By Patrick Pacheco | May 4, 2015 | Culture
Diane Paulus directed three Tony-winning Broadway musicals—the revivals of Hair, Porgy and Bess, and Pippin—before she started work on Finding Neverland. Dress, Narciso Rodriquez ($1,195). Bloomingdale’s, 1000 Third Ave., 212-705-2000. Gold chain cuff, Salvatore Ferragamo ($820). 655 Fifth Ave., 212-759-3822. Brass Crinkle ring, Jennifer Fisher ($275). 103 Fifth Ave., 2nd Fl., 212-625-2380. Jacket (on chair), Giorgio Armani ($3,775). 717 Fifth Ave., 212-339-5950. Earrings, Paulus’s own
When Diane Paulus was studying for her MFA at Columbia University, Andrei Serban, the legendary director who was her mentor there, told her, “There are two kinds of directors: the kind that bakes chocolate chip cookies and brings them to rehearsal and the kind that doesn’t.” Decades later, Paulus recalls the definition with a laugh, adding, “I’m definitely not a chocolate chip kind of girl! I’m pretty strong-willed. I demand full attention and commitment.”
Those requirements apply as much to her role as artistic director of the prestigious American Repertory Theater, a post she has held for seven years, as they do to where Paulus finds herself now: directing Finding Neverland, the hotly anticipated $15 million musical based on the 2004 film about writer J.M. Barrie and the creation of Peter Pan.
Indeed, Paulus’s rigorous style appears to be just what the play needs as it heads to Broadway. When Hollywood magnate and lead producer Harvey Weinstein approached Paulus about taking on Neverland—he had by that time jettisoned his entire original creative team—she watched the movie with her two daughters, Katharine, 6, and Natalie, 10. They were taken with the behind-the-scenes drama, laden though it was with the anxiety of Barrie’s loveless marriage and the traumatic death of a mother. “That story felt relevant and emotional to me and my kids,” Paulus says. “I immediately sensed that the emotional impact of the show lay with those children and in particular the transformative journey of the young Peter.”
She was further energized when she heard the contemporary pop score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, which she felt could be successfully grafted onto a Victorian-era plotline. “I’m always looking for that hook, that collision of things that creates a combustion,” says Paulus, who got her first big career break in 1999 with the Off-Broadway hit The Donkey Show, a disco-inspired interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As she sits in the balcony of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where Finding Neverland was about to begin preview performances prior to opening on April 15, Paulus, 48, is a striking figure, with piercing almond shaped eyes and long black hair cascading around her shoulders. Dressed in tight black jeans and a sweater, she calmly surveys the hive of activity below as workers move around the set pieces that will re-create Barrie’s Victorian world, which is upended when he meets the Llewelyn Davies family and the four boys who would inspire his classic tale. Collaborating with artists from other milieus—pop star Sara Bareilles, poet Cornelius Eady, jazz and classical cellist Diedre Murray—dovetails with Paulus’s fiercely populist belief that theater must expand its definition. “I want to push the theater form as far as it can go,” she says. “I always gravitate toward those moments in artistic history when someone had the vision and the courage to push a boundary.”
That’s been true of almost all the projects that have made Paulus one of the most sought-after theater artists working today. After years of directing experimental, operatic, and regional productions, she ventured onto Broadway for the first time five years ago with the revival of Hair, the 1968 counterculture musical, which she followed with Broadway revivals of Porgy and Bess and Pippin. Each of them won the Tony Award for best revival of a musical, with Pippin earning Paulus the Tony for best direction of a musical—only the third woman accorded that honor, after Susan Stroman and Julie Taymor.
At first glance, Finding Neverland may not seem quite as revolutionary as her previous shows. But for Paulus, it is her greatest, and perhaps most personal, challenge yet. “It’s about an artist who has something bigger and deeper and more powerful inside of him that hasn’t been unleashed,” she says. “He comes to realize that childlike abandon is what he’s been suppressing [in his art], and these kids, this ‘hurricane force,’ unlock it for him. Unless you shock and risk and change, you won’t innovate.”
Paulus’s iconoclastic spirit was forged early on while growing up in Manhattan, the product of what she calls a most “miraculous” relationship. Her father, Laurence Paulus, a producer for CBS, was just a “jovial GI” when he met and married her mother, Teruko Uchida, in American-occupied, post-World War II Japan.
After attending the Brearley School, Harvard, and Columbia, Paulus briefly flirted with politics before driving herself on all cylinders into making theater in the then-impoverished precincts of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At her side was Randy Weiner, her high school sweetheart, muse, and now husband of 20 years. “That was boot camp,” she says of those threadbare years. “I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t been producing shows out of a shopping bag. You learn to develop entrepreneurial skills or you don’t survive.” Paulus’s career has been on an upward trajectory since then, but she says it took her husband to point out that it really began to take off when she had children.
Paulus says Weiner has been an invaluable partner in raising their children—“He’s a brilliant producer, but if he had his way, he’d spend all his time with our daughters”—and she includes them in her work as much as possible. “It’s such a big topic for women,” Paulus says. “Now that you’re a mother and have all these responsibilities, how do you manage a leadership working life? But I’m grateful to be in a field where you can only be as good as you are as a person. Having kids has enriched my life as an artist.” Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St., 212-575-9200
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