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Jerry Zaks

Meet the Musical Comedy Expert Bringing Mrs. Doubtfire to Broadway

If you’re making a musical comedy of Mrs. Doubtfire, the comedy half of the equation is guaranteed. The hilarious setup of the story — a man dresses up as a Scottish nanny so he can see more of his kids during his divorce — helped drive the film version, powered by an indelible performance by Robin Williams, to become the second highest-grossing film of 1993 (behind only Jurassic Park). But for the musical half of this production, the story’s got to have heart — and Mrs. Doubtfire certainly has that too.

“The basic story is about a man who will do anything to be with his children,” says famed director Jerry Zaks. “It’s a love story between a father and his kids, and it’s a funny and poignant and dramatic situation that really lends itself to songs.”

Zaks knows a thing or two about great musical comedies. He earned one of his four Tony Awards for his 1992 production of the classic Guys and Dolls, and his most recent musical was the hit revival of Hello, Dolly! with Bette Midler. His long list of Broadway credits includes musical versions of Sister Act and A Bronx Tale, and he’s got the starry staging of The Music Man, led by Hugh Jackman, on the way in the fall.

Before that, though, he’s at the helm of Mrs. Doubtfire, starting performances March 9 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. The show lands on Broadway after a successful run at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. At the world premiere late last year, the production shattered the theatre’s record for top-selling new musical and sold more than $4.7 million in tickets over just 42 performances.

Thanks to the hit movie, most people already know the story of divorced actor Daniel. Sometimes an audience’s familiarity with a movie, and in this case with the great performance at its center, has the potential to cast a long shadow over a stage adaptation, but according to Zaks, that’s not a concern here.

“I don’t think the movie so much casts a shadow as it provides an inspiration, and a lesson in really good storytelling,” he says. The film, he adds, made for a solid foundation that lets the creative team — songwriters Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, plus book co-writer John O’Farrell — bring to the story the same unique flair for musical comedy that they previously showed off in their raucous hit musical Something Rotten!. “They’ve got a wonderful sense of humor and a wonderful intelligence,” Zaks says of the trio of writers. “And you know what? They love the musical-comedy form.”

Any production of Mrs. Doubtfire needs a virtuoso to play the challenging lead role, and the show’s creators have found that in Rob McClure. Following his Tony-nominated 2013 breakout in the title role of Chaplin, the actor (Beetlejuice, Honeymoon in Vegas, Noises Off) has earned a reputation as a great stage comedian just waiting for his star-making Broadway role. Mrs. Doubtfire looks poised to be it. “Rob has his own talent for jumping from personality to personality, and he’s incredibly witty and impulsive and winning, and really makes the role his own,” Zaks says. “He’s got great credibility and great musicality, and he understands the music of comedy. I’ve worked with some great clowns, and he’s right with up there with them.”

With all that identity-swapping, McClure has more than 30 quick changes over the course of one performance. In 2020, that comedic gender-bending will play out in front of contemporary audiences whose understanding of gender and identity has significantly evolved in the 27 years since the film came out. The show’s creators knew that was something they couldn’t ignore. “We tried to be vigilant and sensitive,” Zaks explains. “It’s really not a story about gender identity at all, but we’re still doing everything we can to be responsible. The movie was made in a different time, and for our show now, trying to be aware of the sensitivities involved in that aspect of the story is only a good thing.”

Similarly, the creators have worked to bolster the role of the ex-wife, played on Broadway by Jenn Gambatese, to ensure that the woman in Daniel’s life is just as real and fully fleshed-out as Daniel himself. It’s helped to underscore the story’s emotional resonance, notes Zaks. “In Seattle, even I was a little bit surprised by how much the audience ends up caring about these characters, and how much everyone is pulling for our hero to be with his children again,” he says. “Every time I’m doing a show that means anything to me, I want them to laugh, laugh, laugh, to fall in love with the characters, and to care, to really be moved by them.”

It’s clear that he’s found just such a project in Mrs. Doubtfire. Ask Zaks which song or scene is his favorite, and he can’t choose. “It really is a bunch of treats,” he says. “I know a show is going well when I watch it every night and still look forward to the next number, even after the 30th preview.”

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