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Encores! Off-Center – the musical revival factory venturing off the beaten track

David Ryan Smith, Taylor Mac, Susan Blackwell, John Behlmann, Deborah S Craig and Aysan Celik in Gone Missing at City Center, created by the Civilians with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. Photo: Stephanie Berger. David Ryan Smith, Taylor Mac, Susan Blackwell, John Behlmann, Deborah S Craig and Aysan Celik in Gone Missing at City Center, created by the Civilians with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. Photo: Stephanie Berger.
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Encores!, a concert series reviving Broadway hits, has brought back the likes of Chicago. Nicole Serratore meets Anne Kauffman, the artistic director of Encores! Off Center, which revives even less well-known Off-Broadway musicals

While Anne Kauffman is known as a frequent director and interpreter of new plays, she is currently living out her childhood dream: working as artistic director of the musical theatre revival programme Encores! Off-Center.

Encores! is a 25-year-old musical theatre concert series based in the historic New York City Center building, itself celebrating its 75th season of performing arts programming. Each year, Encores! brings to the stage three musical revivals in a concert format. Each plays for a week. With a short rehearsal period, casts sometimes carry scripts in hand. Some of these productions have elaborate choreographed numbers, small sets, and props, and all are accompanied by a full orchestra.

One of the most famous and successful examples of an Encores! show is Chicago. Chicago was revived at Encores! in 1996 and from there moved to Broadway and it has been running ever since. A London company opened in 1997.

But most Encores! shows have a modest one-week life. They are often rarely staged works, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream, Fiorello! by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, and Lynn Root’s Cabin in the Sky. They give audiences a chance to see pieces of American musical theatre history even if the style, subject matter or shows might not have a commercial life. As Kauffman explains, it’s an opportunity to “give audiences a gift from the past”.

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In 2013, a new companion programme was launched, Encores! Off-Center under the guidance of artistic directors Jeanine Tesori, the composer behind Caroline, Or Change, and Michael Friedman, who wrote music and lyrics for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. This newer programme focuses on musical theatre works that are associated with Off-Broadway. These shows get a brief rehearsal window and are a concert format, but only run for two to four days.

Kauffman says: “Off-Center is Off-Broadway and usually that is synonymous with boundary-pushing work, or the content is riskier, perhaps. The form is riskier. It’s the stuff that doesn’t have as wide a commercial appeal, but is really grappling with what the art form is and how that can, and should, shift.”

Encores! has always had a historical element, but Kauffman says: “The goal, for a long time, has been to present the pieces as they were originally conceived and performed. I think that’s a difficult thing to do. And times, they are a-changing and have been for a while. I would bet Off-Center came out of this need to look at works in a new way. Put works from the past in conversation with contemporary artists and to see what that conversation is.”

Steven Pasquale and the cast of Assassins at New York City Center. Photo: Joan Marcus
Steven Pasquale and the cast of Assassins at New York City Center. Photo: Joan Marcus

Often the directors and artists in the Off-Center series are known for their downtown Off-Broadway experience and it’s a chance to bring their talents uptown to a different audience. Directors who are more associated with plays than musicals have had a chance to work with the musical theatre form through Off-Center. Kauffman herself is directing Working: A Musical this summer starring Helen Hunt, Christopher Jackson, Javier Muñoz and Tracie Thoms.

This approach to collaboration is intentional. Kauffman explains: “The great thing about doing a concert series and not a full production is that, that kind of experimentation, and match-making [between artists and shows] can happen in a really exciting and safe way. So, the experiment may be safe, but the result is risky and exciting.”

The concert format also allows for a different type of engagement with the work. Rather than trying to make everything appear seamless and have your actors blend in, this format foregrounds the craft of the artists and the work in a different way.

“Hunt is having a conversation with [the musical] Working. We lay bare the bones of the people who are working on it and the work itself. The orchestra is on stage, there are books in hands sometimes, people have music stands. It’s very important to me that we understand this is a concert. We don’t have enough time to rehearse it to make it a full-blown thing.”

Christopher Jackson in Working. Photo: Joan Marcus
Christopher Jackson in Working. Photo: Joan Marcus

Kauffman sees the concert format as its own unique form that is happening all around theatre these days. “You see bands on stage. You see people standing around giving a concert and then theatrical things happen. So, it’s actually happening in the culture. And I like to think that Encores started that trend.”

She mentions shows such as Dave Malloy’s Octet and Ghost Quartet and production she has directed such as Hundred Days and The Lucky Ones with the band The Bengsons as examples.

It was artistic director Michael Friedman who brought Kauffman into the Encores! universe. Friedman, who died in 2017 from HIV/Aids-related complications, asked Kauffman to direct the Off-Center production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in 2017. They knew one another from their time as company members of the theatre group the Civilians.

The Civilians sprung from an idea founder Steve Cosson had when he and Kauffman were together at graduate school. They had learned about Joint Stock from their mentor Les Waters who had been a member. Cosson had an idea to create a kind of Joint Stock with a musical bent. He founded the Civilians in 2001. Their style of “investigative theatre” work led to creating a genre of “documentary cabaret” where verbatim writing was used to form monologues and songs.

