By Whitney Dibo
The old saying, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity” seems an appropriate adage for Charlie Newell’s directing career. When the D.C. native originally applied for the associate artistic director position at Court Theatre back in 1993, he couldn’t have known the company was actually in search of a replacement for their retiring artistic director. A lucky break to be sure—but Newell was also firmly prepared for the opportunity: his very first directing gig for Court, a production of Marivaux’s “Triumph of Love,” won a Jeff Award for Best Production. “After that, I guess Court felt comfortable handing over the reigns,” Newell says with a modest laugh.
Fast forward to 2008—fourteen years into Newell’s successful tenure at Court Theatre. Tom Stoppard’s new music-infused play, “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” opens on Broadway, and Court tries to nab the production rights for the Chicago premiere. “They got back to us on a Thursday and told us our request had been declined,” Newell says.
Newell was naturally disappointed, and wondered which major Chicago theater had successfully wooed the producers of “Rock ‘n’ Roll” with bigger royalties and larger production capabilities. The answer came the next day, with a phone call from The Goodman Theatre. “On that Friday, the folks at Goodman called me up and asked me to direct the show,” says Newell, obviously still tickled by the serendipity of it all. “Rock ‘n’ Roll” started previews in the Goodman’s Albert Theatre on May 2 and will run through June 7, with a cast comprised almost entirely of Chicago-based actors.
As the story goes, the Goodman’s artistic director Robert Falls and his cohorts didn’t actually care for the New York production of the play—a cumbersome turntable slowed down scene changes, and the production’s execution of Stoppard’s twenty-two mandated rock songs was unimaginative at best. (The show is anchored by Pink Floyd, The Velvet Underground and the Stones, though Newell professes to be more of a Zappa fanatic.)
The Goodman team, however, liked the script, and thought it had real potential if placed in the right hands. “Apparently, the curtain went down and Falls said: ‘We should do this play, and we should have Charlie Newell direct it.’” (Newell is somehow able to relay this story without sounding like an egomaniac.)
Another stroke of industry luck? Not quite. As artistic director of Court Theatre, Newell has built up some serious street cred when it comes to directing Stoppard. He has tackled the British playwright’s work three times in the last decade, rendering him a respected interpreter of Stoppard’s intellectually dense material.
So while Newell didn’t get to direct the latest Stoppard installment at his home court, The Goodman Theatre isn’t a shabby place to moonlight. “The resources The Goodman has, the support they provide—it’s a real pleasure to work there,” Newell says of his visiting directorship. Plus, it’s never a bad thing for the smaller-scale Court to have its artistic director’s name slapped on a Goodman production. “The real challenge,” says Newell, “is replicating the intimate feeling audiences get in Court within the Goodman’s larger, cavernous space.”
Well, at least it was one of the challenges: the other seems to have been smoothing out “Rock ‘n’ Roll”‘s ending before opening night. According to Newell, the script’s last few pages were actually in flux as recently as last week. “We called up Stoppard and asked if we could switch around a few things in the final pages,” he says. It was a ballsy move that certainly could have backfired, but surprisingly, the legendary playwright didn’t balk at the suggestion. “Stoppard was great about it,” says Newell. “He likened the whole process to piecing Legos together.” So, after many hours of across-the-pond conference calls, Newell and Stoppard actually crafted a unique ending to “Rock ‘n’ Roll” exclusively for the Goodman production.
Apparently another old saying—”It never hurts to ask”—holds true, at least for the “lucky” Charlie Newell.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll” plays at The Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312)443-3800, through June 7.