I was in a Broadway show called Musical Chairs that ran for about 10 days. I was the assistant director, assistant choreographer, dance captain, and played the small role of Sally. Scott Ellis, who was playing my love interest in the show, had been in Kander and Ebb’s The Rink on Broadway starring Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera. I had played Hunyak in the First National Tour of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago starring Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and Jerry Orbach. I had met Kander and Ebb briefly on the tour, but Scott knew them quite well. One day, in between shows, we were both lamenting about how we wanted to be on the other side of the table. Neither of us wanted to perform – we wanted to create.
Scott got the idea to ask Kander and Ebb if we could take one of their shows and do it Off-Broadway. I was excited by the idea, but I couldn’t grasp why these two Broadway musical legends would allow these two young people take one of their shows Off-Broadway? Then I remembered something what my father always told me – “Don’t be afraid to ask the question, the worst that can happen is somebody says no.” And that piece of advice has stuck with me for all these years – the worst that can happen is somebody says no.
Scott had a good friend David Thompson – who everyone calls Tommy – and Scott felt he would do a wonderful rewrite of the book to Kander and Ebb’s Flora the Red Menace. Flora dealt with the rise of communism in 1930’s America. Tommy had the idea to rewrite using the form of the Federal Theater Project, which was a perfect idea because the Federal Theater Project’s purpose was to create jobs for unemployed theatrical people during the Great Depression. It was also known for creating the Living Newspaper – theater that comments on today’s political and social injustices – and was ultimately silenced by The House Committee on Un-American Activities. It seemed like a perfect frame for presenting Kander and Ebb’s show.
So we mustered up our courage and knocked on the door of Kander and Ebb. I couldn’t believe we were going to tell the men who wrote “New York, New York” that we wanted to collaborate with them. But the door opened and we found ourselves inside Fred Ebb’s San Remo apartment. After some funny pleasantries, we asked the question – “Could we take your show, Flora the Red Menace, Off-Broadway?”
To my surprise, Kander and Ebb said “Yes.” In fact, they were quite enthusiastic about revisiting it. Now we had to find a theater that would take a chance on us. Scott, Tommy, and I went downtown to the Vineyard Theatre – which at the time was on East 26th Street – and asked the Artistic Director Doug Aibel the question – “Could we do Flora the Red Menace in your theater?” And Doug Aibel said, “Yes.” Again, my father’s good advice stuck in my head – “Don’t be afraid to ask the question.”
And we were off, creating a new version of this musical – Scott directing, me choreographing, and Tommy writing. The three of us had a marvelous time collaborating with Kander and Ebb. In fact, they taught us about real collaboration in the theater. They taught us how to play What If? – “What if we took the story this way?” “What if we took the story that way?” It was a master class in how to create a show. Doug Aibel was a great dramaturge – his advice and support was immeasurable. For the first time I realized what made a really good artistic director. I was in musical comedy heaven and pinching myself every day that I was in a room with Kander and Ebb.
Flora the Red Menace is based on the novel Love is Just Around The Corner by Lester Atwell. It takes place in New York City in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression. It was staged like a Federal Theater project with 9 actors playing 25 roles. Veanne Cox played the optimistic Flora, a young artist determined to make it in New York City as a fashion designer. She falls in love with Harry, a fellow artist, whom she later discovers is a communist. Harry was played by Peter Frechette. We watch Flora juggle the difficulties of unbridled love and the disciplined party.
Veanne Cox and Peter Frechette had great chemistry together and were physical comedy pros. With Veanne’s quirky personality and Peter’s character-driven passion, they created such vivid characters that you were rooting for Flora and Harry to get together, even though you were not sure they should be together. Fred Ebb said, “If the show has one philosophy, it is to be true to yourself.”
Kander and Ebb wrote several new songs for our production. One was a lively song called “Keeping it Hot” for Dirk Lumbard and Maggy Gorrill, who played a dance team à la Fred and Ginger looking for their big break into the movies while living in Flora’s bohemian artists cooperative. I had great fun choreographing for those two wonderful tap dancers, even in that challenging small space.
Lyn Green was exceptional as Comrade Charlotte. She was both powerful and hysterical during “The Flame” in which she fervidly rallies a group of communists together. The choreography was filled with intense chair slamming and frenzied fist pumping.
JUST TUESDAY IN THE SUBWAY
I THREW A ROTTEN EGG
I CALLED A MAN A FASCIST
AND I BIT HIS DAUGHTER'S LEG.
The actors enjoyed playing the multitude of roles and we loved assigning them. All the bohemian artists played various other parts, such as breadline goers, protestors, and day-to-day New Yorkers crossing picket lines.
David Pogue was our musical director and wonderful accompanist. Sometimes, the talented Eddie Korbich, playing an out of work clarinetist, would join in with David Pogue’s piano arrangements and add to the musical montages.
Kander and Ebb were there every day for rehearsal. I know they enjoyed the collaboration. And they loved that their show was getting a second chance. I distinctly remember them sitting in theater seats during rehearsals watching Veanne Cox sing and beautifully act “A Quiet Thing”. I watched them both gazing at Veanne as their eyes filled with tears. At the end of the song they looked at each other, and, realizing the other had been crying, both burst out laughing.
WHEN IT ALL COMES TRUE
JUST THE WAY YOU’D PLANNED
ITS FUNNY BUT THE BELLS DON’T RING
ITS A QUIET THING.
Scott, Tommy, and I had a ball creating this piece at the Vineyard Theatre. Flora was our first real professional show as creatives behind the scenes. Little did I know that when I was in rehearsal staging the song, “All I Need Is One Good Break”, it would be my own “art imitating life” moment.
ALL I NEED IS ONE GOOD BREAK
JUST ONE TO MAKE A SPLASH THEY WON’T FORGET
HEY NEW YORK I’M GONNA GET YOU YET
The show was an Off-Broadway hit and generated a cult following. Everyone who was anyone in the theater came down to see it. Hal Prince, Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera, plus many more theater luminaries. From seeing my work in that little theater on East 26th street, Hal Prince asked me to do Don Giovanni for New York City Opera and Liza Minnelli asked me to do Liza Stepping Out at Radio City. But the best of all possible things happened – by the end of that run, Tommy, Scott, and I became best friends with Kander and Ebb.
Besides the show giving us our one good break, I have to thank Kander and Ebb for my name – Stro. The name Susan was very popular in my generation. When we started rehearsal for Flora the Red Menace, there were too many Susan’s associated with the production. Tommy and Scott already were calling me Stroman. Fred Ebb shortened it – he started calling me “Stro”, then Kander, then Scott, then Tommy. And as I became known in the business, the name stuck – I was Stro. And I never went on stage again.
Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Frank Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Direction by Scott Ellis
Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Michael Hotopp
Costume Design by Lindsay W. Davis
Lighting Design by Phil Monat
Sound Design by Phil Lee
Musical Direction by David Pogue