Inspired by the film An Affair To Remember, Sleepless In Seattle — both the film and musical theater versions — portrays love and relationships prior to Match.com, eHarmony and speed dating. Pasadena’s premiere of movie magic as a musical brought romance to the stage, and I venture to guess, historical fascination to the younger crowd. On opening night the curtain rose on a giant map of the United States and we watched two lonely people on opposite ends of the country connect via a car radio without SiriusXM and non-stop music.
The beautiful courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse was packed with people milling about, anticipating seeing one of their favorite films live onstage. We would soon be reminded what it was like when a widower was matched by a real friend visiting him at home — not a Facebook friend connecting on the RSS feed. We’d meet his adorable son who knows how to write a letter using paper vs. typing an email on his computer and who probably spells “you” with three letters instead of one.
On the red carpet I chatted about it with Melora Hardin (The Office) who has known her husband Gildart Jackson (currently hosting ABC’s new series Whodunnit) for 25 years. “We haven’t been married that long but it’s almost 16 years, so no, we didn’t meet in cyberspace. Actually we experienced one of those movie moments where we stood across the room at a wrap party of a movie I starred in; we gazed at each other and realized we would fall in love. He asked me to marry him on our first date as a joke, but said he sort of knew. ”
In the film, the character Annie says, “Destiny is something we invented because we can’t stand the fact that everything that happens is accidental.” What do you think, destiny or serendipity? Hardin smiled. “I do believe in destiny and that there is more going on than just the obvious. I think we have a trajectory, but what we do affects what comes and it can change all the time based on choices we make. I think we’re humans on earth doing earthly things while moving through the world in an earthly way, but I also believe there are energies at play, angels working, things like that.”
Hardin is also a singer and songwriter. “The composer, Ben Toth, is my musical director. We’ve been working together for six years. Also, I’m a good friend of Sheldon Epps, so I’m excited for both of them. I came to the workshop production and thought it was wonderful.”
Producer, director, choreographer Kenny Ortega was positively effusive when asked what brought him to Pasadena tonight. “I am so excited to see the first work of my dear friend Ben Toth, who is a brilliant composer, teacher and mentor. He’s been instrumental in many projects I’ve done and so helpful to many people. I’m here to support him in this new and wonderful venture.”
It has been said that people who love once are likely to love again. True? “Hmm. I’d say yes, because I believe once you feel it and know what it is you will always thirst for that feeling to live inside you again.” Does that mean you believe we have more than one soulmate? Ortega paused a few seconds, so I asked if this was getting too heavy. His infectious smile grew even wider. “Oh no, I just had to think for a minute. I love so many people and things and music and dance and traveling….” He trails off then adds, “Love for me is a big word and it has a big ceiling. In terms of soulmate, I have to say yes, I think you can meet more than one.” He laughs. “And, I want to believe that because I’m still looking.”
I couldn’t let Ortega go without asking whether it was true he may be doing a remake of the film Dirty Dancing. “It was on the boards last year, but Lionsgate decided to pull away from it. We were into the casting process and saw many amazing men and women. There is so much talent out there — bigger and greater than ever. We were talking about going further into a musical direction with the film by bringing in more singing. One day we’ll return to it.”
If you watch Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance, you’ll recognize Emmy-nominated choreographer Spencer Liff who choreographed Sleepless, his first original musical — quite a coup for this young man. Liff looked handsome and chic in a purple shirt and black jacket with thin black satin down the lapels. “I’ve done revivals, but this is a whole different beast. It can be anything that comes out of the director’s and your own imagination. It involved an unbelievable amount of creativity and I’ve enjoyed that.”
What is the biggest difference between this and all the dances you’ve choreographed on SYTYCD? “You’re telling a story for two hours as opposed to 90 seconds and you get to have a real choreographic arc in a show by finding moments that pop along with some very simple things. Also, this is a cast of incredible singers and actors but none of them would call themselves primarily dancers. Everyone is dancing more than ever before in a show and they love it. My assistant and I found interesting movement derived from pedestrian qualities that anyone is capable of doing. You build on that and find the story in it. I don’t believe in doing movement unless it drives the plot forward.”
Musical theater fans who watched NBC’s recently canceled series Smash saw Liff dance almost weekly throughout Season One. “Yes, I officially moved out to LA during their second season, so I didn’t get to do that one. I was sad to see it go, but very proud of what it did to represent our community. It was a joyous place to work and a cool thing for New York to have a show like that.”
How did this young dancer transition so quickly into the role of choreographer? “I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to choreograph. My first job was with Tommy Tune when I was six years old and in the first national tour of Will Rogers Follies. I watched him work and knew that was my goal. I was on Broadway when I was 10 years old and started to align myself with choreographers I wanted to learn from.
“I began to assist at a very young age. Rob Ashford [Tony-winning choreographer for Thoroughly Modern Millie] was my mentor and I worked on three Broadway shows with him. What really catapulted it for me was when I got SYTYCD. At the time, I was the youngest choreographer who didn’t begin as a dancer on the show. I had six days notice and that was five seasons ago.”
Sleepless had a 5 pm early curtain, so when guests gathered in the courtyard for the opening night party, we were blessed by a perfect California evening lit from above just before the sun was setting. Booths with food and drink represented cities in the play. I wasn’t aware that Seattle was known for a Brandy Alexander-type coffee drink but it was perfect — yummy. The Chicago booth had chicken or sausage dogs covered in peppers and onions, New York offered bowls of hot Manhattan clam chowder and my favorite city was Baltimore with its crispy crab cakes.
I put down my drink long enough to chat briefly with Nia Vardolas (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). “I absolutely loved the show. I’m here because I’m a friend of Ben Toth.” Does she believe in the “magic” storyline and existence of a soulmate? “Oh yes, my husband said he knew immediately and we’ve been married 20 years. Although we didn’t meet on the internet, I think if that’s the way it happens, it’s okay; that’s just the way the magic is operating. I strongly believe there are people who are meant to be together.”
Adorable young actor Joe West plays Jonah, the young letter writer who eventually gets his Dad to the top of the Empire State Building. West was bubbling over. “I auditioned a long time ago with a Michael Jackson song and I guess they liked it because they asked me to do the workshop.” As for goals and believing in dreams, West’s smile goes directly up to his big blue eyes, “I’m 13 years old and yes, I believe that dreams come true. This is one of mine. And, it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
As I wandered back to the Seattle booth for another dreamy Brandy Alexander I ran into Charlene Tilton (Dallas). “I love the Pasadena Playhouse. I love Sheldon Epps. I loved this amazing show. Even at my age, I’m not cynical; I believe in magic and meeting your soulmate. I also believe in love at first sight. I’m not seeing anyone at the moment,” Tilton says, laughing, “But, if someone wants to meet me at the Empire State Building, I’ll be there.”
“If you love two people at the same time, choose the second one, because if you really loved the first one you wouldn’t have fallen for the second.”….Johnny Depp
**All opening night photos by Earl Gibson.