After Friedman’s death in 2017, Kauffman, was approached to take the job of artistic director at Off-Center. Kauffman and Tesori shared the job in 2018. 2019 marks the first season of Kauffman’s solo leadership of the programme, with Tesori remaining as a creative adviser.

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Known for shepherding new plays to the stage with playwrights such as Anne Washburn, Amy Herzog and Clare Barron, Kauffman was not known for directing musicals.
But she’s had a lifelong interest in the genre.

“I’m a weird new play director, right? That’s what I’m known for. When I was kid I wanted to be a musical theatre star. And I was totally hooked on musicals – the kind of musicals that are at Encores! And slowly, I got away from that. I went to college, got artsy-fartsy, or whatever, and started doing German expressionism and then came to New York, and New York was all about new plays. If you want to be in the business you do new plays, if you want to get paid. And so, I got further away from my first passion. So, it’s astonishing to have come full circle.”

Kauffman is excited to dig into Working this summer. “It felt like the right moment, with what’s happening in the US, to get back in touch with the workforce of this country.” Working is based on the book by Studs Terkel and derived from Terkel’s interviews with working Americans.

Kauffman and her team are revising Working a little. Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the original book, “understands it to be a very modular piece”, so to coincide with the 75th anniversary of City Center they interviewed a selection of people around the institution and will incorporate those interviews into the musical. “[Schwartz is] very passionate about the piece expanding, contracting and reflecting a region, or an artistic point of view. He wants it to be a living, breathing document that speaks to a moment,” says Kauffman.


Q&A Anne Kauffman

What was your first non-theatre job?
My dad had furniture stores, so I would file for him. My cuticles are burning just thinking about it.

What was your first theatre job?
I was in the chorus of Oklahoma! in seventh grade.

What is your next job?
My next job, that’s announced right now, is at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. It is a Will Eno play, Wakey, Wakey with Tony Hale, which will be really fun.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
There are no rules to this industry and you can make them up. Because I keep trying to figure out the protocol, what’s supposed to happen. But you can forge your own way.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
My father, in terms of my work ethic and my mother, in terms of craft.

What’s your best advice for auditions?
When you’re done, get out of the room. I really mean that. Don’t linger, try to chit chat. Get the fuck out of there. And know where your bag is, so you don’t go: ‘Where’s my bag?’ on your way out.

If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
I would like to train horses. And if I had any talent, I would’ve been a ballet dancer. A musical theatre star or a ballet dancer…

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Oh my god, are you kidding? Yes. All of them. There is not one I don’t believe in. But I’m not going to say it because I’m superstitious.

Also in the works this summer at Off-Center, is a production of Mariá Irene Fornés’ Promenade. Kauffman says Fornés was “someone who had a great influence” on her. The musical will be directed by Laurie Woolery. “It is about two convicts who escape, and find themselves in a party for the 1%, and they’re invisible in this country, but is that freedom? Or is that subjugation?” says Kauffman.

It appealed to her because the work has the sensibility of “one leg in straight play world, one leg in musical theatre world”. She adds: “It floored me because I didn’t know she had it in her to do this”, she adds.

Last up for the summer is Road Show directed by Will Davis, who is approaching the Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman musical as if it is a live radio play.

If there is something that links the works, it’s that all three Off-Center shows have been tinkered with since their original outing. “All of these pieces feel as though they’re in a beautiful and volatile place. We’re restructuring Working. With Promenade, the score is different to the original cast recording and the cast recording is different from the libretto. So, we are doing a little sleuthing ourselves, trying to put it all back together again. And then Road Show has been through countless iterations.”

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The works are also linked thematically. “The three pieces: Working, Road Show and Promenade are pretty well matched thematically. I keep calling it a status update on the American dream. They talk about freedom. What is freedom in this country? What is your relationship to your work? What is success?”

Off-Center has the chance to introduce shows to audiences who may not be familiar with them. “What I’m really interested in is trying to get the Encores! audience to see Off-Center, because I’m always interested in trying to push people to try new things. It’s edgier, it’s adventurous” says Kauffman.

Whether it is artists who would not normally be working on musicals or interacting with an uptown audience, or audiences learning more about musical theatre history or process, Off-Center, with its affordable tickets and eclectic programming, is focused on forging new relationships.

As Kauffman puts it: “I feel like one of the major motivations we have with Off-Center, is to keep inviting people who you wouldn’t think of inviting into the tent.”

City Center and Encores! Off-Center info

Leaders: Arlene Shuler, New York City Center president and CEO; Anne Kauffman, Encores! Off-Center artistic director; Jeanine Tesori, Encores! Off-Center creative adviser
Number of performances: 130 performances (October- July); 12 performances
(Off-Center season)
Attendance: 300,000 annually
Membership: City Center’s membership programme has more than 3,000 total members at the following levels: $100-$2,499 (friends of City Center), $2,500-$14,999 (president’s council), and $15,000+ (chairman’s council)
Contact: citytix@NYCityCenter.org

Off-Center’s 2019 season runs until July 27 at New York City Center. See nycitycenter.org for more information

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