First Wives Club is honored to have someone with the background and expertise of Elizabeth Williams on our production team. Elizabeth left a career in academia to follow her passion for theater.
We couldn’t possibly describe the extent of Elizabeth’s contribution over many years to Broadway and the global world of theater, so we asked Elizabeth to share her insight with us.
You’ve got such an impressive background in archaeology and art history. I was watching an interview that you did with Robert Lapone when he was the Director of the MFA Drama Program at The New School for Drama, New York City. You talked about how you got into production with Les Miz.
Elizabeth: That is the musical that takes me away the most rapidly, just a few bars of that score and that story. That’s why I am involved with theater. I blame Cameron Mackintosh, and my friends Karen Goodwin and Hank Kates, at Mutual Benefit for having taken me away from academia. I just became completely besotted with Les Miz after we raised a third of the capital for its launch at the Barbican in London and didn’t go back to teaching when it became such a great big hit.
I haven’t been able to accompany my husband, Joe to Europe where he goes in the summer in quite a while. I am hoping to go back for a few weeks (or a month!) to be with him there. We were academics together, having met at graduate school at Columbia.
Being so well rounded and having such a world view must play into your work as a producer and what kind of projects to take on.
Elizabeth. It’s a lot about story and narrative theme and the archetypal imagery within the story, and how the music and the story interrelate to convey all that. That’s what draws me in. I do love international projects because of my background.
You are a much sought after producer, and one with many awards. What about THE FIRST WIVES CLUB project attracted you?
Elizabeth: It’s an international story even though it is focused on three women that went to Sarah Lawrence College, which is also where my husband teaches. A very trusted friend of mine, Rick Steiner called and said you have to listen to this music from the show, it’s by Holland-Dozier-Holland. Rick, Rocco and Heidi Landesman, and the Dodgers, we were all young producers together. We produced Into the Woods and The Secret Garden, among other shows.
They were much more accomplished than I, and I was fortunate that they became my partners very early on.
Obviously you love timeless hits. How exciting is it to have them aboard in this one time only and final collaboration between them?
At Rick’s suggestion, I listened to the music that Paul Lambert and Jonas Neilson had shared with me. They are the originating producers who got the rights to First Wives Club and brought Holland-Dozier-Holland on board. I was amazed that the originators of the Motown hits which had so informed my youth were writing together again. And, they were writing for a show the themes of which were something that I thought were internally interesting, especially to women and potentially to everyone. It’s a very grown up show. That appealed to me as well.
The songs feel Motown, but they also feel directly what the show needs. To me, the major theme of this has to be that in times of difficulty we always turn to our friends and our family, and that is what really gets us through.
The other issue for me was that when the women are young, the early music of Holland-Dozier-Holland – their catalog songs would be what they were listening to. Those two points were of major concern to me with the development of the musical. They embraced those and we were off and running.
I think that these “legends” we are working with have this uncanny knack to tap into the emotional lives of women. Those songs that I know every single lyric to – Reach Out, I’ll be There and Baby Love and Stop In The Name Of Love and so many others that they did for the Supremes, Martha and The Vandellas and so many other groups are all at the top of my list. Paul and Jonas were able to get the rights for six of their catalog songs to use in the show, and so we’ve decided to start the story with the songs that are of the period of our women in the late 1960s, when they’re in their dorm rooms getting ready for graduation, then meeting the loves of their lives, then getting married and onward; and the tremendous new songs HDH have written for the Musical become the “enlightened” voice of our wives years later.
It was wonderful to learn that Brian and Eddie and Lamont have always loved musicals and have attended musicals. They love Rogers and Hammerstein. They also love opera. They’ve always been interested in becoming involved in a musical, and Paul and Jonas were able to take them a project that hit in the heartland of their interest. Clearly they could see that they could express the voices of these women and of their concerns. The perfect subject matter for this particular musical is the concerns of many of their songs, which is heartbreak and loss in relationships but also the exhilaration of love. Those are emotional themes that in the terminology of the musical are the interior monologue songs of your characters.
