March 06, 2019

Stro & The Merry Widow – Songs & Dances & Second Chances

If you want to get director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s attention, just say “Stro!” That’s what people have called her since she got into show biz in New York 35 years ago, first as a dancer, then a choreographer and director for some of Broadway’s top shows. Blonde, beautiful, beaming, and almost invariably dressed in black, she’ll be a regular at Lyric this fall as she rehearses the sizeable cast of The Merry Widow, which runs Nov. 14-Dec. 13.

Stroman first directed and choreographed this lavish and lively production for the Metropolitan Opera, where it premiered last New Year’s Eve, starring Renée Fleming in the title role and conducted by Lyric’s own Sir Andrew Davis. It was a big debut for the ladies; Stroman had never directed in an opera house and Fleming hadn’t portrayed Hanna Glawari in a fully staged production. (Sir Andrew has conducted the operetta once previously.) 

They all had a ball, and are excited to do it again at Lyric this fall. Not that it will be exactly the same show; except for Fleming, the cast will be new to the production, as will of course the orchestra, chorus, and dancers. And the show itself underwent some changes for its second run at the Met in May. “There’s not a lot of rehearsal time in the opera world [about four weeks vs. a few months for a Broadway show] — when you open, that’s your first preview,” Stroman explains. “Jeremy Sams [who did a brand-new translation of the libretto for this production] was able to go back in and tweak some of the jokes, make some cuts, react off the audience response, and be inspired by the performers.” With a laugh, she calls the result “a leaner, meaner Merry Widow.

Stroman got her first real look at Lyric’s Civic Opera House in May: “To be inside that building — it’s so grand and beautiful! I’m very excited about it.” The dance auditions, she adds, “went very well. In the show we have a group of dancers at Maxim’s, the grisettes, and we also have four male dancers there — they have to do cartwheels and splits and acrobatics and cancan, and they also have to sing! It was wonderful to see all the talent in Chicago, and I was able to cast it right there and then on that first day.”

What attracts her to The Merry Widow “is that it’s a mature love relationship. I love the idea of that theme of second chances. And it has music that makes me smile! I love all the melodies. And of course there are all those opportunities for dancing.” 

Stroman considers Fleming to be “perfect as the merry widow. She was born to play this part! She has a sparkle in her eye, she is strong, she is very strong-willed and yet flirtatious with Danilo, and her acting in this part is wonderful.”  The director-choreographer is confident that Lyric audiences “will love the sound of the singers, but I also want them to be entertained with their eyes. Hopefully at the end they’ll want to have a big glass of champagne!”

Lyric Opera presentation of Lehár's The Merry Widow generously made possible by the Donna Van Eekeren FoundationHoward Gottlieb and Barbara GreisMr. J. Thomas HurvisKirkland & Ellis LLP, and the Mazza Foundation.

Production owned by The Metropolitan Opera.

Photos: Ken Howard (Metropolitan Opera), Paul Kolnik, Peter Tarasiuk