It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

By staff November 1, 2007

The Asolo Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, Michael Edwards, is having his own personal “best of times, worst of times” moment. Tomorrow he begins rehearsals for his first Broadway production, the musical version of A Tale of Two Cities. It’s that career milestone that most directors only dream of, particularly one born in a little Australian town to a big working-class family. And Edwards’ first season at the Asolo has been an unqualified success. He likes the town and the town likes him. Even his personal life is humming along; his eight-year relationship with actor/producer Mitchell Mills is stronger than ever.

He seems so calm and focused. As he sits in his subleased Greenwich Village apartment on a sunny Sunday morning, he examines the model of the show’s set one more time. That is, until Mitch yells from the kitchen to leave it alone, he’ll break it.

But if there is anything Edwards has learned from his study of Dickens’ classic novel about the French Revolution, when the divine right of kings was overthrown and God himself was insulted as a whole new world order came shakily to its feet, it’s that the best of times and the worst of times often occur at the same moment.

He suddenly finds himself in charge of a $12 million musical—traditionally the theater’s hardest genre—that has never been done before. Each season, approximately 10 to 15 musicals open on Broadway. Two or three become hits. The odds are stacked against him.

Likewise, his producers are Broadway neophytes. True, they are theater people, and highly successful in various other fields, too, but this is their first show on Broadway. The composer and book writer, Jill Santoriello, has never had a play done, much less a Broadway musical. The star, James Barbour, is embroiled in a messy legal situation involving the unseemly charge of child molesting. And last night Mitchell, in a subplot that would be comic relief if it weren’t so painful, put a Q-Tip through his eardrum and had to be rushed to the emergency room.

Michael stares at the model of the set and focuses his attention on everything the show has going for it. First of all, the set itself. Designed by theater legend Tony Walton (he’s won an Oscar and three Tonys and was once married to Julie Andrews), it is indeed spectacular, consisting of shifting scaffolding that can be moved around, a la Sweeney Todd, and gorgeous painted backdrops lit in intense blues and reds. Michael instinctively knows that the set solves a complicated problem—with 27 scenes taking place in two different cities, the audience must always know where they are. The music, likewise, is lush and gorgeous, in the tradition of Les Miz. As it should be—Santoriello has been working on it since she was in high school, and it has been recorded once and presented in several concert versions. Michael’s cast is A-list Broadway, but with a contemporary twist—Derek Keeling, who was runner-up on that television competition to play the lead in Grease on Broadway, is playing Charles Darnay.

And then there’s the story. With 200 million copies sold, it certainly has stood the test of time. It’s got revolution, a guillotine, a famous love triangle, immortal lines (“It is a far, far better thing”), the Bastille, Madame Defarge knitting her scarf, etc.

All he has to do is tell the story, Michael keeps telling himself. That has always been the mantra of his directing career.

Tell the story.

Michael Edwards’ own story begins with a painfully shy boy in Ballarat, Australia, the oldest of seven children. His father was a farmer who also worked for the post office. What he wanted most for his kids was a good education.

Michael was sent to a nearby Catholic boys’ school, and it was there, taught by the Christian Brothers and the Jesuits, that his character was formed. For a time he planned to go into the priesthood. “It seemed very glamorous and exciting,” he says.

Both the Jesuits and the Christian Brothers are famous for educating the church’s intellectual elite. They teach the classics and practice a ruler-on-the-knuckles type of discipline. Michael thrived in this atmosphere. He saw the teachers as being “like Miss Moffatt [the strong-willed heroine of the play The Corn Is Green], passionate about their subjects.” And the discipline? Not necessary with Michael. “I was a saintly boy,” Michael says, shuddering at the memory.

The struggle of his early years, he sees now, was the constant effort to overcome his shyness. He was articulate on paper: “I could write but I could not speak.” Team sports compounded his anxiety, but he found acceptance in the Sea Scouts. Sailing became his obsession and his confidence builder. It’s an interest he wishes he had more time for these days in Sarasota.

