We all know Chicago is a fantastic theater town. We stopped needing to prove ourselves theatrically long ago. Our theater companies and our actors have won Tony Awards; our playwrights have even won Pulitzers. And,  quite naturally, actors, writers and theaters themselves get most of the press. For even non-theatrical types, Steppenwolf, Goodman, Malcovich, Letts, Mamet strike a familiar chord, having won national recognition and awards, particularly from New York. Perhaps less obvious—but just as critical to the success of Chicago theater—are those less visible working behind the scenes. Specifically, Chicago stage directors might actually have the greatest influence on the shape of everything on stage and the most crucial ingredient in the popularity of our theater.

Enter Gary Griffin. It’s no surprise then that, since moving to Chicago in the 1980s from his native Rockford, Griffin has become one of the most powerful forces extending Chicago theater beyond its borders. Although his list of Chicago-area theaters is impressive—Chicago Shakespeare, Writers’ Theatre, Northlight, Marriot, Court—his list employers outside Chicago is also extraordinary: the Stratford Festival in Canada, The Old Globe, the McCarter Theatre and Hartford Stage. His work has even seen recognition in London with an Olivier Award nomination for his direction of Pacific Overtures (the production itself won for Outstanding Musical Production).

Back home, Griffin has received an impressive eight Joseph Jefferson Awards. And he was the man chosen to direct the world premiere of the Oprah Winfrey produced musical, The Color Purple, in 2005 (his Broadway debut).

Still, he works hardest at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where he serves as associate artistic director. Not surprisingly, his list of credits include plenty of Shakespeare. But a perusal of his resume also reveals one name that pops up much more frequently than any other: Stephen Sondheim. Stephen Sondheim—for those who have spent the past 50-plus years cave-bound—reigns as the crowning composer in American musical theater. A list of his shows reads like a list of best-known American musical theater: West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Assassins, Sunday in the Park with George, Pacific Overtures, Follies…the list is endless.

But for Gary Griffin, the affinity of Sondheim goes well beyond that of an artistic admirer. With the impact of his Sondheim stagings, he can indeed be seen as a collaborator, as one who has such a deep understanding of the composer's work, he seems capable of interpreting it as closely as the creator could hope for. Yet it seems to have happened almost by accident. “I know I have this identity of being a Sondheim interpreter.” Griffin explains. “And I don’t know that it’s anything that I set out to have, that moniker.” But as he developed his artistic palette, and looked to cultivate a longer list of productions to his credit, Griffin points out that he discovered there was, “always a next Sondheim show clearly in my head.” That fact remains to this day.

Right now, there are two Sondheim shows in Griffin's head. Gypsy and Road Show will be staged back-to-back at Chicago Shakespeare Theater this season. Gypsy is, of course, Sondheim’s famous second Broadway smash for which he performed the role of lyricist (the first is probably his most famous show, West Side Story). The second is a lesser known Sondheim work with a troubled pass. Road Show, with a book by John Weidman, has been revised and revamped several times since it was first staged in 1999 under one of its original titles, Wise Guys.

As for his approach to Sondheim, Griffin puts it simply: “What you have to do with Sondheim is you have to leap in. He writes so specifically to character, to the moment. All of that is so edited and simplified and clarified…you know he pores over every lyric when you’re working on his material. Where other times you’ll scratch your head and go ‘I have no idea.’ You know there’s a good reason; you pretty much know that if it’s not working, it’s you.”

That keen understanding of Sondheim’s work has its roots very early on in Griffin’s education. “In college I was a theater geek who learned shows,” Griffin says. “I heard the score for Company. During the summer I was working at a summer stock company and there was a review called Side by Side by Sondheim—I must have seen it about eight times.” Clearly, from that first experience—like so many a Sondheim fan—he was hooked. But experiencing Sondheim’s magic from the audience is a world of difference from communicating it on stage. Griffin explains that, for a stage director, the process of understanding Sondheim becomes quite challenging when trying to figure out how to present it to an audience.

