Back when he was in his 20s and doing community theater in the Northern Virginia suburbs — at a stage of his career when he was green and didn’t know what he didn’t know — Eric Schaeffer came across an ad in a theater magazine that seemed the answer to a budding director’s prayers.
He was in the midst of planning the Arlington Players’ production of Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer-winning musical “Sunday in the Park With George,” a cerebral show he was desperate to direct, in part to prove to local naysayers that amateur groups could do sophisticated work. For $1,000, the ad was selling — get this — the original Broadway set for “Sunday,” a marvel of stagecraft by Tony Straiges that won the 1984 Tony Award for best scenic design.
And wouldn’t you know, Schaeffer bought that Broadway set — painted cutouts and backdrops evoking Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” When the truck arrived at his house, he was, well, a little surprised at how massive the set was. “We were going to put it in my garage,” he says, “but it didn’t all fit. So we put some of it in mine and the rest in my neighbor’s.”
Schaeffer looks up as he’s recounting all this, sees the disbelief in my widening eyes, and grins mischievously. “What?” he asks, as if it’s normal to have a Tony-winning set for a community theater stored in your garage. (I later ask Sondheim if he has ever heard Schaeffer tell the story, and he replies, matter-of-factly, “Oh, yes. …”)
See, Schaeffer has always taken a certain impish pride in flummoxing doubters, in giving himself theatrical tasks that would seem a bit presumptuous for a guy from tiny Fleetwood, Pa., (where?) with an art degree from Kutztown University (where?), in an industry flooded with MFAs from Yale and Juilliard and Northwestern. But here he is, having flouted convention at every turn, marking 25 years this fall as artistic director of Signature Theatre, the Arlington company he co-founded and, from the confines of an old auto-body shop, then molded into a Tony-recognized troupe of national note.
Along the way, he burnished the company’s reputation as a champion of Sondheim’s work; forged relationships with Broadway’s elite, from “Chicago” songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb to Cameron Mackintosh of “Les Miserables”; brought bushels of new plays and musicals to the public by untested and veteran writers and composers alike; and by virtue of sweat, intuition and tenacity turned himself and his organization into a force in American musical theater.
The onetime wunderkind is 52 now, a long way from his early, heady days, when in a few years he leapt from directing “Sweeney Todd” in Arlington County to being asked by Sondheim’s legendary agent, the late Flora Roberts, if she could represent him. (“Eric, we’re going to build your career, not your bank account,” she told him, before landing him his first major outside-D.C. assignment, the national tour of the musical “Big.”)
Aptly for his theater’s silver-anniversary season, there’s silver in his hair, and on Signature’s main stage one of the highest-profile world premieres in its history starts previews Tuesday: the Kathleen Marshall-directed “Diner,” a musical based on Barry Levinson’s 1982 hit movie, with a book by Levinson and a score by none other than Sheryl Crow.
So the questions arise: Is this it? Has Schaeffer gotten to where he wanted to be? Have his abilities taken him as far as one could have expected him to go? And: Why’s he still in Arlington?
Schaeffer is sitting in his own set of sorts, the West Virginia retreat he bought a few years ago and lovingly updated with his partner, marketing executive Patrick Hurston.
The house is at the top of a hill — reachable by a bumpy dirt incline that feels so remote you could use it as a backdrop for “American Horror Story.” You climb the steep steps to the main floor and gaze through the back doors that lead to a deck and pool at a view as breathtaking as I’ve ever seen in a private home. Out into a distance, vistas of the gorgeous Shenandoahs.
This is where Schaeffer, who also owns a house in Arlington, goes to blow off steam from the rigors of a career that so consumes him his days can begin as early as 5 a.m. and continue until after 11 p.m. You can see why the place appeals to both the small-town boy in him as well as the director — it has dramatic impact.
In a region seeking wider recognition as a cultural magnet, and a theater community aching for admittance into the select club of top-drawer American theater towns, Schaeffer is one of Washington’s most energetic and widely traveled ambassadors. Its ambitions have long been linked with his.
As artistic director, for instance, of the Kennedy Center’s 2002 Sondheim Celebration, he presided over what many — including Sondheim — regard as the most comprehensive exhibition of Sondheim’s work ever undertaken: six of his musicals, among them “Sweeney Todd,” “Company” and “A Little Night Music,” in revolving repertory. His Broadway directorial efforts include a 2011 revival of Sondheim’s “Follies” (starring Bernadette Peters and Elaine Paige) and the 2010 jukebox musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” for which Levi Kreis, portraying Jerry Lee Lewis, won a Tony.
