A Conversation With Richard Stafford, Director and Choreographer of the Walnut Street Theatre’s Production of ‘Mamma Mia!’

Published: Monday, May 14, 2018 By: Steven Brodsky Source: Entertainment Culture And More

We Came across this interesting article about Richard Stafford, A FAVORITE DIRECTOR/CHOREOGRAPHER here at WBT:

To say that the music, reach, and success of the music of ABBA, and its spawn Mama Mia! (the theatrical and movie musicals) are phenomenal would an understatement. ABBA’s win with “Waterloo” at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest helped catapult the group into international pop stardom. They went on to rank among the very top of the all-time international record sales charts. The group just announced that they’ve recorded two new songs—generating lots of attention, and anticipation by fans. A sequel to the movie Mama Mia! (released in 2008) will be out this summer. Meryl Streep and others from the original movie are in this one. Cher is on the film’s cast list.

One of the most successful theatrical musicals ever is Mama Mia! It’s an exuberant celebration of ABBA songs. Richard Stafford is director and choreographer of the Walnut Street Theatre’s upcoming production of Mama Mia! Many of our readers are familiar with Richard’s prior work at the Walnut Street Theatre. He’s been associated with 13 productions there. Among them are: Saturday Night Fever, Sister Act, Memphis, Curtains, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Beauty and the Beast, Cats, The Goodbye Girl, La Vie en Bleu, and Evita. Richard won a Barrymore Award for Outstanding Choreography/Movement for his work on the Walnut Street Theatre’s La Cage aux Folles. He won an NYMF Award for Excellence in Choreography for Pearl Theatre’s Castle Walk.

Richard, what are you most enjoying about this production of Mamma Mia!?

The discovery has been an amazing journey for me. When I approached the piece, I was, initially, cautious because it is, by now, an iconic piece—the most critically and commercially successful of the “jukebox” musical. (It superseded Jersey Boys.) Once I jumped into its world, however, the entire pre-production period was a giddy whirlwind. Once we had the cast together, they added the missing element— a complete commitment to the world, the music, and the life of the characters. This collaboration has been such a treat and thoroughly enjoyable. 

  Richard Stafford

Can you tell us about some of the challenges that you are guiding the cast through?

One cast member commented (on social media) that she hadn’t really thought much of the show before, had put it in a category of “oh, that’s just Mamma Mia!—fluff and silly,” but once she began rehearsals and dove into the zeitgeist she was a convert. I think this is the mindset of many performers if they haven’t had the opportunity to do the show before. Sort of a case of the piece needing to reel them in. I started us off by saying to the cast: “Let’s be honest. Let’s let the ABBA music and the story communicate through our own unique voices. Let’s have a great time.”

For me as a director and choreographer, the challenge also was keeping the action focused. It’s an easy show to just throw staging and steps at and not connect the dots. Myself and my truly beautiful associate Kristyn Pope (you can’t miss her in the show) have worked hard to connect the dots.

I understand that this production features original choreography. Please tell us about it.

Glad you asked! This brings me back to my associate, Kristyn.  We have worked together on many shows and this was the culmination of many years of hard work. A year ago, when we first auditioned in Philly for performers for the production, we spent an hour developing motifs and ideas for the dance audition. (We have sort of a shorthand when we work together—finishing sentences and dance ideas like a married couple!) It needed to be challenging as I wanted a lot of technically-based choreography in the show—more so than the original. I added a sort of wave motif with the arms swinging overhead and cascading down. This motif looked so fluid and beautiful on Kristyn (she has beautifully expressive arms and torso), and we developed it further as we went into pre-production a month before going into rehearsal. I wanted to choreograph the overture and I envisioned our group of dancers creating the Aegean waves and seashore. Kristyn really helped flesh this out in our collaboration. I also felt it important to nod to Greek folk dance in the “Money, Money, Money” number and Greek mythology in the “Under Attack” number. These people dance!

Please talk to us about the creative process that generated this choreography.

I’ve spoken about the Greek influence and the “wave” motifs that drew me in but what I haven’t mentioned is the ’70s influence. Yes, disco was king and partner dancing—hustle and the such—was big when ABBA wrote these songs. I wanted to make sure we referenced that in a large way and it jumps out in “Voulez-Vous” which is the Act 2 closer. It is Sophie’s free-for-all bachelorette party which the guys have crashed. I really wanted everyone to find a partner and dance at different times.  It is also a tricky number because it is interrupted with important scenes. As the end of the act number, it could never dip. The partner dancing behind each scene helps keep the whole party spirit buoyant and energized.

The reprises at the end of the show and the introduction of one final ABBA tune were such a blast to put together. We referenced earlier numbers, added some new steps, patterns and beach balls! Everybody dances!

Mamma Mia! is a high energy musical. When rehearsals end and live audiences are in attendance, performers will be fortified by audience response. Speak to this.

It’s one thing to work together for 3 weeks getting the show worked out in the studio and then heading into the theater for tech rehearsals (adding in costumes, lights, orchestra, scenery) but quite another when the energy of the audience—the final element—joins us. What a kick. It’s a funny, fun, twisty musical with real pathos and complications. I’m interested, always, in what the audiences get and what they might miss. There are always surprises but I feel if we’ve told our story right, the audience will really be with us. I can’t tell you how this lifts the actors. It’s why we do it.

