The Tony Award-Winning Director Shares the Process Behind His Latest Musical
Atlanta has a few claims-to-fame in the entertainment industry at large. From the film industry boom around Metro Atlanta to Alliance Theatre’s pre-Broadway world premiere musicals, our community has become a launchpad for greatness in the arts.
One specific entertainment industry legend we proudly claim is Tony Award-winner Kenny Leon. Famous for directing everything from Broadway productions like A Raisin in the Sun and A Soldier’s Play, to screen adaptations like Steel Magnolias and The Wiz LIVE, he has decidedly made a name for himself in the theatre landscape.
But before all of that, he was here in Atlanta.
“I always feel like I’m Atlanta’s own. Before the Tony Awards, before the NAACP Image Awards, before the Emmy nominations, I had people [in Atlanta] who knew me and supported me and loved me,” he shares. “That’s where I learned how to be a better director, a better actor, a better artist. And it’s great to come home to Atlanta and to the Alliance Theatre, specifically – a theatre that’s gone on to make its mark in the nation and the artistic community.”
As former Artistic Director of first Alliance Theatre and then Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company (which he also co-founded), his Atlanta legacy is alive and well. Now more than 20 years since he turned over the reins at Alliance, he returns to his roots to direct the world premiere musical Trading Places.
SEEING THROUGH NEW EYES
While this version will be familiar to fans of the 1983 movie of the same name, Leon is taking the opportunity to tell a new story for modern audiences.
“I always treat each piece as if it’s a brand new piece,” he explains. “I try to honor the intentions of the original, but I try to look at it through fresh eyes. [The film’s creative team], including Eddie Murphy, put some amazing work on screen. But it would not be honoring them to just copy what they did and put it on stage. Honoring them is asking, ‘How does their work inspire me, being an artist in 2022?’”
In this case, he thought a story about seeing the world through the eyes of someone very different would be perfect for today.
“I couldn’t be more excited, because the musical is about if we were actually to trade places with each other,” he comments. “With Trading Places, the reason to [adapt it now] is because of where we are in our country now, what we’ve gone through post-George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, where we are in recognizing that our differences could be our beauty.”
He believes this is the perfect story to use to explore this idea.
“We’re all different. We’re different with sexual orientation; we are different racially and culturally. And so the musical comedy explores the question, ‘If we were to trade places with each other, what would we learn? How great could we become?’” says the director.
Whenever he adapts a story, whether stage-to-screen or screen-to-stage, he considers what it is artistically that makes the story right for the new medium.
MAKING IT SING
“I’m always looking for what makes [a film] stage-worthy or what makes it want to sing. I don’t believe in taking a movie and putting it on stage,” he reflects. “So we have to say, ‘[The musical is] different because of the way we are going to cast it,’ or ‘It’s different in terms of how we are going to structure the book,’ or it’s different in some other way.”
One of the main differences between the original and his stage version is in the casting.
“The first thing I wanted to do is take that center role and make it an African-American woman. And then I wanted to take the other role and make it a gay white male,” he explains. “And so I wanted to find as much diversity in the telling of the story so that the audiences would say, ‘Okay, I see the story of the movie, but now it’s fresh, and it’s different, and it’s more impactful because it’s talking to me right now.’”
While using Trading Places to say something meaningful and timely, he emphasizes the musical is hilarious as well.
“[I’ve asked myself], ‘What can I say politically and socially while at the same time, having people laughing and rolling on the floor because that’s the art form?’” continues Leon. “I mean, the way we’re telling it is a musical comedy. So in a musical comedy, if no one is laughing, I haven’t done my job. So I want them to laugh. And I promise you, people will be laughing big time, and hopefully they’ll be humming a lot of these songs.”
After Trading Places concludes, Atlanta will have a touch of Leon’s artistic spark when his recent Tony Award-winning revival A Soldier’s Play tours to the Fox Theatre in March.
“I’m very happy because [A Soldier’s Play playwright] Charles Fuller is one of our amazing African-American writers. And he just did an amazing job with that play,” he shares. “The more eyes on the story, the more opportunity we have for impact to change the world.”
YES TO COMING HOME
Whatever the project, Leon’s fondness for Atlanta has kept him coming back. And especially getting to be here for an extended time with Trading Places, he is excited to be home.
“I said yes to [Trading Places]. And I said yes to coming home,” Leon expresses. “I like to say, Atlanta is never a step to get somewhere else. I’m creating this production Trading Places for the world and it just happens to be in Atlanta. So that should make it even sweeter and more special because it’s the place I call home.”
This article appears in the Fox Theatre’s Jesus Christ Superstar edition of Encore Atlanta. Go see the show or click the cover below to peruse the rest of the program!