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After the unfortunate and unjust cancellation of their series Bunheads last year, writer-producers Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino moved back to Brooklyn. But they couldn’t sever ties with leading lady Sutton Foster. If anything, they paid to get closer, volunteering to produce her next project, the Broadway musical Violet. The show, with music by Jeanine Tesori, stars Foster as a girl with a tremendous facial scar. It’s funny, strange, moving, and completely worth the price of admission; it is also up for four Tony Awards this weekend. The Palladinos chatted with Vulture about their obsession with Foster and the perks of producing theatre. And just because we could, we found out about the origins of Bunheads’ Tommy Lee Jones impression-off.
When I saw Violet last month, I had no idea what it was about. It’s almost better not to know going in.
Amy Sherman-Palladino: That’s the exciting thing. It’s hard to explain to people. It’s kind of like, just go see it. It’s fun when people have no preconceived anything and they’re like, Wow.
Dan Palladino: It’s the best way to see anything, but especially that show, I think.
Amy: Even if you’re not necessarily someone who likes musicals because suddenly plants stand up and start dancing around and singing and that’s just weird, this is a musical that is so rooted in emotion and real struggles and the need for love and acceptance and not feeling like you fit in anywhere. You are going to experience a whirlwind of the most rollicking music and laughing and emotion, and then you’re having cocktails in an hour and a half [because there is no intermission], which is perfect.
I read that you saw the show at City Center last summer, when it was billed as a one-night-only concert event. How did you get involved from there?
Amy: We heard through the rumor mill that the Roundabout Theatre Company was toying with it because they suddenly had an opening in their season. We cold-called [artistic director] Todd Haimes and said, “We heard through the grapevine that you’re thinking of maybe doing Violet …”
Dan: We saw the concert that was one night, and even though there were stands and they had sheet music, they did the dialogue and the entire show.
Amy: And Josh was in it.
Dan: Two-time Tony Award nominee Josh Henry was in it. You just saw the whole thing. For us, it was like, This has to go on. What can we do to help? From agents and contacts and stuff we found out the Roundabout was thinking about it, too. We just got together with Todd, and it all happened very quickly. It had to happen quickly. We just offered financial aid because they needed it, because they were not budgeted for a musical, they were budgeted for a play. From there on, we just said to everybody, the creative team, Jeanine Tesori, Brian Crawley—
Amy: Leigh Silverman
Dan: —the director, Leigh Silverman, “We’d love to sit in on any of the process because we’re (a) fascinated; (b) geeks; and (c) fans.
Amy: And (d) stalkers.
Dan: At that point, it almost had very little to do with Sutton. She was cast in it and goes into her incredible transformation. They were kind and generous enough to let us sit in on a lot of the rehearsals, tech rehearsals, the CD recording. We were just happy to be there for anything.
Amy: We started taking our computers and just sitting in the theater and working. I think they just figured, Oh, they’re just there all the time as part of the scenery. They just got used to us being around all the time. It was just amazing.
Dan: We would spruce up the bathrooms every now and then.
Amy: We really would. Sometimes the bathrooms weren’t clean enough and they were not acceptable. We love this show! The bathrooms must be clean!
Did Sutton know that you made overtures to Roundabout?
Amy: Immediately after the concert we asked her what was happening with the show, and she said, “I don’t know. There’s rumors and I really hope it goes on, but we’re not sure.” So she knew because we attacked her immediately. And also, the show is so wonderful, the music is so incredible, but this part for Sutton was like a part of the ages.
Dan: It’s perfect for her.
Amy: It was like, When is this part on Broadway going to come along again for the lovely Ms. Foster? We really wanted her to do it. We wanted her to be tortured eight shows a week.
Dan: Weirdly, out of all the roles she’s done on Broadway, this girl who has an axe scar running down her face was actually more like Sutton than any other role she’s played. I think she would say the same thing. Emotionally, she had an attachment to her — she’s also from the South, she had a religious upbringing, she had family issues, just like 99.9 percent of us have had. You see it in her performance. We’ve seen her perform this dozens of times now, and the connection is always there. There’s no artifice to this role. And this is her natural singing voice, which she doesn’t always do. When she does the Shrek princess, she gives it more of a Shrek princess edge. When she did The Drowsy Chaperone, she had more of a sassy thing. Same with Anything Goes. This is actually her singing voice, which was really fun to hear and fun to watch her do. It doesn’t get more natural than this for her.
So, needless to say, you kept in touch with Sutton after Bunheads ended.
Dan: That goes back to (d) stalker.
Amy: There are not enough restraining orders in the world to get us away from Sutton Foster. I think she’s just accepted it.
Dan: Sometimes if you work on a movie or a TV show, you work with someone very closely, and after the job is done, you walk away and have absolutely no contact with that person, and it’s very natural. We had a weird bond with Sutton that we don’t always have with everybody we work with. We’re now just friends.
Amy: It’s a lifer thing. We’re very much entwined in her life, in her business. We’re all up in her business.
Will you be attending the Tonys with her?
Amy: We’ll be attending the Tonys, but I think she’s going to be a little busy. She has to be onstage, I want to make sure her focus is clear.
