If I were asked to name the most difficult show in my career, I would have to say Thou Shalt Not.
Thou Shalt Not was based on Emile Zola’s novel, Thérèse Raquin. A sinister tale of adultery and murder set in Paris in 1868, the story revolves around a young woman named Thérèse who is unhappily married to her sickly first cousin Camille. Camille’s friend Laurent, newly returned home from war, pays Camille a visit and there he meets Thérèse. She and Laurent enter into a passionate affair. They plot to murder Camille, ultimately succeeding only to be haunted by his ghost until their own untimely demise. Plenty of opportunity for fevered drama, but not a lot of opportunity for laughs.
Quite often when a Broadway show is opening, whatever is happening in the world at that moment can affect whether or not the show is embraced – union strike, hurricane, stock market crash, a movement. Timing affects everything and Thou Shalt Not had terrible timing – we opened just about two weeks after September 11th, 2001. The breadth of the tragedy of 9/11 left an entire city, and indeed the world, in grief. No one in New York City wanted to sit in an audience and watch a person doing something awful – especially a woman killing her husband.
Broadway shut down for three days. When the theaters reopened and we returned to the Plymouth Theater, no one wanted to be there. The crew, especially. They wanted to be downtown helping first responders or at the fire stations around Times Square. People were walking around shellshocked and in disbelief, grieving for the city and for those we had lost and terrified we would be hit again. It was difficult to rally the cast and crew to continue. I gathered everyone together in the orchestra section of the theater. The company sat there stunned, sad, angry, and confused. After checking in on everyone, I said, “We must keep going forward. We must continue following our passion. They want to break our spirit, but they can’t. We are lucky to live in a country where we can follow our passions. We are all together today because we DID follow our passions. We must now be here for one another, rally together and keep working.”
We then went outside onto 45th street and stood in front of the theater as our lead trumpet player played a haunting rendition of “Amazing Grace”. The city was empty, quiet. You could hear the trumpet ring out for blocks.
I will never forget assembling that group of theater artists – cast, crew, musicians, management. I can still conjure the feeling in my stomach of the agony, nervousness, and uncertain responsibility that I was about to embark on. It was one thing to rally the troops back to a joyous story, quite another thing to rally them for a show with dark dramatic tones.
The show was produced by Lincoln Center Theater. I asked Andre Bishop and Bernie Gersten if we could postpone the opening for two weeks. Because LCT was producing, it had been scheduled for a limited run. We needed more time. I wanted to let people have more breaks, take a walk, make a phone call, or come and speak to me if they needed. I wanted to keep going forward, but I also wanted to create a loving atmosphere for them to be a part of and not feel pressure. Bernie and Andre profoundly agreed with delaying the show and it gave us all some breathing room.
When we made the initial decision to create a musical from this gritty novel, we knew it would be risky even in the best of times. But I believe risk-taking is necessary to grow as an artist. Looking at darker stories can contribute to our personal growth because they force us to contemplate life and death.
During pre-production, when the show existed only in our imaginations, I enjoyed creating every bit of it. When David Thompson and I first started adapting Thérèse Raquin, we wanted to give it an American sensibility, but also retain some of its French flavor. It seemed only natural to set our story in the unique city of New Orleans.
New Orleans is a city with a tradition of music – it has its own distinct sound. This would be a logical way into the storytelling. The Big Easy is known as a melting pot of unique rhythm – Jazz, Blues, Zydeco, Dixieland, Spiritual. And the events and venues are abundant – clubs, Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, even the funeral processions have jazz brass bands. It seemed a perfect place to generate music for a musical story.
Harry Connick Jr. seemed the ideal choice for a composer. Neither of us knew Harry, but we were big admirers of his songs, arrangements, and overall musicianship. Harry was New Orleans through and through – he would bring an authenticity to the score. Harry would be a great guide not only to the music, but to the society of New Orleans. I was convinced we had to woo Harry because he could help us remain truthful to the essence of the whole story.
After a slew of emails and terse phone calls with agents, we finally met. He was a bit skeptical about the whole musical theater thing, but he was intrigued with the New Orleans connection. He invited us to his home city so we could further test our collaboration. We went to Jazz Fest and watched him perform with his band. Then we toured the town and ate oysters, gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish, muffulettas – the food alone would make you fall in love with New Orleans. Doing the research for this show was more fun than doing research for any other show. It was a colorful town with music pouring out of every door. Harry took us to jazz clubs, restaurants, and the French Quarter. The following week, back in New York City, Harry walked through my front door with a dozen songs in hand.
