With over twenty-five years in Chicago theatre, a vast knowledge of Broadway musicals and a new big move to a downtown location, Michael Weber, Porchlight Music Theatre’s Artistic Director, appears to be just getting started. Since he moved into the position in 2011, Porchlight has been recognized with Equity Jeff Awards for Best Production five years in a row. The casts and creative teams have over 150 Jeff nominations, receiving 42 awards, and 28 Black Theatre Alliance nominations receiving seven, as they embark on the 24th season and second at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. That season begins on October 12th with the much-anticipated production of Gypsy, directed by Weber and starring the extraordinary E. Faye Butler.
At Porchlight, Weber has directed Side Show, Assassins, Pal Joey, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd, End of the Rainbow, and Merrily We Roll Along. He has also developed the New Faces Sing Broadway series and Porchlight Revisits, dynamic showcases for talent in Chicago that also provide educational benefits for subscribers and patrons. Students in the School at Porchlight receive instruction from seasoned professionals in performance, writing and other areas of musical theatre.
Michael Weber joined the CONVERSATION to discuss Porchlight’s 2018-2019 season, his return to the stage this year in Do Re Mi and what’s ahead for theatre audiences from one of Chicago’s most innovative and successful musical theatre companies. PODCAST
From Stage 773 to Ruth Page … “It's been an incredible transition and transformation for the company. … (At the) Ruth Page Center, the main thing about the physical environment is that the stage itself is much bigger. At Stage 773, they were both small theaters, in terms of the stage space, and doing musicals that, whether it's something like In the Heights, Dreamgirls or Pal Joey, you've got a cast of 20 to 25 people that were in a much smaller environment. Ruth Page allows us to do a physically large production. The benefit also at Ruth Page is that the audience size remains intimate, which is essential to what we try to do at Porchlight.”
Inaugural Season at Ruth Page … “We chose to do Billy Elliot: The Musical which had a cast of 35 … It is a celebration of children finding themselves in dance … a lot of what Ruth Page is about. … We also did Stephen Sondheims’ Merrily We Roll Along. Porchlight has a long history of doing the works of Sondheim … It's one of the most beloved and treasured shows of his … We closed the season with a show called Memphis which had an incredible social message of bringing people together … Billy Elliot was directed by Brenda Didier, who has very quickly become one of the top directors in Chicago. … Memphis was directed by Daryl Brooks, an artist associated with the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago … with Chris Carter (choreographer) and Jermaine Hill (music director) … a fully African-American artistic team on a show like Memphis, which was not the case on Broadway and allowed for a point of view to be brought to the show that was instrumental in giving the show a ring of truth in certain components that maybe were not there in the original, very commercial, production.”
Porchlight Revisits and ‘Do Re Mi’ …“(The Porchlight Revisits series) is a particular favorite of mine. … to be able to go back and bring to Chicago audiences the opportunity to see live on stage, some of these very rarely seen musicals … (Do, Re, Mi) was written for Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker back in the 60s …‘Guys and Dolls meets The Honeymooners.’ It is that kind of show you just don't really see anymore because you don't have anybody who has the kind of personality like Phil Silvers. So, I got cajoled by the artistic staff into undertaking the role with the incredible Nancy Voigts, one of Chicago's terrific music theater leading ladies. And it was just a ball … a wonderful unsung score (with) one of the great hits in it, “Make Someone Happy” … you get to see the song in the context of how it was placed dramatically … and you sometimes discover the meaning is entirely different. That's why the series is fun. It was a real pleasure to be part of the show. … We will be opening (Revisits) with a production of a 50th anniversary production of 1776, which was, in its way, very revolutionary, excuse the pun, at the time that it was on Broadway, which was 1969. … It ended up becoming a colossal hit with audiences ... it really showed you the struggle, the fight … to come up with one idea to join together. … as we become more and more fractionalized, I think that what is going to happen with these pieces is it really is going to remind people what a great piece of music theater it is and how daring it is. And our intention is to do it is as a piece of historical theater, to cast it very diversely, both racially as well as with gender casting. The reason for that is that we today as Americans, all of us, own this particular story. This is our origin story to tell. So, I want to be able to invite actors of many different backgrounds to be able to crawl into the skin of these historically white men who were in that room and tell that story. And I think it's going to be very interesting to see when some of these arguments are played out, when it's an African-American woman participating in a conversation, or an Asian man participating in the conversation, or a non-binary person participating in the conversation. What does this draw out of these conversations that we now really do need to think about and what will we understand?”
