Rick Ferrari spent decades turning LA Talent on-camera commercial modeling agency into a worldwide powerhouse and is now head of the West Coast Commerical/Branding division of Hollywood talent agency, Buchwald. Rick has used his formidable ability connecting innovative ideas with great talent to create the colorful, spirited, and all-around irresistible Head Over Heels, sure to be one of the 2018/19 Broadway season’s hottest new musicals.
The musical features the toe-tapping, dance-inducing music of the Go-Go’s and a book based on Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and is one of the most buzzed-about productions of the 2018/19 season. It has gained attention for its spirit and fun, as well as its diversity, inclusion, and all-around message of love. I got the opportunity to talk to Rick about his role as producer, the challenges of bringing a musical to Broadway, how the show has progressed, and I also got the inside scoop on his favorite musical of all time.
Broadway Lil: Okay, Rick, I keep hearing about this musical. I know the seed of the idea first came up in a conversation you had with your husband. Tell us about your journey to Broadway.
Rick Ferrari: Well, there was another musical that I was trying to work on, and that didn’t come through, we couldn’t get the music rights for it. I was kind of bummed because I had put a few months into working on it. But I am friends with Belinda Carlisle, the lead singer of the Go-Go’s group; and my husband was, like, “Why don’t you talk to Belinda about doing a musical with the Go-Go’s?!”
So I brought it up at dinner. At the time they were working on another project with the Bangles; but she said, “If you can do something with just the Go-Go’s I can definitely get the other girls on board.”
I was the first producer. But I needed more help. I went to Donovan Leitch to try to get me in touch with John Cameron Mitchell who wrote Hedwig [and the Angry Inch]. At that time the kind of musical we were thinking would be something that possibly looked like Hedwig. Donovan had done the road tour; he had played Hedwig on the roadshow for the touring company. And so he came back and said, “John Cameron Mitchell thinks this is a great idea but he’s busy directing a movie now and wishes us luck; but if you don’t mind, I’d like to become your partner producer on this.” I had represented Donovan when he was a model and we knew each other very well. He had just done a documentary about the Sunset Strip that I thought was fantastic — very music-heavy. So I thought I would love to have him as a partner. Why not? So we partnered and soon after that, he brought in Gwyneth Paltrow after they had a playdate with their daughters. Gwyneth was like, “Oh, my God, I’m the biggest Go-Go’s fan there is,” and so she and I had a meeting to see if we would make good partners, and we are. And lastly, our lead producer, Christine Russell, who was an executive producer on Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, was introduced to me a little over two years ago; and I kind of knew immediately that she was the perfect lead producer. So, I brought her into the fold and she has been our fearless leader for the last two and a half years.
BL: And it sounds like this show has really evolved into what we are about to see open on Broadway!
RF: Yes. In the first couple of years, we thought [the show] was basically a biography of the Go-Go’s — a musical ABOUT the Go-Go’s. But soon it evolved into this stunning idea to build the show around Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia [the classic 16th Century story of mistaken identities] and set it to the music of the Go-Go’s! Donovan Leitch, Gwyneth, and I approached the Go-Go’s and asked, “How does everyone feel about this treatment that we’ve got?” and we all kind of went “Yeah, this sounds amazing, this sounds kooky, crazy, it sounds like this could really be it!” It excited us more than doing a musical just about the Go-Go’s. We felt like successful bands become huge, and then they break up, and then they have problems – that story’s been told so much. And we didn’t realize at the time we decided to do it this way how incredibly the songs would be woven into the fabric of the book, and how the lyrics would really move the story along. But they do. And it’s incredible.
BL: That’s fantastic. And interesting that you brought together a variety of people who all added something very different, but important. How did you know what to do? Was it an instinct?
