It's hard for an audience to detect good directing. Unless you're in the show, the artistry is invisible. An audience doesn't think, "That was really well directed." They think, "That was a great performance" or "Those were great songs." And that's okay with Bill Berry, the 5th Avenue Theatre's producing artistic director. He is content not to be the center of attention.
But Berry has been on a hot streak. His production of The Pajama Game, at the 5th Avenue Theatre through March 5, is bursting with show-stealing supporting performances. His Little Shop of Horrors, a coproduction with ACT Theatre in 2014, was vivid, punchy, and perfect. He cast Jinkx Monsoon as Angel in Rent in 2012, before Jinkx was a RuPaul's Drag Race star. (If you wonder aloud about Angel's ethnicity, Berry points out that Rent's script says nothing about the ethnicity of any of the characters except the Jewish mother on the answering machine.) In 2013, Berry cast Laura Griffith as Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, and I wrote in my review that Meredith Willson's estate should retain her "to play this role forever." Berry's 2016 production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying brought the revelation that Adam Standley, a straight-theater world darling, is also a gifted musical-theater performer and a comedy genius.
"I had just seen him in something, and he was winning and charming and fun," Berry recalled. "What I didn't know was that he had limbs of rubber and would throw himself down at a moment's notice."
Standley, who recently played Prior in Angels in America at Intiman and Mr. Burns in Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play at ACT, thought to himself when Berry offered him the part, "But I don't do this stuff. In this town, I've never done anything like that. I don't even go in for shows like that"—by which he means musicals. "I'd never even auditioned for a 5th show."
Standley was the most memorable part of the production, practically bringing down the house in How to Succeed every time he came onstage.
"One of the things I love is finding people who are great, and figuring out what's great about them, and getting out of their way," Berry said.
Billie Wildrick is another of Berry's discoveries. She's a 5th Avenue veteran who plays the Doris Day role in the theater's production of The Pajama Game. (She also went to Broadway in the 5th Avenue's production of Scandalous in 2012.) "Bill scooped me up straight out of college, 15 years ago," Wildrick said. "He believed in me right away."
Asked how Berry coaxes funny performances from actors, Wildrick said, "He doesn't shut me down like some directors do. He likes people who bring a bunch to the table, and he's really good at curating all the stuff people bring to a table. There are directors who would rather you bring nothing to the table while they sculpt you like clay, but Bill's not like that. Bill encourages everybody to be their own artist."
Jinkx Monsoon, aka Jerick Hoffer, who played the drag queen Angel in Berry's production of Rent, said, "He has a great sense of humor. Of course, I gravitate toward humor, and he was always willing to let me try out bits and gags that made Angel uniquely ours." Jinkx being Jinkx, she made a semi-shady aside: "When I went into the production, I admittedly wasn't the hugest Rent fan, but he taught me what's beautiful about the piece."
Jinkx added, "He even let me miss a week and a half of rehearsal so that I could be on Drag Race. It was a pretty big deal! We only had like four weeks to rehearse, and I missed a big chunk of it. But he believed in my ability to catch up, and he was very patient as I did so, and he kept my secret the whole time. It was wonderful working with him, and I'd do any production he asked me to."
Speaking of Rent, that production depicted things that had never been seen before, like the character Mimi explicitly shooting up onstage. "I just got very into the idea of what is going on in this scene, and showing it—and that is what she is doing," Berry said. "I didn't want it to be a reheated version of the Broadway staging."
Berry's sensibility is world-weary without being jaded, vivid, friendly, optimistic, and distinctly pop. Underneath all that is an awareness of the human capacity for darkness. His aesthetic proceeds from that awareness of darkness but opts for light, color, weightlessness, and humor.
Sarah Rudinoff, who also got laughs in How to Succeed, as well as in Berry's 2006 production of Wonderful Town, said, "One of the things about directing a musical that's so hard is there are so many parts. Comedy is a science for sure. Is this getting a laugh? Why is this getting a laugh? Sometimes I would not be getting a laugh, and I would say, 'Why am I not getting a laugh?' And Bill would be sitting out in the audience, and he would say: 'We can't hear that last word.' The technical stuff of the comedy. But at the same time, you need to get the nontechnical stuff—the mistakes, the surprises, the goofy messiness of going for really big choices—to find where the comedy is. Even with a huge cast, stage managers, an orchestra, and everything else, you have to take time to let four comedians be in a room and experiment. You have to have the calm to let them mess around and find stuff. Some musical-theater directors so fear chaos, but Bill has a calm that allows him to take in the chaos and still make room for that."
"I think I'm good at helping people be funny," Berry told me. "I can't make people be funny, but I can take what they're doing and maximize it."
Asked about Berry's comic sensibility, Standley said, "He's a funny person, you know? He's a quirk. He's an eccentric. I think all of us in the theater try to make sure there's a lot of space for people to be weird with each other. He's always conferring with you on the side about the weird thing in the room, you know what I mean? Not even necessarily a theater thing. He'll just whisper to you: Why is this like this?"
On a Friday afternoon in February, the 5th Avenue Theatre was deep into a tech rehearsal for The Pajama Game. Onstage was the garment factory (the work of scenic designer Carol Wolfe Clay): exposed-brick walls, gummed-up windows, whirring fans, a big clock, a sign saying "SAFETY FIRST / DON'T WASTE TIME." Below that, across the stage, were sewing tables lined up in rows next to bins on rollers. The actors were on a 10-minute break, and Berry was conferring with his designers in the darkness of the house. The stage glowed a dim yellow, then a bright yellow, then an icy blue, then a warm blue. Then purple. Then green.
