Jeffrey Seller, one of the producers behind “Rent,” “Avenue Q” and “In the Heights,” stirred up a bit of surprise earlier this year when he branched out into directing with “Fly” (pictured, above), a new tuner version of “Peter Pan” currently in the middle of its world premiere run at Dallas Theater Center. At first blush, the move seems like a rare transition into a creative post that few legiters make once they’ve established themselves on the producing end of things. Harold Prince did it; but really, who else besides that?
A few people, actually — and they too have helming gigs this summer.
Peter Schneider, the Disney veteran whose Broadway producing credits include “The Lion King” and “Aida,” recently directed new tuner “Mata Hari in 8 Bullets” in the New York Musical Theater Festival, and will stage a retooled version of “Pal Joey” at Arkansas Rep this fall. Meanwhile, Jay Binder, a name well-known on Broadway for his work as a casting director, will co-direct a new musical, “Timmy the Great,” that opens at downtown Gotham’s Theater for the New City later this month.
For all three helmers, directing is something they’ve returned to as opposed to something they’re sampling for the first time. Seller directed shows when he attended U. of Michigan while Schneider graduated from Purdue with a degree in directing; the latter’s helming credits since exiting Disney in 2001 include “Sister Act” stagings in Pasadena, Atlanta and London. Binder has been directing for years when he isn’t casting, with credits including the York Theater’s Musicals in Mufti offerings and early readings of “Love and Other Fables,” bowing next spring at Hartford Stage. (Binder will do the casting.)
For Binder, the overlap between directing and his day job is perhaps most obvious. “They say that directing is 90% casting, and in a certain way I agree with that, in terms of being able to evaluate a script and understand what’s necessary to tell a story,” he said.
His summer helming gig is the world preem of tuner “Timmy the Great,” an all-ages fable about a nine-year-old king. Suggested to the tuner’s co-creator Sandra Hochman through Jujamcyn Theaters exec Jack Viertel, Binder will co-direct a production that beings perfs Aug. 15.
Producers, meanwhile, make it their mission to put together a production and push it forward to production. That’s not all that far from directing.
But to hear Schneider talk, he seems to enjoy his return to directing in part because it’s a departure from the business-minded thinking required of a legit producer or a studio exec. This fall, for instance, he’s excited to direct a production of Lanford Wilson’s “Hot L Baltimore” in Romania — far from the New York limelight.
“No one in the industry will see it,” he noted happily. “There’s no aspirations. It’s practicing a craft.”
Before that, though, comes his staging of a new version of “Pal Joey,” with a new book (by legit journo Patrick Pacheco) in which Joey has been reconceived as a black man in 1948. The show bows in Little Rock in September, and even Schneider can’t help thinking ahead the way a producer would. His hypothetical, and surprising, idea for a next stop: A small-scale run in a London pub theater.
For Seller, “Fly” was the fruition of an idea he had a few years back, recruiting scribe Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” for which Seller was on the Broadway producing team) and composer Bill Sherman (the arranger and orchestrator of “In the Heights”) to tell a percussion-infused, somewhat darker version of the J.M. Barrie tale about the boy who never grew up.
The show opened earlier this summer at the Dallas Theater Center, earning mixed but largely upbeat reviews, and will run through Aug. 18.
No word yet on what happens next, but that’s when Seller starts thinking like a producer again. “Now that I’m back in New York, I just have to figure out what to do with it next,” he said.