Signature Theatre’s Eric Schaeffer on Returning to “Elmer Gantry” and Working With Celebrities

The artistic director talks about his current production and the upcoming “Gigi” with Vanessa Hudgens.

Photograph by Christopher Mueller.

Eric Schaeffer is having quite the busy fall. Signature Theatre’s cofounder and artistic director is a week into the run of the musical Elmer Gantry, which he first directed in Chicago 16 years ago. He’s also prepping to direct a production of Gigi at the Kennedy Center in January, starring High School Musical and Spring Breakers actress Vanessa Hudgens. In between, he’s somehow finding time to celebrate Signature’s 25th anniversary. We caught up with him to find out how he’s juggling his multiple projects and all the packing, script changes, and weenie roasts they entail.

Elmer Gantry opened last week. How was the first show?

It went great. It was kind of a bit of a crazy day because we ended up putting a lot of changes into the show. I cut part of a song, we cut some scene stuff, we put in two additional reprises, we restaged a whole section of it, and we put all new lyrics in one song, as well. So the poor actors were all going into overdrive. They all had a change sheet by their dressing station, and they were like, “Oh, my god, what’s next, what’s next?” But they did great—they got it all in there.

So it went smoothly?

It did. I think the stage manager said it best: “On the surface it was smooth as a duck; underneath, everyone was paddling crazy.” That’s what makes it exciting, though—it’s never the same.

How is this production different from your 1998 production of Elmer Gantry in Chicago?

There are six new songs in the show, so that’s a huge thing. It’s a lot shorter. I like to say it’s the lean, mean version of Elmer, because we probably cut about 20 minutes out of the running length of the show from keeping more focus on Sister Sharon and Elmer. It’s really quite different from what it was. It’s the same story, but there are so many subtle differences throughout.

What’s it like to put this show on at your home theater?

It’s great, because I love the show so much. It’s like visiting an old friend. The show is so good, and I’ve always loved it; I’ve just never felt like it got a to-do. That was one of the big reasons I wanted to do it again and do it here in Washington. People who worked on the show, the actors, they didn’t know the show at all, so when they came in and started hearing and learning the music, they were all like, “Oh, my god, this show is really good!” That’s always invigorating as a director, because they’re getting what you got about the piece.

When do you begin rehearsals for Gigi?

We start rehearsals in December in New York, and we start performances at the Kennedy Center on January 16. I’m really excited about it; I didn’t know the show that well when I started working on it more than two years ago. Heidi Thomas is the book writer [for Gigi], and she also wrote Call the Midwife and is the executive producer and creator of that series. She’s so fantastic and understands this world like none other. Her book for the musical is so good, and it just makes the show feel so fresh and relevant today. It’s exciting because it’s the great [Alan Jay] Lerner and [Frederick] Loewe score with a whole new book and a whole new approach to the material. I think people are going to be really, really surprised. And Vanessa Hudgens is fantastic as Gigi. She’s really a special performer—she just has this great energy and is a terrific actress, and she sounds fantastic singing these songs. It’s great to have her leading the charge on it.

Does the dynamic change when you’re working with someone who’s famous for TV and movies as opposed to well-known theater actors?

I find that with Vanessa, or with huge stars like Carol Burnett and Bernadette Peters, everyone is doing it for the same reason. They’re doing it for the work, and they’re really professional about it. They really are in the trenches doing the work. I find it invigorating because they just want to be in the sandbox with everyone else—they just want to be one more player on the team—and that’s what’s fantastic. Vanessa is exactly like that. I think people don’t understand that; I think they underestimate the stars. Theater is difficult, and it’s demanding. Anyone who makes the commitment to do that is doing it because they love it and they really want to work hard.

Preparing for Gigi has you rehearsing in New York, traveling back to DC for Signature performances, then heading back to New York. Have you developed any strategies for working under the stress of traveling?

You just have to have a lot of extra laundry on the side ready to go. I’m fortunate, because for me it’s just like flipping switches: “Now it’s Gigi; okay, now I’ve got to work on Elmer.” The thing is, even though I’m in the throes of Elmer, not a day goes by that I’m not dealing with Gigi stuff. You end up juggling all of these different projects at once, so it’s really about staying organized and on top of it.

Signature also has its anniversary coming up. How are you planning to celebrate?

Oh, lord, we’ve already started! We had this big celebration in August, and we’re getting ready later this month [on October 20] to do this 25th-anniversary concert with highlights from all of the musicals we’ve done over the past 25 years. In the spring, we’re going to get all the designers and cast and crew and orchestras that have worked at Signature, and we’re going to have a big picnic, a weenie roast, to celebrate, as well.

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