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Interview

Catching Up With...: Michael Mayer

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Everything's coming up frantic for self-assured director Michael Mayer these days—but frantic in a good way, if one considers a skyrocketing career and rapturous critical acclaim good things. In recent years he has helmed high-profile stage projects on Broadway and Off-Broadway, often simultaneously, while somehow finding time to put the ducks in a row for his big-screen directing debut, premiering July 23. It's the Warner Independent Pictures film A Home at the End of the World, starring Colin Farrell, Robin Wright Penn, and Sissy Spacek, and based on a novel by Pulitzer-winning author Michael Cunningham (The Hours).

Mayer's stage projects have included epic sociopolitical drama (Angels in America), vintage Arthur Miller (A View From the Bridge), and heralded musical confections (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Thoroughly Modern Millie). Upcoming in the fall is his Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Miller's After the Fall, starring Peter Krause and Carla Gugino. And, oh, yes, in his spare time, he's developing an edgy new rock musical, Spring Awakening, based on a 19th century German play dealing with sexual taboos that society places on children. Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Rockville, Md., he's a graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and has received several prestigious fellowships and grants for his various projects. The 44-year-old Mayer started out to be an actor but quickly realized that his passion was in directing. This avocation was strongly encouraged by his friend and colleague, playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America).

Getting the ball rolling: Mayer indicates that the project that made many people notice him was a workshop staging of Angels in America at NYU in 1993, with what he calls "an exceptionally gifted graduating class." He elaborates: "Tony [Kushner] was doing Part I on Broadway at the time, and Part II had not worked very well in L.A. at the Mark Taper Forum. Tony thought he would be able to work with it when it went into previews, but he didn't have a minute to spare. I was saddled with a script that had never worked before, yet when word got out that we were doing it, there were lines around the block. In a tiny theatre that would usually seat 80 people, we'd cram in 125 for four hours every night. I was very connected to the material, and I loved it with a passion, and the production was praised highly. Everyone came to see it, and after a few months I started getting calls from all of these people I had never been able to get an interview with. It was wonderful, and things really started moving for me from there. The other great thing was that the Broadway producers of Angels came to see it, and it gave them a lot of confidence in proceeding with putting Part II on Broadway." Perhaps unsurprisingly, when George C. Wolfe, the Broadway director of both Angels parts, was unavailable to direct the national tour, Mayer was tapped for it. "The tour was greatly successful, which was marvelous for the producers, because it put the entire Angels project in the black," he adds.

Thoroughly committed duo: Mayer directed many productions in the years following Angels, including the Broadway musical Triumph of Love, Keith Bunin's Off-Broadway play The Credeaux Canvas, Side Man, and An Almost Holy Picture, starring Kevin Bacon. But there's nothing like a hit musical with six Tony wins, including the Best Musical prize, to elevate a career a few notches. "Thoroughly Modern Millie was a six-year journey," says Mayer. "I met Dick Scanlan [Millie's co-librettist and lyricist] in high school. We became close friends, but our paths went different ways. We hooked up again in New York several years later. At this point in my career, I could be an asset in helping him make Millie happen, and I had been looking for a new musical that I could sink my teeth into, so it was wonderful timing." Millie is based on a 1967 Julie Andrews film musical, but, unlike the course taken by many film-to-stage transplants, Mayer and Scanlan were determined to not just plop a movie musical onto the stage. Except for two songs, a whole new score was created, and countless changes were made to the storyline and characters. Mayer says, "When you bring something to a new medium, you want to retain its soul and really understand what made it work, while creating something that works in the new medium. It sounds a little corny, but you have to find out what a project wants to be rather than imposing something on it. So many people collaborated with us on Millie that the challenge for me was to keep all of us on the same page, telling the same story. We had lots and lots of meetings, and I believe brought it all together successfully."

Angels in Middle America: As was the case with Millie, Mayer feels that his new film, produced by actor Tom Hulce (Amadeus), was also a case of creative minds finding their way. "Michael [Cunningham], who adapted his novel, had never written a screenplay before, and this was my first stab at directing a film. So he and I went through the book and started pulling out what we thought was most exciting to us in the complicated epic," says Mayer. "We agreed that it was Bobby, so we focused on him as the central character." The film charts the lives of Bobby (Farrell) and Jonathan (Dallas Roberts), two inseparable childhood friends in suburban Ohio in the 1960s, who reunite in Manhattan during the 1980s, forming a familial bond with the free-spirited Clare (Penn). The story re-examines the idea of family and the ways that people can move beyond losses in life. Though there are gay elements to it, Mayer feels the film will resonate with all audiences. "Bobby's entire family is in the graveyard by the time he's 14, and he spends his life trying to create a family for himself, and he breaks a lot of rules in the process," says Mayer. "This is a story that everyone who has experienced loss can relate to. In movies, TV, and novels, characters whose family situation didn't work—or the family wasn't even there—often end up being screwed up: drug addicts, punks, schizophrenics, juvenile delinquents, or killers. In this movie, the boy learns to love, and it's a beautiful thing. He learns to connect but also learns how to let go. It was very important to me to tell this story."

For the future: "I feel like I've been blessed," says Mayer. "I didn't really chart things out, career-wise. They pretty much fell into place, and the variety has been wonderful. I never seem to do the same type of project twice in a row. But most of all, in years to come, if I could continue to collaborate with the level of talent I have been able to so far, I would consider myself very, very lucky."

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