Extra! Extra!: More Q&A with Joe Mantello

Photograph by Hayley Sparks

This week's issue of the magazine includes a candid interview with Joe Mantello, in which the director—who is currently helming Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, which started previews last night—shares his thoughts about acting, star casting and the frustration of working on shows in the age of instant Internet outrage. But Mantello also said a lot of other interesting things that we could not include in the article because of limited space.

Enter our newest semiregular Upstaged series: Extra! Extra!, in which we supplement articles from the magazine with bonus material. (Think of it as all the news that didn't fit in print.) In today's inaugural edition, we continue our conversation with Mantello. Among the topics we cover: the possible Broadway future of the acclaimed staged reading of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, in which Mantello returned to acting in October; his thoughts about working with Baitz, his erstwhile romantic partner of 12 years; his preference for certain kinds of actors; and the process of working on his biggest hit to date, the Broadway musical Wicked. All that and more...after the jump.

Time Out New York: You and John Robin Baitz were a couple for a long time, and now you are not. What are the advantages or challenges of that history as you work together on Other Desert Cities?
Joe Mantello: I think of it as only advantages, really. Obviously, there's a shorthand there, there's a trust, there's a respect and a deep, deep love. I want this play to be great because I love Robbie, and I think he trusts me with this play because he loves me. In some strange way, he's been the easiest collaborator that I've ever had—and I've had some pretty easy collaborations. He's really smart in the room, he's not territorial about the writing and he's a lot of fun. So what's not to like?

After the reading of The Normal Heart, directed by Joel Grey, there were rumors of a fuller production coming to Broadway down the line. Is that still a possibility?
I think they're still trying to keep it together. I don't know that they're thinking it would be a full production, but maybe something very close to what we did, that would both be the premiere of the play on Broadway and also a fund-raising kind of thing for the Actors Fund and Friends in Deed.

Sort of a limited-run, semi-staged, Al-Pacino-in-Salome kind of deal?
Yes, that's exactly what it is—Daryl Roth produced that too. So it would essentially be a kind of reading-performance of the play, very simply done. I think they're still trying to do it, but a complicated set of things has to fall into place.

The Normal Heart has always struck me as Ibsen with a shriek—like An Enemy of the People at a higher pitch. Now that Kramer's urgency about AIDS is less immediate, do other aspects of the play come to the fore?
That's interesting. It's a very intense play, but as the world changes you have a different experience of it, and I think that Joel was really smart about stripping the play of its naturalism. It was just a bare stage and this group of actors doing this play to this audience, and it was an incredibly powerful experience. Because the play is so unadorned—it's strangely not very poetic. It's blunt and straightforward. Having been inside it and tried to play it, sometimes you feel like a mouthpiece for data—but then you hit something and soar from it, because it's so immediate personal, it's so intense and so raw. Just when you think you can't hear one more fact or figure, he'll do something extraordinary that's like a punch in the gut.

And of course, there really are people who do have those facts and figures at their disposal about the one issue that they've been staying up nights about. So although essayistic writing often bothers me in plays, it doesn't as much in The Normal Heart—even though parts of it are clumsy.
I think he would admit that parts of it are clumsy. He was in the middle of it, and he didn't have the luxury of time.

It also seems to have been written in a rage—not just about AIDS but a more personal rage at being ousted by the Gay Men's Health Crisis.
That's all there, but I think he also paints a very accurate portrait of himself in that character. The character is difficult, but is self-aware enough to be able to say, "I know I'm an asshole." Yes, he's heroic, and yes, history has borne out that he was right about a lot of things. And maybe he was also self-serving and maybe there were lots of other things going on, but isn't that the very definition of a fascinating character onstage?

Did Wicked change very much in response to its pre-Broadway production in San Francisco?
It did change a lot out of town—as much as we could do in the three months we had off. Not enough for some people, maybe, but at that point the show is the show. We did three years of workshops, and we did a lot of work over the years; the final version is very different from the script that we received. Is it perfect? Absolutely not! But there was an audience for Wicked, and our producers were smart enough to reach that audience.

There's a lot that I like about Wicked, and it's very canny: It's got a classic underdog musical-theater heroine type combined with a seemingly villainous type who isn't really a villain in the end, so every girl seeing it can identify with one of them.
It's a great idea for a show. The authors took very difficult source material—kind of brilliant source material, but not something that you would think, "Oh, that's a musical"—and they turned it into a musical. And I think they haven't been given enough credit for that. It works on some level. It really does.

I also feel like maybe having Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth in those parts at the start kind of stamped them with extra personality.

Yes, yes. But we've certainly never tried to do carbon copies of either of the two original women. I've seen so many different incarnations now—

How involved are you in putting in new casts?
I started all of the U.S. companies from scratch. And one of the great things about the show is that it can take a lot of personality. Not everyone who plays Glinda is Kristin Chenoweth; there's only one Kristin Chenoweth. But Megan Hilty and Kendra Kassebaum are remarkable in a completely different way: These are women with lots of personality, and neither one of them gave Kristin's performance, or were asked to give Kristin's performance. As a director that's more interesting to me. If I'm going to go and do these productions—and I want to—then I want to be inspired in the room by something that somebody's bringing to it.

Are there actors you get along less well with?
I know there are different kinds of actors, but I tend to have less effective relationships with actors who have a very private process—who really need to do lots of internal work, so that I become merely a witness until they're ready to share. I think there's been this kind of bastardization of process—this idea of, "Oh, I can't possibly learn my lines until I know what I'm doing, because then I'll be set in a kind of a pattern." I think: Bullshit! If you know your lines and you're a good actor, you'll have four weeks to really rehearse the play and go deeper and deeper, instead of three weeks where you're trying to get it under your belt technically and then a week to scramble. And then we're making something every day, not indulging a process that says, "Stay out, I'm not ready yet." I do know that there is value to that, and I can compromise; but at a certain point if nothing's going on, nothing's going on. And by the way, that's not a judgment—I know it's just a different way of working. But my preference is for people who come to rehearsal and get into the ring. I like a muscular actor who's playful.