The show opens the revamped Greer Cabaret theater; cast member Brady D. Patsy sideline with broken ankle, replaced by Billy Mason
By SHARON EBERSON
Martha Banta had stayed away from directing tick, tick … BOOM! until now.
“I just thought it might be strange for me to direct a play about my friend,” Banta said of the late composer Jonathan Larson.
She remained hesitant even a quarter century after his death.
Flash forward to 2021, when director Lin-Manuel Miranda released his movie adaptation that earned an Oscar nomination for Andrew Garfield, as “Jon.” Then came a call from Pittsburgh CLO executive producer Mark Fleischer.
Banta will direct the CLO Cabaret production that reopens the revamped Greer Cabaret on September 22.
“When Mark reached out to me and I had seen the movie, it just felt more like a celebration to me now,” she said. “It felt like, I want to celebrate Jonathan and I do want to direct this show. And it’s really coming at it from a much sort of happier place. I guess it took me that long after he passed to kind of be OK with that.”
Banta is known as a director who shepherds a wide range of new works, and who also has been a big part of two of Broadway’s most popular modern musicals.
She was an associate director of Mamma Mia! on Broadway and on tour. She worked alongside Larson, as assistant director for RENT when the rock ’n’ roll blockbuster was being developed at New York Theatre Workshop, and moving with it as it became a Broadway blockbuster, as well as two national tours and London productions.
In 2007, she chose tick, tick … BOOM! as the final production when stepping down as artistic director of Adirondack Theatre Festival, a company she founded. But she hired someone else to direct the show.
Memories of Larson’s storied life and death remain everpresent. The RENT creator died suddenly, at age 35, the night before the musical’s off-Broadway premiere, on January 25, 1996. He had already been lauded for his work, but he never witnessed RENT‘s worldwide success.
Banta became protective of RENT after being invited to a production in Italy, where she saw wholesale changes being made to the creator’s vision.
“When Jonathan died, it was such a huge thing … it felt wrong that he wasn’t there, like it was hard to be happy about all the success that followed,” Banta said. “And I think that I was protective and was asking, ‘If he were around, what would he want?’ ”
When Banta first saw Larson perform tick, tick … BOOM! at New York Theatre Workshop, it was still a one-man autobiographical show about his single-minded quest for musical theater success, while also turning 30. He refused to give up, even while facing the failure of his earlier project, the dystopian musical Superbia.
The show was later retooled for three actors by playwright David Auburn, and it debuted off-Broadway in 2001. It has enjoyed other productions since then, but regained traction with Miranda’s pandemic-era movie adaptation.
“At first it was a little weird to watch, and then it just was a gamut of emotions, to be honest,” she said of the film. “I would be sad, and then I just kind of let it go and got into the movie. I was really happy with how it turned out though.”
She admitted that she often has been critical of musical-to-movie adaptations, while acknowledging the difficulty in making that transformation.
“I thought this was so well done and, I mean, they literally recreated his apartment. It was all so very real,” Banta said. “And he was in New York Theater Workshop on that stage for the movie, so that was kind of like a flashback, and it was amazing for me to watch.”
Banta recalled that, while caught up in the excitement of RENT’s promise, the significance of tick, tick … BOOM! was not foremost on her mind.
The song “30 / 90 “ came to mind, when the character of Jon, referring to his age and the year, is in a rush to make things happen before it’s too late.
He sings: “Years are getting shorter / Lines on your face are getting longer / Feel like you’re treading water /But the riptide’s getting stronger.”
“I had seen Jonathan do it as a solo performer, and he’s kind of complaining about turning 30,” Banta said. “It just seemed a little bit, like, not the biggest problem in the world. And then, with him passing away and then everything that tick, tick … BOOM! is about, trying to make it in this business …”
She trailed off.
In Pittsburgh, she is reliving that time in a celebratory way, and noted the cast has been keen to learn about her time with Larson, and about the times that inspired his work.
This marks Banta’s second visit to Pittsburgh, the last time in 2007, as director of This Wonderful Life, a one-man show performed by Mark Setlock – a member of the original company of RENT. (Setlock was an nsemble member along with Darius de Haas, who is starring for the Public in the world-premiere Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For.)
Casting tick, tick … BOOM! brought Banta back to Pittsburgh, but finding the perfect Jon proved difficult, she said.
“In fact, we did our casting and we didn’t find that somebody,” Banta recalled. “There were great performers, but it just wasn’t right. In fact, we didn’t find our person until four days before rehearsal. And oh, wow, he’s fantastic. I’m so glad we waited.”
Playing Jon is Ethan Riordan, making his debut with Pittsburgh CLO. The Yale University and Whiffenpoof alum is “an aspiring young composer” who counts Larson among his inspirations.
Banta did not know he was a composer when she cast Riordan.
“It turns out, there’s a lot of things that sort of line up to be the same, and I must have seen that even in the audition,” Banta said. “And so for me, I was like, ‘Yes, this will be OK now.” I think if I compromised in that area, it would’ve been really hard for me to sort of remake who he is, because we didn’t have the right actor. “
Pittsburgher Brady D. Patsy was in rehearsals to play Michael, but while walking Downtown, he broke his ankle and had surgery. He will be replaced by Billy Marson, who most recently has been behind the scenes, as CLO’s associate producer. Sarah Bishop makes her CLO debut as Susan.
Tick, tick … BOOM! will inaugurate a venue that is very different from the Greer Cabaret that was previously an every-changeable black box theater. Revamped, the Greer is more in the style of a New York nightclub, featuring a video wall that will be in use for this production.
For Banta, her first production for the CLO has been a bittersweet nostalgia trip. She has been walking down memory lane through photographs from the 1990s and enjoying the costumes – pleated pants! – that are “really taking me back to that time period.”
Cast members get the benefit of their director’s relationship to Larson and those times, and Banta is in the intriguing position of being a first-person source for questions that might have required research in another production.
The show that she had been avoiding has now become a celebration of a friend that she is eager to share with audiences. Banta believes the show is better for the changes that have been made to it, without losing the essence of its Pulitzer Prize-winning creator.
“It’s a more intimate look at the life of artists at that time, if we’re comparing it to RENT,” the director said. “This is a singular story … that has big moments of a go-for-it rock sound, and it has its tender moments. I really feel like it’s a great, beginning to end.”
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Pittsburgh CLO’s production of tick, tick … BOOM! will reopen the revamped Greer Cabaret Theater at Theater Square, Downtown, September 22-October 22, 2023. Tickets are $30-$40 at https://pittsburghclo.culturaldistrict.org/production/90474/ or call 412-456-6666.