Her good friend and longtime collaborator, the famed Broadway director and producer Harold Prince, gave Susan Stroman “one of the greatest pieces of advice” she has ever received. “He said, ‘No matter what show you’re working on, when it opens, the very next day you meet about a new show. Whatever happens, whether it’s a success or failure, you must start your new show the very next day.’”
Stroman, the five-time-Tony and many-other-award-winning director and choreographer, told The Daily Beast she has always followed Prince’s advice to the letter, indeed thinks “it’s how we keep going forward. We can’t get caught up in successes or failures, you just need to do the work. I have stuck to that maxim, and it does work. It also keeps you from going crazy.”
She laughed merrily after saying this; a sense of joy and engagement with her craft thrummed throughout our conversation. It was a few weeks before the opening of POTUS (Shubert Theatre, to August 14), the all-woman, gale-force, expletive-filled Broadway farce written by Selina Fillinger which Stroman is directing, about seven women trying to save a (mostly) unseen president from himself. Mainly positively reviewed, including by this critic, it may scoop some Tony Award nominations Monday morning.
Prince’s advice still holds true. Stroman—whose most famous past productions include The Producers, Crazy for You, The Scottsboro Boys, and Contact—already has her next show firmly in her sights.
She reveals to The Daily Beast the next musical she is working on is entitled New York, New York. “It’s the ultimate New York coming together in my life and my art,” Stroman told The Daily Beast. The show is about a year from fruition, and comprised of a multitude of stories set in New York in the past and present, starting in 1947 “with people coming back from the war and hopefully getting their smallpox vaccinations,” and ending in 2023. “New York is definitely a character in the show,” Stroman says. “It has that melting pot feel of all different characters.”
Stroman, 67, lives in midtown, near Central Park. “I love New York and I use New York. I go to the park and museums, ballet, and opera all the time. I am inspired by art and follow the exhibits. I love walking everywhere. I feel quite lucky to have culture outside my front door every which way I turn.”
So, will the famous song itself, “New York, New York” feature? Stroman laughed. “Well, I think you’ll hear that song in it at some point.”
For now, POTUS, and its delirious mix of swearing, innuendo, door slamming, and Rachel Dratch tripping hilariously for an extended period of time, is her immediate preoccupation.
“You’ll see why I decided to do it. It was the first page. I thought, ‘This will be fun,’” Stroman said, before this reporter had seen the play. When he had, it made sense. The first line of the play is “Cunt!”—an opening salvo to a play full of outrageousness.
Stroman said it had been the first time she had taken part in an all-female production. “Everyone gets along great, and there’s a lot of respect, so people feel they can fall on their faces creatively and get back up again.” Whether she is directing play or musical, or choreographing, Stroman says her first questions are, “How do we push the plot forward?” and “How do we make things clear for the audience?”
In an email message weeks after the show opened, Stroman said she had been enjoying watching the reactions of audiences, especially one line given the continued fallout over the future of abortion care, post-SCOTUS leak. “The laughter is nonstop roars every night. It is wonderful to hear so many people laugh. AND an extraordinary thing has happened—when Dusty (Julianne Hough’s character) says: ‘Affordable, safe reproductive healthcare is a basic human right’ the audience cheers and gives a standing ovation. Amazing! The show has its finger on the pulse!”
The show, as Stroman puts it, takes place in a near future in an alternate universe. We don’t know if the unseen president is Democrat or Republican, “but we know there’s someone in power who’s abusive with his power,” Stroman said. Things spiral out of all control, possibly leading to a global disaster. Even though he’s the president, you can imagine anyone who’s abusive with their power.
“The play is full of comedy and farce. It’s rare for women to lead a farce. Usually they’re secondary characters. And here, they’re not only trying to save the president, but questioning their own power and place, and even their complacency in supporting him—what are they supporting when doing so? Their moral dilemma becomes, ‘Should they save him or not?’ It’s almost like a ‘MeToo’ moment of realizing they have to make a change.”
