Broadway World Interviews Utah Rep Dramaturg Janine Sobeck on ‘Carousel’

Janine SobeckJanine Sobeck, dramaturg for Utah Repertory Theater’s upcoming production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s CAROUSEL, has a number of impressive credits to her name, including working on the pre-Broadway engagement of NEXT TO NORMAL at Arena Stage. She graciously spoke with BroadwayWorld to discuss her career and share her insights about CAROUSEL.

1. Tell me about your professional and educational background.

I have a Master’s Degree in Theatre History, Theory and Criticism from Brigham Young University, where my emphasis was in dramaturgy. After I graduated I moved out to Washington D.C. to take a dramaturgy internship with the prestigious Arena Stage. After completing my intern season, I transitioned into the role of head Dramaturg, Literary Manager, and Producer of New Work. Currently I am the Dramaturgy Specialist at BYU and one of the Executive Producers (as well as Resident Dramaturg) at Utah Rep. I am also the VP of Communications for the international organization, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, a freelance dramaturg, and a theatre critic.

2. Tell me about the public opinion of CAROUSEL. Why do you think it is rarely produced in Utah, despite its name recognition and beloved music?

Its been really interesting talking to people about the fact that we are producing CAROUSEL. From most of my conversations it seems to be one of those love/hate shows. Many people grew up with the music and therefore have a soft spot in their hearts for the show. Others have really strong negative opinions about the storyline due to the fact that there is an incident of spousal abuse–and some believe that the show condones abuse. This makes the show problematic for many theatres, which is why I think many tend to shy away from producing it.

3. What do you believe are the themes of CAROUSEL? What are some interesting facts you have learned while researching the musical? What has your experience been working with Utah Rep on this production, and why should people see it?

When I learned that I would be dramaturging the show, one of the first things that I did was read the script. I had been a long time since I had read or seen the show, so it was almost like experiencing it for the first time. I had all these pre-conceived notions about what the show was, and yet as I went through the story, I was amazed at how different of a journey it was than I was expecting.

When Rodgers and Hammerstein were first approached by The Theatre Guild to adapt Ferenc Molnár’s play LILIOM into a musical, they actually refused. They were coming off the huge success of OKLAHOMA! and were nervous about the fact that any other collaboration would immediately be compared unfavorably to that musical. Hammerstein even said, “”We’re such fools. No matter what we do, everyone is bound to say, ‘This is not another OKLAHOMA!'” They were also concerned that the subject matter of LILIOM, though a solid success in the theatre world, was not fitting for a musical theatre production.

You can’t really blame them. Not only was the original ending of the play unhappy, you had a lead character who was not very “heroic.” If you think about all the other leading men in Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, none of them are perfect. Curly, Captain von Trapp, Emile de Becque, The King of Siam…all of them have faults. Yet, for the most part, their “faults” are humorous, lovable, endearing, or changeable. In CAROUSEL, Billy is an extremely flawed person who makes some really bad choices throughout most of the show. And yet, there is still something compelling about him. Probably because he is, when you get down to it, very human. He’s muddling his way through life, making big mistakes along the way. There are moments when you think he is going to be able to pull his act together, but then he chooses to listen to the wrong influences. And yet, Rodgers and Hammerstein do not allow you to give up on him. They actually made some substantial changes to the ending of LILIOM with the intent of leaving CAROUSEL with a feeling of hope. Hope for Billy and, even more (spoiler alert!), hope for his daughter. Things are not neatly tied up at the end, but I think the ending is actually what makes the story so powerful. I mean, after all, isn’t that fairly true of life?

For the Utah Rep production, we are working to find the balance of the show. You can’t just gloss over the bigger issues–such as the abuse–because it needs to be addressed. Yet, it is equally important to not let such an uncomfortable topic overshadow the entire production to the point that you miss the true meaning and lessons of the story. The ideas of hope and redemption are strong, and with the fact that this is not a show that is rarely done in Utah, I think it is a great opportunity for our audience to wrestle with a surprisingly complex story. I’m sure that, like myself, a lot of people will be surprised with their experience with the story. There’s a reason that Time magazine named CAROUSEL as the best musical of the 20th century–and it’s not just due to the beautiful score.

4. How did you get involved with Utah Rep?

I moved back to Utah about a year ago to “re-vamp” the dramaturgy program at BYU. Not long after I came back in town, Johnny Hebda contacted me to dramaturg the production of SIDE SHOW that he was directing. During the course of that show the idea of creating a full-fledged company was tossed around and, eventually, turned into a reality. I came on as the Resident Dramaturg and through some recent organizational structural changes have also become one of 5 Executive Producers that work together with our board to keep the company running.

5. What are some of your past and current theatre projects? What was your experience like working on NEXT TO NORMAL?

So far in 2013 I have dramaturged 3 projects – SIDE SHOW at Utah Rep, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY at Pioneer Theatre Company, and THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS at BYU.

Currently I’m working on 5 projects. For Utah Rep I am the dramaturg for CAROUSEL, producer for RENT (opens in September), and the director of RABBIT HOLE (opens in December). I am also dramaturging Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of OTHER DESERT CITIES (opens in September), and I am working with Melissa Leilani Larsen as her dramaturg for her new adaptation of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, which will play at BYU next year.

Favorite projects at Arena Stage include THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, LEGACY OF LIGHT, and OKLAHOMA!, all directed by Arena’s Artistic Director, Molly Smith; Edward Albee’s A DELICATE BALANCE, directed by recent Tony Award winner Pam MacKinnon; and of course NEXT TO NORMAL, directed by Michael GreifAll the above shows have great stories, but NEXT TO NORMAL–which was a fascinating project to work on–is the one that everyone always wants to hear about.

It had opened off-Broadway with the intent of transferring to Broadway but had received less than stellar reviews. Usually this means that the life of the show is finished, but in an unprecedented move we invited Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt to come down to Washington D.C. and have a “second chance” production at Arena. They went back to the rehearsal room, made some substantial changes, and then opened the show at Arena in 2008 with most of the original cast (including Alice Ripley, Aaron Tveit, and Jennifer Damiano). It was this “second chance” production that then transferred to Broadway. As the Resident Dramaturg at Arena, my work with the show was mostly with the outreach side of dramaturgy, including running post-show discussions with the cast and creating online material for the audience.

It was interesting working on NEXT TO NORMAL before it became hugely popular–when no one knew the music and, specifically, no one knew the plot twists. Every night we had an audience who came in and had a genuine, and often visceral, experience with the story and the music. The discussions afterward with the cast and the audience have been some of my favorite ones that I have ever moderated.

And of course, one of the best moments was when Brian and Tom won the Tony in 2009 for Best Original Score and gave Arena a shout out in their acceptance speech.

Utah Repertory Theater’s production of CAROUSEL plays at the Murray Theater from August 9 to August 24, 2013. To buy tickets and for more information, visit www.utahrep.org.