The three of us got along famously. Harry was warm, gracious, funny, curious – a first-rate talent. Each time we met he had more songs. It was a treat to see him create in a new way. “It’s Good to Be Home”, “Tug Boat”, “Ain’t That Sweet”, and “The Other Hours” were some of my favorite songs. They were rich with intention and captured the right tone of the moment – not to mention the melodies were sensational.
I pitched the show to Andre Bishop who was very familiar with Zola’s novel and all things Parisian. He thought murder and intrigue would make a good recipe for a musical drama. We had an idea, a composer, and a producer. Time to start scheduling, designing, casting, planning.
The cast we gathered was filled with amazing actors – all characters you might find on Bourbon Street. They jumped into the research and loved working with a luminary like Harry. Rehearsals were a joy and nothing’s better than creating a new musical, everyone in the same room collaborating and inspiring one another. Dancing to Harry’s music and having those extraordinary dancers and actors moving to the pulse and beat of an authentic New Orleans rhythm was exciting. The exceptional dancers often served as the show’s Greek chorus, commenting and reinforcing the action with movement. Most of the time they danced to drumbeats and their movement was sensual, always dancing with their pelvis forward.
Creating the choreography was actually very fulfilling. I never have the opportunity to choreograph guilt and death in the musical theater. Working on the “Thou Shalt Not Ballet” was cathartic. When someone dies, you always think of things you could have done and should have done and wished you had done, so the idea of being able to dance in constant contractions and pound your fists on the floor was healing.
It’s too bad we couldn’t live in an endless rehearsal process.
When we finally started previews, we knew we were in trouble. The audiences were cool. I longed to be back in the rehearsal room at Lincoln Center Theater. The distress and anxiety filling the city’s atmosphere was no place for a dark show filled with gloom, death, adultery, and no redeeming characters.
Norbert Leo Butz, however, was sensational as Camille. He stopped the show with the song “Oh! Ain’t That Sweet!,” in which he smoothly plants his ghostly presence between the incurably disturbed Therese and Laurent. Whenever he stepped onstage the audience seemed relieved – hoping somehow the ghost of Camille would get his revenge. Norbert’s voice was perfect for Harry’s music – he sounded like Sinatra from Louisiana.
When we first meet Therese (Kate Levering), she is daydreaming of a happier life, dancing about as she does her menial chores. We are introduced to Laurent (Craig Bierko) as a jazz pianist holding court in the bar with the incomparable Debra Monk singing along in the role of Camille’s mother.
These wonderful actors went on a very difficult emotional journey from the beginning of the story to the end. During the closed rehearsals, we were in a safe place to explore the deep scene work and tap into each other’s psychological emotions. To take this journey with an audience now during this particular time felt very heavy.
The abstract set was by Tom Lynch and evoked New Orleans architecture of the late 1940’s. Tom created a turntable with three different wheels and figuring out its machinations was a mathematical feat. I loved the challenge. Stagehands commented on how something like that had never been done before and marveled at the dancers tapping out rhythms while moving from turntable to turntable to turntable, often switching direction in mid-move. It added to the hypnotic and feverish idea of Laurent and Therese spinning out of control.
William Ivey Long’s colorful costumes made the Mardi Gras parade come to life. His attention to detail is extraordinary – he captured the time period, mood, and sexuality of the characters perfectly.
All of us were affected by the horrific events of 9/11. Being creative was not in the forefront of our minds every morning when we woke up. Thou Shalt Not was a perfect storm – a risky show and a horrendous moment in history. But in the theater, allied in the best of times, even easy escapism is risky. Creating a new show is always a form of gambling. Not only does the artist have to be in the right place at the right time, but so does the audience. There were so many exceptional moments in the show and I found the entire collaboration rewarding. I was lucky we created this show with the support of Lincoln Center Theater. They take chances and believe that the work their artists do is valuable.
After our limited run ended and feeling low that the show was not embraced, I sat at a local bar nursing a Sazerac and ate a dozen oysters. I then called Bernie Gersten and said, “I am so sorry the show lost money.” He said, “We don’t lose money, we spend money on artists.”
Book by David Thompson
Music and Lyrics by Harry Connick, Jr.
Based on "Thérèse Raquin" by Émile Zola
Conceived by Susan Stroman, David Thompson and Harry Connick, Jr.
Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Thomas Lynch
Costume Design by William Ivey Long
Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design by Scott Lehrer
Musical Direction by Phil Reno