Michael discovered his self-confidence and the theater all at the same time. His best friend and roommate in college was trying out for a rock musical based on Lysistrata. The year was 1970; and rock musicals were all the rage, although Michael had never seen one, or any musical for that matter. While the roommate’s motive for auditioning involved a girl he was interested in, Michael’s says his was mostly curiosity. But he got a part in the play, and when the finale came and the cast, in the manner of rock musicals in those days, flung off their clothes to express liberation, Michael gleefully joined in. Overnight, everything changed. As his mother said when she came to see the production, “And to think you were too shy to become an altar boy.”

But Michael’s gift for directing didn’t become apparent until he was out of college and teaching high school. As part of his duties he was assigned to direct a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, with a cast of 80.

“It was a sensation,” he recalls. “It changed my life.” He got a grant to study in England, and ever since he has been busy working on one show or another. There was a stint in Los Angeles, another in New York, directing for the Metropolitan Opera; and he was associate artistic director at Syracuse Stage just before he came to Sarasota. But he was also at a point in his life where the constant traveling and guest directing weren’t as satisfying as they had been. He found himself not looking so much for a job as for an artistic home

Yesterday Michael had his last regular appointment before rehearsals begin. It was with Amy Schecter, a New York casting director, and it mostly concerned Asolo business. Juggling his commitment to the Asolo and his responsibility to A Tale of Two Cities is now the major factor in his life.

Back in 2005 Michael was offered the Asolo job and directing A Tale of Two Cities, both at the same time. He knew that whichever one he chose would determine the next phase of his life. It never occurred to him to do both. That was the Asolo board’s idea. It was their canny plan to not so much do both as combine the two, to the Asolo’s benefit. A Tale of Two Cities would open at the Asolo, in a sort of hybrid arrangement with the New York producers. The Asolo run would function as an out-of-town tryout. It was an arrangement the Asolo had flirted with back in the days of former artistic director Meg Booker, with disastrous results. Would it work this time? It wasn’t just a hit on Broadway that Michael had to pull out of his hat, but a hit for the Asolo, and the two things are by no means the same.

Michael and Amy have known each other a long time and have worked on many shows together. As they discuss possible actors for the upcoming Asolo season, the comments come fast and uncensored.

“He’s a little old for it,” Amy points out of one actor.

“But he’s sexy,” Michael shoots back. “And he can handle the language.”

Another name comes up and once again, the age issue.

“I don’t know how old she is,” Amy says. “I just know how old she looks.”

Sometimes the problem isn’t age.

“I don’t love him. He’s tiny. He’s a mosquito.”

But for every criticism there seems to be a compliment, and both are clearly in awe of a good actor and what he or she can bring to the success of a production. They bemoan their loss of four people to job offers from other Broadway shows. “They’re pinching our cast,” Michael moans. It’s a real problem. “There is only a finite number of amazing voices,” he points out. “And we need amazing voices.”

And then they gossip a little. Amy fills him in on “the Joan Rivers project.”

“It’s being written just for her and it’s about the red carpet experience,” Amy says. “I hear it’s going over sensationally in San Francisco.”

“But then,” Michael points out, “how could it not?”

The meeting concludes. Amy wants to get an early start for her birthday weekend in Provincetown. In fact, she’s already dressed for the beach, in shorts and a T-shirt. “You have to go walking at night and take in the O’Neill vibe,” Michael advises her. Provincetown, Mass., was long the home of Eugene O’Neill, who wrote, among other things, Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Then he remembers another O’Neill fact. “He died getting dressed for a rehearsal, you know.”

Mitch’s earache is getting worse.

He and Michael met during a production of Julius Caesar. Michael was directing and Mitch was playing the Soothsayer. He has done more than act, though. He worked as producer and stage manager for the Echo Stage and is now serving as a consultant to A Tale of Two Cities, functioning as Michael’s right-hand man.

Many of the great men of the theater are gay, and Michael follows firmly in that tradition. Noel Coward, Michael Bennett, Ian McKellen—they don’t all necessarily call attention to the fact, but it is part of who they are. In the past Michael has turned down jobs in towns he felt would be unwelcoming—another reason he’s delighted with Sarasota, where their relationship has been accepted without comment. He and Mitch even danced together at an Asolo black-tie gala.

