Last Friday afternoon, Scott Schwartz had much to discuss — self-admittedly.
Bay Street Theater was just one month from its official summer kick-off, the artistic director explained, and with a jam-packed season ahead, he did not want to skip a thing — from the annual benefit gala finding a new home at Wölffer Estate Vineyard, to the fresh comedy series, children’s theater camps and workshops, to the Mainstage season setting the pace all that’s to come.
“We’re really, really jazzed about this summer. We think it’s going to be one of our best ever,” he said. “All of the projects we’re doing have A-list artists working on them, they all have people that you really can’t see anywhere else doing work that’s first-rate.
“Bay Street is a home for the performing arts here on the East End — not only in the summer, but of course all year long — and we’re so happy to be able to be this beating heart of live performing arts in the center of Sag Harbor,” he continued. “And we can’t wait for the community come and join us, all summer long.”
Schwartz caught up with The Sag Harbor Express to dish on the three productions anchoring the stage — “The Prompter,” “Safe Space” and “Annie Get Your Gun” — as well as the talent that will shine on and off it.
The Sag Harbor Express: How do you go about forming a cohesive summer season?
Scott Schwartz: Basically we start with the plays and musicals we’re going to produce. I keep a running list in my office of titles that I’m considering and that people have suggested to us as possibilities. I like to call artists that I know and admire, often people who have worked at Bay Street before, and see what they are interested in and what they would like to work on.
I’m a big believer, as an artistic director, in programming artist-led work and letting artists do the things they’re most passionate about. There’s a yearlong process of gathering ideas, and then at a certain point, usually one of those ideas gets set. Then I start to think about the most diverse and broad season as possible. Each play and musical has its own voice and is a different experience than the last. I want the audience, if they come to our full season, to feel like, “Wow, I’ve seen so many different things,” and the commonalities are that it’s always going to be the highest quality, it’s always going to be working with A-level artists creating great work, and often, themes emerge that we’re exploring over the course of the season.
Are any themes emerging yet?
Schwartz: Funnily enough, I feel the things that will emerge won’t emerge until we actually get into production fully and we’re seeing how all these shows are being experienced by the audience, and what people are taking away from them.
But one big theme is new voices and new vision. That’s a major theme from this year. We’re doing two new plays as the first two shows of our season, and I recently discovered they are actually the first plays produced by both of those writers. So not only are they world premiere plays, each of the writers of “The Prompter” and “Safe Space” are young writers and this is their first professional production. And they’re both incredibly talented young men, and they’ve written very interesting plays.
How does “Annie Get Your Gun” fit into the Mainstage season?
Schwartz: It is not a new play, but one of the great musicals of all time, with this fantastic Irving Berlin score. And, with that, we have a very new vision of the show.
The director, Sarna Lapine — she did “Frost/Nixon” for us last season, beautifully — said she wanted to bring “Annie Get Your Gun” into the 21stcentury, meaning she wanted to reexamine the show through a contemporary lens, a much more “woke” lens and from the perspective of woman’s empowerment.
The show, traditionally, does not feel like a show that’s about women’s empowerment, but Sarna had been working on it for awhile before I spoke to her, and she’s been given permission by the writer’s estate to use an original script written by Dorothy Fields, that was written before Irving Berlin even got involved. And that script actually has a much more progressive view of women and women’s power and women’s role in society that didn’t ultimately make it into the final version of the show because of the era in which the show was written.
So it will be an “Annie Get Your Gun” that really puts the focus on Annie’s power and is celebrating the growing power and influence and liberation of women during the period in which the show is set.
Why lead the season with “The Prompter”?
Schwartz: It’s this wonderful, exciting, backstage journey. It’s an insider’s view of what it is to do a Broadway show, all the way from first rehearsal through the Tony Awards. And you meet these two incredibly wonderful characters — Wade, who is played by Wade Dooley, the writer and clearly is based on him, and Irene Young, who is a great star played by Tovah Feldshuh, a truly great actress.
Irene is returning to the Broadway stage for the first time in 40 years, and she discovers she cannot remember her lines anymore. So the production has to hire a prompter, which is the person who, through an earpiece, says the lines to the actor, so the actor knows what to say next in production.
It’s funny and it’s a love letter to the theater, but it’s a love letter that takes the rose-colored glasses off. You see what it really means to work in the theater, not some fantasy version of it. I thought that was a great way to start. It’s a play for theater lovers, it’s a play for anyone who has a grandmother or a grandson, or a mother or a son. It’s a play about an older woman who’s very powerful but very complicated, and a very young man learning how to get along. I think that’s a story for anybody, whether or not you’re into the theater. It’s a wild romp and I thought that would be a fun way to get into the season.
How does that transition into “Safe Space”?
Schwartz: “Safe Space,” by Alan Fox, is a very different kind of play. It’s hard-hitting, it’s edgy, it’s fast, it’s about very contemporary issues and it’s very of-the-moment. It’s a play about political correctness and triggers and the concept of safe spaces on university campuses.
Lord knows if you read the papers today, every week there’s some article about this — about this young generation and how they’re confronting the world. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful for our audience to be able to see a play that’s really talking about the issues, which are central to America and particularly education in America today?”
It is a drama, but it’s fast, it’s furious. It has a crackling energy to it. It also has a very diverse cast and explores race in America today, which is, of course, of vital importance. The center of the story is about an African-American professor at an elite Ivy League-esque university, who is accused of racism by an Asian student. The president of the university, who happens to be a Jewish woman, gets involved. And these three different races, who come from very perspectives about many of these issues, have to confront each other. When I first read it, it was a page-turner. I couldn’t put it down, I was riveted by the whole thing.
Outside of the Mainstage season, what are you looking forward to at Bay Street this summer?
Schwartz: We have our Music Mondays series, which is all of July and August. Pretty much every Monday night, there is a concert on our stage at 8 p.m., and we have just amazing artists coming to perform.
I love all of them, but a couple of the highlights for me are Linda Lavin, the Golden Globe winner and Tony Award winner; LaChanze, who won the Tony Award for “The Color Purple”; John Lloyd Young, who played Frankie Valli in the original “Jersey Boys;” and some friends of mine, Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo, are going to be doing a concert. To have Pat Benatar on our stage, I mean, come on. I’m so excited. I can’t wait. And they’re doing a special project with us.
Oh? What project is that?
Schwartz: Pat and Neil have been working on a musical, which is a version of “Romeo and Juliet” that incorporates their songs into the story. So you have “Love is a Battlefield” and “Invincible” and “Shadows of the Night.” You name it — if it’s one of their great songs, it’s in that show. And we’re going to be doing an “Under the Stars” concert of this piece, which right now is called, “The Romeo & Juliet Project,” because it doesn’t have a final title yet.
It will be concert staged reading of the whole show in Mashashimuet Park on August 16 and 17, and it’s free for the entire community. Anybody can come and see wonderful actors perform there. Pat and Neil will be here all week working with us; it’s gonna be a really exciting time. They’ll be there in the park, and I’m wondering if we might be able to lure them up on stage after the show, but I can’t promise that.
What I can promise is: It’s an amazing new musical, and you get to hear all their great songs incorporated into “Romeo and Juliet,” which is one of the greatest stories ever told.
For the full summer season at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, visit baystreet.org.