Kathleen Marshall is a Tony-winning director/choreographer best known for such period musicals as Nice Work If You Can Get It and Broadway revivals of The Pajama Game, Grease, Wonderful Town, and Anything Goes. Now she’s staging My Paris, a new musical based on the life and times of French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, at New Haven, Conn.’s Long Wharf Theatre May 4–29, with original music by singer/songwriter Charles Aznavour. The show also features a book by Alfred Uhry and English lyrics and musical adaptation by Jason Robert Brown.
What does this show look and sound like?
What I love about My Paris is that it puts you in the world of Toulouse-Lautrec at the turn-of-the-last-century Paris. It’s about his relationship to his family, his art, and the city of Paris. But what really made me want to do this, and what brought it all together, was Charles Aznavour’s music, which we like to say is really French music, not Cole Porter or Jerry Herman doing their version of French music.
What is Aznavour like to work with?
He’s a living legend. He’s 91 now and still doesn’t stop. He’s amazing. We have to catch him between touring and performing. We’ve been developing this over the course of several years and have met with him several times, and he’s been to the readings and workshops and [the developmental production] at Goodspeed. And he’s still writing. He’s actually working in a new song for us right now. Personally, he’s elegant, absolutely elegant, always dressed impeccably, and he’s very sharp, quick-witted, and funny. He speaks English, but we also have a translator so he can speak in French too.
What art is hanging on your walls at home in New York City?
We don’t have any theatrical memorabilia—no posters of shows or pictures from the productions. But we do have a lot of original art that my husband and I have collected over the years. It’s very eclectic—some from thrift stores, a large collection of black-and-white photography that we love, some paintings, and one numbered and signed Picasso print.
Last year you directed Living on Love on Broadway, a nonmusical. How was the process different compared to staging musicals?
In a way it was familiar because it was a farce and had a lot of musical elements and musical transitions to it. What’s lovely about a play compared to a musical is that we get to sit and talk a lot about the characters and all the what-ifs. I mean, we have table talk for musicals, too, but in a play it doesn’t have that same time pressure that musicals have.
You went to Massachusetts’s Smith College as an English major. Which writers did you most admire?
The big storytellers: Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen. I think they influenced me the most. What I loved about being an English major is that you learn about different times, cultures, and places, and you become a temporary expert. I feel that’s what you do as a director; that’s what I’m doing now. You immerse yourself in the literature, art, music, and history of the period.
You were a judge on TV’s “Grease: You’re the One That I Want.” What advice do you give to those auditioning, and what would you remind those on your side of the table?
I do a lot of master classes, and what I tell actors is to remember that we want the next person to be the one, and to know that we’re rooting for you to succeed. But it’s hard to remember that. For the other side, I’d say it’s important to make sure that the person auditioning has their shot; we owe them our attention and our respect.
What is your first theatrical memory?
Growing up in Pittsburgh, our parents took us to see everything ever since we were very little. We went to musicals, plays, Shakespeare, operas, ballets, and symphonies. But the first production I can remember was when the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera did a production of Oklahoma! at the football stadium.
In college, one of your teachers was Gemze de Lappe, who was a dancer in the original run of Oklahoma!
She’s one of the reasons I went to Smith College—and she’s in her 90s now and still going strong. She’s like Aznavour in that she’s like the Energizer bunny. I was there for a liberal arts education, but I still wanted to study dance and theatre, and she taught ballet, musical theatre dance, and history and technique classes every day. Agnes de Mille was still with us then and gave us permission to do the Carousel ballet for a dance concert. I got to dance Louise.
Your older brother is director Rob Marshall. Is there any sibling rivalry in your family?
Only sibling support. My sister, Maura, and Rob—we’re all very close. They are twins a couple of years older, and they called me the third twin because I always wanted to do what they were doing. Everyone in our family were fans of the arts way before any of us could participate or have lessons, or thought about it as a potential career. We were first just passionate audience members.
Frank Rizzo lives in New Haven, Conn., and New York City and writes on theatre for Variety, The Hartford Courant, The New York Times, Playbill, and other publications.