Making musicals fit on Hollywood Bowl’s stage

When he was a kid in the 1960s, Jerry Mitchell visited the Hollywood Bowl for the first time. “We got to walk on the stage,” he recalls. “I looked out and said, ‘This is amazing. This is what I want to do.’”

Mitchell is back at the Bowl, where he will direct and choreograph a new version of “Hairspray,” the Broadway hit based on John Waters’ film about an effervescent teen who uses a TV dance program to battle segregation in ‘60s Baltimore. The show, which runs Friday through Sunday, stars Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur — re-creating their Tony-winning roles as Edna Turnblad and her daughter, Tracy — plus Susan Anton, Corbin Bleu, Drew Carey, Nick Jonas, Darlene Love and John Stamos.

Mitchell, who choreographed the Broadway production, still considers the Bowl “a magical place,” but says he also is aware of the challenges of putting on a musical in the 17,000-plus-seat venue. Among them: “Will anybody be able to see it in that massive space?”


To address such concerns, the Tony winner plans to bring “the show down front” with a staging that keeps in mind the amphitheater’s size and sightlines, as well as its four viewing screens. He asked the Broadway production’s scenic designer, David Rockwell, to create “more of a concert set” because “this is more like playing an arena.” And he is counting on Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s score and Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book — “the show has such a big idea and message, I think it will fill the Bowl just fine.”

Brian Grohl, who produces the Bowl’s musicals, says Mitchell also can draw on “the lessons learned” since 2000, when the Bowl switched from Broadway concerts to “mostly fully staged shows” with casts increasingly made up of Hollywood as well as Broadway stars. These were single performances through 2005, when Jeremy Irons played Arthur in “Camelot.” Then, says Grohl, “We thought, ‘Why are we doing this for just one night?’ All that time and effort, plus we had an Oscar winner.”

In 2006, the Bowl adopted the current three-performance format, starting with “The Sound of Music.” Next came “South Pacific” with Reba McEntire and Brian Stokes Mitchell; “Les Miserables,” which included Mitchell, John Lloyd Young and Lea Michele; and “Guys and Dolls,” which included Mitchell, Jessica Biel and Scott Bakula. Last year, Neil Patrick Harris directed “Rent,” which included Wayne Brady, Vanessa Hudgens and Nicole Scherzinger.

Some actors have expressed interest in appearing in a Bowl musical after hearing how much fun they were, says Grohl, pops programming manager for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Some welcome the chance to perform in Broadway shows in a high-profile venue on a turnaround that fits their schedules. Brady says he wanted to be in “Rent” for years, but the timing was never right. “When I heard rumors that it would be at the Bowl, there was no way I wasn’t going to throw my hat in.”

The two-week rehearsal period has been likened to a cross between summer stock and summer camp on steroids.

And performing at the iconic amphitheater has its charms and challenges. Everyone must keep an eye on the clock to ensure ending before the Bowl’s curfew. Sundays start an hour earlier than other nights, so for much of the first act it’s light enough that, says Bakula, “you are watching people eat. You see them. They see you.”

Even so, he says, “the Bowl is a unique, extraordinarily beautiful place … you feel so embraced and so supported.”

“As the house lights go up at the end you really understand how many people watched you perform,” Brady says.

“Rent” was among the most popular Bowl musicals, along with “Les Miserables” and “Sound of Music.” “Les Miz” was one of the most elaborate stagings, requiring, among other things, so many costumes the Bowl imported the Broadway originals.

“Hairspray” isn’t quite as epic. Mitchell, after all, believes in “the human touch” — including actors’ ability to connect with the audience. That’s one reason he wanted Fierstein and Winokur, stars of the Tony-winning 2002 Broadway production.

Mitchell calls that show, which was directed by Jack O’Brien, “one of the most heartfelt musicals I’ve worked on.” He says the Bowl version will try to “embrace that heart and the music. My instincts tell me the power of the music and the musical will translate to the back row.”