So, while doors slam as the women try to stave off disaster, beneath the laughs is a contemporary meditation on women and power. Women have not just been marginalized in farce, Stroman says, “but all worlds. Up until 15 years ago, theater itself, my world as a director and choreographer, was male-dominated. For any kind of art, women have taken a very secondary placement. That’s changing.” She laughed. “It’s certainly changing with this play.”
Asked if she had faced misogyny or any kind of sexual harassment in her career on Broadway, Stroman told The Daily Beast, “I feel have been luckier than most, because I know a lot of women who have had very rough times. 20 or 30 years ago, I had the occasional producer behave inappropriately. But I have never been in a position where I couldn’t handle myself. I do think men have evolved—and theater is very vocal. If anything, theater folk have a complete command of language. We stand up and speak up.
“I do feel that things are different now, and I would like to believe it will remain so. Women’s equality has changed so much since when I first started. A lot of mechanisms are now in place to prevent it from going backward. Everybody is awake. Everybody is listening. I have been around a very long time, and I have definitely seen the change. Women have learned to speak up and learned to state what they want, and don’t want. Times have absolutely changed.”
“I love knowing theater can move an audience”
Stroman grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, “in a house filled with music, because my father (Charles, an appliance salesman) was a wonderful pianist, who also told ‘big fish’ stories, so storytelling was in our house all the time. Creating for theater was something I wanted to do as a very young child. I know how very lucky and fortunate I am to know what I wanted to do ever since I was little. I know that doesn’t always happen.”
As a young girl, dance and choreography were her first loves. As she says on her story-filled website, she danced to her brother Corky playing the organ. He suggested she attend dancing school, which she did, later dancing on the Atlantic City boardwalk for three summers.
Initially, Stroman balanced dancing and choreography in her professional life, making her professional debut in 1977 in the musical Hit the Deck at the Goodspeed Opera House. Her Broadway debut in Whoopee came two years later. As the 1980s progressed, her work as a choreographer, beginning with an off-Broadway production of Flora the Red Menace in 1987, came to the fore in productions as diverse as the opera Don Giovanni and A Little Night Music.
She got her nickname, “Stro,” from famed lyricist Fred Ebb, when she was working with him and John Kander on Flora. “Susan was a popular name in my generation. During that show, there were several Susans. Fred Ebb decided to change my name to ‘Stro’ just to separate me from the other Susans. The rest of the creative team and design team picked up on it right away and it stuck—bing, bang, boom and 35 years later—‘Stro.’”
Kander and Ebb stand out as collaborators, she says, “because they taught me how to be in a room with other artists. They taught me what was important in the story. They taught me how to throw things out—that nothing is precious, just as they did in many genres including in Cabaret and working on Liza’s stage show, Liza With a Z. They understood comedy and heartache, so I feel like I learned most of my craft from Kander and Ebb.” She also learned a great deal from Prince, who she was “lucky enough” to first work with when she was young, alongside other big-name figures like Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner.
Stroman choreographed her first Broadway show, Crazy For You, in 1992, for which she won her first Tony Award. Her second came for choreographing Prince’s Show Boat in 1995, her third for Contact in 2000, and in 2001 her fourth and fifth Tony Awards were history-making, marking for the first time a woman had won Tonys for directing and choreographing the same show, The Producers. There have been numerous other awards, honorary doctorates and lifetime achievement gongs. She was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame In 2014.
Stroman is particularly proud of making Contact for Lincoln Center, as it was based on her being in a club at 1 in the morning, ‘and seeing a girl in a yellow dress, and I thought, ‘She’s going to change some man’s life tonight.’” That one vision germinated a production with 18 dancers and remains the source of a “big sense of pride.”
She has been the “first woman who” on so many projects and won so much, one may think she that the laurels must mean a lot to her. But no. “I have to say when one is creating you’re in a roomful of talent, and you don’t really come up air. It’s not something you ever, ever think about. You’re only thinking about this gathering of artists and delivering a story and moving an audience somehow. Nothing brings me more satisfaction than knowing I made an audience laugh or made an audience cry, or made an audience put their arms around one another. I love knowing theater can move an audience in such a way.”
