About the Author:
Ever the busy man, director Alex Timbers opened two shows on Broadway during the fall season: the rocking musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and the zany comedy extravaganza The Pee-wee Herman Show. As a newbie to the Pee-wee universe, Timbers faced the challenge of helping comic Paul Reubens revive his fun-loving character while successfully bringing the manic world of Pee-wee's Playhouse alive onstage. Timbers is no stranger to unusual theatrical spectacles, having previously helmed Gutenberg! The Musical!, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant and Hell House, among others. Broadway.com asked this versatile director to talk about how he and Reubens created a visually stunning stage world for Pee-wee, and why audiences still scream when it comes to the secret word.
The television show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse always struck me as this peculiar, thrilling mix of Andy Warhol meets The Muppets. It’s alternative comedy by way of puppetry and downtown performance art. So what excited me most about directing The Pee-wee Herman Show as a stage show was the idea of working in all these seemingly disparate idioms at once and the rare chance of being asked to bring an entire comedic visual universe to the theater.
Once I read the script, I realized we would be facing some interesting challenges. The play is written like a big-budget movie with different elaborate special effects on every page. The original 1981 Pee-wee Herman Show (which subsequently aired on HBO) was also a live piece of theater, but it was substantially a sketch comedy show without a lot of puppetry involved. This production was terrific and truly groundbreaking for the way it mixed stand-up and sketch, introducing these bizarre characters and whacked-out visuals, but it was also a lot less technically complex than what we’re doing on Broadway at the moment. Even on the CBS show Pee-wee’s Playhouse, when puppets came into play there was the advantage of camera angles and editing. For example, you’d have three different Pterri the Pterodactyl puppets: one that flies, one that speaks, and one that pick things up. On stage, we need to have one puppet that does all those things and does them perfectly every time.
I went into this experience not knowing much about puppetry, but getting to watch master puppeteers Basil Twist and Sean Johnson of Swazzle at work has been a true master class. They’re both so gifted at evincing emotion out of puppets. I had some related knowledge through directing robots in Heddatron, but the various forms of rod puppets, hand puppets and marionettes (20 different characters in all) is dizzying.
Paul has historically had a great eye for identifying new talent—he helped break Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, among others—so he knew it was important to bring a fresh eye to the material while being faithful to what people remember and love about Pee-wee. In the end, we had a smart mix of people from the original Pee-wee show (cast members Lynne Marie Stewart, John Moody and John Paragon; design consultant Jimmy Cuomo and composer Jay Cotton) as well as a fresh design team representing some of the best young theatrical minds working today (David Korins, Jeff Croiter, Ann Closs-Farley, M.L. Dogg, Jacob Pinholster, and of course Basil).
As for the show itself, it’s totally thrilling to see what an impact Pee-wee’s comedy has on an audience. When Paul enters at the top of show, he gets an ovation unlike I can remember in the theater. Every night there are these true devotees in attendance. I’ve seen people who have tattoos of Pee-wee’s face, and we often meet theatergoers dressed as Pee-wee or Miss Yvonne. To me, what makes the character resonate to so many is he really is the “id” personified: he’s sweet, he’s impulsive, he’s petulant—he’s the kid with the base desires inside all of us. We can see ourselves in Pee-wee.
Ultimately, the coolest thing about revisiting one’s work on a show like this is how large a portion of every audience is not traditional theatergoers. And yet the show is a narrative-driven play with all sorts of theatrical surprises and heart. It’s not a theme park attraction or a stand-up comedy show; The Pee-wee Herman Show is causing all sorts of people to experience live theater on Broadway for the first time.