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by Michael Portantiere

Thomas Kail in Oz

  • Thomas Kail; photo by Michael Portantiere

    Tommy Kail in Oz

    Not much longer than two and a half years ago, Thomas Kail was a relatively anonymous member of the New York theatrical community, working hard in the basement theater of the Drama Book Shop as one of the founding members of Back House Productions. Now he's very much a player as director of In the Heights, a little show that came out of Back House, had a commercial run Off-Broadway, then transferred to Broadway and won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical.

    Kail and two of his cohorts from that show, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and musical director Alex Lacamoire, have reunited for the City Center Encores! Summer Stars production of The Wiz, which began previews this week. I first met Kail during the early days of Back House, well before Heights became a phenomenon, so it was fun to catch up with him on the phone earlier this week. Here's what he had to say.


    BROADWAYSTARS: Hey, Tommy. It's great to talk to you again. How's The Wiz going?

    THOMAS KAIL: Very well. We just had our sitzprobe, at the same studio where we did In the Heights. It was great. The band is killin'!

    STARS: I love that score. I didn't see the original production of the show, but I saw a tour that came through the Beacon Theater, with Stephanie Mills and Andre De Shields.

    TK: My own experience with The Wiz prior to this was limited, to say the least. I listened to the album when I was growing up, but I never saw the show live, and I had never even seen the movie until I was hired for this job. One of the amazing things about our casting process was that so many people who came in to audition said that The Wiz was a major reason why they decided to become a performer. I wasn't aware of how often the show is done all over the country, and how pervasive it is in the culture. Everybody in our cast came in knowing every word and note of it.

    STARS: I think it's fair to say that the movie is generally considered to be something of a disaster. Do you agree?

    TK: No, I don't think it's a disaster at all. Making a movie is hard, and The Wiz is such a conceptual show. The filmmakers had an idea, they turned New York City upside down for however many months they were shooting, and they put it up there. I believe it was the largest production ever shot in the city up to that time, so it's a pretty fascinating piece of cinematic history in that respect. They shot at the World Trade Center; I think that number had 400 dancers, and they each had three costume changes. That's 1200 costumes for one number!

    STARS: Maybe you can talk about what the writers of The Wiz achieved in their adaptation.

    TK: For most people, the Wizard of Oz movie has become the touchstone, rather than the book by L. Frank Baum. The Wiz is faithful to Baum in terms of the relationship of the witches, and in other ways. Bill Brown, who wrote the book for the musical, has been very involved in our production; he's the real custodian of the show. There's something deep inside Baum's book that Bill, Charlie Smalls, and the rest of the Wiz team were really able to embrace. The heart of the show is so big. We all know the story -- we know that Dorothy's going to get back home -- so it's all about the ride and being invested in the characters. [pauses] I just ruined the ending for you, didn't I?

    STARS: No problem.

    TK: One of the beautiful things about Encores! is that you do a show as it exists. It's not about rewriting or reworking. Every song Charlie Smalls wrote for The Wiz is amazing. You keep waiting for a letdown; then the show is over, and you realize that a letdown never came.

    STARS: You're reunited with your In the Heights boys, Alex and Andy, for this project. Do you think of yourselves as a team now?

    TK: Let's put it this way: We all continue to work with as many people who inspire us as possible, but I certainly know that if there is ever a job and they are available, I will call them very quickly. Andy and I joke that somewhere there's a master list of people who can screw up a show. Alex and Andy have definitely been crossed off that list; I think I'm the only one whose name is still on it.

    STARS: Before I let you go, I wanted to say how much I enjoyed the PBS special on In the Heights, although I was a little surprised that it didn't air until very recently.

    TK: That's because they had 700 hours worth of footage. They continued to shoot even after the Tonys last year, and they spent the past year cutting and editing. I think people were really moved by the artistry that the filmmakers applied to our show.

    STARS: You came across as charming and exceptionally articulate, and you looked great on camera.

    TK: Well, the lighting was very generous. And my curls were behaving.

    STARS: Did you ever act?

    TK: I took one acting class in high school, in my senior year. I was an athlete, so I was never really able to do theater, because they practiced at the same time. I went to school with Ben Shenkman, Ana Gasteyer, and Robin Weigert, but I never thought of myself as someone who would have a career in the arts. I was pretty bad in acting class, and I did a terrible job in Jon Robin Baitz's Three Hotels. I played a 54-year-old businessman swilling martinis and talking about baby formula. There's a video out there that I hope never surfaces on YouTube, for everybody's sake.

    STARS: What career advice would you give to budding directors?

    TK: Whether you're working in the basement of the Drama Book Shop or you scrape together some money and rent a theater for a week, directing is about doing. I was very fortunate to have a group of friends who challenged me. Three or four times a month, we would put something up on stage. It allowed us to not be precious about our work, to fail -- and to "fail better," if I can paraphrase Samuel Beckett. I did a lot of assisting at first, and I learned a lot. Then I started doing my own stuff. Even if the show only played to 13 or 14 people on a Tuesday night, it was still directing. I founded Back House with three of my friends from Wesleyan, and we tried to make a home for creativity. You know, the last word of both In the Heights and The Wiz is "home," so I feel like I'm in the right place.

    STARS: I'm really looking forward to seeing the show on the 13th. Will you be around that night?

    TK: That's our second or third preview, so if I'm not there, it means that something went really right or really wrong.

    Published on Friday, June 12, 2009

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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