Those are the songs that the characters sing and we are essentially inside their heads. They are allowing us to share what they are feeling at a particular moment on stage, and those kind of intimate moments between the characters in the show and the audience can be the transformative moment that makes us understand that character and follow that character’s emotional journey. In the context of their songs and their strengths, creating songs for these characters was second nature to them.
The songs that were more of a challenge to them are what we call the book songs. These are the songs that actually perform the role of progression of the narrative. They are a real challenge.
For example, when Rogers and Hammerstein wrote their iconic musicals, Hammerstein would write the libretto – a true libretto that would be the narrative of the book itself with the lyrics already written. He would then send it to Rogers who would compose the music for those lyrics and there would be back and forth. He would write to that libretto.
In other instances, you will find the writer and the composer collaborating and going back and forth with the composer who may also be the lyricist. There may also be a secondary lyricist. Essentially every composing team works differently, in this instance, Eddie writes the majority of the lyrics, and I think occasionally in conjunction with Lamont, Brian composes the music, but all of them come up with what are called the hooks.
It must be tough for pop composers to tackle a Musical. What are some of the challenges this different kind of song writing poses?
Elizabeth: The book songs have been more complicated but Holland-Dozier-Holland have risen to the occasion. We have some superb book songs in which all three women essentially tell their story. For example, in a song called I’m so Lucky - I don’t know if you remember a scene in the movie with Elise and Brenda and Annie when they are first reunited after the funeral in the penthouse of the Elise Goldie Hawn character? They are talking about their wonderful lives, and as they warm up to each other and drink more wine, they begin to really unburden themselves about what is really happening in their lives, or as much as they know at this point. The song is called I’m so Lucky because they are all talking about how lucky they are. Gradually, the complexities of their lives begin to emerge within the song, and the song begins to completely drives that scene - it’s a very well done classic book song. Those are always a challenge because they are so essential to making it a musical and not a play.
Musicals are the hardest thing in the world to do. Everyone agrees that it is like catching quicksilver. It helps to have a good chemistry on the creative team, and it helps as well to have an engine among the creative team who really knows what the project is about. We have a lot of powerful creative minds involved in this project – Holland-Dozier-Holland were involved in the early version, and now with Linda Bloodworth Thomason and Simon Phillips, whom I’ve brought into the picture involved, we’ve got a terrifically talented team.
Your decision to bring aboard seems to have been huge. Can you share with us her thoughts about the projects she chooses and why FIRST WIVES CLUB has resonated with her?
Elizabeth: When I approached Paul, Jonas and Daniel Choueka about the possibility of going to this iconic writer, Linda Bloodworth Thomason to work on First Wives Club, they concurred that was a great idea due to her work on Designing Women, which dealt with strong smart woman with great humor, and happily she loved the film and thought it was something she wanted to do.
Linda is a writer of Designing Women and Evening Shade and many of the other hit TV series of the 80s and 90s. She has been nominated many times for Emmy awards. Designing Women I think is still in syndication, you can find it somewhere on television pretty much any night. For many people, it was a true touchstone of those decades because she dealt with working women.
She always dealt with strong women whose friendships and family got them through the hard times and also who were engaged in the world, had points of view and spoke them very eloquently. They would turn their heads and talk directly to the audience. I said, Linda, essentially these are lyrics for internal monologue songs because you are hearing the Sugarbakers turn and tell us what they think about what is going on in the culture or their own lives.
Linda has no fear when it comes to politics or topicality. She wrote the first show about AIDS that appeared on television. She is very committed to issues of social justice. She wrote a novel called Leaving Paris about Paris Arkansas – she writes about what she knows, as they say great writers normally do in one form or another. That appeared on the New York Times bestseller list and she did exceedingly well with it. She wrote a documentary and I was producing consultant on it called Bridegroom that last year won many awards, including the Audience Choice Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s about marriage equality.
