NEW YORK CITY: In a bit of startlingly good news, New York City Center president & CEO Arlene Shuler has announced that director Lear deBessonet will serve as the next artistic director of Encores!, a beloved program now in its 25th season of reviving seldom-seen Broadway musicals in staged concert versions. DeBessonet, best known for founding and running the Public Theater’s ambitious and popular Public Works program with its current director, Laurie Woolery, is an acclaimed director of multidisciplinary shows, including not only most of the Public Works shows but also the Foundry Theatre’s Good Person of Szechwan and the Public’s Miss You Like Hell.
Currently a resident director with the Tony-honored Encores! series, deBessonet will continue working alongside artistic director Jack Viertel through the 2020 season, then assume her new role beginning with the 2021 Encores! season. DeBessonet will be the first new artistic director to lead the series since Viertel was appointed in 2000. Somehow, amazingly, she will also continue in her position as resident director at the Public and founder of Public Works (Woolery has been working as the program’s director since 2016).
Said Shuler in a statement, “When we began looking for candidates who not only appreciate the Encores! mission but share a passion for the art form, it became clear that we did not need to look far. Lear is a visionary leader with a track record of delivering artistic excellence and shares in City Center’s goal to provide access to the best in the arts to the widest possible audience. We’re delighted to have her lead Encores! in its next chapter.”
“The moment I saw Lear’s work as a director I knew I wanted to collaborate with her,” said Viertel in a statement. “Her expression of wit, joy, brains, taste, warmth, and inclusiveness was captivating. Her relationship with City Center began in 2014 and set in motion a series of wonderful, like-minded conversations, and eagerly hatched plans. When I decided it was time for me to hand the baton to the next generation of artists, Lear’s ability to inspire and excite artists and audiences made her the ideal candidate.”
I spoke to Lear today about the new job and what her hiring means for the program’s mission and future.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: This is such amazing news. It feels both inevitable and surprising—a mix of, “Of course,” and, “Wow, they’re really going to do this!”
LEAR DEBESSONET: Yes, it feels like such a natural and right fit, and also a surprising one.
It’s a surprise to us, but surely it’s been in the works for a while—I imagine that’s what Jack Viertel means in the press statement above about conversations he’s had and plans he’s hatched with you.
Jack invited me into conversation with him in a way that was so special and kind of holistic. We had a great time working on specific shows together, but there was a sense of deeper invitation from him, from one passionate musical theatre lover to another, based on our deep connection around our love for these shows. So we would share these questions: What are we going to do? What is the future of Encores!? And with the many ways the world is shifting, what does that mean for these old shows to breathe new life in the world of today? We’ve been talking for a few years about those big philosophical questions, talking about the canon. It feels very organic; it’s a relationship that goes beyond any specific role I’ve played there.
The Times piece about your hiring said you didn’t see a professional musical until you were 17, but you’ve long had a love for music and theatre.
I came to musicals in a way that I think is very normal for a kid who didn’t grow up in New York City. My relationship to those shows was forever shaped by the fact that in my formative years, I was experiencing them through movie musicals and amateur versions in Baton Rouge, including in my backyard. I’ve said before, I grew up with Mardi Gras and football, and that has informed my approach to Public Works: I believe that life is colorful and has music in it, and has people of all ages in it. I was very late to a set of assumptions about what professional theatre looked like and was supposed to be like; I only knew the way those shows made me feel, and the parts of my life in Louisiana that felt connected to them.
When you say in your backyard, do you mean literally?
Oh yes, I had a theatre troupe that had my sister and my dog in it, and neighbors were regularly being recruited. That started when I was about 5. For my eighth birthday I wanted an Annie birthday, and by that I mean I wanted to direct a production of Annie. My mom said, “We could get you an Annie cake, maybe some party favors.” And I said, “Mom, you don’t understand; I need to see my vision come to life!” That memory is very vivid.
It’s like you were a born artistic director.
So will you retain the mission of Encores!, which has seemed to be mostly about reviving shows that have great scores that are well worth hearing, but questionable books that make them unstageable or hopelessly dated?
