Jeff Calhoun has directed for Broadway. He has directed for regional theaters; he has directed galas; and he directed tours of “High School Musical” and “High School Musical 2.” The other day, he was directing for the top of a milk crate on Eighth Street SE.
The occasion was the first rehearsal for “Violet,” the musical that Calhoun is staging for Ford’s Theatre, where he is an associate artist. (The production begins performances at Ford’s on Jan. 24.) On this late December day, the “Violet” cast and creative team, plus various theater staffers, had gathered in a Capitol Hill rehearsal hall, and Paul R. Tetreault, the director of Ford’s, was about to issue a welcome from the rear of the room.
But Calhoun — 6-foot-4, with the build of a former athlete, and, on this day, a slight air of fatigue (he sleeps badly before first rehearsals) — had a better idea. He waved Tetreault, and the milk crate that would serve as podium, to an open space near the middle of the room.
“This is the power position,” Calhoun explained.
Calhoun has found his own power position in American musical theater, in part by demonstrating range, ingenuity and a willingness to adapt to varied circumstances — qualities that the milk crate moment arguably hinted at. A tap-dancer-turned-choreographer-turned-director, he won acclaim for a daring reinvention of the musical “Big River” featuring both deaf and hearing actors; the production premiered at Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood in 2001 and was subsequently seen, in different incarnations, in New York and at Ford’s.
But he has also embraced projects that might seem more straightforward and commercial — the aforementioned live-theater spinoffs of Disney’s “High School Musical” franchise, for instance. His direction of “Newsies,” a dramatization of a 1992 Disney movie, won him a 2012 Tony Award nomination and is still running on Broadway.
Washington area theatergoers encountered Calhoun’s directorial touch in the tap-dance-sweetened star vehicle “Maurice Hines Is Tappin’ Thru Life,” which recently wrapped up performances at Arena Stage last month. Now, in what appears a notable shifting of gears, he is tackling “Violet,” a musical that tells of a disfigured young woman’s quest for physical and emotional healing as she travels through the 1960s South. Jeanine Tesori (“Caroline, or Change”) penned the bluegrass-, country- and gospel-flavored score for “Violet,” whose book and lyrics, by Brian Crawley, testify to the literary nature of the source material, Doris Betts’s short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim.”
“Jeff has done some of these big Broadway shows, and people think of him in that light,” but he also “gets a real sensitivity and intimacy into some of the work that he does” — a knack that makes him right for “Violet,” Tetreault said in an interview.
For his part, Calhoun, 52, says that the change of pace — from the razzmatazz of “Tappin’ ” to the bittersweet epiphanies of “Violet” — is typical of his professional life.
“It’s been an incredibly eclectic career,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Manhattan on a morning that he had otherwise devoted to preparing stuffed onions. (His hobbies are cooking and gardening.)
“I don’t think any two shows have looked or felt alike, or dealt with the same subject matter,” he went on. “With ‘Violet’ following ‘Tappin’ Thru Life,’ it’s just that continuum of eclecticism, going forward. And I love that!”
Not that his Washington projects this season are wholly dissimilar: With a plot line involving an African American soldier, “Violet” touches on the issue of race relations in in the segregated South where the civil rights movement still had work to do. (Kevin McAllister plays the part in the Ford’s production, which features Erin Driscoll in the title role.) A few sobering moments in “Tappin’ ” — coproduced by Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and the Cleveland Play House, where it will run later this year — recall the young Maurice Hines’s encounters with segregation — a phenomenon evoked with projections featuring “Whites Only”-style signs.
Hines credits Calhoun with conceiving this sequence, as well as a few other moments that give the production added historical seriousness. “He really opened it up” and made the show “about more than singing and dancing,” Hines said in an interview during the Arena run. At the same time, the performer said he appreciated Calhoun’s willingness to accept, and work with, Hines’s own ideas.
“Maurice is very protective of certain things in his life,” Calhoun says carefully. “I was trying to pull out as much of the conflict and drama as he would allow.”
