From a very young age, Susan Stroman was encouraged to follow her muse. “I was that little girl dancing around the living room as her father played the piano,” remembers Stroman, the second woman to win a Tony Award for directing a musical and the first to win awards for both direction and choreography in the same year, for her celebrated work on The Producers in 2001. (She had earned three previous trophies as choreographer.) She adds of her dad, “He was a wonderful player.”
This is typical of “Stro” (as she is affectionately known to colleagues), to insist on recognizing her debt to others and emphasizing their own talents and contributions. This is especially true when the subject is musical-theater legend Hal Prince, with whom Stroman is codirecting Prince of Broadway, now in previews and set to open August 24.
In the show, which Stroman naturally is also choreographing, a cast of nine takes turns summoning Prince’s voice and performing numbers from West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, Sweeney Todd, Evita, and The Phantom of the Opera, to name just a few of the commercial and critical smashes that Prince has brought to Broadway as a producer and/or director in a career spanning more than six decades.
Stroman met Prince after he saw and admired a 1987 Off-Broadway production of Flora the Red Menace; he had produced the original Broadway staging. Prince and Stroman subsequently worked together on a New York City Opera staging of Don Giovanni, and as director and choreographer, respectively, of the acclaimed 1994 Broadway revival of Show Boat, which is featured in Prince. (Flora, alas, is not.)
“Hal has taken great chances throughout his career,” Stroman says. “We’re all storytellers in theater, and his stories have not only entertained but also helped open our eyes.” Sharing directing duties came naturally to Prince, who Stroman notes “taught all of us in theater to be collaborative. He is the father of that.”
“When I started, it was a very male-dominated profession. It’s a tricky thing, because you need to be sure of yourself and sure of your art. Hopefully people see you not as a man or woman but as an artist.”
Prince has given Stroman the opportunity to revisit work associated with other giants, notably the great director/choreographers who preceded her, among them Jerome Robbins and Michael Bennett. Though her first Broadway credit was as a performer, Stroman knew “from early on” that she, too, “wanted to participate in creating things.” She notes, “When I started, it was a very male-dominated profession. It’s a tricky thing, because you need to be sure of yourself and sure of your art. Hopefully people see you not as a man or woman but as an artist. But show business is a business too, and [gender] can play a role in how producers see you, in terms of whether you can handle a big budget or finances.”
Stroman has been encouraged by “the wonderful female directors who have emerged” in recent decades. Several are also represented this fall: Tony winners Julie Taymor, Rebecca Taichman, Pam MacKinnon, and other acclaimed artists such as Tina Landau and Claire van Kampen. Still, Stroman says, “I recognize now — probably more than I did when I was younger — how women can be criticized more, how that can play into things not going your way. I think that’s true in any profession, in show business or politics or any field.”
Not that Stroman has been deterred by that realization. As Prince premieres, she’s also preparing a new vaudeville-inspired staging of Young Frankenstein on the West End, scheduled to open in October, and developing another musical, based on the Henry James novella The Beast in the Jungle, with Cabaret composer John Kander (her collaborator on The Scottsboro Boys) and playwright David Thompson.
“It will have a lot of dance,” says Stroman, whose many credits also include work with the New York City Ballet and other leading dance companies. “I know I’ve been very fortunate, to be able to do what I love. To get to use that passion is a gift.”
This is the first in our series, Women at the Helm.