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Michael Greif
Photograph: Courtesy of the artistMichael Greif

Broadway Q&A: Hell's Kitchen director Michael Greif

The Tony nominee talks about having three shows on Broadway, working with Alicia Keys and Dear Evan Hansen’s secret sauce.

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman

Michael Greif has had a prodigious Broadway career as the director of landmark musicals including Rent, Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen. Even by that standard, however, his 2023–24 Broadway season has been astonishing. Without much fanfare, Greif pulled off a feat that may well be unprecedented, at least in recent decades: He directed or co-directed not one, not two, but three new Broadway musicals in a single season. Each is very different from the others: Hell’s Kitchen is a jukebox musical built around the hits of Alicia Keys; The Notebook is a transhistorical romance adapted from a well-loved novel and film; and Days of Wine and Roses, which closed in March, was a chamber-operatic portrait of an alcoholic couple in the 1950s. 

We recently talked with Greif for an hour via Zoom, during which time his eyes welled twice with tears at the memory of pivotal moments in developing his shows. Greif’s greatest strength as a director is perhaps his ability to elicit performances that lift actors to the best they can be onstage: apotheosis performances that make you feel like these exact actors were born to play these exact roles. It’s no accident that he has shepherded so many of the 21st century’s most indelible musical turns, such as Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens, Alice Ripley in Next to Normal, Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen and Kelli O’Hara in Days of Wine and Roses. In focusing on making the shows and actors shine, however, his style is fundamentally self-effacing. Perhaps that’s one reason why, shockingly, he has never won a Tony for Best Director—not even for Rent and Dear Evan Hansen, both of which won Best Musical. He is nominated for Hell’s Kitchen this year. It’s his fifth nomination. Maybe this time the Tonys will finally come to Greif. 

I guess we should start with what a crazy season this has been for you. How did you end up directing three musicals at once? 
That came about because there were a few shows that were ready to transfer. We were certainly hoping that Hell's Kitchen would make a quick transfer, and that seemed possible at some point early in our run at the Public Theater [where Hell's Kitchen debuted last year before moving to Broadway]—or maybe before, depending who you listen to. After the incredible reception of The Notebook in Chicago, we were just waiting for the best theater availability to move in. And then a lot of stars aligned and it also became possible for Days of Wine and Roses to move in this season. 

So had those projects been in the pipeline for a while?
They were certainly in my pipeline for a while, and they all had been done elsewhere. They were projects from the pre-pandemic, and I questioned whether they would receive life after the pandemic. But it worked out really beautifully. The first to actually be produced was The Notebook in Chicago, which was supposed to happen in 2020 and then finally did happen, in the summer of '22. And I co-directed that with Schele Williams, which also made this three-show thing possible. There was a lot of cooperation in terms of everyone's schedule. A schedule got made, probably last summer, that accommodated the possibility of all three shows.

And meanwhile Schele was also directing The Wiz this season!
Yes. So there were days where we were on our own, and that was okay, and then a lot of wonderful days where we got to really share all of those ideas and all of those decisions.

Every project is different, of course, but what do you think you tend to bring to the table as a director? 
I hope I bring a level of acting and an investigation of reality into the musical theater form. I hope I bring courage and a vitality of emotional expression. I hope I bring logic and intelligence to musical theater stories.

The Notebook
Photograph: Courtesy Julieta CervantesThe Notebook

Let’s talk about Hell’s Kitchen. When did you become involved with this project?
Probably in 2017, I got a wonderful call about Kris Diaz and Alicia Keys wanting to talk to me about a musical that they were thinking about, using Alicia's songs. At that meeting, I found out that Alicia was excited about writing new material for the musical, and that the musical was going to focus on this very volatile late-teenage year. Kris likes to say that I got the job because I quickly pointed out to them that they were writing a love story between a mother and a daughter, not a conventional love story between two young people—and that's exactly where they wanted to go. So I seemed to be the right fit for the project. Dear Evan Hansen was also about a 17-year-old, so maybe I was something of a specialist in that.

And the scene with the mother at the end is similar.
Yes. And it also happens on a couch, doesn't it? And upstage left, too! I was hoping no one would notice that. They also get undressed upstage left on a couch in The Notebook. So it seems to be the place I want important events to happen in young people's lives. [Laughs.] I later found out that Alicia saw Rent when she was a kid, and it had an effect on her. And Kris has always been an outspoken fan of Rent, and worked with me on the Rent Live version that we did some years ago.

