by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
Robert O’Hara returns to Arena Stage after directing our 2013 production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop. An accomplished director and playwright, Robert received the 2010 NAACP Best Director Award for his direction of Eclipsed, the 2010 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play for Antebellum and an OBIE Award for his direction of the world premiere of the critically acclaimed In the Continuum. Robert wrote and directed the world premieres of Insurrection: Holding History and Bootycandy;directed the world premieres of Brother/Sister Plays (Part 2) and Wild with Happy; and is currently an adjunct at NYU/Tisch School of the Arts and the Mellon Playwright in Residence at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Tell us about Five Guys Named Moe. What attracts you to this show?
I’ve never directed a full musical production professionally. I’m known as the new play guy. But I love musicals, absolutely adore them. What attracts me to Five Guys Named Moe besides the music is the opportunity to reinvent it. Louis Jordan’s music is the root for rock and roll and hip hop. He was really a night club act in a way. He was popular entertainment. People would come and dance to his music. So when Arena said to put my own take on it I immediately thought about what context I could put the play in. There was no reason for me to come here and do another production of Five Guys Named Moe like everybody else has done it. I wasn’t interested in that. So I said, “Well, what if they were a tribute group. What if the Moe’s were a modern day boy band but they sang the songs of Louis Jordan.
What if they actually were like Jodeci or Boys II Men or New Edition? What if they had that modern style but they sang these old grooves. And then I thought what if we reinvented the songs too? We got the OK from producer Cameron Mackintosh so we’re reinvigorating the songs. We’re going to add different types of instruments and put a different spin, so it doesn’t feel like we’re in the 1930s and 40s listening to a band, but that we’re listening to a tribute to that music. We’re going to make it an event — a Five Moe’s event — and a celebration of Louis Jordan’s music.
How would you describe the aesthetic of the show?
It’s going to be incredibly stylish. We’re really looking for it to be almost a night club act. I want the cast to feel like rock stars and I want to encourage them to be rock stars. This band has been manufactured. We had our own American Idol contest, basically. That is sort of liberating to say, “Okay, you’re a part of this now. Own it. Be bigger than life.”
Every number is going to be choreographed. It’s going to be a huge dance show. Which is why it required us to really search for the people who have that sort of stamina and skill set. There’s going to be flips, there’s going to be tapping, and there’s going to be throwing people around the stage. I want it to be an event in that way. We’re mixing in modern dance with dances from the period, which is so great to see.
When you’re directing, what do you look for in a writer (and, vice versa, when you’re a playwright, what do you look for in a director)?
As a director, it has to be something that’s going to keep me interested for four weeks in rehearsal. Is there a question that I can ask about the script, or a challenge that has been laid down by the playwright, to wrestle with. Because if there’s not something to wrestle with then you’re just on autopilot and I’m at a point in my career where I don’t want to travel to another place and go on auto pilot. So I look for something that brings a question. And part of the question of Five Guys Named Moe is ‘is this music relevant now?’
As a playwright, I’m looking for a director who can do something with the script that I couldn’t do. That can create on top of the script, just as I want the actors to take the script and make it their own and create something new. I look for someone with a strong dramaturgical sense and a strong visual style. That’s always exciting, to see those people.
You’re stranded on a deserted island with just your iPod. What’s on it?
Well Michael Jackson, of course. And Whitney Houston. And some recordings of my Granny talking.