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Despite his great vitae, Broadway director Jeff Calhoun says he’s always doubtful about each new project.
“It’s a miracle that any show is made, really. Along the way, so many things come up that seem absolutely insurmountable,” he says.
With his current production, the musical “Violet” now playing at Ford’s Theater, he had reason to be skeptical.
As a Ford’s associate artist, Calhoun plays a role in selecting what works he’ll direct. He and Ford’s Artistic Director Paul Tetrault both liked the 1997 musical “Violet.” Based on Doris Betts’ “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” “Violet” is the story of a disfigured woman’s journey across the still mostly segregated early 1960s South in search of a televangelist’s healing miracle. Along the way, Violet meets two young soldiers (one black, one white) who help her realize her own beauty and strength.
While Calhoun and Tetrault agreed that “Violet” could be the ideal Ford’s spring musical, other decision makers weren’t on board. According to Calhoun, they were concerned about language, the interracial romance, but mostly that the show didn’t have an instantly recognizable name like “Hello Dolly!”
“Of course, we were disappointed,” says Calhoun who lives in Manhattan with his husband. “But then Paul [Tetrault] saved the day by moving ‘Violet’ to the winter slot where demands for economic success aren’t as tough as those placed on spring musicals. I commend Paul for sticking to his guns and producing the show despite the challenges.”
Typically associated with his splashier gigs like the hit musicals “Newsies” and “Disney’s High School Musical,” Calhoun likes the quieter, more introspective productions too. “Violet” is one of these. “It’s not like other love stories. Don’t expect to see two spotlights hit the boy and the girl and to hear violin tremolos as they break into a love song,” says Calhoun. “Every scene is a surprise. Some embrace that and others are challenged by that.”
“Violet’s” score (music by Jeanine Tesori [“Caroline, or Change”] and lyrics by Brian Crawley) is equally unusual. An amalgam of blue grass, gospel, country and rock, the score, says Calhoun, is “sophisticated rural.” It’s also, he attests, one of the most thoughtful, beautifully composed scores he’s encountered.
For prior efforts at Ford’s — “Deaf West’s Big River,” “Shenandoah” and most recently “The Civil War” — Calhoun, 52, drew on New York talent. But “Violet’s” cast is comprised entirely of locals: Erin Driscoll in the title role and James Gardiner and Kevin McAllister play the soldiers.
“It’s no longer necessary to look outside of D.C.,” he says. “The talent pool here has gotten that good.”
Calhoun grew up near Pittsburgh playing football and tap dancing. He dropped out of Northwestern University to tour with Tommy Tune’s “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” A year later he was cast in the chorus of Broadway’s “My One and Only” starring Tune and Twiggy. For two weeks late in the show’s run, he stepped in to understudy for his vacationing mentor Tune, and then never acted again. “I wasn’t good enough,” he says matter-of-factly. “Before every performance I’d get physically ill. I knew I was fooling audiences and it had to stop. So I closed the door on that and moved on.”
His passion for directing blossomed at Deaf West Theatre, a Los Angeles company dedicate to blending spoken and sung English and American Sign Language together on-stage to give audiences a compelling storytelling experience.
“’Violet,’” says Calhoun, “will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like an outsider due to race, sexual orientation, being deaf, whatever … it doesn’t matter. It’s about self healing and self acceptance and coming to terms with the cards you’re dealt and making the best of it. Not looking outside for validation.”
In the fall, Calhoun directed “Maurice Hines is Tappin‘ Thru Life” at Arena Stage starring Maurice Hines. It’s essentially a celebration of Maurice and his late brother Gregory’s life in dance, but like “Violet,” it touches on segregation issues too. “Ford’s,” adds Calhoun, “is an ideal venue ‘Violet,’ and for anything dealing with the disenfranchised or civil rights, and race issues. The history of the building and the box looming over you gives a subtext that you won’t find in any other theater.”
Looking ahead, Calhoun says upcoming projects include a musical adaptation of Priscilla Presley’s life with Elvis. (“The score is being written by a blonde lady you might have heard of — Dolly Parton.”) He’s also doing a play with dance based on the dramatic scandals surrounding Russia’s Bolshoi ballet in recent years. Both productions are in very early stages of development. “My career is eclectic,” Calhoun says. “Each new project is rarely indicative of anything I’ve done in the past. It keeps things exciting.”