How Michael Greif Directed 3 Broadway Musicals in a Single Season | Playbill

How Did I Get Here How Michael Greif Directed 3 Broadway Musicals in a Single Season

For the 2023–24 season, he's overseen The Notebook, Hell's Kitchen, and Days of Wine and Roses.

Graphic by Vi Dang

It's been an extremely busy year for four-time Tony nominee Michael Greif, who directed (or co-directed) three of the new musicals that are part of the jam-packed 2023-2024 Broadway season.

On that impressive list are Hell's Kitchenmarking the Broadway songwriting debut of Grammy winner Alicia Keys (Shubert Theatre); The Notebook, Ingrid Michaelson and Bekah Brunstetter's musical adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' novel with co-direction by Schele Williams (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre); and the short-lived Broadway run of Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas' Days of Wine and Roses after an acclaimed Off-Broadway engagement in 2023 that also starred Kelli O'Hara and Brian d'Arcy James (which played its final performance March 31).

It's the latest illustrious credits in Greif's long career, which includes being Tony-nominated for four markedly distinct Broadway classics: Jonathan Larson's ground-breaking rock musical Rent (1996); Grey Gardens (2007), the musical version of the Maysles documentary about reclusive mother and daughter Big Edie and Little Edie Beale; Next to Normal (2009), an intense look at a grieving mom with bipolar disorder and the effects on her family; and Dear Evan Hansen (2017), Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Steven Levenson's high school-set musical that became a star-making vehicle for Ben PlattRent and Dear Evan Hansen, it should be noted, also earned the Tony for Best Musical, while Rent and Next to Normal went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Greif has also directed numerous productions Off-Broadway and around the country, including The Low Road, Fucking A, Dogeaters, Giant, Machinal, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…, Our Lady of Kibeho, Landscape of the Body, Angels in America, A Parallelogram, Make Believe, Far From Heaven, Spatter Pattern, and Man in the Ring.

In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—the gifted director explains how's he's processing the early closure of Days of Wine and Roses, and how he managed to direct three musicals in a single Broadway season.

Maryann Plunkett, Joy Woods, and Jordan Tyson in The Notebook Julieta Cervantes

Where did you train/study?
Michael Greif: I studied theatre and something wonderful called oral interpretations (which is now called performance studies) at Northwestern University, and I was able at that time to study both as an actor and also as a director. Fortunately for me, the focus of most of those oral interpretation classes was how to interpret and adapt non-dramatic material for performance, which meant I was simultaneously the writer/adapter, as well as the director and performer. It proved to be really great training as a director. I also got a graduate degree in directing from the University of California San Diego. 

And when I was 16 years old, I had a summer acting class at Circle in the Square, and Kevin Bacon was in my class!

Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor standout?
As an undergrad, among many, many essential teachers, Frank Galati really stood out. He was inspirational because of the degree of honesty, simplicity, and bravery he demanded in performance and the simple, straightforward depiction of events he encouraged in directing. There was a humanity and a depth of feeling that he elicited when he was directing or encouraging any performance. 

Then I had a very different, but also extraordinarily valuable, experience working with Alan Schneider in grad school at University of California—San Diego. He taught me that there are some fundamental tools that directors could hold on to, the same way that actors held on to actions and objectives. He really made very clear the relationship to writers that I've come to enjoy, and also the imperative of the director's role in being a link from the writers to the actors, and the link from the writers to the actors and to the audience. 

As a grad student, I had the great opportunity to assist Des McAnuff at the La Jolla Playhouse on many productions. He was an invaluable mentor and great supporter, who employed me as a co-director at the Playhouse with Bill Irwin when I graduated, and eventually as the director of many touring and international incarnations of his production of Big River.

Schele WIlliams and Michael Greif Michaelah Reynolds

This has been an extremely busy time for you with Days of Wine and Roses, The Notebook, and Hell's Kitchen opening on Broadway. How have you managed such a busy season?
A lot of careful planning, scheduling, and flexible producing in the last 9 to 12 months made it possible for me to do all three this season. I've had incredible support in all of these productions—wonderful producers and wonderful associates and wonderful collaborators, and they've made it all possible. I'm very fortunate that each of these productions was a second investigation of shows that I had already directed in earlier incarnations. 

And perhaps, most importantly, in the case of The Notebook, I had a fantastic co-director in Schele Williams, who I was able to share responsibilities with. Sometimes that allowed me to be in two places at once, quite literally. Schele was minding the store, and so I could be at another store. [Ed's note: Williams was also minding multiple stores this season since she also directed The Wiz].