She also wrote those political documentaries that helped to propel Clinton’s popularity when he was unknown in his first campaign for example, a documentary called A Place Called Hope that was shown at the convention.
She is a powerful writer and is able to convey a message. In this instance, it is these strong women going through the struggles that we go through in life and their friendship seeing them through it. Not only did that hit the heartline of her concerns, but she always is able to bring humor to even the darkest subjects.
In this instance, the subjects are real life situations. We have the death of a friend from suicide, and then these women gather at the funeral and they go through infidelity and divorces. I think most people walk away from this thinking more about the humor. They are moved and then they laugh. From my point of view, I don’t think there are many writers who can pull that off as well as Linda does.
Her comedy seems to resonate with such a wide audience. Why do think Linda’s comedy is so commercial?
Elizabeth: It does. She had that platform especially with Designing Women, and it was a time when we only had a few channels, so I don’t know how many millions and millions of people tuned into that, but it was on prime time for eight years. I don’t have any idea how many repetitive eyeballs were on that show, but there were many. I don’t think that many of the programs today have that longevity and consistency of viewership because there are so many competing channels on TV and on your laptop and all of these different devices. The fan base is an extremely loyal one.
Larry Gelbart, the great writer for television and for stage, and whom Linda considers her mentor, recognized her talent and hired her as the first woman to write for his hit television series MASH.
I’ve spoken to Linda for years about writing for stage. We had intended to bring a new version of Designing Women potentially with the original stars to the stage some years ago, but unfortunately Dixie Carter died and there were other issues, but we’ve spoken of the stage many times and she loves it. She loves writing this musical and we have several other projects in development together.
Elizabeth: He is, and they have a fantastic rapport and laugh together. My husband can always tell when I am on the phone with either one of them because I am cackling away. I do a lot of work in Australia with the foremost theatrical producer there, John Frost, and early on we planned to develop First Wives Club with him there in Australia. Simon is the preeminent musical director in Australia, and I was aware of his work at the Melbourne Theater Company which he ran for many years, where he did all of the great plays as well as musicals. I was involved with John Frost in a musical of A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to the Forum starring Geoffrey Rush that Simon directed to great acclaim.
Of course, he had his big hit Priscilla Queen of the Desert that began in Australia and became a global hit. That show proved Simon is not only a great director of book, but he is a great showman because the book of that musical was based on that rather small film, but he still managed to keep the heart of it.
Simon’s got a fabulous Aussie sense of humor and is one of the great musical directors. It’s fantastic to have his vision at the helm of this musical.
Can you give us insight into how he inspires, motivates, and takes a project from the page to the stage?
Elizabeth: Because he has been a director for so many years at the premier non-profit theater in Melbourne, he has not only dramaturgical but writing skills, and he can see the whole picture really from the beginning.
The depth of experience that Simon had in staging major works in the literary canon from Chekov to the work of contemporary dramatists gave him the ability to paint a picture. When we walk into our rehearsal room, I am accustomed to readings of new work where people are on book and frequently they stand at lecterns. They may move away from the lecterns at times, but it’s not staged. Simon came into the rehearsal room in the reading we did in Canada (which was the first rehearsal we did) ready to sit on the floor and read the script with the actors, and he immediately put them on their feet and staged it. We saw a preliminary staged production of the script as it existed at that time and with the music in place and some choreography by David Connolly who came to work with us for the first time in that lab.
I can’t tell you how much that told us about the show. It was so clear that he had the overall vision for this piece. He knew exactly what each scene’s form basically would be and had begun the overall staging right there at the inception.
Because musicals are so tough to develop and become successes.
Elizabeth: They are impossible. You can lose the thread at any point along the way, that’s another problem. There has to be a constant vigilance. It’s almost better to have too much initially because you can cut, but if you make too many cuts, it can unravel. It’s not one person, it’s a group of individuals that have to have a real trust and a give and a take. As in any relationship, that kind of comes and goes as you move through the stages.
With only a few weeks to go before FIRST WIVES CLUB is seen by audiences what are the key things that are being addressed now?
