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The Chosen One

Musical theater's biggest names, from Sondheim to Kander & Ebb, turn to Eric Schaeffer to direct their works. What's he got that others don't?

October 25, 1998|Daryl H. Miller | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

In 1993, Eric D. Schaeffer asked an architect friend to accompany him to an industrial site he was thinking of transforming into a theater.

Light poured through gaping holes in the ceiling. Stacks of abandoned auto bumpers, from the building's former use as a plating plant, littered the floor.

The architect was aghast, but Schaeffer talked him into coming up with a renovation plan. Nine months later, Signature Theatre left its cramped old digs and moved into that building, which had been converted into a 136-seat theater.

"Just do it, just try," Schaeffer remembers thinking. "That's kind of how I live my whole life."

That attitude seems to be paying off. From its base in Arlington, Va., the 9-year-old Signature Theatre is rapidly expanding its reputation due largely to word of mouth about the musicals that Schaeffer, its artistic director, stages there. Stephen Sondheim shows have become an annual event, and songwriting partners John Kander & Fred Ebb, as well as British mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh, have taken a liking to the young director and have used Signature as a testing ground.

As Schaeffer's name recognition has grown, he has landed an increasing number of assignments elsewhere. Currently, he is in Los Angeles for his first show here, and it's a biggie: "Putting It Together," the Sondheim revue that opens today at the Mark Taper Forum with a cast that includes Carol Burnett, Bronson Pinchot and Susan Egan. As director, Schaeffer, 36, has been working not only with the big-name performers, but also with Sondheim, who has rewritten much of his 1992 show, and Mackintosh, who is presenting it in association with the Taper.

Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson had seen a few of Schaeffer's Signature shows, and had already identified him as a promising young talent. So when Mackintosh suggested him for "Putting It Together," Davidson readily agreed.

As Mackintosh puts it: "He goes for the simple center of what the author has written, and he's able to put it up without any sense of pretension. It's a terrific combination of show-biz savvy and a very serious mind.

"He's almost unflappable, which is also good, but beneath that charm of his there is a very steely person."

Burnett, too, seems enamored: "I'd like to adopt him and take him with me. As a director, he is very, very laid back, a great audience. He encourages you to think, and he loves to hear your suggestions and ideas."

Even the tight-lipped Sondheim comes up with a few choice words, saying: "He's very visual, he's very flexible, and, I think, he's very imaginative in terms of treatment of songs."

One evening after rehearsal, Schaeffer settles in for a chat. He is of Pennsylvania Dutch stock, with dark blond hair swooping low on a boyish face. He smiles easily, and when he gets excited, his blue eyes sparkle, punctuating his sentences with glittery exclamation points.

He has been under the gun for hours, devoting the bulk of his day to "Putting It Together" while also attending to his duties back at Signature and writing up notes on the world premiere of Kander & Ebb's "Over and Over," which he will direct there in January. Yet rather than tiring him out, the work seems to have refreshed him.

"I love creating something," he says. "I love getting in a room with a group of people and everybody saying, 'Roll up your sleeves; we're gonna get our hands dirty. Here we go. . . .' "

"Putting It Together" is a compilation of some of Sondheim's greatest hits, from such shows as "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Merrily We Roll Along" and the movie "Dick Tracy." The songs are strung along the merest thread of plot.

Sondheim devised the show with Julia McKenzie, a co-creator and star of the mid-'70s Sondheim compilation "Side by Side by Sondheim." In his early days of producing, Mackintosh backed "Side by Side," and he eagerly participated in "Putting It Together." The show emerged in Oxford, England, in 1992, then played the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1993, where its cast included Julie Andrews and Christopher Durang. The show was first presented in Los Angeles, without Mackintosh's involvement, in early 1997 at the Colony Studio Theatre.

Sondheim says he has reworked about 50% of the show since New York--an attempt to simplify and to shape to suit Burnett's talents. (One of the most notable additions is the caustic "The Ladies Who Lunch" from "Company," which Burnett performed to great acclaim in a 1993 Long Beach Civic Light Opera production.)

The action is set in a swanky Manhattan apartment, where a wealthy couple (Burnett and John McCook) are hosting a cocktail party. The husband invites a younger work associate (John Barrowman), who brings a date (Egan). A hired waiter (Pinchot) looks on, providing ironic commentary.

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