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Signature’s Eric Schaeffer: After the Flop
His Broadway hopes bombed, but that doesn’t seem to faze Signature’s Eric Schaeffer. His dreams are as big as ever. By Cragg Hines
Comments () | Published July 1, 2008
Eric Schaeffer likes to take chances. Signature Theater is "a great sandbox," he says. Photograph by Matthew Worden.

News of the disaster spread quickly through the backstages and front offices of Washington’s theater world.

Eric Schaeffer, a local golden boy even at the age of 45 and with plenty of gray in his spiky hair, had suffered one of theater’s stellar embarrassments. A new musical that he nurtured—and then directed—had transferred from a Washington run to Broadway only to be stoned by the critics and closed by its New York producers after a single performance.

The show was Glory Days, not an apt description of Schaeffer’s misadventure on Broadway. Back in Washington, some heads shook in sympathetic disbelief; others nodded in self-satisfied vindication.

It was a rare public stumble for Schaeffer. Since cofounding Arlington’s Signature Theatre company in 1990, he has reveled in repeated waves of positive buzz that echoed in New York, Los Angeles, and London. One critic wrote that Schaeffer “seems to pull a bigger rabbit out of his hat every year.”

Would he now be brought low by the Broadway implosion of Glory Days, a modest coming-of-age tale by two local twentysomethings in their first musical-writing venture?

Not bloody likely, if only because of Schaeffer’s skillful—and storied—promotional abilities. Then there is his well-developed web of connections not only within the arts establishment—and its wealthy funders—but far beyond.

“I think big,” Schaeffer said a couple of weeks after the Broadway bomb-out. “We’re doing things that other people aren’t doing.”

But is Broadway a fixation for Schaeffer that trumps more homegrown considerations? And is that good for Signature and its audience?

“What’s promotion of Eric Schaeffer, and what’s promotion of Signature?” asks a senior figure in the Washington theater world. “That’s a very tricky question.”

Ten years ago Schaeffer said that he was happy he started here rather than going to New York and trying to hurdle all the roadblocks there. He still believes that.

“The kind of work we have done at Signature would never have gotten on in New York,” Schaeffer says. “People would not have taken as many chances as we have taken.”

Signature, he says, is “a great sandbox.” And Signature’s overseers, he says, are supportive of his forays beyond Washington.

“Our board is really great about this,” Schaeffer says. “Because they’re like, ‘Go direct other places, Eric. You make those connections in other cities, and everything ends up coming back to the theater in the long run.’ ”

Schaeffer works on a three-year contract. As an employee of Signature, he says, his work is reviewed annually by the board’s executive committee. “It’s not a free ride by any means,” he says, although observers say it seems close to that.

Schaeffer’s Signature troupe moved in 2007 from grubby space on South Four Mile Run Drive to a glistening $16-million home with two well-equipped theaters in gentrified Shirlington. Different, and frequently challenging, shows have run simultaneously in the new venue.

Along the way, Schaeffer became an authoritative interpreter of Stephen Sondheim, to many the touchstone of musical theater in the late 20th century. The deliciously dark Sweeney Todd opened Signature’s second season and won Schaeffer a Helen Hayes Award for directing. It was the first of his five Hayes awards, including one this year for his direction of Meet John Doe at Ford’s Theatre. Signature productions and people have won more than 60 Hayes awards.

Schaeffer also has made a mark as the leading local exponent of the musicals of John Kander and Fred Ebb, creators of Cabaret, which led off Signature’s sixth season, and Chicago. The company’s just-completed 18th season finished with a Kander-and-Ebb festival that included a star turn by 75-year-old Broadway legend and Washington native Chita Rivera.

Heady stuff for Schaeffer, a guy with a BFA from Kutztown University in his native Pennsylvania Dutch country, who didn’t quit his day job—as art director at WETA Channel 26—until Signature was firmly up and running.

One of Schaeffer’s consistent gambles has been the presentation of new local works. So in January, Signature staged Glory Days, the product of two stagestruck young men who grew up in the Maryland suburbs. It’s the story of four high-school misfits who get together not long after graduation only to discover the limits of their friendship.

Local reaction was mixed. Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks loved it, even though he had to admit in his January 25 review that “nothing much actually happens.” A theater insider says that another Washington critic shot around an e-mail with the pivotal word “dreck.”

About that time, John O’Boyle, a budding Broadway producer, had sent Schaeffer the script for a different work. Schaeffer said he urged O’Boyle to catch Glory Days because “it could have a future somewhere.”

Schaeffer didn’t think that “somewhere” would be West 50th Street in Manhattan. But by late April, he was surprised to be in New York directing a show—which he, the composer, and the writer tinkered with after the Arlington run—in previews at Circle in the Square. Marks seemed similarly surprised, and he backpedaled furiously in his review of Glory Days’ Broadway opening.

It had been a quarter of a century since a Broadway musical folded after only one night: Dance a Little Closer by Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie) and Alan J. Lerner (My Fair Lady).

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 07/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles