Alex Timbers's Excellent Adventure

As the downtown darling becomes an uptown heavyweight, can he keep the music going?

By Erik Haagensen

Alex Timbers is a veritable theatre rock star. It’s not just his wavy locks, his cadre of fangirls or his recent lineup of hits—Bloody Bloody Andrew JacksonThe Pee-wee Herman ShowPeter and the StarcatcherHere Lies Love—that makes him worthy of attention. What’s more impressive is that the 35-year-old director, and sometimes writer, works consistently out of the box, bringing an iconoclastic downtown sensibility to his more mainstream work.

His latest—and most overtly commercial—project, is a musical adaptation of Sylvester Stallone’s iconic prizefighting film Rocky, which opened on Broadway in March after becoming a hit in Germany. Though adapted by the heavyweight team of Thomas Meehan, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (with Sylvester Stallone sharing book and producing credit), it is Timbers’s theatrical concept that puts the show over. His staging is dominated by a flying boxing ring that floats like a butterfly, swoops down to serve as a ceiling for interior locations, inverts in mid-air to become a projectable surface, and finally sails out into the audience for the climactic championship bout, even spinning to allow the audience to experience the perspective of both boxers from their respective corners. This unusual mix of intimate storytelling and invigorating, immersive spectacle is just the latest instance of Timbers pushing the American musical in new directions.

The possessor of a shaggy, almost Byronic handsomeness, Timbers is unfailingly polite and appealingly self-effacing. If his mind occasionally outraces his speech, his intelligence and thoughtfulness are immediately apparent. He grew up in Manhattan being taken to the occasional Broadway musical by his parents, but headed off to Yale University intent on becoming a filmmaker. There he discovered standup comedy, which soon led him into directing farces, such as Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy and Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor. His avant-garde instincts started to emerge in a self-described “wild” production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, in which all the secretaries were pregnant and Rosemary sang “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” while plunging a toilet. After graduation, his first job was as intern to artistic director Lynne Meadow at Manhattan Theatre Club, which taught him a lot but made him realize that he would not be directing at the MTC level any time soon and needed to create his own opportunities.

In short order the downtown company Les Freres Corbusier was born, debuting with a wordless dance piece called Un Piece de Mouvement Historique Avec la Geometrie that Timbers says involved “gestural choreography to Steve Reich and Philip Glass music, telling the history of math embodied with the creation of the universe.” The intention was to simultaneously satirize and celebrate the avant-garde. Other shows followed that combined his interest in history with high-concept mash-ups of content and style. When New York Times critic Ben Brantley stumbled upon the company’s A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, his rave review put the young artist on the map. A string of Off-Off-Broadway successes followed while Timbers also got his first taste of Broadway as assistant director to Des McAnuff on Jersey Boys.

Composer/lyricist Michael Friedman—who Timbers has called “a Kurt Weill for our times,” and who wrote the songs to Timbers’s books for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and last summer’s Shakespeare in the Park musical adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost—compares Timbers to producer/director Harold Prince. “He’s an impresario,” explains Friedman of the common thread between the two figures. “He doesn’t just see how to direct a show; he also sees how that show will—I don’t want to say ‘sell’—how that show will be. Where it needs to be performed, how the audience should see it, how the advertising should be—all that stuff.”

Rocky lyricist Lynn Ahrens says that Timbers “imposes a coherent vision on the piece, as opposed to interpreting something inherent.” Her songwriting partner, composer Stephen Flaherty, concurs, but points out, “The staging comes organically out of the work with the actors. There are a lot of directors who are interested in the large picture but never really do focused work with the actors. He’s really different. He’s directing Rocky like he’s directing a play.”

Timbers’s work is also notable for his quest to use pop music in theatrical ways. According to Barry Edelstein, artistic director of the Old Globe in San Diego, Calif., where Timbers recently helmed The Last Goodbye, Michael Kimmel’s musical version of Romeo and Juliet with Jeff Buckley songs as its score, Timbers “knows his musical theatre, so he understands all the rules about what a musical theatre song is supposed to do.” Songs in a musical need to move the narrative forward, while most pop songs simply state one idea and repeat it. But, says Edelstein, “by cutting and chopping” the tunes and “figuring out some little staging detail, Alex transformed the Buckley songs into musical theatre songs.”

Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis calls Timbers “a child of the avant-garde who is completely comfortable celebrating pop culture. He doesn’t make the distinctions between high and low culture that were crucial to my generation of 1970s avant-gardists. Those distinctions were hard and fast; Alex has always been much more playful and fluid about it.” That fluidity is on display in David Byrne’s Here Lies Love, just returned to the Public for an open-ended commercial run after its debut there last year. To tell the story of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’s rape of the Philippines, Byrne conceived the narrative as being set in a disco, and Timbers realized that vision, complete with 360 degrees worth of video, an exuberant DJ and an audience that’s always on its feet, herded from place to place by movable stage platforms—and occasionally, willing or not, transformed into an adoring crowd for the venal politicians. Call it dancing dialectics.

American Theatre sat down with Timbers while Rocky was in rehearsal to discuss his influences, how he goes about making his art and where he wants to take the American theatre.

ERIK HAAGENSEN: What made you decide to pursue a career making theatre?
ALEX TIMBERS: There were a couple of things that were important. I remember in high school seeing Des McAnuff’s production of Tommy and being blown away by the viscerality of it, the emotionality of it, those visuals, the way it felt like musical theatre and Broadway were having a dialogue with popular culture. It moved at a pace which felt very contemporary. And then in college I learned about Sondheim. Tommy and Sondheim felt visceral and exciting and complicated and dark and really interesting. I also remember the moment when I saw the Matthew Broderick How to Succeed the year after Tommy and being like, “Wow. One guy directed both of those.” I thought that was a very cool thing. Those were hugely influential moments for me.

You started your own theatre company, Les Freres Corbusier. There are so many Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theatre companies in New York, how did you get people to notice your work?
You want to be able to have a clear, easy pitch of what the thing is: Hedda Gabler with robots [Heddatron]. An immersive Christian haunted house [Hell House]. I tried to pick subject matter where you felt you knew a little about it, but basically like two sentences. Not a lot of people know about Andrew Jackson or Robert Moses beyond a couple of facts. The Schoolhouse Rock approach of taking didactic subject matter and making it really fun was the real pleasure, so that people would say, “I saw Boozy [about Moses’s autocratic urban policy], and now I’m in the middle of The Power Broker, and it’s even better than your play.” That was the ultimate compliment.

You’ve worked in lots of different-sized venues. Do you hope to continue that in the future?
To me that’s the dream. I’ve always admired people like Steven Soderbergh, who’ll make something very small and something very big and be equally pleased by both. What I love is being able to do Rocky and Here Lies Love in the same month. And they’re not two completely different ideas: The final 20 minutes of Rocky has a lot more to do with Here Lies Love than it does with a traditional musical staging, and Here Lies Love is surprisingly emotional in a way one wouldn’t think of as immersive theatre. I love the idea of being able to work in different scales, and I do assume that I will also be working in 99-seat theatres. I’m always trying to figure out what the best theatrical form of a story is.

What are the differences between directing your own work and somebody else’s?
I love the shows that I direct, but when you help create something from scratch, it’s a much more personal relationship you have with it. Being a writer has been really helpful, because I think it makes me a lot more sensitive and attuned to the ways to collaborate effectively, and I think it also has taught me a lot about dramatic structure and things like that, which every director should know. I’ve never truly considered myself a writer; I would consider myself a director who also writes, because I see someone like Lynn Ahrens or Michael Friedman and I’m like, “Wow, those guys are writers.” I have some facility with a very specific voice, and that voice doesn’t work for a lot of things.

I feel very lucky to have come from a downtown experimental theatre world, where people like the Wooster Group either don’t credit writing or call it “text.” Which isn’t to say that the writing isn’t the most important part of any theatre experience; it’s to say that it made me very not precious about my own work.

You’ve worked with pop songs, both existing and written for the theatre, and made them theatrical. How do you achieve that?
Well, we faced that a lot with Here Lies Love, because those songs were brilliantly written by David Byrne but before the context of the dramatic staging. A chorus that repeats the same idea over and over again is in opposition to the idea of the challenge of any musical theatre song, which is take a character from point A to a completely different point B. So I’m very careful when I look at what the verse is doing, what the chorus is doing. I think in a pop song the most important place is the bridge, because that’s usually where the turn can happen. Every time you come back to a chorus, you need to evolve whatever the central idea is and carry a ton of action.

Working with pop songs, like the Jeff Buckley songs in The Last Goodbye, a great thing is the “book over.” The “book over” is a tool so that you can take a song, even though it’s restating its thesis, and insert text within and keep evolving the plot, so that each time you come back, even if the meaning of the chorus isn’t changing each time, there’s a sense of forward motion. Something has happened to the character, so you’re hearing the same words but through a different lens.

When I outline a show, I’ll say the song has to do this, and the character starts here, and the character does this, and then this action happens in a “book over,” and then it evolves, and the staging has to end here. And then Michael Friedman will come in with a completely different song, because that’s what he was inspired to write. You can’t just force a songwriter to write a song that checks 17 plot boxes. That’s when the collaboration begins in terms of figuring out, well, this needs to happen, how do we do it?

Let’s talk about audiences for a minute. Richard Rodgers believed that you should always listen to an audience collectively, but never individually. How aware are you of the audience when you’re working on a show?
I consider myself a populist theatremaker. A tireless interest in making the show something for as large an audience as possible is really important to me. It has to communicate, or why else are you doing it? That’s the reason I’m interested in working with pop music, the reason I’m interested in working with bigger visuals, the reason that the pulse of the work I do often has a sort of ADD sensibility. I like to make theatre, hopefully, that also appeals to people who might not necessarily be engaged by theatre.

Does the innovation in your work emerge just from what the particular piece demands? Or do you have a larger, more conscious purpose?
I try to select pieces where I can contribute something in an almost formally or visually authorial way. One of the things that I’ve been obsessed with recently is how you put a human being in scale to a Broadway house. You’ve got a 5- or 6-foot person in a 30-by-40-foot box. You can bring on a lamppost and a bench and a palette and they can sing a song, but they’re out of proportion to their environment. How do you take something like Rocky—which has the challenge of all these incredibly intimate scenes that need a fully realized environment—and how do you thrust that forward over the footlights? Well, you bring the book scenes downstage. That’s not an innovation, right? What if you could take out a fully realized shoebox-type environment that might be the entire set upstairs at Playwrights Horizons? And what if I could figure out a way to create a roof on these scenes that could fly in and cap these people, so that this 5- or 6-foot person is in a 9-foot room? When they sing a song, wouldn’t that humanity feel like caged heat and push out into the audience?

So I have this idea with the set designer of Rocky, Chris Barreca, of this boxing ring on a gantry crane that can move around the stage, and it’s really coming out of certain requirements. I need a ring at the beginning, I need a ring at the end, I can’t get it offstage, and I can’t get it into the floor. And then, instead of being like some sort of chandelier spectacle thing, could it serve a dual function of allowing spectacle but also help to thrust the humanity forward? And then I see this video from Nine Inch Nails’s Live: With Teeth Tour, and they have a grid that moves and turns, and then I had this idea that I wanted to have something in the air that turned and could become a projection surface in the grid.

Now we have all these things: We have a lighting grid that can pick up and move around. We have something that can become a projection surface, and something that can serve as a boxing ring and doesn’t deconstruct, so it creates the integrity that I need for the humanity of the show, so it doesn’t feel like a theatrical form of boxing. And then it can also take these really intimate book scenes and hopefully make the humanity more present for the audience. This design feels like an innovation, but it’s really only there to serve the challenges that the show presents.

I looked at a script of Here Lies Love and was surprised that it consisted solely of the text—there are no stage directions. Where did that immersive staging come from?
First of all, David was a very willing and active collaborator, so that was a really important part of this thing succeeding. We had these very extensive Excel sheets: Here are the songs, here are the characters singing them, here are the dramatic points, here’s what the staging is doing, here’s what the video is doing. And it was important because, with these songs, since they’re pop songs, the lyrics can’t hold all the narrative content. It just would feel wrong. Staging can do a lot of stuff, but video needs to sometimes be telling the story. We wanted it to feel very propulsive, just like the music.

I lived through the time of the Marcoses’ reign and found them absolutely reprehensible. Part of me at first resisted the show, thinking, “These people were venal. They’re being treated too nicely.” How did you overcome that?
You’ve got a protagonist who did horrible things. I said, “David, what is a musical comp for that kind of character?” What if Imelda is our Momma Rose? Then who is Gypsy? And that’s when we were like, “Well, it’s this Aquino guy.” He’s the heart of the thing. The album didn’t really have him as a character. But when he gets assassinated, that’s when it turns. And then there’s the tragedy of her, that Greek moment, where the people are storming the palace and the only thing she can think of to ask is, “Why Don’t You Love Me?” It’s not like, “Oh, I did all these things wrong.” And apparently, when they were being airlifted out, Marcos turned to her and said, “You know this is your fault, don’t you?”

Music is important to virtually everything you’ve done, though you don’t read music. Where does that come from?
It’s really important to me that character and situation motivate music. That’s something that I think as a director I might have a good ear for. When the idioms that I’m working on with composers have a relationship to pop music, I feel like part of my job is to make sure that the energy of that and the reference points that they have aren’t diluted by the theatrical process. Something that’s become really important to me in the last couple of years is doing orchestration workshops. Orchestrations are as important as the music itself. It’s a strange thing as a director to show up at the sitzprobe and then hear everything and be like, “Oh, gosh that does—or doesn’t—match with the whole mise en scène of what I’ve staged.”

Let’s talk about transition from speech to song. You have called it “the bump.” Talk about how you negotiate that moment.
My college thesis was a 120-page essay about the history of “the bump” in musical theatre, particularly in movie musicals, going from 1929 to the Warner Brother musicals in ’33, Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers, all the way up through ’75: LisztomaniaRocky HorrorPhantom of the Paradise and Tommy. So this is something that I’m always thinking about, particularly the first time you break into song. With The Last Goodbye, it was really important to me that the Capulets and Montagues were not singing during the fight at the beginning of the show. I wanted a musical soundtrack, dropping you more and more into the vocabulary of the musical. I think if you expect that to be a dangerous and threatening environment, and they’re singing pop songs, however beautifully written, it’s telling you confusing information.

I almost never have a lighting designer start a cue on the music, but instead start it on the lyric, so it feels like the character is motivating the technology. I love those songs that feel like they sneak into song. Stephen Flaherty and I will argue about whether a tone into a song is enough. Sometimes I like it, because it allows you to really feel like the character is initiating the musical idea. I think you never want to get to that moment when you feel like, “Okay, here comes a song.” How you get into the songs, how you use the music as it relates to information and how character-motivated they feel are three of the most important tools that I’m always thinking about as a director.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, you have three film projects in the works. Are we losing you to Hollywood?
Oh, no. Theatre is my love, it’s my profession, it’s where all my collaborators are, and I live in New York. If film happens, that would be great. But I have a sense of what my theatre projects are going to be for the next three years. One that I’ve been working on since 2007 is Up Here, by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez, who wrote Frozen. It’s boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, but with a high-concept riff that’s epic in scope. It feels to me a little bit like a mid-’70s Woody Allen romantic comedy, and it’s very wild and visual. We’re going to do it at La Jolla Playhouse. I’m really excited about that one.

Erik Haagensen is a freelance journalist, playwright and lyricist living in New York.