May-June 2015 | Featured Article

Interview: The Broadway Hit Makers from Montgomery

Michael Mayer and Dick Scanlan talk about their road from Montgomery County to Broadway

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Times Square is only a little more than 200 miles from Bethesda, but it can be an elusive destination for people hoping to strike it big on Broadway. Director Michael Mayer and lyricist Dick Scanlan, award-winning talents who grew up in Montgomery County, have conquered the Great White Way and are frequently sought after by producers of Broadway musicals.

Lyricist Dick Scanlan (left) and director Michael Mayer, shown here in Times Square, have been friends for 40 years. Photo by April Saul.

The two have been friends since they met 40 years ago at age 15 while singing in the Montgomery County Chorus, now known as the Montgomery County Youth Chorus. Mayer, who attended Woodward High School, and Scanlan, a student at Thomas S. Wootton High, bonded when they were cast as members of the street gang Jets in Wildwood Summer Theatre’s disco production of West Side Story in 1978. The Bethesda theater company, which was founded in 1965 by Walter Johnson High School students, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Both men went on to great acclaim. Scanlan, 55, a three-time Tony Award nominee, helped Motown Records founder Berry Gordy write the script for Motown: The Musical, a smash hit now touring worldwide. Scanlan also wrote the script for a new version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which is likely headed for Broadway after its Denver premiere last fall. And he and actress Sherie Rene Scott wrote the Broadway musical Everyday Rapture and created Whorl Inside a Loop, a theater project inspired by their teaching experience at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Sullivan County, New York.

Mayer, 54, who won a Tony Award for Spring Awakening, has directed a string of Broadway blockbusters, including American Idiot, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, and a Las Vegas-themed Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera. He’s also directed stars including Neil Patrick Harris, Robin Wright, Colin Farrell, Billie Joe Armstrong, Harry Connick Jr., Kristin Chenoweth and F. Murray Abraham on the stage, in film or in TV dramas and comedies.

In 2002, Mayer and Scanlon collaborated on Thoroughly Modern Millie, a hit on Broadway and in London’s West End.

The two men, both of whom now live in Manhattan, spoke with Bethesda Magazine about their childhood love of local record stores and the early influences on their careers.

Dick, you say that your mother helped you determine your career choice when she bought you a Motown record at Dart Drug in Bethesda.

DICK: There were two things my mother did. She forced me to see The Sound of Music movie before I started kindergarten because the entire Ursuline Academy [a Catholic school where his mother taught physical education] was going. Usually when Ursuline Academy would go on a field trip, if I didn’t want to go, I stayed at the convent with the nuns. But in this case, even the most decrepit nun, even if one was in an iron lung, was going to see The Sound of Music.

Then, about a year later, we were at Dart Drug and there was a Supremes Greatest Hits, Volume 1 and 2, a double album set. I had no idea who the Supremes were. I just was intrigued by the girls in the dresses on the cover. And it was on sale, two albums for the price of one. My mother guessed it was a good deal, so she bought it.

Michael, when you won a Tony Award for Spring Awakening, you mentioned in your acceptance speech a present your parents had given you.

MICHAEL: It was very significant, and I think it was from a Korvette’s [a discount department store]. The Judy at Carnegie Hall album was on sale. I was obsessed with Judy Garland ever since I saw The Wizard of Oz, which was the truly most transformative experience of my young life. I woke up one morning and there [the album] was on my pillow.

My parents had an important, though small, collection of original Broadway cast recordings, which I devoured once I understood how to use the stereo. That included Carousel, Man of La Mancha, Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story and Hair.

DICK: My parents didn’t have a record player until I saw The Sound of Music. They saw my response. I was a different person when the movie ended. I literally found my future. My parents were book fanatics, and they made a decision that a record had the same value as a book. They had a policy that if any of their five children wanted a book, they bought it. They just extended that to records and bought me a cheap record player.

What were your favorite places to find music?

MICHAEL: Waxie Maxie’s at Congressional Plaza had show albums there. Davis Library [in Bethesda] had a great, great show tune collection. I used to steal albums from them, I have to confess. After a while, I just took them. I had to have them.

DICK: For me, it was, hands down, Record Town at Wildwood Shopping Center. [My mother] would just drop me off. Maybe, not always, she would give me a blank check and I was allowed to buy one record. When I first started to go, I couldn’t fill out the check. The woman who owned Record Town would be behind the counter, smoking. She’d fill it out. Then they began ordering records for me. She would call the house to say to come in. It would be such a big deal to go get it.

They understood that I took it very seriously. They weren’t like, ‘Oh, how cute that the little kid loves records.’ And when I was flipping through, particularly the show tunes, the Supremes and the Beatles sections, it was probably not a good idea to talk to me because I was in my trance. Even though I was looking at the same records I looked at every time, they were endlessly fascinating to me.

MICHAEL: Isn’t that true, Dick? I would look through the same ones, over and over again. I remember so vividly when I found the album of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. That blue cover, with the words and the clouds disappearing in the distance? I was so intrigued by the cover art that I took it home. I signed it out [from the library]. Did you do this, Dick, where you would listen to the show over and over and read the synopsis?

DICK:  Yes, over and over.

MICHAEL: I started to feel like I was actually seeing the show. I’d have almost a visual experience in my head, completely substantiated only by the two or three photographs of the original production.

DICK:  In black and white, usually. One of the first four records that my parents bought me was My Fair Lady. It’s all about language and the power of language to transform a life. I learned it all phonetically because I was 5 years old. So I was just memorizing these words based on the sounds. I would ask my parents what certain words meant. I have to think that had a profound impact on my relationship to language.

So you met when you both sang in the Montgomery County Chorus?

DICK: We were second tenors. The Montgomery County Chorus purportedly had the best singers in all the county high schools.

And then you both were in a show produced by Wildwood Summer Theatre.

MICHAEL: They were doing West Side Story. Dick and I saw each other at the audition and we both got cast as Jets. We were in rehearsal together, constantly, all summer long and we just became inseparable.

DICK:  There’s usually one or two people in a company that you recognize has a shared view of what’s happening in the room. You realize that they’re sizing people up exactly as you are. They’re figuring out who the really smart person is, who is quiet, who is the one who talks all the time, what the director’s real abilities are or aren’t, etc. And remember, we already knew each other. But this was going through an experience that was intense, as rehearsals always are.

Michael, you once said this was the all-orthodontia version of West Side Story. Is that true?

MICHAEL: I don’t remember!

DICK: It probably was true, but more than that, it was the disco version.

MICHAEL: We made it a current time period, which was 1978. So we all had big hair. And we all wore those leisure suits.

DICK: Made out of polyester. We did it at the Rockville Mall. There were so many stores that had [left], including the police department.

Apparently the Rockville Mall wasn’t up to their standards, so they left for other digs. We took over the whole office suite and transformed it into a theater. It was very peculiar. We rehearsed at that little Episcopal church across from Wildwood Shopping Center.

But the actual production was where the police department had been.

MICHAEL: In the basement, that is.

What did you think of the arts opportunities that were available when you were growing up?

MICHAEL: Gosh, back in the day we had things like County Chorus and a dance class in high school that I could take instead of phys. ed.

There was a multidisciplinary special program at Walter Johnson. It was Mr. Caputo, the band teacher from Woodward, an acting teacher from another school and the chorus teacher from W.J. Everyone did everything: music theory, singing, dancing and acting.

DICK:  I definitely availed myself of what the Montgomery County schools offered, but even more impactful was the training I got at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington. That was really sort of my artistic home. They had a thriving theater department and music theater department. The theater felt to me very professional and very elegant.

Do you think today’s students have the same opportunities that you had?