What were the challenges and rewards of co-directing The Notebook?
An initial challenge in working with my very esteemed colleague Schele was finding a way for us to have a completely united front when talking to the actors, designers, and other collaborators. And then in time, as we gained trust (both in each other and in our actors and collaborators), we found it was possible to honestly speak to each other when we had a difference of opinion, and then find a way—in the same way we collaborate with all of our partners—to find the best answer and go the best route. The rewards are so many. 

Apart from just the scheduling and knowing I could leave The Notebook in Schele's extraordinarily capable hands, I found having a partner—someone to discuss and evaluate issues on a regular basis—was very enlightening. I've learned so much from Schele about how to interpret material, how to communicate with actors, and, most of all, how beneficial it was to have another respected and trusted perspective to add to my own.

Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara in Days of Wine And Roses Joan Marcus

How do you deal with disappointment when a musical like Days of Wine and Roses ends its run earlier than expected?
I hold on to the incredible good fortune that it got to Broadway at all, and think about the many, many thousands of people who got to see it at Studio 54 who didn't see it at the Atlantic. And I relish the opportunity to reinvestigate it with the writers and the actors; to be able to re-rehearse something once you've had the opportunity to see it on its feet and know how an audience responds is always a tremendous, tremendous advantage. To be able to rehearse for the Broadway iteration at Studio 54 gave us possibilities in a physical production that we all really relished. And we all came to discover that Adam's score soared in that house in a way that made it the right environment for that musical.

Michael Greif and Alicia Keys in rehearsals for Hell's Kitchen Joan Marcus

Can you share a favorite moment working on Hell's Kitchen with Alicia Keys?
Seeing Alicia respond favorably to the adaptation of some of her biggest hits into very different, very specific dramatic situations has been very rewarding. With Kris Diaz's always shrewd participation, we've rethought "Fallin'" and "If I Ain't Got You," among others, into dramatic situations that I think work really well in the musical. Also, there was a time rehearsing at the Public when I got to present and share a big, newly staged section of the show to Alicia for the first time, and her enthusiasm was extremely gratifying. 

And, of course, the first time Alicia got to see and appreciate Camille Brown's amazing work on “Gospel” and “Kaleidoscope” were highlights of this process.

What made you decide to become a director? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
When I was a senior in the New York City public high school system, I was offered the opportunity to become an intern at a professional theatre. I spent six months working with the technical director building sets at Manhattan Theatre Club, and that afforded me the opportunity to see the kinds of productions that I didn't really know about or have access to before that. It was a tremendous education. 

While I was at MTC, I not only got to see shows there, but at The Public Theater, Playwrights Horizons, and The Public's productions at Lincoln Center. Until then, I'd mostly experienced theatre coming into Times Square and seeing musicals with my family, but this was the first time I was seeing plays as well. Ashes at MTC, Streamers and The Cherry Orchard presented by The Public at Lincoln Center really blew my mind. It was also around this time that I started seeing A Chorus Line an awful lot, and that show taught me so much about how to structure content. The shows I saw and the experiences I had during that time in my life still have a profound impact on how I approach my work.

How did you get your first job in the theatre?
My first job in professional theatre was as the assistant director to Jack Hofsiss on a musical called Poor Little Lambs by Paul Rudnick that featured my old summer-acting-class friend Kevin Bacon. When it transferred commercially, I stayed on as the prop master. Just a year later, when I was a grad student at UC San Diego, I was the house manager at La Jolla Playhouse for about a month, and then got that great opportunity to assist artistic director Des McAnuff on many productions, beginning with Romeo and Juliet.

What do you consider your big break?
My big break was a revival of Machinal that I self-produced with my friend Jodie Markell in 1989 at Naked Angels theatre. Joe Papp came to see the show at the suggestion of Kevin Kline (who came to see it via my friend David Warren, who worked at The Public). Joe then offered me an extraordinary year-long opportunity at The Public to become a resident director and have the opportunity to direct three plays. Machinal, I think, is the reason Jonathan Larson and [former New York Theatre Workshop Artistic Director] Jim Nicola offered me the chance to direct Rent, because they'd admired the production as well. Most things in my professional life have come from Machinal and the opportunity that Joe Papp gave me.

Tell me about a time you almost gave up but didn't.
Just before that meeting with Joe, I began to think it was time to start thinking about a different career. I'd been out of grad school for a few years, had worked a bit regionally, even had a well-received production at the New York Theatre Workshop's New Directors series. But job offers weren't coming, and I starting to think that this might not be the path for me. I got very tough and good advice from Michael Weller while I was an assistant director at La Jolla to self-produce if the work wasn't coming. 

Thankfully, with funds I'd earned working on Big River, I was able to follow that advice, self-produce Machinal, and everything changed after that.

Photos: The Notebook on Broadway

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