Yet, despite the impressive résumé and the comforts that have come with it, some measure of top-of-the-heap success has eluded Schaeffer. Though he has received admiring reviews for his Broadway work (or in the case of a 2008 bomb, “Glory Days,” not so laudatory), his direction has never been nominated for a Tony — the level of recognition that might place him in contention for even choicer assignments.
Signature has produced outstanding musical revivals over the years (“110 in the Shade” and “Gypsy,” among many others); surprising new plays (“Really Really”) and, through its innovative American Musical Voices Project, a string of interesting original musicals (“Giant,” “Sycamore Trees”). But few of the new musicals have gotten traction beyond Signature. And as a result of Schaeffer’s idiosyncratic tastes, the theater also has gone out on limbs for some real head-scratchers. Another ticket to “Ace,” anyone? Or “Saving Aimee”? Or “Cloak and Dagger”?
Those who love Schaeffer — and he has amassed a hugely loyal base — sometimes say they wish he were more discerning. It’s inordinately challenging, they posit, to run a company with an $8 million annual budget and an eight-show season in which you’re committed to directing at least a couple of shows, as well as maintaining a thriving freelance workload.
“I just wish he could slow down a bit,” says one colleague, who asked not to be named for fear of seeming disloyal. “It’s difficult to be the artistic director and do all of this. The Broadway brass ring has eluded him. It’s still on his bucket list.”
To Schaeffer’s credit, he owns all of his projects unapologetically. About his place in the pecking order, he’s cagier. Ask him about his stature in the theater world, or the lonely times when he has had to stand behind a show rejected by the critics or the public, and he flashes an enigmatic smile, as if he’s embarrassed to put into words his response to decisions seemingly beyond his control.
“There are things you care about, and love, and think, ‘Why doesn’t anyone else get this?’ ” he says over breakfast one day in Times Square. “And that’s all right. You grow from each of these. And that changes things, for the next time around.”
This is an essential facet of Schaeffer’s psyche — the next time. He is usually working on six to 12 next times at any given time. That there are so many on his calendar attests to the size of both his appetite and reputation. At this moment, the projects include two huge ones: “Diner,” in which Broadway’s Marshall will make her Signature debut, and “Gigi,” the most expensive production of Schaeffer’s career.
Schaeffer is beginning rehearsals for the $12 million “Gigi ,” a revamped revival of the stage version of the Oscar-winning 1958 movie musical, starring “High School Musical’s” Vanessa Hudgens. The show, which has a score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, and a new book by English playwright Heidi Thomas, begins previews at the Kennedy Center on Jan. 16. It has its sights on Broadway, although it has yet to find a theater.
A manic pace seems to be cruising speed for Schaeffer. You wonder what price he pays for the multiple demands on his time: He is simultaneously putting together workshops for musicals he’s developing with other writers; talking to Disney about a collaboration; organizing a major Washington festival of plays by women; and trying to secure rights to shows for his 2015-16 season.
“I just got attached to another project, and I’m thinking, This is the last thing I should be doing right now,” Schaeffer says in his living room in West Virginia.
“I don’t think he ever tells himself, ‘No,’ ” says Donna Migliaccio, the musical actress who founded Signature with Schaeffer back in 1989. “He dreams far bigger than I ever did.”
Schaeffer’s indefatigability may be his greatest asset. “We were in his office one time, talking about ‘Giant,’ ” says Maggie Boland, Signature’s managing director. “That show, which I loved, really put this organization through the ringer, it was so big, so high-stakes. We were grappling with some issue that was both financial and artistic. All of a sudden Eric looked at me and said, ‘You know, Maggie, at the end of the day, it’s just a musical.’ ”
Schaeffer is a self-taught theater man, whose way in was through his eye. “Eric does sketches,” says Derek McLane, the Tony-winning set designer, who over 14 years has designed many Signature and Broadway shows for Schaeffer. “I’ve never had anyone else send me a sketch of a show before we even got started.”
The youngest of four siblings, Schaeffer grew up in Fleetwood (pop. 4,000), a blue-collar town in eastern Pennsylvania. His father was a teacher; his mother, a nurse; and he was a kid with a dominant entertainment gene. “In Fleetwood there was nothing to do. The nearest McDonald’s was 30 minutes away,” he says.