E. Faye Butler and the cast of “GYPSY” … “E. Faye Butler is simply one of the great actors of Chicago theatre. She is now becoming nationally known and plays all over the country. This was a role that she had never played. I just knew that needed to be corrected and we were going to do it at Porchlight. … We approached her and to my delight she absolutely said “Yes” and away we went. And from there it automatically opens up a lot of questions because E. Faye is an African-American performer and so we have had some incredible conversations in this regard when we were getting into this component of responsibility, implications, what are the ramifications of how you approach a historical piece like this that is set in the 20s and 30s in show business that is based on the life of a real person who is easily traceable in terms of who Gypsy Rose Lee was and who her mother was. It has been just an eye-opening, incredible opportunity to work with E. Faye very closely. She was in all the auditions to be able to collaborate with us, more than just an actor coming in, but to be a real member of the creative team. And we have assembled a beautifully diverse group of actors, all of whom just walked in there and nailed their audition. It was as simple as that, and you're realizing it is not about any kind of agenda. It is not about trying to put a layer onto the show or saying, “It's the 20s and some of these characters are now going to be African-American, so backstage will have a white and an African-American water fountain,” or something like that. That’s not what any of this is about. It's simply about family. It's about a mother and her two daughters and a man who deeply wants to be a father to these girls and a husband to this woman and how that family does or doesn't succeed at forging itself. So, we've begun rehearsals formally now and it's thrilling to hear these actors and E. Faye wrap her vocal instrument around this incredible score. You're going to get the opportunity to discover the show anew. It's as though you've never seen it or heard it before. … Darren Whitney Harrell, who was in the national company of The Book of Mormon is “Louise,” Aalon Smith, who was with us in Memphis and also with the New Faces Sing Broadway series, is playing “Dainty June” … José Antonio García, who has been in a number of productions at the Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare, and you've seen him on a lot of TV shows is “Herbie,” which was the role originally created by Jack Klugman on Broadway. We are really excited that Honey West, one of Chicago's most beloved performers, is going to be with us as a Miss Cratchitt and Electra, one of the gals singing, “You Gotta Get A Gimmick.” It's just a wonderful, large company of actors doing a big old Broadway musical.”
New Talent. New Faces. … “We developed a series called New Faces Sing Broadway. …There was a series on Broadway from the early 30s to the late 60s called ‘New Faces’ and it was an opportunity for new talent to be seen … people like Henry Fonda, Paul Lynde, Eartha Kitt, Imogene Coca, Madeline Kahn, Robert Klein, Maggie Smith, all of these people burst onto the scene as youngsters in this series. And I thought, why can't we create something like that? We've got a number of these theatres that have people in the ensemble, but they don't have an opportunity to be put front and center. … So we created a show where we take one season in Broadway history and we do music from every single show that happened that season. We have a celebrity host … recently Gene Weygandt, who was the Wizard in Wicked and Donica Lynn have hosted … coming up is New Faces Sing Broadway 1964 with Chicago's own Paul Lisnek. … music from Hello Dolly, Funny Girl, Fiddler … and those famous songs that came from some of the rarer shows, all presented by 10 new faces. … It's been a wonderful series that's now at the Arts Club, the Skokie Theater and we're going to be moving up to Space in Evanston.”
The School of Porchlight … “Michelle Lauto is the new head of our education department. Michelle got her start with us in New Faces Sing Broadway as well as In The Heights. She is an incredible teacher who loves sharing music, theater with children and bringing out their creativity. The thing that keeps striking me when they complete these summer camps is the parents who say, “My child wasn't an extrovert, didn't speak, certainly didn't sing. And now, at the end of the summer, they just want to express themselves and suddenly their personality is coming out.” … (Michelle) is really incredible at connecting with these children and not only bringing them to the music, but at the same time introducing them to the Great American Songbook in some way. So, there is this really wonderful reciprocal component that happens there. And when we do shows like Billy Elliot and Gypsy that have children in it, sometimes these kids are ending up in the shows.”
2018 - 2019 Season … “After Gypsy is the Chicago Regional Premiere of the Tony Award-winning A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder which will star Matt Crowle who is Jeff-nominated for his performance in Merrily We Roll Along. Audiences of Porchlight may remember him also from Little Me at Porchlight Revisits, as well as Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. We're closing the season with the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Chorus Line which Brenda Didier will be directing.” PODCAST
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Archive & Promotional Photos|Courtesy Porchlight Music Theatre
Gypsy|Do Re Mi|Austin Packard