This Director Is Bringing Classic Musicals Into the 21st Century

May 12, 2020

Growing up in Louisiana, Lear deBessonet fell in love with movie musicals. “That’s where my access to theater came from—that, and my mother at the piano,” she says.

Now, deBessonet, who was recently named the next artistic director of New York City Center’s Encores! performance series, starting in 2021, will get to revisit some of her old favorites. This month, she was scheduled to direct a thoroughly modern Thoroughly Modern Millie, choreographed by Camille A. Brown, that confronted the original’s troublesome Asian stereotypes. The run was canceled due to COVID-19, but deBessonet’s vision remains as relevant as ever.

Which musicals deserve a new life?

“Encores! is not about reviving the 20 most well-known shows—it’s about celebrating the parts of the canon that may not be as well known, shows that have glorious scores but may have complicated books that have aged less well.”

“There has to be a real driving reason behind why we program the things that we do—what the conversation is that we’re inviting the audience into. I’m interested in reviving something because there’s an artist who sees something vital in this piece that they want to explore.”

How she decides what to update—and how:

“I am not of the opinion that we should always change or remove material that is upsetting to our current sensibility. You do have to be clear on what the intent of the original creators was, and be clear on what your intent is. Take South Pacific—I wouldn’t want to take the very teeth out of that show. That show is about racism.”

“One question I’m asking myself is how I’m making musicals relevant for the 21st century. For me, it’s about who the artists are who get to make the decisions. If a show originally had an all-white and all-male creative team—which many of these shows had—it feels really important that there is mindfulness around who is going to be at the table for the revival.”

“For Millie, I’m not Asian, and I would not presume myself to be the authority on what the portrayal of Asians in that show might feel like to an Asian person. That’s why I had Ashley Park playing Millie and playwright Lauren Yee and Phil Chan as advisors to the production—people who could speak with authority, people I could listen to.”

What her creative process looks like:

“When I’m directing a show, I collect a lot of imagery that becomes an inspiration pot for me. It’s usually photos or paintings, but it might also be that I saw a commercial for chewing gum, or remember the faces of the crowd during a political rally, or the Olympics—it could come from anywhere. I will have a very strong, visceral impression of what the energy of the event of the show should feel like, and I try to find a combo of photos and videos that match that energy. I share that vision with all of my collaborators—I try to have everyone eating the same meal.”