The Rhythm Club, a new musical that tells the story of three young swing musicians in the underground swing clubs of 1938 Hamburg, Germany made its world premiere at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia in September. The show, with book and lyrics by Chad Beguelin and music by Matthew Sklar, was also slated for a full-scale out-of-town tryout in Chicago. However, it was recently announced that The Rhythm Club will instead go directly from the Signature Theatre to Broadway. I spoke with Eric Schaeffer, director of The Rhythm Club and artistic director of The Signature Theatre, about the show and its development.
Michelle Butler: Since, by your request, I am not reviewing The Rhythm Club for Talkin’ Broadway, I thought you might like to address who was invited to review the show and why?
Eric Schaeffer: Well, because this is a new musical and also because we knew that we were planning on taking it to New York eventually, we really didn’t want to have the pressure of the outside world on us. So we opened it up to the local press only. As we do with all our shows [at the Signature Theatre], the local press comes in and they can review the show. But [we] also kept the outside press away so that it was just a matter of us being able to work on the show and not feel that pressure. That was why that decision was made, and I’m the one who made that decision – it wasn’t the producers or anyone else. I just thought that would be best for the show and for the authors at this point.
MB: Okay. The Internet, however, makes what is considered local press a fuzzy line . . .
ES: Jeremy Gerard did this great piece for the New York Magazine all about how with the Internet, now all of this gossip has all of a sudden turned into fait accompli, and you have reporters reading Internet gossip and picking up on it. It becomes a whole different nightmare in the sense that you really can’t work on something quietly out of town. The whole sense of the out-of-town Broadway tryout is totally changing.
However, with The Rhythm Club, it is not an out-of-town tryout. This is our 11th world premiere at Signature Theatre, and we wanted to give The Rhythm Club the care and the nurturing that we give all of our world premieres. You just don’t want that outside pressure and gossip because it really could actually kill a show or really hurt a show. I have friends who are working on Seussical who have just had probably one of the worst months of their lives by going through what they went through in Boston because it was all blown out of proportion and made much larger than life by the Internet.
MB: [Changing gears now to the show itself.] What initially attracted you to The Rhythm Club?
ES: I got a tape of three of the songs, and I actually fell in love with them immediately. I thought the lyrics were really, really smart and the melodies that Matt had written were really wonderful.
MB: Was one of the songs “Inside the Music” [one of my favorite songs from the show]?
ES: No, I had “That Harlem Sound,” another song that I ended up cutting, and…it might have been “Ain’t Nothing to do But Dance” (the opening number). I really just thought “This is great.” And then there was the story itself – I loved the story. I thought the story was very strong. It had so much potential. I was just really attracted to the material.
MB: Did you have an immediate image of how you thought the show ought to be presented?
ES: Yes, I did actually. It was one of those shows where I knew. If I read a show and I just connect with it, I can see it visually in my head instantly. And this was one of those shows – which was great. So I knew I had to do the show.
MB: Did your overall vision for the show change as you worked on it?
ES: Well, it stayed in the same kind of environment, but it did change. I think as we have worked on the show here at Signature, we really have put a lot of changes into it. We put in a whole new opening to the second act. We put in a whole new opening of the first act. We did a whole other number that went into the second act. If anything, the changes came out of actually defining the tone of the show. And then also simplifying it because there are a lot of stories going on, and [we worked to] make sure that there was clarity in every story – what was being told and why. We really tried to do that.
MB: Was it difficult to find the right balance between the dark backdrop of the time period, a tender love story, and the upbeat feeling you get with swing music?
ES: Yes, it was. It’s a difficult balance, but I think that we’ve actually cracked it now. It is one of those things where we needed to get it up in front of an audience to actually see the reactions – see where they were laughing with it, see where they were laughing uncomfortably because they were like “Ooh, I don’t know.” We also needed to make sure that you felt the presence of that outside world, but that outside world was only a character, and that it didn’t overtake any part of the story. I think that we really have found a nice balance of all of that now, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that in the rehearsal room. We really needed to do that in front of an audience so that we could see it.
MB: The audience reaction is one thing – but I was wondering what other sort of feedback you might use in a pre-Broadway engagement?