A comparable interest in historical resonance and stirring themes lies behind his attraction to Tesori’s 1997 “Violet.”
“I tend, believe it or not, to gravitate towards the darker shows, shows that have more depth — although I am a tap dancer from Pittsburgh,” Calhoun says.
Growing up in the Steel City, he was both a drama kid and an athlete, taking up tap dancing at the age of 7 and staging shows in a neighborhood garage, but also playing sports. Freshman year of high school, he was a quarterback.
“I had our whole football team play the chorus in ‘Once Upon a Mattress,’ ” he recalls. “To this day, people don’t understand how I pulled that one off.”
Through a dance teacher, he got involved in summer stock, earned an Equity card at age 16, and met the performer-director-choreographer Tommy Tune, who would become a mentor.
The young Calhoun finally gave up sports. He had endured a couple of knee surgeries, and, besides, “I probably wasn’t good enough ultimately,” he says. “I am very realistic about knowing when to close doors and what my attributes are. I think the key to success is not only knowing what you do well, but knowing what your fortes are not and then surrounding yourself with people that complement you.”
After a year at Northwestern University, he quit college to tour as a performer in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” the musical choreographed and co-directed by Tune.
A few years later, Calhoun recalls, he found himself standing in for the vacationing Tune during the Broadway run of “My One and Only” in the early 1980s. “I got to star in a Broadway musical in my early 20s,” Calhoun remembers. “I realized that would probably never happen to me again, and if it did, it would be decades in the making.”
Once again a hard-eyed realist, he gave up performing, relocated to the West Coast, and forged a new identity as a choreographer and director, capitalizing on his knowledge of “My One and Only” to stage versions of the show “up and down the coast of California, in every dinner theater, or anyplace that would have me,” learning new skills in the process.
He moved back to New York when Tune recruited him to be the associate choreographer in “The Will Rogers Follies” in the early 1990s. Other high-profile projects would follow: Calhoun directed and choreographed a Broadway revival of “Grease,” for instance.
Along the way, he became “a little disillusioned with what was happening with my career — the balance between art and commerce, the fine line I was walking to pay the bills.” Then the leaders of Deaf West Theatre invited him to stage a musical that would incorporate sign language and deaf and hearing performers. Initially flabbergasted by the audacity of the proposal, Calhoun ultimately accepted, and his collaboration with the company — starting with “Oliver!” and continuing with “Big River” — proved to be a “vitamin shot in the arm.”
The need to weave sign language into a production’s speech, song and movement, and to accommodate performers with differing capabilities, forced him and his colleagues “to create a new vocabulary and new form of storytelling,” he says. “It reenergized my life, my career, my creativity.”
With a buoyant physicality that was vibrant in itself, but that also seemed to speak about gaps and bridges of empathy in the world of the story — based on “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” — “Big River” won acclaim. It transferred from Deaf West’s tiny home to Los Angeles’s larger Mark Taper Forum, and then to Broadway. Ford’s version opened in 2005.
Since then, Calhoun has staged “Shenandoah” and “The Civil War” at Ford’s, a theater he tries to return to regularly. “For the right material, there is just no better venue,” he says.
Admittedly, in planning D.C. projects, he has to work around many other commitments.
Calhoun is “deeply collaborative” and “is a theater animal, which is why he’s always working,” says Thomas Schumacher, president of the Disney Theatrical Group, praising the director for his ability to calibrate the design and performance elements and “serious amount of athleticism” that make up “Newsies.”
Calhoun doesn’t take success for granted. Every time he embarks on a new show, he is “petrified,” he confided to assembled artists at the “Violet” rehearsal.
“I think it’s a miracle that any show works, to be completely candid,” he says. “I’m always surprised.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
music by Jeanine Tesori; lyrics and book by Brian Crawley; directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun. Jan. 24-Feb. 23. $20-$62. Visit www.fords.org or call (202) 347-4833 for information or (800) 982-2787 for tickets.