How much of a hand did you have in the show’s development? There are some choices in the show that I think are really good.
[Joking] I'm responsible for all the good ones.

Some people feel that the show’s stakes aren't big enough. But for me the fairly small size of the plot is one reason the show succeeds. It seems scaled to be a short story, not a novel.
You're getting it. It is short-story scaled. When people say that they don't recognize the stakes as big enough, I think they're not really engaging in the story or with the characters fully. 

Another thing that I think is really effective—and I don't know if this is on purpose or just a happy accident—but most of the big Alicia Keys songs are bottom-loaded in the show. The new songs she has written are at the beginning, and then as Ali becomes more confident and experienced we get the bigger hits.
That was very intentional from the beginning. We all talked early on—including Alicia, who is an incredible student of musical-theater form, as you can imagine—about wanting the audience to have the opportunity to come in and engage as if they were engaging in a completely original musical. We wanted to front-load either brand-new or less well-known material, so that the things that the actors sang were only related to the dramatic situation, and didn't have that wonderful bounce that the best moments in jukebox musicals do, where you have a simultaneous response of “What is this song doing here now?” and “What do I remember this song doing for me on the various occasions that this song was a part of my life?” And then once we had the characters firmly in place, you then could both go on the journey of what happens to Ali when her father sings “If I Ain't Got You” and go on your own journey about what that song has meant to you.

Hell's Kitchen gives us such a range of sounds from the three main women. Kecia Lewis is very low a lot of the time, in an exciting way you rarely hear on Broadway. Shoshana Bean is doing that precise high belt. And then Maleah Joi Moon is kind of in the middle doing rich alto stuff. Was the difference in their voices considered in the writing and casting?
Absolutely. And Alicia is remarkably involved. She's really hands-on, both in the casting process and in the coaching and music directing. And I think she and Adam [Blackstone, her co-arranger] have been very intentional about finding the ranges and the orchestrations that best differentiate and individualize these voices and these characters. There's been a lot of wonderful thought that's gone into it. 

Shoshana Bean and Maleah Joi Moon in Hell's Kitchen
Photograph: Courtesy Marc J. FranklinHell's Kitchen

And this is Maleah’s stage debut, right?
I believe the Public was her professional debut. She did some acting as a younger person—there have been people and directors from her youth that I've met at the show, which has been so incredibly moving—but it seemed like she may have been moving in a different direction, moving into maybe music only, until this came about. 

I mean, she has a really special sound.
She has a gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous, unique instrument. And she sounds like a recording artist. There's an incredible link between her interior life and her vocal production.

Let's talk a bit about the changes that were made between the Public Theater production and this one.
The small changes that we made seem to have had a great impact on many people who write about the show. I think we got a little less shy about Ali’s development as a composer and a musician. We’ve moved “Authors,” and it feels like we open the second act in a tighter, more assured way. We also trimmed a song in the second act, which none of us seem to miss, even though it's always hard to make a cut like that.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about Rent is the idea of how it might have changed had Jonathan Larson not died—if he had been around to make the kinds of adjustments that any writer makes in previews. Do you have any thoughts on what direction that might have taken?
I can only say that “Take Me or Leave Me” was the last song that Jonathan wrote for Rent, and also maybe the best song that Jonathan wrote for Rent. So I can only imagine the kinds of improvements and inspirations that might have continued in that process.

Rent was your Broadway debut as a director but I see on IBDB that your first Broadway credit was as the assistant director of a play called Sleight of Hand, which ran for a week in 1987 at what was then the Cort Theatre. How was that experience?
It didn't really feel like my loss, although of course I had great empathy for the people around me, but it was sobering. Actually, I think it helped. I had my eyes really open at that experience, and my ears too. You're quite a sponge at that age. There are a lot of things to be careful of when you are getting yourself to Broadway—you've gotta have a whole lot of ducks in a row. I made a similar mistake with Never Gonna Dance, which we did on Broadway for the first time. But since then I think I've never just opened a show on Broadway. I've always advised that we do a show elsewhere first.

What was the biggest lesson you took from Rent
I guess the takeaway from Rent was that they don't always receive the adulation that Rent received, so don't take that adulation for granted. 

