Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Interview with John Fionte

I was blessed enough to get to do an interview with the director of Chicago, which is opening at the Cumberland County Playhouse on July 21st. John Fionte is a very busy man right now, directing Chicago, acting in Duck Hunter Shoots Angel, and directing Little Shop of Horrors. I'm almost positive he's doing ten million other things at the Playhouse as well, but I don't know exactly what those things are. However, rest assured that I was lucky that John had the time to answer these questions for me. :)

*For the rest of this post, anything in BOLD is John Fionte. Anything in regular script is me.

Cara, thanks so much for your energy, enthusiasm and support of "Chicago!" And thanks for your blog, in general... It's always refreshing to discover someone who devotes so much energy to something purely out of love for the art form. And that helps jaded old pros like me remember that we can actually affect others with our work! :)

1. So far, how has the community been reacting to the news that Chicago is coming to the Playhouse?

The buzz that I've heard has been almost overwhelmingly positive... from virtually all demographics. There seems to be a great deal of excitement about the show. If I were to guess why, the reason's probably two-fold: one, the title has HUGE cachet, especially since the movie was released in 2002 (and the show's been running forever in NYC); and two, it's new to our audience, and has an aura of excitement (dare I say edginess?) about it. While I won't pretend that every single person I've spoken to is enthusiastic about it - and it's certainly NOT for everyone (it's edgy, it's sexy, and it has mature themes, situations and language) - anticipation seems very high.

2. I've never seen Chicago (other than the movie) before. What types of things have you changed from the Broadway version?

Well, I've made far fewer changes to the play than the movie did! Actually, I think I've been pretty faithful to the spirit of the original production (which I was fortunate enough to see, WAY back in the day). As a director, I always try to focus on the story that's being told... and I hope that I've made the plot and the characters' journeys central to the production. As much as I enjoyed the film, I felt that it sometimes sacrificed story for the sake of spectacle. In the Playhouse production, I want to give equal weight to both of those elements.

3. Can you give me any info on the set design? I'm anxious to see what ideas you've come up with.

I'll see if I can break away from rehearsal in the next couple of days and snap some photos of the set as it's being finished up. In the meantime, I'll hit some of the main points of the design (and the design process). In some ways, the Chicago set is the exact opposite of my design for A Little Night Music. That set was very specific in terms of its location (Sweden) and its time period (the creative team agreed on 1908), so the backdrop was based on a photograph of an actual birch forest in Sweden, the lines of the set were unmistakably Art Nouveau, and the paint style was based on art styles appropriate to the period, like impressionism. Additionally, the set was in almost constant motion, with set changes being as carefully choreographed as dance numbers, in order to provide a counterpoint to the show's many scenes of Bergman-esque stillness,

My set for Chicago, on the the other hand, is deliberately neutral in its lines and is for the most part, static. There aren't a lot of "set changes," and different locations are suggested by lights, or the addition of simple pieces of furniture, or sometimes just by the way the actors are placed on the stage. The script often specifies the location of a scene as "limbo," so I didn't want to get too literal. Chicago's songs and scenes are in constant motion, so I felt a stationary setting would better suit that visual style.

That being said, I don't want to imply that the set ISN'T impressive! It's huge, has lots of levels, lots of lights... and a deep, richly textured paint treatment (black pearl with gold accents). It's slick, stylish and glitzy... just like the show itself.

4. Costumes. What can you give me about costumes? The time period is very distinct. Please tell me there are a lot of sequins and sparkle.

I can certainly promise lots of sparkle, though I can't promise that it all comes from sequins! Neither the original Broadway production nor its subsequent revivals were particularly bound by period details... I'd say they were more period-influenced than period-specific. That's the case with the Playhouse production, as well. There are lots of elements of the huge costume plot that are very specifically 1920s, but the overall look of the show is more contemporary. And that's a deliberate, thematic choice. As you know, the 1926 play Chicago (on which the musical was based) was inspired by actual people and events. When the musical premiered in 1975, its representation of these people, their behavior, and their reception by the public must have seemed quaint, distant and unusual to the audiences of the 70s. Flash forward to 2011, and those same behaviors (the elevation of criminals to celebrity status, the media reveling in and gleefully detailing "bad behavior") seem neither foreign nor archaic. So our design plot is a bit more neutral, in a (hopefully) subtle attempt to make the story more resonant with contemporary audiences.

5. It's less than two weeks until opening night. What types of things are you working on with the show right now? With sets? In rehearsals? In other areas?

The set is pretty much entirely built and the final paint details should be finished by the end of this week. Rebel and Renee have been sewing their fingers to the bone and their costumes are right on schedule. The show has now been completely choreographed (the primary focus of the past 7 - 10 days), and now my attention will once again turn to the book scenes and the large task of working all of the production's discrete elements into a cohesive whole. My main goal in the coming week will be to get the show functioning like a well-oiled machine, so that when the technical elements are added in the final week, they won't create any distraction or disruption at all. :)

6. Anything else you want to share with us about the show?

Chicago is a great show. It has remained wildly popular for nearly forty years and has been seen by millions of people. And that's not counting the millions more who have only seen the movie. I'm thrilled by the opportunity to help bring it to life on the Playhouse stage. And I'm very grateful for the chance to talk about it with you and share my enthusiasm with your readers.

Thanks to John for taking the time to answer my questions. You may want to check out the official blog for the Cumberland County Playhouse. It's fairly new, but I have a feeling will have some great information on it as time goes by.

Chicago is playing at the Cumberland County Playhouse from July 21th thru October 7th. You can purchase tickets online by clicking HERE, or by calling the Playhouse at 931-484-5000.


  1. What a great interview, Cara. I've never seen Chicago on stage either :( but I really enjoyed the movie. I wish I lived close enough to come see the Cumberland County Playhouse production!

  2. Oh, but Karen, you need to go see it w/ me in NYC! I can't ever get anyone to go with me. Everyone's already seen it! :D

  3. We are ON for next time you come!!!! Yay!