His first attempt was a staging of the early Sondheim classic, A Little Night Music. “It was probably awful,” he insists, “and I was in way over my head—I was still figuring out what it takes to do (it), not necessarily how to do it. But the level of how you have to really be in it, it takes over your life.”

This kind of clarity and commitment is part and parcel of what makes Griffin such a natural at Sondheim’s work. Griffin becomes more of a collaborator than just someone hired to direct. Just as Steppenwolf Theatre made Sam Shepard’s True West a hit by breathing new life into what critics in 1980 considered an inferior work, it may very well be that Griffin will illuminate the yet unrefined strengths in Road Show that could indeed elevate it to a Sondheim classic. In addition to Wise Guys, the show has carried the titles, Gold! and Bounce (where it had a 2003 staging at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre), before finally getting its current title in 2008 (and earning positive reviews plus an Obie Award and Drama Desk Award). Still, the show—about two 19th century brothers, Addison and Wilson Mizner, and their attempts to find fame and fortune—does not rank amongst Sondheim’s classics and still must move beyond its troubled past.

And Griffin might very well be the one to do just that. He resists the title, but he truly must rank as one of Sondheim’s collaborators. He’s consistently given fresh interpretations to an impressive slate of Sondheim works throughout his career. Besides Pacific Overtures, he’s directed West Side Story (a critical and commercial hit in Stratford, Ontario in 2009), Follies and A Little Night Music, and Gypsy. (The upcoming production will represent his first of Road Show.)

Despite having known Sondheim personally since the 1980s, he does not consider himself a per se collaborator. “We have not had any great collaboration and for no other reason than I do his work as respectfully as possible, trying to realize the goals of what he wrote and conversely, he has trusted me to do that work.”  Still, he has gotten important insights through the master himself, and he’s also had the opportunity to provide Sondheim with some illuminating moments of his own.

Shakespeare Theater's 2012 production of Follies saw Sondheim in one of its audiences. And, as Griffin pointed out, “(Sondheim’s) generally used to seeing Follies done in a very opulent way, and I sensed that he thought he was going to see something that was very scaled back…It taught him to have, I think, more faith in his show, to see that Follies can work in many scales and contexts.”

When asked about the challenges of staging a 1959 musical, Gypsy, for a 2014 audience, Griffin not only accounts for the modern world’s expectations but also considers the world in which the show’s story is set. “In 1959 when it came out, a lot more of the audience had lived through the period….Now we’re going to do it for an audience (in which) very few people were alive in the years between World War I and World War II."

So, as Griffin points out, a narrative context that was taken for granted a half-century ago must first be set for today’s audience. That he’ll do with the help of acclaimed composer Rick Fox’s original period orchestration. Performing that orchestration in view of the audience will be a 14-piece orchestra evocative of the vaudevillian period from which Gypsy springs.

Then, says Griffin, you have to see the show from the perspective of today’s theater-goer, “What changes in shows—more than shows—is audiences,” he says. “When you say you’re going to do Gypsy in 2014, what you have to be sort of humbled to do is to really try to place yourself in the experience of how we look at things now.” Part of that, Griffin admits, is impacted by the expectations we have of live theater today.

For Griffin, however, the immersion of his own self into Sondheim is probably the expectation most anticipated. After all, a director who can surprise even Sondheim with the power of Sondheim will certainly offer Chicago some of the most magical moments of the season in the back-to-back stagings of two of the composer’s productions.

But Gary Griffin remains unfazed by what might seem a daunting task. For him, staging Sondheim satisfies something deep within inspired by those first viewings of Side By Side many years ago, something that most certainly changed his life, even perhaps ushered him into the path he so famously followed. As Griffin puts it, “…(Sondheim)  was my way in.”
Gary Griffin in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's very own English pub, just off the lobby of the theater at their home on Navy Pier (photo by Bob Briskey).

Griffin's Take

Preeminent Sondheim interpreter will mount two of the legend's works at Shakespeare Theater this winter

By Daniel A. Scurek