Murder for Two's director keeps his audience in stitches and suspense
(http://nypress.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Celeb_Production-Photo_opt.jpeg)There is no mystery to directing a successful musical. Scott Schwartz, the director of the new Off-Broadway show, Murder for Two, combines all the elements a theater audience craves - suspense, romance, humor, and, most importantly, superb acting. There are only two actors on stage the entire time, but the audience is kept so entranced, they almost forget this theatrical feat. One of the reasons for that is actor Jeff Blumenkrantz, who plays all 13 murder suspects. In mere seconds, he transforms from a cranky married couple, to an uptight ballerina, to the victim's clueless wife. No costume changes are necessary, only the skillful use of voice inflection. Reacting to all of Blumenkrantz's personas without missing a beat is Brett Ryback, who plays the eager, young detective on the case. Besides remembering all their lines, the pair also recalls every note to the piano duets they play onstage. The melodies are reminiscent of vaudeville, but Schwartz adds modern touches, such as the detective's distracting cell phone ring, making the show a clever mix of the best of both worlds.
Your actors have great chemistry. Did you know that they would?
I have to tell you, I feel like the luckiest director in New York. [Laughs] We cast two actors who were great for their individual roles, but they were never in the room together until we got into rehearsal. As far as I know, they did not know each other and they just ended up having this fantastic chemistry. I think that they legitimately quite like each other in life, ant that really shows on stage.
What are the challenges to directing a one-act musical?
(http://nypress.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/sidebar3.jpg)You need to really keep the show moving. You want to keep changing, so it really feels like a full experience for the audience in this really tight 90 minutes.
Originally, it was only supposed to run for 10 weeks. How did you feel when you heard it had been extended?
I was just thrilled. I've so loved working on this show. Initially, when we started it up at Second Stage uptown, it was only supposed to run four weeks. And then it extended up there a couple of times. It's just been like "the little show that could." People seem to be having a really good time. I'm just so happy that people are responding to it.
Can you explain Second Stage Theatre?
It's a wonderful not-for-profit theater that produces throughout the year. Their main theater is in midtown. In the summer, they do something called Second Stage Uptown where they do two new plays, or in this case a new musical, by young writers who haven't had a major production in New York City yet. The idea is to give new writers the opportunity to be seen here. This past summer, Murder for Two was actually the first musical they'd ever done as part of their uptown series.
Did you know Jeff before he auditioned?
I hadn't. I'd known his work because he's a very accomplished actor. He's also a wonderful composer. Interestingly enough, both of our guys are composers in their own rights. I've just adored working with him. He's so daring and brave, and also so modest and kind of willing to try anything. He works really, really hard too. It's quite technical, the performance he's giving. The ability to change character so quickly and frequently is really an unusual challenge for an actor and he keeps that fresh and specific.
The actors were obviously already piano players, but did you train them in any way?
Frankly, when we were casting the show, that was really one of the requirements. We started rehearsals with a week of pure music time. All they did was work on the music and practice it. In addition to just learning how to play it, was memorizing it, which was a huge task. And they have said that that was the most challenging of all - memorizing all the music, because normally you have sheet music in front of you. It's so impressive what they do every night up there.
The stage is decorated with weapons from the board game Clue. Whose idea was that?
That was our set designer, Beowulf Boritt. The basic idea of the show is that it's on a bare stage and these actors are making it up as they go along. Obviously, that is not actually true, but there are improvisational moments in the show. Part of the fun is that it feels a little bit like Saturday Night Live.
You even have a volunteer from the audience dragged on stage as the second victim. Is that real?
That is really a volunteer. That person is different every night. We don't know who it's going to be. It's literally in the moment. They just pick someone out of the audience. Usually, the people are pretty cool about it. Every once in a while, we'll get somebody who will refuse to go up, but that's very rare. Most of the time, people enjoy it.
I read that you said you never laughed so hard in rehearsals before.
Oh, it was so much fun. I mean, it was a lot of work, with a lot of technical stuff that we all had to figure out, but mostly in rehearsals we made each other laugh. We had a great time.
You graduated from Harvard. How did your studies there prepare you to become a director?
I actually studied psychology and English. I studied a lot of theater text and theater writers. In terms of psychology, people always say a director needs psychology because it tells you how to deal with people. [Laughs] I think it's less that, and more helping me understand and focus on the psychological underpinnings of characters' motivation and the relationships between characters.
Have any famous Broadway people been in the audience?
I know Stephen Sondheim came to see it when we were in our other run.
You live on the Upper West Side. What are your favorite places in the neighborhood?
I love Isabella's up on 77th Street and Columbus. I also love Café Frida, the Mexican restaurant.
Do you have any funny stories of unexpected things happening on stage?
I will say that one of the great things about live theater is that it's different every night. Normally when I'm directing a show, I hope that everything goes exactly as planned and that there are no mistakes or problems. But with this show, particularly at Second Stage when we were first getting started, it was kind of great when something would go wrong because it caused the actors to deal with it. And these two guys are so good at dealing with the unexpected, that it adds a whole extra layer of humor. It's the only show I ever directed where I actually hoped something went wrong. [Laughs]