply moving or a colossal waste of time.
Overall, the final product was very well received. While easily the most unconventional work I’d ever been a part of, it was also captivating, intelligent and original. I am very proud to have been part of it.
1) I Hate Hamlet by Paul Rudnick. ICCT, 2002.
Contrary to popular belief, I have actually worked on non-musicals. I have even performed in them on occasion. The first show I had ever done in the area was Dreamwell’s production of Death and the Maiden, a play of great seriousness where I found myself bound and had underwear stuffed in my mouth by the inimitable Ellen Stevenson (we have since become good friends). And while I have directed the odd “serious play” (The Pillowman by Martin McDonogh comes to mind, though I’ve also considered that to be more of an inspired bit of black comedy), I do find myself having a greater preference and affinity for lighter fare. Part of this stems, I suspect, from a resentment of the mindset most people have about the frivolous being “easier” to pull off than straight drama — it isn’t. I still remember forsaking the chance of auditioning for an Arthur Miller magnus opus in favor of a Neil Simon trifle. I was eventually molested onstage by a most fetching young redhead as she sat on my lap so I can’t say I regret the choice.
I Hate Hamlet, written by Paul Rudnick, came out in the early nineties and seems not performed terribly often today. It recounts the travails of a soap opera actor who finds himself having to play the titular character in Shakespeare’s play and is subsequently haunted by the ghost of John Barrymore. I got to play John Barrymore.
I thought it was a very funny script with Barrymore quoting Shakespeare and getting the best bon mots, AND THERE WAS A SWORD FIGHT AT THE END OF THE FIRST ACT! It’s one of the few times that I have ever fretted — that is to say, got sloshed in a bar after callbacks with a fellow actor (Adam Fauser) — about getting a part. I neither look nor sound like John Barrymore, which is why I remain grateful to (and bemused by) director Paul Chakrin for casting me in the first place. I got to brandish a sword and even SLASH AND PARRY with one! My gratitude to Jason Tipsword and Nate Kula for their expertise and remarkable patience, as well as Dieter Zimmerman (my onstage adversary) for risking life and limb, remains undimmed after all these years.
It’s close to fifteen years ago since I did the show, and most of the cast have moved away or no longer do much theater. Truth be told I’m a bit foggy as to how good the production really was. I thought it was hilarious, but I’m biased and I don’t remember the attendance to have been as good as it could have been — but I could probably say that about every non-musical I’ve ever done. But frivolous though the material might have been, I still look back on the experience and the resulting production with great fondness. For whatever reason, the experience encapsulates what I love about doing theater, and why I have continued to it for as long as I have.
This particular quote from the play sums it all up: “This is why we act! This is why we are envied! We are allowed to DO this sort of thing!”
Check back soon for another TOP FIVE. In the meantime, check out these previous TOP FIVES: