During her 20-plus years as a member of the Goodman’s Artistic Collective, Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman has presented a truly eclectic body of work — helming everything from Shakespeare’s dramas to exhilarating spectacles adapted from beloved legends like The Odyssey and The White Snake. Following her acclaimed 2010 production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, Zimmerman now sets her sights on another musical by the famed composer, Wonderful Town. Goodman Theatre Producer Steve Scott recently spoke with Mary Zimmerman about her vision for the classic New York City musical.
Steve Scott: What attracted you to direct Wonderful Town?
Mary Zimmerman: I love the moment in life that is at the center of this musical, when one is just of out of school, if one went to school, and on their own for the first time wondering if life will become the thing they hope it will be. It’s a very scary and terrifying moment, but also an exhilarating and freeing one. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. I hope audiences recall that moment in their lives, and that people currently in that moment will take heart from it. I also love the relationship between Ruth and Eileen, the sisters portrayed in the story. They have very different personalities, yet they are always so sweet and supportive toward each other. The musical is based on My Sister Eileen, an anthology of short stories by Ruth McKenney, and portrays a rather sweet world in which no serious harm comes their way. They have hijinks and misadventures, but it all sort of works out in the end. A tragic fact is that the real-life Eileen was killed in a car crash the week before the Broadway opening of the original play version of My Sister Eileen. The musical is innocent of that fact, however, which in a way is exactly what the show is all about — the moment in life before any kind of disillusionment or conflict truly weighs you down.
SS: The musical was originally set in the 1930s, but you chose to set this production in the 1950s.
MZ: Yes, we’ve updated it slightly. McKenney’s original stories were set in the 1930s, but the straight-play adaptation of the collection was first produced in the 1940s, and Wonderful Town was then composed in the early 1950s. The piece very much feels to me like it belongs in that era. The notion of Greenwich Village serving as an enclave of artists, poets and writers was absolutely equally as true in the ‘50s as it was in the ‘30s.
SS: Goodman audiences have experienced many of your visually stunning productions in the past. Wonderful Town will also be quite spectacular, especially with its set design.
MZ: Yes, the set design was inspired by a graphic illustration by Steven Duncan so much so that our set designer Todd Rosenthal contacted the artist asking if we had his permission to recreate something similar. He was actually thrilled and is going to be attending a performance. When working on a set, we do all types of research and look at many images. There was something special about the lighthearted nature of that illustration and its portrayal of the buildings of the New York skyscape. I also always take note of what time of day a show takes place. Wonderful Town is perpetually set both during the daytime and outside. There are only two night scenes, both of which take place indoors, so I wanted the production to have an open feeling, at the same time suggesting the compression, crowds and commotion of New York City. This is one of those sets that very early on in the process I felt, “Ok, we’ve cleared the price of admission.” I really do find it delightful.
SS: What do you love about Leonard Bernstein’s score of Wonderful Town?
MZ: It’s buoyant, lighthearted, hopeful, percussive and just really enjoyable swing music. Bernstein was such an intelligent and interesting composer, so the composition of the score is perhaps a bit more complicated than other musicals from the “Golden Age of Broadway.” We have a big orchestra as well, much bigger than is typically used at not-for-profit theaters and even on Broadway, so it’s going to be thrilling to hear it performed with so many different instruments. This is by no means Bernstein’s most popular or frequently produced musical, so I hope this production introduces the musical to people who don’t know it very well. It’s truly a quirky, entertaining musical.