RF: I would venture to say that my strongest asset is recognizing what people’s strengths and weaknesses are, and really being able to cast them. And also to set aside my own ego and make sure I’m bringing people into the fold that are more valuable or have more experience than I do. And I don’t mind initiating a project like this and casting people that I feel bring a lot more to the table than I do. I think most people let their ego get involved and they want to be the head honcho from the get-go; and I think it’s more about building something where you can learn from everyone else you’re bringing in. Moving forward I would feel much more confident on my next project to go ahead and take the lead because I’ve learned so much from all of these incredible people that I’ve assembled over the last seven years.
BL: Broadway seems to mean a lot more to you than just producing a show. Can you tell me about your background? What led you to want to take on this huge task? Because loving Broadway and musical theatre is a particular affliction.
RF: I grew up on Broadway, basically. My mom was a theatre actress. I grew up on 43rd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues which is essentially Times Square. So, physically, I grew up on Broadway; and I also grew up figuratively on Broadway because my mom was in the choruses in many different productions.
BL: Oh, wow.
RF: And not only that but she would take me to a lot of musical theatre when I was very young. So I grew up seeing the great shows, you know, like Sweet Charity and Hair, Fiddler on the Roof and Mame–
BL: What’s your favorite of all time?
RF: I think West Side Story. To me, that probably has a special place in my heart because it takes place in Hell’s Kitchen which is where I was born and raised. And I am a product of that. My mom is Puerto Rican and my dad is Italian. They were from the two different sides, Tony and Maria. And so that story and that playground that they zoom down in the movie version was my actual playground-
RF: Yeah, McCaffrey Park on 43rd between 8th and 9th. And it was the designated playground for Holy Cross which was my parochial school. So that musical was big for me growing up. Also, Funny Girl, The Wiz is definitely up there. Hamilton!
BL: Yes, of course. Me, too.
RF: It’s such a priceless work of art. It’s so special on so many levels; and the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda is Puerto Rican and that he wrote the book, the music, and the lyrics. I mean-
BL: It’s incredible.
RF: I think it’s probably one of the best musicals ever, ever written.
BL: And it seems that the theatre, especially musical theatre, is really in your soul, Rick.
RF: I always had a love for the theatre. I never imagined in a million years myself getting involved with it from a business standpoint. My background has always been in talent representation -representing models, actors, musicians. But this project was initiated by another project that a friend of mine wanted to produce where I had introduced many of the pieces; and when that fell through this one fell into my lap next. So it was clearly something that I was meant to do!
BL: That’s so special that you were able to go back to the theatre after a little while away from it. It sounds like along with taking chances in storytelling, you have a real vision for this show.
RF: Yeah, I felt like a lot of musical theatre had become really homogenized and was really not innovative and clever. And I struggle a lot with cast albums, I struggle a lot with scores. I feel like many of them are extremely repetitive and pedestrian, and they really don’t try very hard to have hooks as pop music does and [the songs] just don’t stay with you. It all just feels very, I don’t know what’s the word I’m looking for, it all just feels very, very-
RF: Mundane, very unspecial. And when I hear things that scream, “I’m a Broadway song!”
RF: So what makes this show special is that we’ve taken songs that are really infectious and really you know, hook-y, great pop songs, some of the greatest. And they’ve been reinterpreted by these great vocalists like Bonnie Milligan who plays Pamela; and Andrew Durand who plays Musidorus. Oh my god, and Alexandra Socha who plays Philoclea. I mean these voices are incredible! Rachel York who plays the Queen.
BL: Head Over Heels started by premiering at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and running in San Francisco at the Curran Theater. But what’s it like to stand on the street and see your show, that was just an idea you and your husband had, now up there on the marquee?!
RF: You know, seeing it for the first time in Oregon and having it be sort of a workshop at their Elizabethan theater in Ashland was incredible in and of itself. And having it transfer indoors into the Curran Theater in San Francisco and having it change in all the ways that it did was amazing. Then bringing on Michael Mayer who is an incredible director, and James Magruder who adapted our book, and Spencer Liff who’s our choreographer, and Arianne Phillips who’s our costume designer. It’s just an incredible transformation, it’s like seeing your baby grow up, seeing your baby grow from childhood to adulthood.
