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

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).

While Schaeffer’s upbeat, just-move-on spirit appeals to some in the Washington theater community, it irks others.

“Of course Eric couldn’t admit that he totally blew it,” says Joel Markowitz, a columnist for Dctheatrescene.com, a relentless amalgam of views and news of theater. “The guy can never admit he’s wrong.”

Others argue that there’s no way a regional production can resist the allure of New York. “He’s a director. He wants to get to the Holy Grail,” says a manager at another Washington theater.

No matter how roughly New York treated Schaeffer’s Glory Days, he is undeterred. Signature’s schedule for next season is larded with the kind of experimental ventures that get him talked about.

Among Signature’s productions over the next year will be the world premiere of a musical version of Edna Ferber’s Giant, with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa and book by Sybille Pearson. Schaeffer will direct. Schaeffer also will be at the helm for a one-night splash of Sondheim’s quirky Anyone Can Whistle on October 6 at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center in Alexandria.

Schaeffer says Signature’s sometimes-unorthodox offerings have seen subscriptions increase annually, to just over 5,500, even as the region’s total annual theater audience declines.

So does Schaeffer know something that directors at other companies don’t?

“The choice of the material, that’s one of the things that people get excited about,” he says. “They may hate it. They may love it. At least it’s a new experience for them.”

Schaeffer’s comments come during an interview in a hotel bar on New York’s 42nd Street at the end of a day in which actors read and sang through Giant even though the piece isn’t on Signature’s schedule until next spring.

The three-act, 31⁄2-hour Signature-commissioned piece is ambitious. For the readings alone, Schaeffer negotiated 58 hours of run-throughs, which he notes is twice the usual permitted by Actors’ Equity, a theater union. Schaeffer has raised special funding to allow an extraordinary seven weeks of rehearsals next year.

“It’s a huge project,” he says. “It’s again what I love about Signature. No one else would have tackled it.”

Other recent toughies include the world premiere of a commissioned musical, Nevermore, based on the life of Edgar Allan Poe. Typical of how things can operate at Signature, a news release mentioned Schaeffer, who directed, three times before it got to the composer, Matt Conner.

Then there was The Word Begins, an angry two-man poetry slam that pinned, if not riveted, the audience to its seats for 95 no-intermission minutes. The Word Begins provoked the desired initial response. Schaeffer recalled prospective playgoers recoiling: “Oh, this is too scary, we can’t go there.” But, he says, they came anyway.

Schaeffer says the biggest dip in attendance for a major Signature piece of late was for Merrily We Roll Along, last year’s presentation of the latest rewrite of Sondheim’s 1981 musical based on the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Back toward the more tried and true, Signature this fall will offer Washington’s first look at The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a blood-spattered comedy by Brit phenom Martin McDonagh. It has already run, generally to strong reviews, in London and New York. Reflexively reliant on the sainted Sondheim, a Signature blurb promises: “If you loved Sweeney Todd, you won’t want to miss The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Some directors, had their work suffered the one-night indignity that befell Glory Days, might be discouraged. Not Schaeffer. He sees no lasting bruise for Signature from the ill-fated musical, the outlines of which Schaeffer first saw three years ago during Signature’s musical-theater institute for young artists at the Kennedy Center.

One reason for Schaeffer’s lack of regret is that Signature had no financial exposure in the stab at Broadway. The New York producers even paid to truck the Signature set—a swath of artificial turf, a section of bleachers, and some super-wattage fixtures to suggest Friday-night lights—up Interstate 95.

In a postmortem of Glory Days’ Broadway crash and burn, theater blogger Markowitz wrote that agreeing to the New York transfer by reasoning “Why not? We might get lucky!” was idiotic.

That’s not the view of Glory Days’ young composer and lyricist, Nick Blaemire, and the musical’s writer, James Gardiner.

“It was the greatest experience of my life,” says Blaemire, who grew up in Bethesda and went to Sidwell Friends School before attending the musical-theater program at the University of Michigan. “I owe everything good about this experience to Eric.”

“We would both work with Eric again in a heartbeat,” says Gardiner, who grew up in College Park and attended the University of Maryland.

Both men, now 24, are in New York, performing or auditioning and working on new musicals.

Signature is often an unusual mix of youth and age. Schaeffer says his inviting Kander, now 81, to coach and advise during Signature’s recent Kander-and-Ebb festival was a terrific opportunity for the company.

Schaeffer says Kander declared himself rejuvenated by working with the Signature casts and said, “Eric, I want to bring all my shows here.” At least one-Kander and-Ebb piece, the last they worked on together (Ebb died in 2004), has never been performed publicly. It’s The Minstrel Show, a musical based on the racially charged “Scottsboro boys” case in 1930s Alabama in which nine black youths were accused of raping two white women. Initially convicted and sentenced to death, all of the accused eventually went free.

Schaeffer would like a crack at it, and a new Kander-and-Ebb piece would almost certainly get a hard look from Broadway producers. Similarly, last season’s vehicle for Rivera, The Visit, based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s morality play from the 1950s, has “New York run” written all over it.

Among current Washington producers, Schaeffer stands out to supporters and detractors alike in his determination to try new things and to conquer Broadway. Signature’s buildup for Ace, next season’s opener about a ten-year-old’s airborne dreams, labels the booking as a “Broadway-bound premiere.” Schaeffer will direct.

“I don’t think there are that many theaters in Washington who think about that,” arts commentator Jane Horwitz said recently on WAMU’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show. “It’s not something that’s on their to-do list, to get plays to Broadway.”

But Schaeffer wants to keep trying, even given Glory Days.

“God, we all wish it would have done better,” Schaeffer says. “But I’m just proud one of our shows made it there.”

The top gun at another local theater company predicts that in short order Signature’s promotional material will tout that it has sent a show to Broadway—without any asterisk about Glory Days’ one-nightstand.

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This article appears in the July 2008 issue of Washingtonian. To see more articles in this issue, click here.