There's a wise adage that if a play or movie moves you, it's because "the mix worked." The Webster University Conservatory has found the right mix for its student musicals with a professional triad that includes director David Caldwell, music director Neal Richardson and choreographer Ellen Isom. Because Caldwell lives in New York, while Richardson and Isom live here, they only work together when Webster unites them. Two years ago they delivered a magical Violet; last season, an exuberant A New Brain. This week their third collaboration, Bat Boy, begins a two-week run. Prior to rehearsals, they sat down together to discuss their unique partnership.
Dennis Brown: Ellen, what does Neal bring to this mix?
Ellen Isom: I can't even say what Neal knows about music, because he knows everything. He is the nicest one of all of us. Yet if an actor comes to rehearsal not knowing his music well enough to be able to sing it in character, or if he ignores something Neal has said about breathing, Neal becomes passionate about what he wants.
Neal, what does David bring to the mix?
Neal Richardson: That's easy. David can be very articulate about what he wants musically. At the same time, he's receptive about listening to me if I say something about why a song isn't working in the dramatic area. It's a very pleasant experience. There's something about the three of us working together that is so easy. My stress level is much lower on these productions.
David, what does Ellen bring to the mix?
David Caldwell: She listens to what I want conceptually. She takes my ideas, then she goes away and works on it and always comes back with more than what I expected. For instance, in A New Brain there was a number called "The Law of Genetics." In the New York production, that song was really boring. So I said, "Can we do it like a Fosse number?" The next time I saw it, it was done. Which is really helpful to me, because I don't know how to execute that. I only know what I want. Both Neal and Ellen know how to execute what I want. At the same time, it's just as Neal said: Nobody steps on anybody's toes, but nobody sticks to their own area. Then about two weeks before it opens, we all come together on the same page with our vision for the show.
On Violet, how did artists who didn't know each other mesh so well?
Caldwell: I think it was just fear. I was thrown into Violet very quickly. I had never been here. I relied on Neal and Ellen to guide me through. It helped that Violet is a perfectly written show. A New Brain is not a perfectly written show. That production was more challenging. Bat Boy is more challenging still. It's really clever. But if you don't care about the people, it can become a passionless bag of tricks. That could be fun if you want to go to a midnight Halloween show. But I think it can be much more than that.
Richardson: Bat Boy is a really smart piece. I loved New Line's production. It's my favorite thing I've seen there. But I know we'll bring something new to it.
Is it a dance show?
Isom: It's not really dancing; it's a concept dance show. But I like doing non-dance musicals better than dance shows, because it removes the pressure. I don't have to beat myself up trying to do something technically fantastic. Instead I can help David tell the story.
Now that you're accustomed to working with each other, do you approach this third musical differently?
Isom: We had a meeting.
Caldwell: On Violet and New Brain I arrived in town right when we started, so we never talked about the shows that much. But this semester I'm also here as an adjunct professor, so we did have a preliminary meeting, though it was pretty short. We realized we were in agreement, so we started talking about other things.
Richardson: If nothing else, that meeting just confirmed the trust that we have in each other.