It’s definitely a spousal relationship. They moved out of a chic high-rise in downtown Sarasota because they wanted something cozier. For now that’s a townhouse in the northeast part of town, a nice middle-class neighborhood that’s not in the least fashionable. But it has a beautiful view of a small lake and they have their own swimming pool, so private they can go skinny dipping.

The two were scheduled to go to the country today, but Mitch has decided to stay home and nurse that eardrum in the bedroom of the sublet, which overlooks a perfect Greenwich Village garden complete with weeping willow tree. And Michael will head up to Dutchess County for his friend Melissa Kievman’s party.

This particular day in the country places Michael and the Asolo in a world that is becoming more important to both. It’s the hip part of contemporary American theater, quirky and special, populated with actors and directors on the verge of big-time success.

Melissa Kievman personifies this group. She’s from Northwestern University’s theater program and is currently associate artistic director of New Dramatists, a company known for nurturing new American playwrights. Michael is attending not just as a friend but as her future boss. She is arriving in Sarasota in December to direct a new Australian play for the Asolo entitled The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead.

Today, though, she and her husband, Brian Mertes, also a director, are hosting what is quickly becoming a New York theater tradition. Ever summer they put on a Chekhov play with a cast of friends, all top-notch professionals, then present it for one performance only for their neighbors and friends who come up from the city. The setting is their back yard, which faces Lake Lucille in Rockland County.

The drive is much shorter than Michael thought it would be, and he arrives in plenty of time. With his picnic lunch and blanket, he looks around for a familiar face. There are a lot of people there; more than 300 by the hosts’ count.

He spies a man waving at him. It’s his old pal, Bob Moss, from Syracuse Stage. Well into his 70s, Bob is still going strong, teaching and directing around the country. He’s a fixture in the world of the theater, founder of Playwrights Horizons. “Bob is either the oldest young man of the theater or the youngest old man,” Michael explains. “We can’t figure out which.”

Like all theatrical directors in their idle hours, Bob and Michael gossip. They gossip about the new production everybody is talking about, what actor caused a sensation here or there, how difficult it is to work with so and so. They are remarkably well matched; Bob is Michael 20 years from now, an elder statesman loved and respected and still very much deferred to.

The play begins. We watch the cast assembled around Melissa’s big back yard. They seem to be dozing. It’s a hot day, in the 90s, and their costumes, vaguely Russian and rural, seem hot and layered. Looking up at the house, I see a girl in a window. Is she part of the play? Chickens wander by. One by one the cast wakes up as if from their after-lunch naps, and the play begins.

Michael has been worried he won’t be able to concentrate on the play, but as Uncle Vanya begins it becomes clear that what is happening is theatrical magic. The cast is perfect—the sort of actors you recognize immediately but can’t quite place. You saw them on this Law and Order or that CSI. Uncle Vanya is played by Bill Irwin, himself a legend in the theater. He began his performing life as a clown, of all things, and is now one of the most sought-after actors around, recently starring with Kathleen Turner in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Wonderful things happen. Rural Russia of 100 years ago comes to life, made universal by the heat and the outdoors and the skill of the performers. It starts to rain—hoses have been attached to the trees. A mud fight ensues. The doctor says goodbye and pedals off on his bicycle, only to reappear three minutes later on the other side of the lake, waving and tooting his horn.

Michael finds himself engrossed. His deepest concentration goes to the characters and the way Chekhov develops them, the layers and the colors the playwright endows them with. Uncle Vanya is Chekhov’s most character-driven play, and with his band of losers stuck out in the country, he creates a great deal of genuine heartbreak. Can Michael do this with A Tale of Two Cities? Can he give it this kind of depth? Can he make it resonate this strongly?

Tomorrow morning it all begins. In what is known as a “beat breakdown,” Michael and his staff will meet with the actors in a rehearsal, and together they will go over every line of the play, so that everyone is totally clear on what is happening and in sync to tell the story that Michael must make clear. Not just clear, but incandescent and emotional and unforgettable.

But that’s tomorrow. For now he sinks deeper and deeper into the Chekhov, a warm bath of challenge and inspiration.

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