As for this year’s Tonys, the nominations of which will be announced tomorrow morning, Stroman says, “We opened on the last day of a very crowded Tony season. I can only say when one is creating any piece of art one never thinks about awards. You are immersed in the art of it and the artists with whom you are collaborating. In the end, you do it for yourself and the audience. And the audience is telling us we did a swell job. That’s the best award you can hope for. But, if those seven extraordinary women got showered with Tony nominations, I would be a happy Broadway baby.”
Stroman says she has always loved working with actors around music and storytelling; it was “heartbreaking” not to be able to during the pandemic, even though she collaborated on a few projects via Zoom. To return to Broadway with a comedy feels important to Stroman, in making audiences laugh. “It’s been very special and emotional. I can feel the electricity in Shubert Alley, going through the stage door. The first day I cried. Two years is a long time not to be able to do your craft. Now, to have live actors on stage again, is everything.”
As Broadway (hopefully) exits the pandemic era, Stroman thinks audiences want “both profound stories and entertainment, and if they can get both in one show that’s even better.”
Stroman’s husband, the director Mike Ockrent (whom she married in 1995), died of leukemia in 1999, aged 53. “It took me a long time to get over Mike’s passing, it was devastating to me,” said Stroman. “I threw myself into my work. It was several years before I could even consider other relationships. I’ve had several since Mike passed, but now I’m single and happy and living alone and I like it!”
“One lives life in highs and lows,” Stroman says. “I have highs and lows in my theater career and in my life, and with that comes an understanding of emotion, humanity, and character. As I get older, I feel I have a lot to offer many genres of art. When POTUS came along it seemed perfect to work with a young writer like Selina and seasoned actresses like Julie White.”
Stroman says she feels very lucky have worked on some big revivals, but 20 years ago made “the conscious decision to work on new work because I love the collaborative effort of bringing it to the stage, from the set designer to the lighting designer and sound designer through to the book writer, composer and lyricist. It is a collaborative artform like no other. You’re all in the swimming pool together, swimming with a desperate passion, and you either win a medal together or you all drown together.”
She laughs when asked what she hasn’t done that she may like to do: “A Shakespearean tragedy?”
Stroman has also enjoyed her journeys away from the stage, choreographing the musical Fatwa for Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm. “When he called, I jumped on the plane. Everybody on that show is funny—the cameramen, cinematographer, everybody. He’s very respectful and generous. Working with Lin (Manuel-Miranda) was glorious. Honestly, everyone was laughing so much.”
Stroman is also close with another legend, Ina Garten, and as such is often a very willing food-dish guinea-pig on Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa. “Actually, I am going to see her this weekend for dinner,” Stroman says. “When you’re with her you feel blessed. She’s one of those very special women who have created this life for themselves, and she’s done it with grace and love. She is very giving. I adore her. I feel very lucky to have her in my life.”
Are Ina and husband Jeffrey as cute in real life as on the show? Stroman laughed. “Yes, it’s all true. They love each other so much, and they laugh. That’s the key, isn’t it? It’s laughing together. And they really do laugh together.”
What’s the dish she most wishes for when going for dinner at Ina Garten’s? “A lot of items. I am a guinea pig. She’ll call and say, ‘Do you want to come over and I’ll make something?’ I’m happy to be a guinea pig for an Ina Garten dinner. If there was one dish... well, I’m not unlike Jeffrey. I love Ina’s chicken. Her roast chicken is so flavorful. There’s so much flavor in everything she does.”
Retirement is not in Stroman’s vocabulary. “I am going to work for as long as I can,” she told The Daily Beast firmly. “I love it, I absolutely love it. Not unlike Hal Prince, and Kander and Ebb and Mel Brooks, I want to keep going and keep going. Theater is a life force. It energizes me and makes me feel alive. I feel I will want to be a part of it forever and forever.”