It’s been reported that over 60 million people have attended performances of Mamma Mia! The musical play has been translated into 22 languages. For those who might be in a cultural vacuum, tell us about the ingredients that make MammaMia! so incredibly successful.

Sophie, who lives on a Greek Island with her mother Donna (a single mom), is getting married. Sophie has discovered her mother’s diary and reads that she has, in fact, 3 possible dads. She invites them to her wedding, hoping to find her true dad who will walk her down the aisle. But her mother mustn’t know she’s invited them. They arrive the day before the wedding, along with Donna’s friend’s Tanya and Rosie. These 3 were hippies in the ’70s and had a girl band called the Dynamos. Much happens as Sophie tries to learn the identity of her dad and Donna relives her past with these 3 guys (spoiler alert: there is a wedding in the end!). There’s much discovery about identity, friendship, and love.

When did you first start to fall in love with theatre?

Age 7 from the fifth row mezzanine of the Tivoli Theatre in Chattanooga. My mother has brought me to the bus and truck tour of Hello Dolly starring Betty Grable. When she and the cast sing “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” I am smitten (and hooked). 

What encouraged you to pursue a theatrical career?

My amazing parents were very supportive. My mother took me to piano lessons starting at age 6 and at age 11 I saw an ad in the Pennysaver for tap classes and begged to go. There I was with 4 other little boys, all in our patent leather tap shoes learning the flap and the shuffle. Weekly, another boy would drop out till it was just me. This was my beginning. My father had a job which took us to London for my senior year in high school. My drama teacher, Sally Jones, taught me all she could about serious drama and what better place to be for that than London. However, I also saw Lauren Bacall in Applause from the balcony of the Drury Lane Theatre and knew that I loved musicals and wanted to be a part of that world. I spent two years at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts and then hit NYC. There I’ve stayed and continue to learn as I take classes just like in the old days.

Of the roles that you’ve played as a performer, which ones have been the most significant to you?                               

I got my Equity card playing Ambrose Kemper in a dinner theatre production of Hello Dolly starring Dorothy Collins (An Evening Dinner Theatre in Westchester, now called Westchester Broadway Theatre, where I’ve directed 16 shows and preparing to do my 17th this summer). This was significant because of my earliest theatre experience. I was in the ensemble and played small roles in a summer tour of George M! with Joel Grey who is such a master of the stage. To work with and learn from such a pro was a thrilling experience. I was also in the 1st national tour of On Your Toes starring Leslie Caron. Like Joel Grey, I was so honored and eager to learn from her and would watch all her scenes from the wings.

Tell us about the master classes that you’ve taught and about some of the other teaching work you’ve done.

I have always taught master classes throughout my career but only occasionally and never with much commitment. Then in 2014, it came to me that I really did have something to say, something to pass on and something to teach. I was invited to teach a master class series at STEPS studio in NYC (where I began studying in NYC when I first arrived!). I developed a theatre dance class and taught 2 classes a week for 4 weeks. At the end of the series, I knew I wanted to really make this a part of my life. I’ve since developed tap and ballet classes and guest teach at STEPS, Broadway Dance Center. Marymount Manhattan College, and NY Film Academy. I also teach master classes in dance studios around the country. It is a thrill to teach the young kids something new (theatre dance) and pass on what I have learned. And I continue to learn and grow.

In your own arts education, what experiences have been most helpful to you?  

I spent two years studying theatre and dance at the University of Tennessee. In those days, there was no musical theatre department and the dance department was under the category of “Phys-Ed” so one had to really WANT to marry music, dance, and theatre. There was no guidebook and no real role models then, we were making it up as we went. This has helped me problem solve and work quickly on my feet. For example, the “Mamma Mia” number—I left it to the very last of pre-production and did it all on paper. It’s the title number, comes early in the show and is used (cleverly) to show Donna’s state of mind when confronted with her 3 lovers from the past. I worked through each section and had a blueprint of entrances and exits, motivations, and patterns. It is a complicated number, needs to be exciting, tell the story, honor the title and move like the wind.  Oh, and it involves virtually the entire cast. It’s my early, scrappy training that helps me with numbers like this.

What are you most valuing about directing and choreographing this production of Mamma Mia!

The show seems to engender a comrade-like atmosphere in the rehearsal room and a thrilling creative openness. And these exciting, strong women! I get to watch and experience this and it makes me love performers all the more. I left every day of rehearsal feeling uplifted and humming the tunes. Also, I'm loathed to admit that during the ’70s I was a David Bowie fan and more into the overtly disco-oriented music of the time. I knew and liked “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo” but didn’t know much else of the ABBA explosion. I feel really fortunate to be able to go back and relive those days with a new soundtrack

What do you do to relax and unwind on off-hours during the rehearsal period for Mamma Mia!

I am an avid runner and love exploring new areas of Philly.  Philly has so much to offer in the way of culture—amazing museums and galleries.

Also—repeats of The West Wing!

The website address for the Walnut Street Theatre is www.walnutstreettheatre.org.