A Wonderful Chat with 'Wonderful Town’ Director Mary Zimmerman

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Chicago’s Goodman Theatre is taking on the Big Apple with its revival of the Leonard Bernstein musical “Wonderful Town” directed by Tony Award-winner Mary Zimmerman, who I had a chance to interview.

Janet Arvia: “Wonderful Town”  (which  follows two sisters who go to the big city to make it as a writer and actress) takes place during the 1950s with source material stemming back to the 1930s. How relevant is the story today?

Mary Zimmerman: For me, the idea of leaving home to see if one can actually realize one’s dreams—especially one’s hopes of leading a creative, independent life—is a situation that is very familiar and rather eternal for the young. In fact, I think that a story of two young women setting out to make it on their own, away from home, relying on each other, is actually rather forward-thinking for its time…There’s no punishment for the girls, no suffering for them for being independent and brave. They are rewarded.

Speaking of rewards, congrats on your recent Jeff nomination for directing “Treasure Island.”  I know you’re no stranger to awards. In 2002, you were the third woman to win a Tony for Best Direction for your adaptation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Since then, other women have taken home the statue, unlike the Academy Awards, which still has only one woman to win. Do you feel there are more opportunities for female directors in theater opposed to film?

Traditionally, one can self-start in theater more easily than in film—although that may no longer be so much the case given the new cheaper, more accessible technologies of movies. Theoretically anyone can do what I did, rustle up my friends to be in plays in my backyard, etc. That’s how I began.

Since then, you’ve directed many genres of theater, from drama to opera. How do classic musicals enter into the mix?

I am drawn to challenges—to doing things I haven’t done before. That was very true with the opera projects, with site-specific work I’ve done, and with these golden age musicals. Most theater directors my age would have, by now, done many a musical—it would be old hat for them—but for me it is new. The particular challenge of “Wonderful Town” may be in the book—the snappy delivery, the endless one-liners; and in how to create a sense of bustling, chaotic, but enchanted New York City in the design.

Here, in enchanted Evanston, you teach performance studies at your alma mater Northwestern University. Any advice for aspiring writers and performers?

Produce yourself. Don’t wait for someone to offer you anything. Force your friends to do something with you in some basement for two nights at 11 p.m. That’s how you learn…Those early self-produced experiences may be fiascos, but they are such rich, rewarding experiences.

To experience Wonderful Town,” which opens Sept. 20 and performs through Oct. 23 in Goodman’s Albert Theatre, visit GoodmanTheatre.org

(Photos by Liz Lauren)

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Ms. Arvia is a freelance writer, former filmmaker, artist and Janet-of-all-trades who is pleased to serve as Arts & Culture Editor on our magazine since she’s always been Rebellious.

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