In his steel-gray suit and purple tie, director Joe Haj stood out among the sweatpants, T-shirts and tennis shoes filling the Guthrie Theater rehearsal hall. Haj slowly circled the taped contours of the thrust stage floor, pausing to check angles from different vantage points.
“Jimmy, you’re going to have to keep a steeper diagonal there,” he said to actor Jimmy Kieffer, who portrays Navy man Luther Billis in Haj’s production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific,” which opens Friday.
“If directing on the proscenium is like flat chess, the thrust is like 3-D chess,” Haj would say later. “If you are sitting center stage, or up left, or up right, you’re looking at three different plays.”
Haj directed dozens of shows on the thrust stage at Playmakers Repertory, his former post at the University of North Carolina. He is new, though, to this particular stage, in a deep, asymmetrical room twice as large as Playmakers.
Haj has been the Guthrie’s artistic director for a year now. He ushered Joe Dowling out the door after 20 years last July 1 and has since driven across the state, spoken to dozens of booster groups, chosen a 2016-17 season, continued his national profile as a leader in diversity, watched the work of other directors on the three stages under his command and staged his Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of “Pericles” here in January.
It’s been a busy year and now Haj is ready to build a show from scratch on the Guthrie’s iconic stage.
“The Guthrie Thrust is a very challenging room but it gives up its secrets easily,” he said. “I’m not afraid of the room.”
Has Pulitzer winner soured?
“South Pacific,” which won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for drama, can seem like a beautiful face that sours in bad light.
Richard Rodgers’ score is big, fun, profound and romantic. Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics carry great weight — even in Nellie Forbush’s joyful proclamation that “I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love with a wonderful guy.” Bartlett Sher’s 2009 production at Lincoln Center won the Tony for musical revival (and featured Laura Osnes as a sub for Nellie).
Rodgers and Hammerstein had just come off “Allegro,” a critical and box-office disappointment, when they (and director Joshua Logan) crafted what for the time was a progressive lesson on racism — with a gorgeous score that nibbled around the edges of opera and a comic chorus for relief.
The story, based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” focuses on Nellie — an American nurse who falls for expatriate Frenchman Emile de Becque. A secondary plot has an American lieutenant, Joe Cable, worrying about the consequences should he marry his young Tonkinese sweetheart, Liat.
Hammerstein balanced the social message of their play on the axis of “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” a paean for tolerance that suggests prejudice is not an inherent condition of human behavior.
“They got pounded for that song” by out-of-town preview audiences, Haj said. “But it was the teeth of the show and Hammerstein refused to take the song out.”
‘Interrogating’ the play
If “You’ve Got to Be Taught” is the yin, then the yang of “South Pacific” is Bloody Mary, the caricatured islander portrayed as a madam and the cause of some consternation among Asian-American theater groups.
Haj says he envisions the role (played by actor Christine Toy Johnson) as like Brecht’s Mother Courage — a daring war profiteer who ferociously fends for her daughter, Liat, and makes a living off the dopey Seabees.
Haj inherited “South Pacific” as part of the 2015-16 season. He chose to make the piece his directing debut — perhaps feeling that if there are thorny issues with a play, he would rather be at the helm than someone else.
He eagerly takes up the challenge when it’s suggested that summer audiences will largely be there for the batch of great songs.
“It is a batch of great songs,” he said. “It is sweepingly romantic, funny. And, it has teeth. I don’t see those as binary.
“I have to relate it to Shakespeare. Look at ‘Henry IV, Part I.’ It’s about the cost of leadership, coming of age, war. And then you have Falstaff falling down in these hilarious drinking scenes.”
Frivolity, he implies, leavens the loaf.
Answers and more questions
Haj’s “Pericles” had played on small stages before he brought it to Minneapolis. The show got swallowed up in the Guthrie’s bigger room — something Haj acknowledges now.
With “South Pacific,” former production director Frank Butler gave him a piece of advice: Whatever other assignments you give out, use a scenic designer who has worked in the space. Haj chose John Lee Beatty, who did “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” for Dowling.
Haj will use a cast made up of about 75 to 80 percent Twin Cities performers, similar to Dowling’s ratio. Broadway veterans Erin Mackey (“Wicked”) and Edward Staudenmayer (“Phantom”) are playing Nellie and DeBecque. Haj also is drawing from his acquaintances at Playmakers, including Kieffer, who spent three years there. “I didn’t offer him the job but someone said, ‘What about Jimmy for Billis?’ He was perfect.”
After more than a year of watching productions in his new theater, Haj says, “I couldn’t describe a Twin Cities audience member — I’m not sure the ‘Juno and the Paycock’ audience is the same for ‘Harvey.’
“At Playmakers, we were on a university so they were the smartest audience I’ve ever had. Like 83 percent of them had postgraduate degrees. But they were not the most sophisticated audience.”
It was also a much smaller audience, about 60,000 people a year, compared with the 300,000 seats an artistic director would like to sell at the Guthrie.
On a recent day, he invited media representatives into the rehearsal room and then popped next door for interviews — always serious but friendly, sincere and polite.
“Tell us about this musical,” said a TV reporter, giving Haj an open-ended opportunity to say whatever he wants.
“Well, first of all, it’s such a joy to be in rehearsal,” he began, referencing how “South Pacific” has finally gotten him out of the office and into the art again. As he moved into a second interview, Haj repeated some of the same sound bites, then caught himself.
“If you have new questions, that’s awesome,” he said, “because I have the same answers.”
We will see.