La Jolla Playhouse's 'Memphis' Wins 8 Tony Nominations
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): "Memphis," a musical set in a time when America was not quite ready for rock 'n roll, is apparently more than ready for Broadway honors. The show which originated at La Jolla Playhouse in 2008 was just nominated for 8 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Actress and Best Actor in a Musical and Best Director of a Musical. Joining us on the phone from New York is the man nominated for that Best Director award, Christopher Ashley, the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. Good morning, Christopher, and congratulations.
CHRISTOPHER ASHLEY (Artistic Director, La Jolla Playhouse): Thank you, Maureen, very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Where were you when you heard about all the nominations for the musical “Memphis?”
ASHLEY: They announced them early, early in the morning so I set my alarm and watched it streaming online on the web.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, that – that must’ve been really exciting. Did you jump…
ASHLEY: It was.
CAVANAUGH: …up and down?
ASHLEY: I did. I actually screamed out loud, and then the phone started ringing.
CAVANAUGH: Well, but were you actually surprised?
ASHLEY: I was. I guess I – it was very much what I hoped for but I try to keep my expectations low so that reality can exceed the expectations.
CAVANAUGH: Now “Memphis,” as I say, was nominated in all the top categories, including a nomination for you as director. This was the first show you directed at the Playhouse.
ASHLEY: It was.
CAVANAUGH: What was your experience like directing “Memphis?”
ASHLEY: Oh, my, it was a real lovefest with the cast and creative team. I was reading this musical for the first time right about the same time I was hired at the La Jolla Playhouse and I played it nonstop in my car, the album…
ASHLEY: …and it just seemed to me the show I wanted to start with at the Playhouse. It’s a story about a white deejay who falls in love with the early days of R&B when it’s just about to become rock music, and the music that’s coming out of the black clubs. And it seemed to me such a perfect kind of synch with what’s happening in the world right now. And it turned out we were teching it right about the time that Obama was making his run for president.
CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. Now Chad Kimball and Montego Glover, who play the leads—they played the leads in La Jolla—they earned…
CAVANAUGH: …now Tony nominations for their roles on the Broadway stage. What’ve they been saying about being Tony Award nominees?
ASHLEY: Well, we had a big party at the theatre last night, and they were beaming from ear to ear. They just couldn’t stop smiling.
CAVANAUGH: Now explain for us what the Tony means for people who perhaps just don’t realize. You know, we all know Academy Awards but explain for us how big the Tony Awards are.
ASHLEY: Oh, it’s an award for all the shows that have opened on Broadway in that year. So it’s – I guess this year there was in the – 14 or 15 eligible musicals. And then an award goes out to the Best Play and the Best Revival. And in the actor categories, there’s incredible competition because it’s all of the people in all the musicals and revivals. And it’s an opportunity for – They’re aired on CBS. So all the Best Musical nominees get to do a number from the show so everybody gets to see your show or a little taster platter of it. And it’s sort of a celebration and it’s a real – it’s a moment for your peers to honor you and say we think you did a great job.
CAVANAUGH: It really is the best awards show on TV. Now we know it’s a long, difficult process to make a musical, have it premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, bring it to Broadway. Talk a little bit about the journey of this show and its creative team.
ASHLEY: Well, the writers wrote this show for the first time, the first draft of it about a decade ago.
ASHLEY: So it’s this decade-long process to get to Broadway. But when I first got involved with it, it was at La Jolla Playhouse which – and we did it in co-production with Seattle’s first – Fifth Avenue Theatre. And it’s exactly what the La Jolla Playhouse is for, it’s to birth a new musical to give the creative team a chance to discover what it is in front of an audience. And as a result of the sort of first preview in La Jolla, between there and Broadway, we threw out five songs…
ASHLEY: …we rewrote huge amounts. We changed and improved the staging in so many different ways. So it’s really the La Jolla Playhouse and the Fifth Avenue Theatre really kind of give birth to these musicals, and the audiences who get to see them get to see the birth of a new piece of art.
CAVANAUGH: Now, as I say, Christopher – Christopher Ashley is the Artistic Director of the La Jolla Playhouse. What kind of cachet does this bring to La Jolla Playhouse?
ASHLEY: Oh, it’s a great moment for the La Jolla Playhouse and I think everybody there is so proud to have made a mark on the national scene, and proud of the show. So it’s – There’s been celebration on both coasts.
CAVANAUGH: Now there was even more news coming out of the Playhouse this week. You’ll be staging the world premiere of a new musical, it’s the musical version of “Little Miss Sunshine.” Talk to us about that.
ASHLEY: Yeah, so we’re producing the very first time it’s ever been on the stage, this musical version. And if you loved the movie, which is this kind of eccentric, warm, odd story about this family that decides they’re going to take a road trip and get their ungainly daughter to a beauty pageant that she desperately wants to perform in and there hilarity ensues. It’s all about this kind of trip across the country in this breaking down VW bus, which will appear onstage for those of you who are VW bus fans.
ASHLEY: I won’t actually be directing this. This will be written and directed by James Lapine with music by Bill Finn and they’ve had an incredible history together. They did “Falsettos” and “Falsettoland” and a couple of years ago on Broadway they did “Spelling Bee” together. So they’re a great collaborative team. James Lapine this year did “Sondheim on Sondheim” on Broadway, a really extraordinary production. He’s got a real history at the Playhouse, so we have this amazing writing, directing team who’s giving us their version of what this feels like as a musical, this amazing story that you love from the movies.
CAVANAUGH: And, who knows, it may be the La Jolla Playhouse’s next contribution to Broadway.
ASHLEY: That would be a beautiful thing but our goal at the La Jolla Playhouse is to give the best possible show right there on our stages.
CAVANAUGH: Fair enough. Now “Little Miss Sunshine” will run in February of next year. I’m going to bring you back to your Artistic Director status at the La Jolla Playhouse. What’s next on the stage at the Playhouse?
ASHLEY: The very first play of our upcoming season is “Surf Report,” a play by Annie Weisman, who actually went to school here and you may know from the Playwright’s Project as well.
ASHLEY: Directed by Lisa Peterson, who’s got a long history with the Playhouse. And it’s all about a woman who sort of has given her life over to being the personal assistant for a dot-com billionaire who’s also a hardcore surfer. So it’s San Diego through and through, that play. And then I’ll be directing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” together with the Youth Orchestra.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. And congratulations again.
ASHLEY: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Christopher Ashley, Artistic Director of the La Jolla Playhouse about his nomination for Best Director and for the nomination of “Memphis” as Best Musical in the Tony Awards coming up this year. And next on These Days, we’ll be speaking to the woman behind “True Blood.” That’s coming up as These Days continues here on KPBS.