ES: I read the local reviews. They didn’t help me at all. I read them, and I just basically tossed them aside. For me, it is actually looking at the piece itself and seeing the story we are telling. Then watching the audience, and sitting with the audience so you feel their reactions to it, and going from there. I make sure that once a week I am sitting in the middle of the audience rather than just standing on the side or in the back. I think that is important so you get the sense of all of the reactions. And then just being smart about what you want to do when you see it up there, saying “How can we make this better? How can we make this clearer? How can we…?” It is asking those questions, and then doing the work to make it happen.
MB: I would imagine that your feelings for the show aren’t static – but do you have a favorite moment or scene in the show right now?
ES: I have many…The ending of the first act – [Chad and Matt] have written a really wonderful thing there. It is funny because everyone that comes out at intermission is saying “Oh my God, I never saw that coming. Oh my God…” – which is great. There are a lot of great moments. You have the euphoria of the kids and the swing club and the dancing that is just really fantastic. Then you have these wonderful, tender moments, quiet moments with the parents that I think are really great dramatically as well as musically. There are so many good things in this show that it has really been a dream to work on, I have to say.
MB: What were some of the challenges of simultaneously conceiving the show for the intimate Signature venue as well as the larger Broadway venue?
ES: Well, what we did is we worked backwards. We actually designed the whole production for Broadway and we said “How can we take that and know that is how we are going to do the show and tell the story, and [then] scale that down for Signature?” So actually the Broadway model for the set design was scaled down for Signature. We have a cement floor at Signature so we can’t have elevators coming out like we will on Broadway – we just have pallets sliding in, but it all works exactly the same way. The great thing is that when we go back into rehearsal, I won’t have to reblock the show or change all of these entrances or exits because it is all based on the Broadway design.
MB: Oh, that’s great. Is the cast going to be larger on Broadway?
ES: We are actually going to add three more people to the cast, which will be nice. Everybody else will be the same.
MB: I was wondering what sort of an impact you think there might be without the Chicago tryout.
ES: I had a long talk with the producers about it, and I said "If I have my druthers, I would like to go right to New York" because of exactly what Seussical did go through. It is absolutely not worth the risk to do something like that when we have a show here that we really believe in, and that we can tell by the audience response that they believe in it as well. I've gotten more letters from people who have seen the show than I've ever gotten before - just saying how much they love it - it is this fresh old-fashioned musical; it isn't anything they expected. So why put yourself through that. That's the bottom line. I wasn't willing to do that, and I didn't think it was in the best interest of the show. I think what's best for the show is for the show to go directly to New York because it is going to be ready. Why put a show through that when it doesn't need to go through it.
MB: Do you have any idea when you might be recording a cast album?
ES: Our date has probably changed now. Originally we were supposed to go into the studio on February 19th, but since we are only starting previews on the 17th, I’m sure that is going to get pushed back about a month. I would imagine we will probably do it toward the end of March. We are going to open March 22nd, so I would imagine it would be that following Monday.
MB: Well, that’s great. I can’t wait to hear the recording.
ES: I know, everybody is already asking for it, which is great.
MB: Do you have any other upcoming Signature projects you would like to mention?
ES: I think the biggest thing for us at the Signature is that it is a season of world premieres. The next two plays that we’re doing [In the Absence of Spring by Joe Calarco and In the Garden by Norman Allen] are both world premieres as well. That’s what we do here.
MB: The Signature has had and it appears that it will continue to have many world premieres – I was wondering how you manage to find them.
ES: Well, we develop them. We absolutely develop the plays and get attached to them early. For the following season we already have two world premieres lined up as well. It’s what we do, and I think it’s really important because not enough people do do that – not enough theaters are doing world premiers to give support to local playwrights and give them the opportunity to have their voices heard. That’s the thing that is so great about The Rhythm Club – the guys that wrote this are 26 and 30 years old. People would probably shy away from people that young, saying “they don’t have a voice yet” – which is totally false. Matt and Chad totally break that mold, but I think it is very difficult for people to realize that – they are afraid to take the chance on it. But that’s what you have to do and what we are in this business for. That’s part of our job.
The Rhythm Club runs through October 22, 2000 at the Signature Theatre. As Mr. Schaeffer mentioned in the interview, the show will open on Broadway on March 22, 2001.