Michael Arden brings his knack for the miraculous to The Wallis

By Maureen Lee Lenker

Michael Arden is on a mission to make Los Angeles an epicenter  for world-class theater Photo by Luke Fontana

Michael Arden is on a mission to make Los Angeles an epicenter for world-class theater
Photo by Luke Fontana

Michael Arden and Deaf West Theatre rocked the theatrical world when they staged an American Sign Language version of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s coming-of-age musical “Spring Awakening.”

In a small Downtown L.A. theater and later on the Beverly Hills stage of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Arden and his Deaf West team did the miraculous — they made the speaking sign and the deaf sing. Hearing actors performed alongside deaf ones, creating a magical mix of music, movement and sign that transcended language barriers and pulled at heartstrings.

“If rippling goosebumps are any indication of emotional involvement, this show delivers,” the L.A. Times raved of the production’s 2014 run at Inner-City Arts.

The 2015 Wallis production even got the attention of the naval-gazing world of New York theater and made a go on Broadway, garnering Arden a 2016 Tony nomination for his directing.

Arden, 33, will bring his pioneering directorial imagination back to the Wallis this fall as its inaugural artist in residence. For his first act in the new role, he’ll helm a production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” that opens in November.

“There’s a storm a-coming in Los Angeles theater,” Arden proclaims. “I believe that Los Angeles could be a really dynamic force in the American theater, and I wanted to devote myself to that as much as possible.”

It is this belief — what Arden calls his “manifesto” — that led Wallis Artistic Director Paul Crewes to offer Arden the influential role of artist-in-residence. Crewes and Arden will be developing the responsibilities and reach of the position over the course of the 2016-17 season.

“We’re sort of inventing a track that other artists can then make their own, add to and subtract from and change and shift,” says Arden. “We’re definitely going to be making it up as we go along.”

So far Arden’s plans include leading master classes, helping develop new work for future seasons through readings and workshops, and directing two productions — including a June 2017 staging of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s “The Pride,” which he hopes to make a centerpiece for LGBT community outreach.

But first comes “Merrily We Roll Along,” which Arden calls both “one of Sondheim’s greatest musicals” and “an American cautionary tale.” The story follows three friends — Frankie, a successful composer; Charley, his lyricist; and Mary, a writer — backwards in time, unpacking the tumultuous history of their friendships and careers in show business.

Because of its insider look at the entertainment industry and scenes that play out in Beverly Hills, “I thought it would be a perfect musical for Los Angeles,” says Arden.

Though he’s reluctant to give anything else away, Arden says the notion of “how time is both a character and a sort of fatalistic force in the play” is one of the themes driving his interpretation. Arden promises a beautifully-designed show that is “going to be different than any production you’ve ever seen,” even for those who are already fans of the musical.

First penned in 1981, “Merrily We Roll Along” has been praised for its score, criticized for its book (the scripted material between songs), reinvented through six major re-stagings and undergone several rewrites over its 35 year history. But in Arden’s imaginative hands the troubled musical may finally find its way.

Arden said he wants to use his up-coming year at the Wallis to showcase both new work and innovative interpretations of previously produced plays. His greatest hope as artist-in-residence is to use the role as a platform for a national clarion call for Los Angeles theater and its potency.

“I see no reason that Los Angeles should not be as important of a theater-making entity as New York. The artists working and residing in Los Angeles are truly world-class and have so much to offer,” Arden says. “I’m hoping to be able to produce work that is seen by Los Angeles audiences — made for them by Los Angeles theater-makers — and can also be seen elsewhere afterwards to show the world we’re a force to be reckoned with.”

“Merrily We Roll Along” runs from Nov. 22 to Dec. 18 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. Tickets are $29 to $89. Call (310) 246-3800 or visit thewallis.org.