John Tillinger could quite possibly be one of, if not the most experienced man in theater today. He has appeared on Broadway both as an actor and director in 23 shows over 36 years. John has been nominated for three Tonys, and has won a Drama Desk and two Outer Critics Circle awards, not to mention various appearances he has made on television and in film throughout his career. His repertoire spans each and every genre, from the rousing comedy he appeared in 35 years ago, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, to the intense drama he directed two years ago, Judgment at Nuremberg. John's bio, it seems, reads less like a bio than it does a history of the last four decades of theater.
And yet, these days John is indeed facing a new kind of challenge: directing a musical, the scale of which he has not experienced in his well-traveled career. The musical? Second Generation's (2g) upcoming production of The Wedding Banquet, a musical adaptation of the widely-acclaimed Ang Lee film. Now in its rehearsal stage, The Wedding Banquet is a far cry from John's usual work - plays by Arthur Miller, Terrence McNally, and A.R. Gurney are his forte - but he has taken up the job for the same reason he takes on any.
"I respond to things that interest me at the time, or if I find a writer or playwright who has a unique voice," John says in his proper British accent. "This has its own unique voice."
That voice came calling when John was introduced to Welly Yang by general manager Leonard Soloway of Soloway & Levy. John was fascinated by the concept of bringing the film to the stage, and Welly was equally excited about bringing such a well-respected and experienced director on board.
"What I loved was the cross-cultural aspect of the musical," says John, himself born in Iran before being sent to England for school. "I just felt that it's something that needs to be explored."
Having John on board, Welly says, has brought in other quality theater professionals who want to work with John.
Though he admits that the musical will not be able to duplicate the film's intimacy with its audience, John is confident that 2g's will take full advantage of what the stage has to offer. Song and dance, John says, can make the story more accessible to the public.
"People can express themselves through dance and song in a way that they couldn't in the movie," John explains. Artistically, John hopes such expression takes audiences on an enchanting ride, just as Ang Lee did in the film version.
"It was a magical journey that he (Lee) took you on because of his technique, his way of putting the movie together," John says. "Hopefully we can find a similar language on stage."
And in following 2g's mantra of bringing stories to the world's stage, John will be traveling to the Far East for the first time to open The Wedding Banquet in Taipei and Singapore. While he concedes that audience reaction will be very different in Asia and even between Taipei and Singapore, John insists the show's message will remain constant throughout, as long as the team is "very clear about what we want to say about the show." The message he hopes to convey, John says, is that repression and hiding oneself are counterproductive.
"If people could learn to be true to themselves, then that's a very broad, very important lesson to be learned," he says, addressing his vision for the project. "What I want to have people feel at the end of it is to be liberated and free."
But more than anything, John hopes his foray into 2g and musicals will be enjoyable. He hopes it will humor people, move people, and ultimately, just give people a good time. After all, as only someone with nearly four decades of theater experience can attest, "we go through this very painful and difficult process to entertain a few people for two and a half hours."
"Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," John says. "I'm very hopeful that this one will."