This week, let’s review an artistic director.
James C. Nicola of New York Theatre Workshop gets a rave.
He’s been on the scene at East Fourth Street since 1988, so you know that the guy can hold a job.
That’s for good reason. Many of the productions that he’s green-lit have made others green with envy.
Add SING STREET to the list. On the day that I spoke to him, news got out that the new musical would wend its way to Broadway.
It’s hardly the first one from NYTW to make the trip 3.1 miles uptown. RENT did it in 1996, ONCE in 2012 and HADESTOWN in 2019.
Musical theater fans who love to answer trivia questions would give a don’t-insult-me look if asked “What do these three shows have in common?” Even those who casually watch the Tony Awards might correctly guess “They all won Best Musical.”
Said Nicola, “Early in my career, when I was casting for the Public Theater, CHORUS LINE was rehearsing its workshop. Lots of people were grumbling negatively about it. Many thought it was the opposite of the type of work that should be there.”
Even if you didn’t know of CHORUS LINE’s mammoth success, Nicola’s smile would have informed you of it. “After it, not-for-profits had to acknowledge that musicals were a cultural American phenomenon. The funding that was supposed to come – that ‘60s regional theater dream – didn’t, and we knew that if we were to do what we were going to do, we’d have to embrace that culture.”
And yet, one would never pigeonhole NYTW as a showplace for musicals. Lord knows (as well as other theater fans) that it’s just as well-regarded as a home for adventurous dramas.
One of them came to Broadway this season: SLAVE PLAY. Jeremy O. Harris’ sexually charged drama wouldn’t seem a likely attraction for Broadway’s bread-and-butter tourists (especially those who came to see St. Patrick’s Cathedral). And yet Robert O’Hara’s production sold an average of more than four out of five seats every week and fulfilled its limited engagement. Don’t be surprised if it wins the Best Play Tony.
That delightful fate didn’t happen to WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME, but after its Broadway transfer – yes, another one from NYTW – it did get a Tony nomination and was one of the two finalists for last season’s Pulitzer. Heidi Schreck’s autobiographical play is one of those rare ones that’s so good that it’s now getting performed by someone else whose story it clearly isn’t.
Nicola and NYTW haven’t neglected comedies. Two of those made it to Broadway; Rick Elise’s PETER AND THE STARCATCHER was the more recent in 2012 enhanced by a stunning production from Roger Rees and Alex Timbers. “Well, we had enhancement money on that one,” Nicola said quickly and modestly, lest anyone think that he was solely responsible for its success.
Let’s not forget DIRTY BLONDE. After first being seen at NYTW and its 10-month run at the HELEN Hayes in 2001-2002, it became the second-most produced play in regionals.
Fine – but as Nicola said, “Not to disparage any move uptown but it’s not the way we measure success.”
Yet success has come to be the norm at NYTW. Who’d have expected all this from a kid who grew up in a working-class, non-theatrical Irish-Italian family in Hartford? We can thank newspapers for getting him into theater.
“I was 10 years old and saw in the evening paper that The Little Theatre of Manchester was starting a children’s unit – and I went,” he said. “As a gay boy in the ‘50s, I didn’t know how I could live a life. Theater gave me a possibility of one.”
A surprise awaited him there. “My family lived near a woman who smoked and drank too much. One summer day, I saw this ample woman well into her 50s pushing a lawn mower while she had a cigarette in her mouth. With her halter top and little shorts, it was quite an image.”
The story isn’t over. “As it turned out, she was associated with The Little Theatre of Manchester and she was tired of them doing Neil Simon. She insisted that they present short versions of Shakespeare plays, and when they did HAMLET, I was running the light board.”
The woman wound up lighting up Nicola’s life. “She played Gertrude, and when she did the speech about Ophelia’s death,” he recalled, virtually entering into a reverie as he related the story, “something profound happened. A moment of beauty occurred. I’ll never forget the way she said those words.”
It was the first time Nicola would be truly touched by a play. “Since then,” he said, “everything I’ve ever learned has come from being in a theater seat.”
When Nicola was a newspaper delivery boy for the Hartford Courant he noticed a certain headline. “A professional theater company would be coming to our town,” he said. “Now we’d have real actors living here amongst us doing the classical canon: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Shaw and even Genet’s THE BALCONY.”
Nicola helped build sets and stage managed while suspecting he wasn’t much of an actor. That suspicion was reinforced when he went to Tufts University.
“During my sophomore year, my best friend Margie and I were cast in a one-act play written by a student,” he stated. “She had the role of a prostitute while I played opposite her in my underwear.”
It wasn’t to be an auspicious theatrical debut. “Because I was pretending to want to do it with my best friend as well as pretending to be straight – which was a whole other drama – I couldn’t remember my next line. I realized that you can’t just tolerate being naked on stage; you have to love it. This wasn’t for me. Then I directed my first play and knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
And yet, he doesn’t do that anymore. Nicola, unlike so many artistic directors, doesn’t stage the plays he chooses and nurtures.