As a lifeguard at the town pool, he came up with the annual Miss Fleetwood Pool Pageant, and in an outdoor park, he organized, directed and designed summer musicals such as “Pippin” and “Oliver!” the latter with a cast of 72.
A teacher used to drive him and a few other chosen students to Broadway shows.
The one that made the deepest impression was, sure enough, “Sweeney Todd,” the Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical drama about a revenge-obsessed barber in 19th-century London who turns homicidal maniac. The unsuspecting drama teacher “was all distraught,” says Schaeffer. But he was enthralled. “I came home and said, ‘I need to get that album.’ ”
It was the start of a lifelong love.
“I remember him more being in the art thing than the theater thing,” says his brother, Joel, a few years his senior, a factory worker who lives in Fleetwood. “He went to college for the art thing, but it seemed to me the play thing also came so naturally to him.”
Schaeffer says, “I always loved the theater, but I was taught you couldn’t make a living at it,” so he took his art degree and headed south, in the Country Squire station wagon his folks gave him, to jobs as art director and production manager at small outfits in Alexandria and Georgetown. He also auditioned for musicals and in 1985 landed the role of Jesus in a Springfield Community Theatre production of “Godspell,” a performance memorialized on YouTube.
His art background made him an easy fit as a “techie,” painting scenery and building sets; he still occasionally designs them, as he did for “Crossing” last season. But he also wanted to direct, and lobbied the Arlington Players, one of the area’s premier groups. His preparation to lead a cast wasn’t exactly modeled on Stanislavski: “It was by watching other people do it, and by seeing shows.”
He caught the eye of Migliaccio, a community theater star. She was playing Nancy in “Oliver!” and he was working backstage. “I had just finished singing ‘As Long as He Needs Me,’ ” she recalls. “I said to my friends, ‘Who is the blond cutie stage right?’ He was fresh out of college and adorable. ‘Oh,’ they said, ‘his name is Eric something and he painted the set.’ ”
Schaeffer directed her in a few shows, then they had the idea of putting on seasons of their own, as a professional company, in a part of the region that felt underserved. They incorporated with the $250 they each kicked in, and $500 each from their parents. Schaeffer remembers them both sitting at his dining room table, flipping through a magazine. The word “signature” popped out from an ad for a diamond dealer. He blurted out: “We can put our own ‘signature’ on the shows!”
Arlington County gave them slots to stage shows in the Gunston Arts Center. For two years, as they juggled their day jobs and nighttime obsession — Migliaccio, a legal secretary, was managing director to Schaeffer’s artistic director — they didn’t even put on a musical, only plays.
Their “Sweeney Todd” in season two, with Michael Forrest as Sweeney and Migliaccio as Mrs. Lovett, set them on their true path. “It was really, really good. It was dark and interesting, and you could tell it was different,” says Karma Camp, the choreographer who would soon be drawn into Schaeffer’s orbit and remain there.
It is remarkable, the velocity with which Signature grew in the ’90s, particularly after Schaeffer and Migliaccio moved in 1993 into their own theater, the dusty, cramped industrial space on South Four Mile Run Drive that Signature occupied until 2007, when it moved to its Shirlington location. They affectionately called it the “garage.” Because it actually was one. On the back end of the building was an auto body shop whose noise made Saturday matinees impossible to schedule. To make sure there was room for patron parking, Migliaccio had the chore of demanding that the workers move their cars at their appointed 6 p.m. quitting time.
To call Signature’s rise meteoric isn’t hyperbole. Within a few years of occupying the garage, Signature progressed from a point where, as Schaeffer puts it, “we couldn’t get the rights to plays because we were no one,” to producing in 1999 an original Kander and Ebb musical, “Over and Over,” and hiring Dorothy Loudon and Bebe Neuwirth.
Migliaccio, burned out on doing the books for little pay, had by that time left her job with the company; she would for many years continue to be the troupe’s trademark performer, her most recent roles being Mazeppa in “Gypsy” and Seurat’s mother in a revival of “Sunday in the Park With George.”
It was the garage, though, that shaped Schaeffer’s directorial style, one that emphasizes emotional intimacy. The space also conformed readily to Schaeffer’s can-do, jack-of-all-trades nature. “I will never forget the night of the first preview of ‘The Rhythm Club,’ ” McLane says, recalling his inaugural Signature show in 2000. “It was all hands on deck. I went into the men’s room, and there was Eric with a mop, getting the bathroom ready.”