Dan: There’s a four-minute performance [from Violet] and they’ve been nice enough to ask us our opinions, so we’re working with the creative team on getting the best Violet performance. We’ll be at the Tony rehearsals and all that stuff. It’s another interesting new thing we’ve been able to do being involved with all of this.
Amy: Performing on the Tonys is a completely different animal because you’re doing it for the television audience. Everyone in the theater knows the show, so you’re adjusting more for camera, to tell the people at home who have not come to see Violet: “What are you waiting for? You will not live forever. An asteroid is going to hit the Earth at any minute, get your ass off the couch and come see Violet.” We were sitting at this rehearsal talking about camera angles and Sutton is right behind us saying, “It’s so weird that you guys are here! Weren’t we just doing this a couple months ago?” It’s very weird, but like everything in our lives that has to do with Sutton Foster, it’s quite wonderful.
What will they be performing?
Amy: I don’t think we should say.
Dan: We can say it’s a very clever mash-up of two or three different components in the show. It’s not one straight number.
Amy: It’s lovely.
In the liner notes for the Violet cast recording, Amy, you write about having gone through the “heartache of cancellation” together.
Amy: The incredibly humane — I say “incredibly” sarcastically — way they do it on ABC Family is: You’re done. You’ve shot it and then months go by before they make their decision. We were way, way, way off into our other world by the time they officially canceled it. But we’re not children. Sutton’s a pro, we’re pros, we’ve all been through stuff that’s gonna go and stuff that’s not gonna go. I think we were all pretty much aware at a certain point that it just wasn’t the right fit and it’s probably not gonna happen. The thing is, in a production situation, if they don’t pick up certain elements at a certain time — you lose your crew, and when you lose your key people, getting that back together months down the line is not doable, and everybody knows that. It was a special little time, we came together and did great work and met each other, and now we move on and can be old and drunk and sad about what happened before.
Can we talk about what went into the series’ last number, “Makin’ Whoopee”? It follows a pretty heartbreaking scene between Michelle and Ginny, and the number itself is sort of both sexy and sad.
Amy: We wanted a slightly out-of-context dance to really wrap that season up in a bang-up way. And sort of in a big way because the writing was kind of on the wall and we wanted it to feel special — not just go out on a cliff-hanger or a hug. Our wonderful Marguerite Derricks was heavily involved in that whole thing. I had a very clear picture of the outfits that our wonderful costume girl made, and the tone of it. And I wanted Sam Phillips to sing it. Those are the things I knew. Then Dan worked quite a bit on the arrangement with them. It worked out in a sad, awful, perfect way. It was a big deal. It was a bigger shot than we thought it was going to be at the time because of the big crane, and we had to take the set apart, but it turned out beautifully. We wanted to center it on the fact that our girls were at that moment right on the precipice of little girl turning into non-little girl, and that’s what we wanted the number to convey.
Do you know what would have come next for any of the characters?
Amy: We had bits and pieces in our head of what would happen, but to be totally honest, we kind of knew what was coming, so we were not necessarily — we had ideas and thoughts, things we wanted to do, characters we wanted to bring in, more relationship stuff, but we didn’t have the next season arced out or anything like that because we were busy being drunk and old.
I have to ask: Where did the Tommy Lee Jones impression competition come from? Dan, I know you directed the episode …
Dan: Originally the pitch was dueling Lincolns, because of the Daniel Day-Lewis Lincoln movie. It struck me, the idea of two young men obsessed with Lincoln. It would be very natural to have them have a Lincoln-off where they’re doing different things. I originally wrote it with the scene where he says, “Now! Now! Now!” Very Daniel Day-Lewis. And then at the last minute we didn’t get the rights. We needed some sort of permission, and the network insisted on getting that permission, so at the last minute we had to find something different. That was tricky. We were running out of time and finally we just thought … what was that movie called again?
Amy: Hope Springs!
Dan: I watched that over and over again to find things for them to do. I think I found just enough. It was a long journey, but we wound up in some eccentric place where — You’re remembering it, so we hit some sort of chord!
Amy: The Lincoln thing went to the table read, and it was really funny and totally killed. The boys all knew Daniel Day-Lewis doing Lincoln. Then we changed it, and it was one of the funniest things ever — everybody was like, “What are they doing? What impression are they doing?” They watched Hope Springs and they did their actor stuff, but it was so weird watching them do Tommy Lee Jones in Hope Springs. Not just Tommy Lee Jones, but Tommy Lee Jones in Hope Springs.
Dan: More surreal, which is sometimes funnier.
Amy: Those boys threw themselves 510 percent into two impressions that they had no idea about.
Dan: I have a fantasy of some assistant sitting with Tommy Lee Jones in New Mexico or wherever he lives, saying, “Have you seen this?” And Tommy Lee Jones going, “What the hell are they doing? What is this? Is that funny? I don’t even get it.”
Amy: We’ve got irons in the fire. TV, film, that sort of stuff. They’re not real until they’re real, but we’ve got stuff going on. They’re not rid of us yet!