Michael Greif with original Rent stars Adam Pascal and Daphne Rubin-Vega
Photograph: Courtesy Michael HullMichael Greif with original Rent stars Adam Pascal and Daphne Rubin-Vega

Which brings us to 2003’s Never Gonna Dance, which closed fast.
Yes. I should have followed my own advice and not agreed to do it right on Broadway. But, you know, theater owners can make it very attractive to producers: They promise theaters for the fall that you can't possibly have in the spring, so you can either go now or not. So I understand why producers make that decision, but I'm in a better position these days to advise against it.

And at that point it had already been a long time since Rent.
It was seven years, and I was very anxious to get back on Broadway. I had a wonderful career regionally and Off Broadway, and I did some work I'm extremely proud of. But it really wasn't until Grey Gardens that I was welcomed back to Broadway. It was enormously important that I did receive a lot of support for a show I did at MCC the same season I did Never Gonna Dance. It was a Neil LaBute play, The Distance from Here, and it restored my confidence in my ability to direct—because those failures, they really knock you out. For the first time, I felt very much off my game as a director, especially as we moved into those late previews of Never Gonna Dance when everyone was panicking and making outrageous decisions and recommendations about how to save the show.

But your next two Broadway shows, Grey Gardens and Next to Normal, seemed very confident, I think. 
Yes! [Laughs.] Grey Gardens was the one that felt like people could take a chance with me again. That was a wonderful bunch of years. In that Grey Gardens year, I think, I had an article in the Times about directing five or six shows Off Broadway, such as Landscape of the Body—I felt extremely proud of that.

Michael Friedman did the score for that one, right?
Right. Just a gorgeous score. Michael Friedman and I had the opportunity to work on lots of nonmusicals together, and that one he really treated like a musical. I think we did too. And that's why maybe that revival was looked at so freshly.

But it wasn’t an actual new musical like Grey Gardens
When I was hired on Grey Gardens, one of the things that [the show’s writers] Doug Wright and Scott Frankel and Michael Korie really kindly said to me is, “We would love for you to direct this, but we know that on Rent you had a lot to do with the development of the material, and we'd love for you to take us back seat in that area and just direct what we give you to direct.” And I was fully thrilled to do that, because I thought the show was wonderful, and I wasn't being asked to do a lot of new musicals at the time. But I'm happy to say that as we got to know each other, and by the time we moved the show to Broadway, I had lots more input, and more of an invitation to talk with the writers about how the show might be developing.

Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens
Photograph: Courtesy Joan MarcusChristine Ebersole in Grey Gardens

What was your takeaway from that one?
The big takeaway from Grey Gardens was the tremendous advantage of going through a developmental process, because I was with it from the first reading at the Sundance Theater Lab. The material was developed at those labs around that remarkable cast, with Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson. They were so inspiring to the writers; that piece really got built on that group of actors. Doug and Scott and Michael had a really good plan ahead of time, but I also heard Doug say to Michael and Scott, “You write whatever songs you wanna write, especially in Act Two, and I will fashion a narrative around them.” I learned a lot about the organic, raw magic that comes from letting composers write whatever the hell they wanna write—and how deep that goes. I had a wonderful revisiting of that process with Days of Wine and Roses. Adam [Guettel] was given free rein to write what came out of his heart and soul and guts, and then Craig [Lucas] did a remarkable job of funding and seeding those ideas and metaphors. But Grey Gardens was the first time I felt like I was part of a team that I would be very anxious to work with again. 

And you did get to work with those writers again, and with Christine Ebersole, a few years later on War Paint, which also starred Patti LuPone.
Yes. It was really satisfying to work with Christine and Patti, and to see the ways in which they inspired each other and defied expectations to be competitive or to get in each other's way. They did quite the opposite. They were remarkable.

Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James were just stunning to me in Days of Wine and Roses. Brian is perpetually taken for granted because he’s so unshowy in his effects but this felt like the culmination of his Everyman career. And Kelli has just gotten better and better, and this was the most I've ever seen her give onstage, both musically and dramatically. Sorry, I'm babbling now, but it was thrilling to watch her in this part. 
No, it's worthy of babble. They were both astonishing performances. I was invited to join that project with Kelli and Brian already in place. I had spent some years long ago working with Adam and Craig on very early versions of The Light in the Piazza, and I’d been waiting a very long time for them to invite me again. And I had already done Next to Normal with Brian and Far from Heaven with Kelli when I received this invitation. I felt truly honored by the generous spirit that Adam and Craig had in asking me to participate in the last stages of the development of the musical, and especially privileged to have Kelli and Brian's trust to the extent that I had it. We did a bunch of readings, and by the time they were asked to actually inhabit these characters, their familiarity was so deep. The familiarity, and their commitment to the material. [He fights back tears.] I believe that I was helpful, which is gratifying. But the privilege! You know, I remember the first time I staged that motel room scene…[He cries at the memory.]

I understand. It's emotional. She brought so much to that scene. 
Kelli and Adam and Craig had been talking about doing this musical together since Piazza, or soon after Piazza. It was material Kelli really wanted to investigate. I think she always knew the kind of commitment and the dark places it would ask her to visit. And she was up for it! She was asking for it. And she was always asking for Brian to be a part of it, because I think along the way they gained that kind of trust in one another. So, yeah, those are astonishing performances. And even if Days was much more short-lived than it should be, I'm really grateful to our producers for the fact that it got there against all odds. And I'm grateful that the Tony nominators went against a whole lot of in-place lore—about how to help the industry and what these awards are really about—to just say, “These performances were astonishing, and although you can no longer enjoy them, they must be recognized.” 

Days of Wine and Roses
Photograph: Courtesy Joan MarcusDays of Wine and Roses

Speaking of star performances, let’s talk about Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hanson
Yeah. Like Maleah, Ben brings a huge amount to the table, so a lot of my job is editing and shaping. What those young people bring—their interpretive skills, their unique way of looking at dramatic situations—was very inspiring to me. 

There's been a lot of discourse lately about “nepo babies,” and Ben has taken a lot of hits on that front, but in the case of his breakthrough in Dear Evan Hansen it just seems wrong to me. He was so good in that show.
I couldn't agree more. I just couldn’t agree more. And Ben was a part of Dear Evan Hansen before [his father, the producer Marc Platt] was a part of the film version. I believe [Dear Evan Hansen co-creator] Benj Pasek made the brilliant recommendation that we give Ben a try for our first reading. I had actually met Ben earlier because he auditioned for the tour of Next to Normal, but he was just too young to even be Gabe. So I knew of him, and I was excited about Benj’s suggestion. And then when Ben started meeting up with the material, it gave the writers and me tremendous confidence—that the demands of the material could be met, but also that we could ask this lead character to go to remarkable places, emotionally, physically, vocally. Ben could deliver all of those things. So he was also a great inspiration—like the rest of that cast, because that was a very long, wonderful developmental process.

Rachel Bay Jones was so important to that show for me. And of course she also won a Tony for that performance.
Yes, and her recognition is incredibly well-deserved. But I also want to talk about Jennifer Laura Thompson, who was the secret sauce in that musical and doesn't get nearly the kind of credit she deserves. In terms of magical moments of development in my career: The first time that group read any of it—I think Ben was singing a few songs and everyone else was just reading—what happened to Jennifer during “For Forever”…[He tears up.] Sorry. I'm gonna cry again! It was one of those moments where Benj and [co-writers Justin Paul and Steven Levitan] just completely relaxed and said, “Oh my God, we see what this musical could be.” Because of course, they were worried that Evan would seem like just a manipulative kid. But to see the complexity of how he was cajoled into that role by Jennifer's response to that song…

We need to understand that his initial motive is kindness.
You need to see the urgency—of protecting her, of rescuing her. The show’s success depends on that moment. And she showed it to us. We hoped it would be there, but she showed it to us. It was really remarkable, even in a long career of watching great things take shape. 

I know that awards are a little stupid to care about, but I do feel like you should have a Tony Award by now. And you are nominated again this year, in a field that is otherwise all women! You’re the token male director. 
And quite happy being that. Being nominated was a great relief, and I feel a wonderful inclusion in the season. But honestly, I just would really like for these two shows to run. Yeah. That would make me very, very, very, very happy. 

Hell’s Kitchen is playing at the Shubert Theatre. You can buy tickets here. The Notebook is playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. You can buy tickets here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hell's Kitchen
Photograph: Courtesy Marc J. FranklinHell's Kitchen

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