Talk about leading by example. The tales of Eric vacuuming the lobby, Eric behind the concession stand, fixing the refrigerator, are legion. It’s very much in the Schaeffer style of we’re-all-in-this-together.
“That place is a reflection of him,” Kander says. The 87-year-old composer, working with a new partner, Greg Pierce, in the aftermath of Ebb’s death, has yet another world premiere this season at Signature, “Kid Victory.”
“It’s a cocoon, this little island that you go to,” he says of Schaeffer’s theater. “I’m scared about this piece, it’s a new piece. But when I think about going down there and working, I feel nothing but warmth.”
Being able to tune in to everyone in the rehearsal room is a gift. One wonders, sometimes, if Schaeffer’s antennae for a new text are quite as developed. From “The Rhythm Club” to last season’s “Beaches,” the new musicals Signature rolls out often come across to reviewers as undercooked — not uninteresting, just not wholly satisfying.
Given the high degree of difficulty in cranking out a fully integrated musical, maybe expectations have to be tempered. In some cases, in fact, the results have been impressive: “Nevermore,” a musical based on Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry; “The Witches of Eastwick,” a musical Schaeffer restaged after birthing it in London;and the Kander and Ebb revue “First You Dream,” are all examples of strong, original pieces.
Schaeffer has generally found more success with revivals, work through which he’s often able to unearth a new layer of emotionality. That was certainly the case with his psychologically intense “Passion” and deeply moving “110 in the Shade,” based on “The Rainmaker.” Over the years, “My Fair Lady,” “Company” and a Kennedy Center revival of “Mame” with Christine Baranski all flourished in Schaeffer’s hands.
In the expansive rehearsal hall atop Signature’s two-theater complex at one end of Shirlington, an urban streetscape that Kander describes as “that funny little three-block community,” Schaeffer and Camp are working with the cast of “Elmer Gantry” and a pianist. It’s September, early in the process of getting the rarely performed musical in shape for its mid-autumn run. Schaeffer calls out suggestions from behind a table as Camp shows the actors how she wants them to move.
“Don’t feel like you have to rush that,” he says to Charlie Pollock, the actor playing the manipulative revival preacher Gantry, as he tries to work out the dramatic arc of his solo number, “Night Heat.” “You’ve got to make us see the process of that decision.”
After singing it twice through, Pollock looks to Schaeffer, who tells him that it’s going in the right direction. “He’s really nice, but he still runs a tight ship,” notes Pollock, a Signature first-timer who lives in New York. “To pick up and come here, I had to feel it was going to be worth it. And everyone I talked to said to me, ‘You’re going to hit it off.’ ”
When you hear actor Stephen Gregory Smith’s story, you understand why Schaeffer gets good buzz. In 2003, the house Smith shared with his now husband, “Nevermore” composer Matt Conner, burned to the ground. Almost everything they owned was lost. Schaeffer invited them to live with him.
Schaeffer didn’t know Conner wrote music. One day, he was at Schaeffer’s piano, playing one of his songs. “That’s really gorgeous; what is that?” Schaeffer asked. As a result of that accidental audition Signature commissioned Conner to finish “Nevermore,” which had its world premiere at Signature in 2006, and launched Conner’s career in earnest.
Whether by virtue of his large appetite, or by being in the right place: Schaeffer and big musical projects continue to find each other. “Gigi” was that way, too. Jenna Segal, a former TV executive who had long dreamt of producing “Gigi” on Broadway, fell in love with Schaeffer’s “Follies,” went home and called him. “I left a message on his machine and said, ‘Call me,’ ” Segal says.
He did call back, and as she began to describe her plans, he stopped her and said: “Wait — who is this?”
Something must have seemed familiar — ah, yes, the unmistakable sound of musical-theater aspiration. If he paused and thought back, how strongly Schaeffer could relate. Twenty-five, 30 years is a lifetime in the theater business, and, yet, those days remain a crystalline memory for the eternally hungry Schaeffer.
Schaeffer would indeed say yes to Segal and help her secure a Kennedy Center tryout for the revival. If he needed to remind himself why he was still at it, still at Signature and still hoping for that Broadway brass ring, he need only have glanced over at the life-size cutout of a soldier propped up in his office.
The soldier that resembled a figure from a Seurat painting. A keepsake from that set he bought so long ago, when he wanted to assemble the best Sondheim musical a community theater audience had ever seen.
Peter Marks is The Washington Post’s theater critic. To comment on this story, e-mail email@example.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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