- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 9, 2001

Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer is a tri-city man: He directs plays and musicals in Washington, New York and London.
His schedule must make him one of the busiest men in his business.
In March, he began a new role as development director scouting new material for SFX, the huge entertainment company responsible for "The Producers," among other hit shows. The job requires him to be in New York two days a week to work with both new and renowned writers such as John Kander and Fred Ebb. Already, he has six projects under way.
Simultaneously, he is involved in a new musical for Signature based on the civil rights movement, called "The Gospel According to Fishman." In addition to directing next seasons "Grand Hotel" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at Signature, hes also at work on a long-term basis with a new play by Heather McDonald called "When Grace Comes In." Signature is in Arlington.
He goes to London the last week of this month to fine-tune a new cast for "The Witches of Eastwick," a rousing old-time musical at the Prince of Wales Theatre that may move to Broadway next year — just as Signatures "The Rhythm Club" did.
Mr. Schaeffer has built a national reputation for his interpretation of Stephen Sondheims work. "Ive been lucky, " he says. "I get to work with plays as well as musicals."
He denies any plans to leave the Washington area, which he finds to be "a great safe environment" and "a great playground for myself where we can try out new shows before an audience that is supportive."
A better question might be how this boyishly self-effacing 38-year-old is "Putting It Together," the title of the Sondheim revue that opened recently to rave reviews at Signature. (A college major in commercial art, he both directed and did the set design for the production.)
On Thursday, the Kennedy Center announced that Mr. Schaeffer will direct two of the six full-scale Sondheim musicals to be presented in repertory form at the Eisenhower Theater for a total of 94 performances beginning next May. They are "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Passion."
The Kennedy Center, in an unusual outreach move by that institution, had named Mr. Schaeffer as artistic director of the project, called a Sondheim Celebration. He had met new Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser in London when Mr. Kaiser still was in charge of Covent Garden and Mr. Schaeffer was directing "The Witches of Eastwick."
Mr. Kaiser, who didnt know Mr. Sondheim, asked Mr. Schaeffer what he thought the eminent composer and lyricist would say about the idea of a Sondheim series.
Mr. Schaeffer had directed acclaimed versions of "Sweeney Todd," "Passion" and "The Assassins" at the fledgling Signature, which has been around for nearly 12 years and grown to have a budget of $2 million. (He also has directed "Putting It Together" on Broadway, with Carol Burnett, and at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. He also is doing Mr. Sondheims "Company," which debuts Signatures free outdoor concert series at Arlingtons Lubber Run Park June 20 to 24.)
"Michael is so smart," Mr. Schaeffer says of Mr. Kaiser. "He said, 'You know we need to do something that is going to attract international attention — not just national attention — and what would that be? He loves Sondheims work and always has. That was when we said, like, 'Look, this would be the perfect thing."
Fortunately, Mr. Sondheim thought so, too, and agreed to the plan over drinks in his New York home with the two
"He was totally flattered about this. I mean, how many times do you get an institution like the Kennedy Center wanting to present six musicals all at the same time? Its unheard of."
Mr. Schaeffer describes his affinity for Mr. Sondheims work, which he acknowledges is "difficult material," as "one of those things where you know you have a personal connection to it. I almost feel like Sondheim speaks to me."
His first exposure to the work was as a teen-ager on a trip to New York with classmates from high school in Kutztown, Pa. He saw "Sweeney Todd" and did not understand it. "And then it won the Tony award, and I thought I should go again, maybe Im missing something. You remember I came from Amish country, where you didnt see shows or know shows.
"So I went and saw it again, and it was a totally different experience. I bought a good seat and just fell in love with it. Ever since then, I was just like 'This is amazing stuff.
"I think people who like like to work harder. You can be entertained with him, but you also go with him on a journey to learn something. You have to listen in a way you dont do at other shows."
A different cast changed the tenor of the three versions he has done of "Putting It Together," he suggests. "When I did it in New York , people kept saying, 'Oh, you cant put comedy in Sondheims songs; his songs arent funny. But I almost see it as non-traditional casting. When we did 'Sweeney Todd with Norm Lewis, if I had done that 10 years ago they would have said, 'You cant do a black 'Sweeney Todd. Its the same thing: You cant put a comedian in Sondheim. Maybe its ahead of its time the way much of Sondheim is."
The Kennedy Center project has hit the ground running. Six casting calls have been held for local actors. Leads will be announced in late summer or fall, about the time auditions take place in New York. A set designer has been chosen — New Yorks Derek McLean, with whom Mr. Schaeffer did "The Rhythm Club" — and the idea of a set within a set is fixed.
"The schedule is very fast moving. It never has been attempted like this," he says.
Mr. Schaeffers enthusiasm is contagious. He clearly loves his work and punctuates many of his sentences with an infectious laugh that is almost a cackle. If there is a single secret to his success, he says, its his being well organized. He also is likable.
He doesnt drink coffee or Coke and manages his schedule by not sleeping more than six hours a night. He uses his trips to and from New York on Amtrak like an office, and he exercises several times a week on a Nordic Track. Hell take a weeks vacation at North Carolinas Outer Banks with extended family members in July.
Perhaps the best trick of all is using his cell phone for outgoing calls only. Signature assistant Lisa Hanson says she has six numbers for which to reach him and not even she knows the cell phone number.
"I can get ahold of anyone I need when I need to, but they cant call me," he chortles during an interview at Signature the day after attending the Tony Awards.

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