A LOT OF FAN KICKS!
INTERVIEW: TODD NIELSEN
BY RYAN M. LUÉVANO
International City Theatre opens its 2016 season with the updated musical revue Closer Than Ever by Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire. The musical is an Outer Critics Circle Award winner for Best off-Broadway Musical that also netted Drama Desk nominations for lyricist Maltby and Shire. This productions is directed and choreographed by Todd Nielsen, marking Nielsen’s ninth production with the company, including recent critically acclaimed productions of Let’s Misbehave and Master Class. Here’s my exclusive interview with director Todd Nielsen as he prepares for opening night of Closer Than Ever.
What is your background in theater and as a director/choreographer?
I’ve worked locally and in the Southern California area. I’ve done about ten shows at International City Theatre. My claim to fame is that I was resident director for one of the national tours of The Lion King for a few years, which was an amazing experience. I’ve worked with Cabrillo Music Theatre, San Diego Musical Theatre, Glendale Center Theatre, The Colony Theatre, Oregon Cabaret Theatre, a theater in Kentucky and in Michigan. I’m also a performer as well, I split my time between directing and acting.
Why open International City Theatre with Closer Than Ever?
Producer caryn desai [sic] chose the play and as soon as I saw that it was announced I wrote to her and said, “I really have to do this.” It’s a lovely show because it deals with a lot of our issues. Various people in the middle of their lives stopping and saying, “Where am I? What have I been through? What am I going through? What are my choices to move on to? What decisions have I made and how does that affect my life?” It’s a series of songs that are each a little story, a little play on their own and I can identify with much of it. So I wanted a chance to work on the material, it’s terrific material. It’s a show with wonderful lyrics, interesting character studies and a small cast.
What challenges did you face directing this “bookless musical”?
It was really fun and a challenge because it’s a very intimate piece, very human, and it needs a sense of simplicity to it. When it comes to staging, I can do this or that but really it’s about the performers bringing their heart and soul to it so you can’t go overboard on stuff. It calls for a direct simple approach. Of course there are things like the three friends number, which is totally a vaudevillian type of thing, so it offers opportunities to have fun on many levels.
How are you incorporating dance in this production?
A lot of fan kicks! It’s a lot of movement when I am using movement. I have to do my best to keep it all connected to the story without getting to demonstrative with it. For the most part, I use movement to highlight the text. The only dance number is the “Three Friends” number.
Given the show’s bookless nature, is there a unique concept or point of view that you took in this production?
The first number in the show is called “Doors” and there is a lot there that can open up. The set is elegant and simple; it’s a series of walls that are doors. For the actors I called it “An emotional way station.” It’s a space in time where these four people come together and check-in where they are with their lives; the audience is there too checking in on their own lives. There are many poignant moments, but also lots of comedy and humor in our folly as we go through life. With Act One, its about affirmation of the strength of the individual and at the end of the show the affirmation of a sense of community, family and mutual support.
What were you looking for when casting the 5 roles in this revue?
We were looking for actors who could sing, people who could be vulnerable on stage, experience the emotion of the songs. We also wanted actors who could bring an ease and quality to their roles, that’s simplicity. They have to be regular people, or at least appear to be regular people.
Do you have any favorite songs or moments?
There are a lot of moments. The challenges are in staging the longer numbers that hit an emotional catharsis. The finale of the first act is chorally and thematically impressive and a fun challenge to work on. I also like the vaudeville number, I think it’s fun. I also enjoy the more touching numbers, Valerie sings “Life Story” a wonderful journey of a woman’s life. The number where the three men sing about the fathers is also really lovely.
What do you want the audience to come away with after viewing this production?
There are certainly moments that will affect people in a different way, some more than others. Some dealing with marriage, fathers, loss, second choices, mistakes made. I want audiences to be able to reflect on themselves a little bit and ultimately come out with a sense of affirmation of their own being. A positive message that you can go through all this stuff, you can laugh at yourself, you can cry and guess what? You’re still there and there’s more to come so go for it.
We’ve had a wonderful time working on the show. Our music director Jerry Sternbach has been involved with the original productions here in Los Angeles and worked with the authors. Jerry is a musical genius. We have a great team here, and it’s been very fast for the actors, even a little bit scary but they’re doing a great job. We’ve formed a really nice family discussing all the issues in the show. It’s been a real joy to see it come to life on stage.
Closer Than Ever opens February 12th and runs through March 6th at International City Theatre’s home in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center. Visit ictlongbeach.org for more information and tickets.