What could go wrong? In Disaster! a new Broadway musical set aboard New York’s first floating casino and discotheque, the possibilities seem endless. This campy, rollicking take on two “What’s not to love?” entertainment favorites – ’70s pop, rock and disco hits and disaster movies featuring earthquakes, infernos, tidal waves and rampant wildlife – opens at the Nederlander Theatre on March 8. With “Hot Stuff,” “I Am Woman,” “Knock on Wood,” “Daybreak,” “Hooked on a Feeling” and other tunes as the backdrop, Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called the show “inspired lunacy.”
Disaster! is the brainchild of Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick, who have collaborated since 1993 when they co-wrote their first sketch comedies. They cast several old pals in their current parody production, some from Rudetsky’s college days at Oberlin and most of them bona fide stars who have already earned Tony, Emmy and Drama Desk Awards and nominations: The cast includes Rudetsky as well as Roger Bart, Kerry Butler, Kevin Chamberlin, Adam Pascal, Faith Prince and Rachel York, among others. Disaster! premiered Off-Broadway in 2012, had another run the next year and is now in previews until Opening Night. Along the way, it has created its own tidal wave of rave reviews and buzz.
“It’s an incredibly funny and clever play,” says Paul J. Smith, who serves as the show’s production stage manager and balances his life between homes in New York City and New Paltz. “Seth is the writer, and Jack is co-writer and director, and it’s a really fun evening, and a fun cast too.” Smith says that his role is to take all the creatives’ ideas (meaning the writers, designers and director) and what they want to see and make it happen. From scene changes to rehearsing the understudies, Smith must maintain the artistic integrity of the show when “they all go away. It’s my job to make the production be the way they want it, every show.”
People have some misconceptions about stars, he says. “People think they’re standoffish, not cooperative. Maybe that’s true in the movies, but not on the stage,” Smith asserts. A couple of seasons ago, he worked with Scarlett Johansson in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and “She was so nice – a person like anybody. She wanted to do a good job; not difficult to work with at all. I think it absolutely comes from the way you deal with people, and I deal with them the way I want to be dealt with.”
Smith avers that people worried in the ’90s about the “Disneyfication” of Times Square, “but I think it’s been an absolute blessing for all. Now, more families come here for shows than would have come here before. Last year? Largest attendance ever,” he says. “People say, ‘You’re battling Hamilton,’ but I say that if you come to see Hamilton and like it, you’re going to want to see another show. If you love Disaster! you’re going to want to see another show. The theater community is better than ever – but maybe that’s partly because I know so many people.”
Now 54, Smith grew up in Napanoch, graduated from Ellenville High School and enrolled in SUNY-Cobleskill to study horticulture. “What 15-, 16-, 17-year-old has any idea what they really want to do with their life? I like dealing with plants and trees and wildlife stuff. I was in theater productions in high school, but it never occurred to me that I could have a career in that, so I went to school for horticulture. But when I had to study plant pathology and entomology, I said, ‘Wait a minute: I have to remember all that?’”
He transferred to SUNY-New Paltz and, having completed all his Liberal Arts requirements, spent two years immersed in theater classes. Smith quickly realized that he was not good enough to become an actor, but working behind the scenes suited him perfectly. His first job after college was as production manager at the Woodstock Playhouse, and after that summer, he moved to New York City. Within five days of arriving, he landed a position in a little theater as “a lowly assistant.” That was 1983, and since then, Smith has worked steadily at a job that he says is “absolutely fun. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. I like going to work. I come in a half-hour early so I can sit by myself,” he says, “and there hasn’t been a day in the last three weeks when I’ve worked less than 14 hours.”
When asked what he might say to someone just starting out as a production stage manager, Smith has some solid advice for…well, just about anyone, regardless of career choice. “I’m a fairly straight-up person – if you ask me what I think of your hair, I’m going to tell you – but when I was younger, I could have been a bit more politic. Never think you have the right answer – just ‘an’ answer. Sometimes directors want every option in the room so they can pick among them; if your answer isn’t chosen, you’ve spurred someone on. In lean times, I always keep busy with volunteer work, for Broadway Cares, and eventually I move on to another show,” he says, rapid-fire. Then this gem: “Always do your best work, even in a bad situation.” And the story that he tells to illustrate his point shows his character, assertiveness and strong work ethic, not to mention respect and loyalty to cast members.
Smith was touring with the show Chicago, and it was very cold and started raining in Kansas City. The stage was an outdoor, open-air theater, and about 3,000 people were sitting in the rain, ready to watch the show. The business managers wanted to cancel the show, but Smith said, “Nonsense. It’s a covered stage and as long as it’s not dangerous, I’ll set up heating stations offstage for the cast. I always come up with a solution for the cast. Then the local presenter, who was paying our salary for the week, said, ‘I’m going to my office,’ and I said, ‘You are not going to your office. You’re going to stand in the rain with me. You’re asking my cast to do the show. Go get your umbrella.’ Three months later, he offered me a summer job there and said, ‘I like how you handled that.’”
Smith handles whatever comes his way, rest assured. Expect no theatrical disasters on his watch – because, you know, there’s nothing funny about that, even when the show is Disaster!
– Debra Bresnan
Disaster! Opening Night, Tuesday, March 8, 6:30 p.m., $59+, Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41 Street/Broadway, New York; (877) 250-2929, www.disastermusical.com.