One thing I find very interesting is that if you ask 20 people what Encores! mission is, there would likely be at least 19 answers. It does seem like there’s been some heat around what the mission has been. To me the thing that has been absolute and should never change is the emphasis on the music, and the integrity with which those shows are performed, and the effervescent quality of that orchestra. And also having an audience as full of as many different New Yorkers as possible. You know, we have 11,000 students connected to the work, and I’m excited about giving them a chance to experience this music they otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to hear. Even just the look of an Encores! show—the musicians are at the center of the event. That feels absolutely core.
And yes, it does feel that a lot of what has happened there is that audiences can hear a score live that they probably haven’t heard before, a hidden jewel in the chest. But Jack and I have talked a lot about the problem of success, which Encores! has had. After doing 78 shows, you would like to know: Is this the full mission? How do we define whether a show is too familiar or too well known? I feel like I am engaging with those questions in the deepest way. My first day isn’t until the end of this season, but as of today it’s out in the world, so I’m engaged with it. I’m going to be doing what I did at Public Works, where I embarked on a listening tour for six months before I did anything. I treasure the stakeholders here so much: the audiences, the artists, directors, designers. I also care about the people who may never have experienced Encores! before, including some of the students. What do they think about these old musicals? What do they respond to, what do they recoil from? Those conversations will lay the groundwork for all that I do here.
Are you going to retain a certain number of historic musicals, or do you think you’ll err on the side of more contemporary shows?
I’m trying to keep a wide lens. There’s a part of Encores! that is about a love of the history of the form, and it wouldn’t make sense for an Encores! season to be all relatively recent shows. A big part of this is understanding the evolution of this uniquely American art form.
Are you going to keep doing the summer series of ostensibly Off-Broadway musicals, Off-Center? That’s been a very energizing addition, if I may say so. Even if some of the shows in that series aren’t strictly Off-Broadway only, they do represent a sort of alternative musical theatre tradition, from Blitzstein to Assassins.
Right now this is still a demarcation: Encores! revives Broadway, Off-Center revives Off-Broadway shows. Anne Kauffman runs Off-Center, and I love her. So I’m excited about the synergy there.
Your predecessor isn’t a director, so this wouldn’t be a question for him, but will you direct some of the shows?
I will direct some, but certainly not all. I don’t feel like I will necessarily direct every season. The job of supporting and curating will be enough.
One show you’re directing next spring is Thoroughly Modern Millie, which has some Asian stereotypes in it that are very controversial, and I understand your production will work to address those. In general, what will your approach be to old musicals that have racist, sexist, or otherwise problematic material in them? Present them more or less as is, so as not to erase history, or simply excise the offending material so that you’re not celebrating damaging material?
I feel like this is my favorite question, because I think about it all the time. My feeling is, I am extremely glad that the evolution of the world means that a lot of things that were once mainstream and weren’t considered offensive now are. To me it’s really about the contextualization. In the same way there’s a bigger conversation in our country about how we deal with upsetting things from history outside the theatre, we can have that in the theatre.
In my mind, there’s space for both approaches: taking an old show that has parts of it that need to be rethought and allowing contemporary artists to come in and make a version that works for them. And there may be cases where we recognize, this piece is ugly but we want to look at it, we want to deal with it. We can’t erase the things that happened; we have to face the wounds in this country or there’s no way we can come to healing. If something is going to be onstage that is a stereotype that causes pain, we have to wrestle with the conversation: Do we put it up there at all? The answer may be no, the time for that is dead. If there’s a piece of history that the current moment has to wrestle with, it has to be handled with such care and responsibility. It is all about, who are the people at the table, who are the artists invited to frame it and speak about it, who are the thought leaders outside the field who can bring their expertise to it? It’s a total picture.
When I say this is a sincere question, I’m not trying to dodge it. That’s the question I’m exactly interested in. I don’t think the answer is: Put up the piece exactly as it was every time, don’t comment on it. But also the version in which we sanitize or quote-unquote fix it isn’t necessarily the answer either. The question is, why are we reviving this work? If a show has, say, some ideas about women that aren’t okay but aren’t even the point of the story—they could just be a couple of jokes—should we continue to have those jokes in there? No, we should not. But if artists came to me and said: “We really want to look at this show. It points to a part of American history we are frightened of but we think we need to deal with,” I’d be game; let’s do it.
So are you ready to have everyone come to you and say, “You know what show you should do…”
I already got some of those emails today.