Staged at Olney Theatre Center through May 21 and co-produced by Baltimore’s ArtsCentric and Everyman Theatre, the McAllister-directed production of “The World Goes ’Round” launched last month with a diverse cast featuring Nova Y. Payton, Natascia Diaz, Karen Vincent, Harris Milgrim and McAllister himself.
In updating the revue’s songbook to feature tunes from 1992’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” 2006’s “Curtains” and 2010’s “The Scottsboro Boys” — Kander and Ebb shows that opened after that original “World’s” run off-Broadway — McAllister introduced more material written for characters of color. The director’s other major flourish: taped testimonials from performers associated with Kander and Ebb’s body of work, including Chita Rivera (an original star of “Chicago” on Broadway), David Hyde Pierce (Broadway’s “Curtains”) and Judi Dench (the West End’s “Cabaret”).
Speaking from Olney last month over video chat, McAllister discussed Kander and Ebb’s legacy, the recent resurgence of their work and the challenge of directing and performing in the same show.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: Let’s start with how you came to admire Kander and Ebb. What are the memories that come to mind when you think of their shows?
A: I remember the first time I saw “Chicago” on Broadway and I couldn’t believe there was no set. I had heard that it was running forever and everybody knew the show, and I knew the music, but I couldn’t believe that these people had completely kept me engaged for hours, just wondering what was happening and what was coming up. It really amplified my belief that storytelling will get an audience on board with or without the visuals. I think that’s part of the reason people have been so attached to them for 60 years — because you don’t need much to really engage in telling the truth of their narratives.
Q: What do you think defines a Kander and Ebb score?
A: They write songs that even the worst singers can do well with. They write songs that speak to truth. Most of their songs are poetic, but they always have a strong beginning, middle and end. There’s usually a punchline. There’s a revelation at the end. You’re building to something that you don’t find in a lot of musicals. In most musicals, you’ll ride the wave but you kind of know where it’s ending. But you hear a song like “Cabaret” and there’s a three-part narrative. You hear a song like “Ring Them Bells” [from “Liza With a ‘Z’”] and there’s a full narrative. They are not written for the idea that you have to be the greatest singer. They are written for the idea that you have to be the most honest performer.
Q: Although Ebb died in 2004, Kander just finished working on “New York, New York,” a new Broadway show featuring the duo’s music. The current season of the Apple TV Plus musical series “Schmigadoon!” is largely a tribute to their shows. Why do you think their work remains so resonant today?
A: They’ve always been ahead of their time. I think the world is just catching up to what they wrote 40, 50, 60 years ago, when they were writing about the Emcee being gender-fluid and the idea of Cliff struggling with his sexuality [in “Cabaret”], and the ideas in “Chicago” discussing prison and the treatment within, and then looking at what “Scottsboro Boys” has done. So I think they’ve always been looking at the world we’re supposed to be living in, well before the rest of us.
Q: What is the biggest challenge of directing and performing in a show like this?
A: You have to do a lot of self-reflecting, and even though you have eyes looking at you and telling you what you’re doing, you often wonder if you are keeping up with the rest of the cast because you don’t get to run things as many times as everybody else. You also have the rehearsal conversations before and after with your technical team, so you’re losing hours of sleep. It’s a whole animal of just trying to have 15 personalities and 16 pairs of eyes, even while you’re onstage. Then you have to trust that you can turn off your brain and just focus on doing the show.
Q: How does the communication with the performers change when you’re also their co-star?
A: They’ll say things like, “Can I talk to Kevin the director now?” I’m like, “Yes, I’m here.” Sometimes if I’ve seen it, I can offer insight. If I haven’t, because I’ve been focusing on my own stuff or I’m backstage with a costume conversation or lighting or projection thing, I’ll say: “I trust you at this point. We’ve had enough conversations to know that if you feel like this really needs to change, then let’s discuss what necessary adjustments you want to make.” I can’t always promise that I’ll go for them, but I am always open to getting actors to a place where we all feel like we’re seen.
Q: What made you interested in threading video interviews with stars of past Kander and Ebb productions into this revival?
A: Part of the process was about making sure that the past meets the future. It’s helpful to know these icons are still around us and these people, who are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, are still smiling and shining and rising through the ranks because of the work they’ve done with Kander and Ebb. It just gives us a connective thread to understand how we got from there to here.
Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org.