Capra's Mr. 'Doe' Goes to Ford's Theatre

By Joseph Garaventa
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007

It was three days before the first performance of "Meet John Doe" at Ford's Theatre, and director Eric Schaeffer was describing the difficulties of bringing a new musical to life.

"It's like birthing an elephant."

Schaeffer, the artistic director of Signature Theatre, is a prolific presence on the Washington theater scene. His many directorial credits include last year's "Mame" at the Kennedy Center, where he was also artistic director of the Sondheim Celebration in 2002. "Meet John Doe" is his first show at Ford's Theatre.

"It's a very tricky space to direct in," Schaeffer says. "The good thing is I've had the luxury of seeing shows here over the years, so I know what works and what doesn't. I've had a great time working here."

Schaeffer became involved in the long gestation of the baby pachyderm that is "Meet John Doe" almost two years ago, and he has helped reshape the material. It is, he says, the first "big musical" of writers Andrew Gerle (music) and Eddie Sugarman (lyrics). Gerle and Sugarman also wrote the book, an adaptation of filmmaker Frank Capra's 1941 populist fable, which starred Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. Jonathan Tunick, a Tony, Oscar, Emmy and Grammy winner, is overseeing the orchestrations.

"When you adapt for the stage, whether it's a book or a movie, the idea is to make it your own but to know when to mine the material and get the best out of it you can," Schaeffer says. "I think that's the hardest thing about adaptations."

Although an earlier version of the musical was seen during the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004, Ford's Theatre is billing this production as the world premiere.

The movie is generally regarded, along with "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," as quintessential Capra, in which a "regular Joe," representing solid American values, succeeds against overwhelming odds in stemming the forces of political corruption and corporate greed that threaten the American way of life. These films present a dark vision of America in the 1930s and '40s, but they are also marked by an underlying optimism: Basic human decency triumphs in the end. Today, these films are often dismissed as overly simplistic and sentimental "Capra-corn." Can "Meet John Doe" work for audiences in 2007, when problems in the United States don't seem nearly as black and white as a Capra film?

"I have to say, with everything that's happening in the world today and with our country, it's kind of amazing how effective this material is," Schaeffer says. "Someone asked me whether we were keeping it in its original period, and I said, 'Yes, you have to,' because you see what people were going through in the 1930s. It was the Depression, and they were fighting for survival. They were searching for hope in their lives and hope in the world, and we're doing the same thing today. The ice caps are melting on both ends of the Earth, we're in this war. . . . We're all searching for hope. I think, if anything, the show feels more timely than when Capra's film came out."

A theme that is central to Capra's movie, and one that certainly remains timely, is the manipulation of the masses by the media. The story of "Meet John Doe" begins with newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell (Heidi Blickenstaff) facing unemployment when her paper is bought by a right-wing tycoon. In a last-ditch effort to save her job, she fabricates a letter to the editor from "John Doe," an idealist who promises to jump from the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve to protest social injustice and slimy politics. The letter hits a nerve with the public, and Ann, admitting to her bosses that it was a hoax, convinces them that John Doe could be a circulation booster. They insist she find someone to impersonate the fictional Doe. Enter John Willoughby (James Moye), a down-on-his-luck ballplayer with a "bad wing." His decency and common sense give rise to the "John Doe Movement," which the corrupt tycoon then tries to exploit for his own fascist ends.

And this is now a musical? The writers heard hidden melodies rattling around in a rather preachy, talky film?

"As in any great musical, you have to have great characters, and that's what the movie does have," Schaeffer says. "In a musical, you sing when the emotion gets too big to talk about. Whether it's an idea that comes up or professing your love to someone, there are all these places where songs can come in, and they work terrifically in this story."

When Capra made "Meet John Doe," he never found an ending that satisfied both him and the audiences that saw the film in previews. In fact, he created five endings. For the musical, Schaeffer, Gerle and Sugarman have devised an ending of their own, so even audience members familiar with the film will experience something new.

"The great thing about this show," Schaeffer says, "is you don't have to know the Frank Capra film at all to go on this journey.

"This is a traditional book musical, but what's exciting about it is that it's stylish and sassy. The score is very jazzy at times, but it's also very choral and has a big Broadway sound."

Meet John Doe Ford's Theatre 202-397-7328 Through April 29

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