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In the Broadway musical Violet, director Leigh Silverman trusts your imagination
"Every choice I made comes from the very first choice, which was not to show the scar."
So says director Leigh Silverman about her production of Violet, the 1997 musical by composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Brian Crawley that is finally making its Broadway debut at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre. If you know the show, then you know why her decision is so important.
Based on a short story by Doris Betts, Violet follows a young woman in 1964 who takes a cross-country bus ride from her home in North Carolina to see a TV evangelist in Oklahoma. She's desperate to be healed at one of his tent revivals because when she was a little girl, she accidentally got hit in the face with her father's axe blade. It left a deep, terrible scar, and Violet is convinced that if the healer can just make her pretty, then her life will change forever.
When the musical premiered at Playwrights Horizons all those years ago, the team also decided not to show Violet's scar, and for Silverman, that's the only way to go.
"We wanted a much more theatrical journey as opposed to a literal one, and not seeing the scar---that's the metaphor of the show," she says. "It's a manifestation of something that I think everybody can understand, which is something that's happened to you at an early time in your life that you have carried with you and that you feel has disfigured you."
And if Sutton Foster, who plays Violet, had an actual gash running down her face, that universal meaning might be lost. We might just fixate on her scar makeup. Instead, Foster doesn't wear any makeup at all in this production. She only wears one simple dress, and instead of a wig, she sports her actual hair, hiding behind it like a curtain when Violet feels self-conscious. That's a far cry from the brassy dames she played to such renown in Anything Goes and Thoroughly Modern Millie, but it suits a production dedicated to subtlety and restraint.
"It's about as vulnerable as you can be," Silverman says. "Plus, everyone on stage recoils with horror when they see her. In the face of that, she as a performer and Violet as a character stand in that make brave choices."
All this simplicity is rooted in what Tesori and Crawley have written. Though the Appalachia-inflected score is deeply emotional---and explodes with gospel euphoria when Violet finally reaches the revival tent---it's not designed to deliver eleven o'clock numbers and showstopping dance breaks. Even the finale isn't about razzle dazzle. "The musical ends quietly," says Silverman. "It ends on a soft moment of grace, not with a lot of pizzazz. And that's something in the musical theatre world that might make you say, 'What?!? What just happened? That's not the way musicals are supposed to end!' But we've talked a lot about how to stay true to what the story is and not feel like we have to end by setting off a balloon cannon."
Still, it can be daunting to avoid the typical Broadway tropes. "Jeanine wrote the music so that you don't have a place to applaud until some place past the opening number," Silverman says. "There's a suspense there and a momentum that starts to build that's really exciting, but not traditional. We've talked a lot about, 'Do we let people clap sooner?' Because there are adages about the way Broadway musicals 'should work.' And the way that they should work is that you should be able to clap after the opening number. And in this musical, you don't do that. I feel excited about that."
Meanwhile, Silverman, Tesori, and Crawley have also condensed the musical from two acts to one, which may surprise people who already know the show. "I think the two-act structure allowed a kind of luxuriating, and the one-act structure does not," Silverman says. "We've hopefully upped the emotional stakes and taken the casualness out of it."
She continues, "The charm and joy of this particular show is in the deep story and the beautiful music, and I thought we should get out of the way of that as much as possible. We don't need to show it all or say it all. We want to leave a huge amount to your imagination."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo of cast members Collin Donnell, Sutton Foster, and Joshua Henry by Jeremy Daniel