Elizabeth: We are very excited to go into rehearsal in January and then we have our performance beginning February 17th in Chicago. We have a final draft and Holland-Dozier-Holland have been creating with , another legendary member of the musical profession as well as , who is our music director. They are working on the shape of the songs for the rehearsal process and it will all come together. Its layer after layer of all the different departments and this fantastic new cast we’ve put in place. The marketing and the advertising are all moving ahead parallel to all of this, and we are working with Broadway in Chicago and their great organization who have such a depth of experience and knowledge. They are great partners. We couldn’t be in a better place to launch the show for such a great audience in Chicago.
Certain great Musicals do billions of dollars globally now — much more than most movies, and much more than the Musicals like Carousel, My Fair Lady and Camelot did — what about today’s marketplace and Musicals make these spectacular grosses possible?
Elizabeth: Those early musicals, especially the Rogers and Hammerstein masterpieces: Showboat and then Carousel and South Pacific paved the way to how to really do serious dramatic musicals. They didn’t run long, though. I’m fortunate enough to have been involved with the musicals that really turned the tide so to speak on longevity and the global reach of musicals, namely Les Miz, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon.
This hunger for musicals isn’t limited to just western countries, but also Japan and more recently Korea and Thailand.
Les Miz opened at the Barbican in 1985 and The Phantom of the Opera in the subsequent year 1986, and both of these productions are still running in London and have been tremendously popular and financial successes globally. The big national tours of Les Miz and The Phantom of the Opera (which the company I was involved with helped to fund) that went on for years created a hunger among the audiences for musicals of great import and great music.
Can you share some of the keys to why you believe THE FIRST WIVES CLUB has tremendous potential?
Elizabeth: We hope that the themes that brought us all to the musical are what have potential. Obviously, the iconic movie and the fact that it’s so loved. It’s something to live up to because people will come with expectations, but they won’t want to see the movie on stage. That is always an issue with basing a musical on a beloved film. You must provide the emotional heart of what drew people to the film in the first place, but transform it into a musical production.
I believe the creative team that are in place now on First Wives Club have the experience. All of their previous work is rich with characters and emotional concerns that are in continence with the themes we believe brought us to the piece – women of strong character with long friendships that help them get through the hard times, the laughter that they have together and the humor that gets them through. With this terrific cast and team we are hoping that we can deliver something that will be both thought provoking and moving, but hilarious.
Are you superstitious?
Elizabeth: I gave Paul a grinder of salt and a block of wood because I am always knocking wood and throwing salt over my shoulder. Theater people are very superstitious. I’ve been involved in this industry now for 25 years and it has rubbed off on me. Tommy Tune, who I admire and is a friend, attended one big musical I was involved with and advised me that we really needed to get the peacock feathers off the stage because those are bad luck. You can bet we got the peacock feathers off the stage.
There is a wonderful Yiddish expression “Kain ein horeh”. It essentially means that if things are going well, you don’t want to tempt the fates. It is that idea of not tempting the fates, keeping your head down, doing the work, enjoying the process, but not tempting the fates.
It becomes a big organism. Every element from the top down is reflected on what you see on stage. If you have a happy group of performers who trust each other in the environment in which they work, it is conveyed across the footlights immediately.
About Elizabeth Williams
Elizabeth Williams has personally been awarded three Tony Awards as well as a Canadian Dora Award and three British Olivier Awards. She has produced or co-produced more than 80 productions on Broadway, on Tour, in London’s West End and on tour in the U.K. and Australia.
Elizabeth is the former Vice President of Mutual Benefit Productions, which was the American fundraiser for Cameron Mackintosh’s hits Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon.
Elizabeth also co-produced The Secret Garden, Tony and Olivier award winner: Crazy for You, Moon over Buffalo, Electra, Tony Award Winner: The Real Thing, The Elephant Man, Tony Award winner: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Olivier Award Winner: Hairspray, Olivier Award Winner: Spring Awakening, Catch Me If You Can, The Bodyguard and others.