Veteran Chicago director Anna D. Shapiro has performed a wide variety of plays over a distinguished career spanning more than thirty years. The Tony Award winner and former artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theater is primarily associated with cutting-edge and contemporary works. One genre you won’t see represented in Shapiro’s canon is musical theatre.
The perception is that the Broadway musical is the opposite of everything Shapiro stands for, a characterization she doesn’t disagree with. “If you had spoken to me four or five years ago,” Shapiro says between rehearsals for “The Devil Wears Prada: The Musical” at the Nederlander Theater, “I probably would have said the same thing. That’s one of the reasons it took me so long to find a musical that I wanted to do. I actually started doing a few and both times I had to quit. Our goals were different. For me, the goal is always a story that helps people understand how to live. I would say that the great musicals do that too, right? Great character-driven musicals change people’s lives, but they’re rare. Let’s be honest. It’s an incredibly difficult medium.
In the case of “The Devil Wears Prada,” the fact that Elton John was writing the music was irresistible to Shapiro. “I can’t lie: I love Elton John. I’m a fifty-six-year-old upper-middle-class white woman and I can sing all of her albums from start to finish. And I will say this about him and anyone who knows his work knows this: his albums that I grew up with are stories. He is above all a storyteller. So you’re really excited about that potential.
Given Shapiro’s signature association with Steppenwolf, does she think an audience is going to be interested in her doing a musical? She laughs at that thought. “Well, I think you could say that Steppenwolf audiences aren’t always interested in what Steppenwolf does. As a director, you do work that you want to share. It really is that simple. But there are things I want to share that don’t fit the Steppenwolf brand. My association with Steppenwolf is deep, enduring and meaningful. But there are other things I do that don’t fit that. It’s not a hostile contradiction, it’s a wonderful duality.
“I’m going to be totally honest. The really fun thing about walking away [last year] to be the artistic director of Steppenwolf and no longer be part of the team is that for the first time since the age of twenty-five, I am making decisions for myself. What is beautiful is that there is a corollary between this and what happens to the protagonist of “The Devil Wears Prada”. Even though she may have learned it twenty-five years before me, in the end we have to follow our own affection. We just have to. And we must do so in a way that is not harmful to others or the people we love.
Shapiro is clear that this is not just an arbitrary autobiographical detail, but an archetype that has affected the entire company.
“It’s been really moving and important and central to all of us that at the heart of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ is a young person trying to figure out how to live. And that’s why it’s an eternal story. You think about that at twenty, you think about that at fifty, I bet you think about that at eighty, and that’s why through this very particular story about this very particular young woman in this very particular milieu, there is universality.
Another crucial aspect of “The Devil Wears Prada” which is a carryover from the book and the film is fashion. “I don’t think fashion is superficial or silly, even if it has superficial and silly components. I would also say that fashion has dangerous components.
“But when you think about the art of fashion and how it has helped to deliver to marginalized people: gay men, trans people, women, right? Sometimes you can wear the outfit before you can be the person. And this outfit helps you. It’s the flag you put in the sand, I’ll get there. But until I can get to that point, it helps. And I can confidently say as a woman that I’ve often used what I’m wearing as a defense, as a way to get well.
“Our costume designer, who is a genius, says, ‘Look, fashion is relevance. That’s fashion. It’s the relevant moment in time that you’re in. There’s real designer fashion in our show.
In a video shown at a Broadway press conference in Chicago that featured the creative team behind ‘The Devil Wears Prada: The Musical’ last month, Elton John spoke about Shapiro’s enthusiasm and involvement at all recording sessions.
“I was part of the storytelling that led to the lyrics and the music that we developed from scratch. And that’s what I love to do,” Shapiro says. percent of what I do is new work. So I have to be part of it. Elton is amazing because he respects, appreciates and is curious about the mastery of others. Here he is, this international superstar, a treasure for everyone world, and an incredible philanthropist who is changing the face of AIDS treatment around the world. But when he sits down with me in the recording studio, he wants to know what I think of what he does in terms of the how this plays out in the story. So I think we all felt like equal collaborators in developing and building this in terms of what we can deliver. It was really amazing. It was really fun.
As with Elton John’s “Aida,” which had its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago in 1999 under the Goodman Theater’s longtime artistic director, Robert Falls, Chicago is also the launch pad for “The Devil Wears Prada.” .
“When I got the job, grateful as I was, [I thought,] if the out of town try can’t be in Chicago, I can’t do it. It’s as much about my family as anything else. I have two young children so I don’t take much work out of town anymore. I certainly can’t be anywhere but New York.
“But the other benefit for me is that I know and trust the audience in Chicago. I’ve developed new work with that audience throughout my career. I trust them and love them. And I look forward to sit in a room with them and watch them watch it, I know they’re going to tell me what works and what doesn’t like they’ve been doing for twenty-five years.
“The Devil Wears Prada: The Musical” airs through August 21 at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 East Randolph, broadwayinchicago.com.