“I miss directing,” he admitted, “but not enough to do it. I’m not a multitasker; I can only do the thing that’s in front of me. When I got here, the theater was a needy, fragile place and I couldn’t conceive of directing and then returning board members’ phone calls. Besides, if I’d directed some of the shows we did, they wouldn’t have turned out better. Being the artistic director is my artistic project.”
Nicola gave credit to William Goldman’s 1969 book THE SEASON as a great influence on him – “for many of my generation, too.” In it, Godman chided Broadway’s “second rate producers who lack the brains and guts to take a shot at something homegrown” from American playwrights and instead import British plays.
Changing that policy wasn’t enough for Nicola. “I wanted a theater that made the new director as important as the new playwright.”
That included Rachel Chavkin, the director who’d win the Drama Desk and Tony Awards for HADESTOWN. Its audiences now sit in comfy seats, but when the musical debuted at NYTW, everyone sat on unadorned wood bleachers.
Said Nicola, “I think that came both from Rachel’s imagination and because she’d seen how we would often transform the space.”
That brings us to the time when Nicola went to see a Next Wave Festival presentation of Geoff Sobelle’s THE OBJECT LESSON. Here was, as Sobelle put it, “a meditation on the stuff we cling to and the crap we leave behind.” He spent the entire show in the midst of cardboard packing boxes which he opened, perused their contents, assessed them with a comment or two before closing them up again.
“Geoff’s starting point was the body and objects,” said Nicola. “And I found that thrilling. It was so out of sync with what is the norm. I said ‘This has to come here.’”
Moving it, however, didn’t just mean schlepping rock-heavy boxes from Brooklyn. “It was done in a space about half the size of ours,” said Nicola, “so we had to expand it. We didn’t just have to get additional boxes; we had to fill them, too.”
That brings us back to Goldman. In his ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, he cautioned amateurs on writing a script where “Fifty camels come roaring over a crest in a hill” for “What would more than likely go through the executive’s mind when he read ‘fifty camels’? ‘Where are we going to rent them? And for how much? And where are we going to train them to run in a pack?’”
Then Goldman posed eight more mythical questions the executive might have, ending with “Is this writer crazy?” Perhaps, and perhaps Nicola was, too, to go to the expense and trouble of presenting THE OBJECT LESSON. Nevertheless, he did it, and the production was one of the most-discussed shows of the 2016-2017 season.
And guess who was an important building block in Ivo van Hove’s career? It started when Nicola got the chance to fly to Amsterdam for a conference.
“But none of the young directors’ works were on then,” he said mournfully. “Luckily, the Dutch were video-recording virtually everything, so I sat in this library and watched Ivo’s DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, MORE STATELY MANSIONS. I found that he’d staged a preponderance of American classics with an entry point so vastly different from any theater artist. Because I believe you don’t have to have the same starting point as everyone else and that the ‘approved’ way isn’t the only way, I thought Ivo was someone who should be in the conversation.”
The Dutch paid for van Hove’s trip to America. “He arrived three days after RENT had started,” Nicola said, his facing turning grim. “I was still in shock from Jonathan Larson’s death and I almost asked him not to come. But he came and could see it was a hit. He even wound up directing the first production outside the country – which” – big smile here – “looked nothing like Michael Greif’s.”
First, though, came van Hove’s NYTW debut. “He was anxious about his English although he speaks it very well, so we wanted to take a production he’d already done. We landed on Eugene O’Neill’s MORE STATELY MANSIONS, figuring it’d be more interesting because people didn’t know the play.”
Nicola then heard from Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O’Neill’s premier biographers. “They were incensed,” he recalled, “because O’Neill told his wife Carlotta to burn the manuscript, which she didn’t. Their opinion was that it should never be produced. They weren’t against the script being on a library shelf but I felt that a play is meant to be presented. They set the context for the critics coming to see it and that’s what was largely discussed rather than the director’s take on it.”
He shifted in his chair and stated “The most significant thing from my perspective is that it doesn’t help the creative person who’s trying to make something new to be thinking about the content, the history and the inheritance of what’s come before. My job is to keep reminding the artist of that.”
When he arrived, NYTW’s budget was $450,000; now it’s nearly $8 million. For the foreseeable future, he and the theater will be on East Fourth, but that may not be now and forever. Although Nicola has played host three times to the troupe known as Elevator Repair Service, his theater has no actual elevator to repair and no handicap access to backstage. These issues bother him.
“The cost of fixing this place would be pretty steep,” he mourned. “So we have to explore a new space.”
The trickle-down economics from Broadway should help. But the ever-modest Nicola wanted to reiterate he doesn’t always produce the winners.
“I can show you across the map of America all the things I’ve said no to that became big hits,” he said forcefully. “We can only do five shows a year and there are a good 20 that I know would have been wonderful choices with both challenges and opportunities. I’ve had to make my peace with that. We did a couple of workshops of Jordan Cooper’s play (AIN’T NO’ MO) and while I thought it was astonishing, we did something else in its place.
“But I’m glad it happened,” he added. “I’ve also seen that if a play is that exciting, it’ll find its own way.”
And Nicola will still continue to give playwrights and directors an easier time in finding it.