"He loves color," said Wildrick. "His palettes are very important to him. They're beautifully selected—the lights and the sets and the costumes—and they really influence the performance. Almost like Warhol. But he is actually really interested in the relationships that make you feel something in the room because of the hormones and the electricity of the actual people in the room."
The Pajama Game is the musical that launched Bob Fosse's choreography career. "Fosse was making his mark for the first time—he was having his moment," Berry said. That original Broadway production in 1954 also launched Shirley MacLaine's film career. She was the understudy for Carol Haney, who broke her ankle and was out for months. Director/producer Hal B. Wallis saw MacLaine perform and signed her to Paramount Pictures.
"I love classic, golden-age musicals," Berry said. He proceeded to tell "the gayest story ever" about how, when he was a child, his dad had keys to the school auditorium (his father was a coach). Berry snuck back into the auditorium the day after seeing a production of The Wizard of Oz because he "wanted to go back in that magical place." He remembers, with a laugh, "skipping up and down the yellow brick road. I was probably 10."
Berry, now 44, grew up in small-town Wisconsin. He got an MFA in directing from Brooklyn College and stuck around in New York City working on projects, including one with David Armstrong, the 5th Avenue's artistic director. In 2002, Armstrong convinced him to come out to Seattle and direct at the 5th. "I did The Wizard of Oz as my first musical," he said. He paused and smiled. "I've never thought about that."
To this day, his mother will come see Rent, for example, and afterward, according to Berry, she'll say: "Well, that was good. But you know what? It was no Wizard of Oz."
Berry said when Armstrong invited him out to Seattle, 15 years ago, he thought: "Worst thing that'll happen is I'll go back to New York. Best thing is it will end up being interesting." He ended up discovering that Seattle had "everything you want in a city and none of the crap of being in a big city." And he liked that the 5th Avenue had "things that theater companies that are just starting out don't have—like a staff."
He happened to arrive at the 5th Avenue right around the time of Hairspray's premiere in Seattle. Hairspray was getting its final kinks worked out before moving to Broadway (the 5th Avenue Theatre has produced 17 new musicals on its stage, nine of which have gone to Broadway). "I would sneak in and watch rehearsals," Berry said. He was surprised whenever he came back and they had taken out a joke that worked the previous day, but then he realized that not having that one joke there made the next joke even funnier. (A similar principle applies in writing: If a writer tries to be funny in every sentence, it just gets tiring.)
Eventually, Berry and Armstrong started dating, and two years ago, they got married.
Berry is also the founder of the 5th Avenue Awards, which recognizes greatness in high-school performing arts across Washington State and culminates in a packed awards show at the 5th Avenue with student performances and local celebrity presenters. "We saw that the kids who play sports are regularly put in the spotlight and given attention—and how do you give visibility and legitimacy to the arts?" Berry said. The award recipients are chosen by evaluators the 5th Avenue sends out to assess each year's crop of high-school productions.
The Rising Star Project (started by Berry, Armstrong, and managing director Bernie Griffin) is a one-on-one mentoring program through which high schoolers reproduce professional shows the 5th Avenue does, on the 5th Avenue stage, with the 5th Avenue set. High schoolers play all the roles, they perform in the orchestra, they staff the publicity and marketing office, they staff the hair and makeup positions, and they even do fundraising. "We do it with one show a year, to introduce kids to what we do and teach them all the different things they need to do a show," Berry said. This year's Rising Star show happens to be The Pajama Game. (The teen version of The Pajama Game plays March 17 at 8 p.m. and March 18 at 2 p.m., and tickets are only $15 to $25.)
At the Pajama Game tech rehearsal, the actors came back from break, and there were lots of them: on stage left, folks in blue-collar jumpsuits; on stage right, folks in business shirts and ties. While the lighting designer, Robert Aguilar, continued to adjust hue and intensity, Berry, wearing glasses and a cardigan and holding a microphone, walked up onstage. He began blocking one of the first encounters between the workers in the factory, led by Wildrick's character, and their new superintendent, played by Josh Davis.
"Can I have the grievance committee in your positions when you first come in?" said the disembodied voice of a stage manager, speaking into the sound system.
After Berry rearranged the way the grievance committee was standing, he approved the light that Aguilar chose to shine down on Davis at the end of his solo "A New Town Is a Blue Town," and then Berry got sucked into a conversation with Davis and two of the stagehands. He was close enough to them that he wasn't speaking into the microphone. I was out where the audience sits, so I couldn't hear him. I watched Berry lean over a red cart with built-in drawers, a prop for the scene, as he talked, and then saw him kick up one of his legs behind himself to punctuate whatever joke he was making. Berry's movement made one of the stagehands crack up.
The choreographer Bob Richard was walking around in a Guys and Dolls fleece vest, at one point standing on a table to make sure it could hold human weight without wobbling. After about an hour of painstaking technical progress, setting light cues, establishing sound cues, and marking set changes, the cast and crew had managed to run through approximately two minutes of material.
After the actors broke for dinner, one of them came up to Berry to ask a question. As the director listened to the actor's question, Berry did a jaunty little dance move with his feet that took him back one step. He didn't even seem to realize he was doing it. I instantly thought of his story about skipping down the yellow brick road.
"This production is maybe the most beautiful I've seen," Wildrick said of The Pajama Game set. "This set is spectacular."
She said as much to Berry at one point. "And he said: 'Yeah, you know? It's the right scale to really make the actors the star.' And he talked about how that had not happened in a previous production. You know, Bill is always looking to make it a little better. That's my favorite kind of person."