A Musical with Some Sting: Director John Rando on His 30s Caper
By: Iris Wiener
You may not know John Rando by name, but if you have experienced intelligent, entertaining theatre in the past few decades, you have certainly taken in some of his work. Perhaps you caught 2014’s On the Town, a huge musical revival featuring one of the biggest bands on Broadway. Maybe the phenomenal staging of New York City Center Encores’ The New Yorkers caught your eye. You might have been privy to Off-Broadway’s Jerry Springer – The Opera, which has been described as “a gleefully profane musical.” A Tony Award winner for his direction of 2001’s Urinetown, Rando’s resume contains a long list of gems. He adds to it with his current project, The Sting, with which he finds himself reunited with Urinetown’s Tony Award-winning writers Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann. The new musical starring Harry Connick, Jr. is based on the Academy Award-winning film, famously set in 1930s Chicago and centered around cons, capers and hustlers. Book writer Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and choreographer Warren Carlyle (After Midnight) round out the powerhouse team behind The Sting, proving that audiences will not be taken for a ride with this treat. Rando spoke with Theaterlife.com about bringing The Sting to life at Paper Mill Playhouse, and the exciting year ahead that sees his return to Broadway.
Theaterlife: What is the biggest challenge in taking a piece that is so well-known and revered, and presenting it in a new way?
John Rando: The Sting is an extremely delicious story to tell and an intricate caper. Most musicals don’t actually need a very complicated plot. If you think about the great musicals, there is plot, but it’s not like what we have in The Sting. [The film] is famous for its intricacies, that’s what it made it such a winning and entertaining evening in the movie theatre. Deciding what to keep and what to cut was the hardest. In a musical you have to sing, and that generally means you have to sing about internal life. Figuring that out was tough too, but it has been the joy and the challenge of working on The Sting.
Theaterlife: Describe the process of taking a movie that did well sans music, and turning it into a musical. [Note: Rando also did this to great success with A Christmas Story: The Musical.]
Rando: It has been about six years for me now. It started with the film and the screenplay and bringing [writers] Bob, Greg and Marc into the picture. Over the course of those years we would do readings of what we had, go back to the drawing board, throw out songs, go back to the drawing board… We have twenty songs in the show, and I think we have 22 to 24 that didn’t make it in. There is a lot of trial and error, especially with a musical like this. The screenwriter, David S. Ward, has been a great resource for the story. He was around in initial phases as we worked on it and was very excited by it. One of the big things he told us is that at its core, the show needs to be very entertaining. It was a huge help, especially for a musical.
Theaterlife: How did you allow that sentiment to affect your work?
Rando: Our metaphor for the show is that theatre is con. We are basically putting on clothes and characters and pretending to be something we’re not in front of our audience. That really is a kind of con. The actions of the movie lend itself well to theatre.
Theaterlife: Other than the fact that it is a musical, what are some of the more significant changes that you have made?
Rando: David Ward had originally written the story for an African American actor to play the role of Hooker. What happened famously is that Paul Newman got a hold of the script and he wanted to do it, and then Robert Redford wanted to join. David went back to the drawing board and rewrote it for Redford and Newman. The musical is just going back to that original thought that David had, so we cast J. Harrison Ghee as Hooker. He’s a wonderful African American actor, recently in Kinky Boots, and just amazing talent for us.
Theaterlife: Should people try to see the film version before taking in the musical? Will recognizing the differences make it more interesting?
Rando: You don’t have to know the movie at all to see what we’re doing. In fact, it’s more fun for a first timer to see this story! The movie has a lot of famous twists and turns, so in a weird way, watching the film first would be a bit of a spoiler. On the other hand, those that are wonderful fans of the movie and really appreciate it for what it was will see it in a new and exciting way. It still delivers what the film does, but it also delivers it in a charming musical way. The movie famously uses Scott Joplin music as its underscore, including “The Entertainer,” so we have embraced using the ragtime, Scott Joplin-stuff, but we moved it into a Chicago jazz and blues/1930s deal. I think it is really cool and fun for an audience. Of course, that music was very alive in the 30s, so it’s kind of our way of tipping our hats to what was originally there, but also doing it in a new way.
Theaterlife: What made Harry Connick, Jr. right for Henry?
Rando: From day one I thought he was the right person. We thought that eventually, when we got the show in good shape, we would bring it to Harry. I met Harry several years ago because I had directed a small movie musical called The Happy Elf that Harry wrote. I got to know him right away and thought this [Henry Gondorff] was a very good part for him. It’s in his wheelhouse. Then we had this great idea: in the film version Paul Newman is hiding out from the FBI with a woman who is a madam of a whorehouse. It takes place in a carousel and she uses him as a mechanic in that carousel. We changed that. She’s using him as an entertainer in her whorehouse, so he’s a piano player there. That allows us to have him play the piano, be brilliant and do what he does best, and at the same time embrace the character.
Theaterlife: How will modern audiences connect with The Sting?
Rando: I want it to be a diversion or an escapism. It’s one of those kinds of evenings in the theatre where you just allow yourself to get completely caught up in the plot, the music, the acting, and forget yourself and have a good time.
Theaterlife: You have so many exciting projects coming up. This summer you head to Barrington Stage Company to direct the new musical The Royal Family of Broadway. Later this year you return to Broadway where you are directing Gettin’ the Band Back Together. Is this the year of Rando?
Rando: I have no idea. I just do jobs that people give to me. I’ve been working on it for quite some time. This stuff has all been in the works for many years, and it all just came to a head in the same year. It’s quite taxing on me, but wonderful.