The Curran Theater is on-par to any Broadway theater, in its architecture, its design, its decor, its stage. I mean everything, seating. It’s on-par to Broadway. But it’s not on Broadway. So, therefore, when you finally make it to the Great White Way I think it’s more of a psychological emotional shift than it is anything else. There’s all the same headings, the same practical budgetary stuff, and time stuff and you know union necessities. But it’s an overwhelmingly proud moment that you have and you sort of swallow, like a walnut, you’re like, “Wow, gulp. We’re on Broadway.”
BL: I love it. That sounds so exciting. Okay, so can you tell me if there were any unexpected challenges that came up in the production, and also unexpected things that were great?
RF: There were so many that we would have to do basically a day together to get through all of them. There were so many. All I can tell you is if there are people out there who are thinking of producing theatre, producing Broadway, you have to be ready for anything, you have to be ready. Expect the unexpected and you really have to stay calm. It has to be your commitment to see the show all the way through.
BL: In light of that what does it take to get a show on Broadway? And are there any secrets that you can share with the readers?
RF: I don’t know if there are secrets. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize them as secrets; I would just say that the most important thing that I did that made this a reality would be bringing in people that are experts on Broadway. You know, having the right advice, having the right team and having people that truly understand what making a musical is all about is probably the most important thing any producer can do. Know what you don’t know and find the people who can help you learn it.
BL: I’m going to remember every word of that.
RF: You have to be guided somehow. You either have to learn this business by starting out as an assistant and climbing the credit ropes and spending years just getting different perspectives from lower to higher roles with production. Or you have to do what I did and you have to bring in experts. You’ve got to bring in people that literally have made dozens of successful Broadway musicals.
BL: And it sounds like your ability to find and put together great talent has really paid off. You have a large creative team including book adaptor James Magruder and director Michael Mayer. So how does the team work together to assemble what we see as the finished product of Head Over Heels?
RF: Well, you start with your book writer, you definitely start with your book writer, and you work on the book, and then bring in the director. And once you bring in the director it sort of becomes his show in a way, which is why shows and films say “film by John Smith.” It’s just essentially [like] you’re handing them the keys to the house and you’re saying “Okay, make this a liveable house.” How do you see it? How do you design it? You cast your director just like you do everyone else. But once you cast your director you’ve got to kind of let them run with their vision in terms of changes to the script, minor adjustments, things that work and don’t work. And then you start to see that develop and you keep the guard rails on it, in terms of budget, in terms of what you want to do with the show first. They call it taking it from the page to the stage.
BL: I love that!
RF: Yeah, you take it from the page to the stage and you start workshopping it and developing it into something real. [It’s] like molding clay, building something with the rough foundation first, the framework and the structure, and then adding to it until you’re finally at the place where you’re adding the finishing touches.
BL: Okay, I have a question sort of based on that. So Michael Mayer directed Spring Awakening, which seems like a show kind of different tonally from Head Over Heels. You said it became his show. How did it become his show, what was the tone that he took with it?
RF: Wow. There’s just so much to say about that. We knew that our show was a bit too long. So it started out as kind of going through the script and plucking out, editing, and changing scenes and making them go faster, and taking out scenes that were really unnecessary in telling a great story. Making more time for musical numbers and figuring out how the musical numbers would be done, and in what style they’d be done. So it started out with a lot of script editing. Making a joke stand out, funnier. Every director’s going to give it his own flavor. It’s not unlike the way you’d have a song, music, and lyrics, and you’d have a record producer and an artist come and do their version of that song. It’s really very similar to that process.
BL: Okay, Head Over Heels is groundbreaking in a very special way. Agnes Moore, better known by her stage name Peppermint, is making history in the show by being the first transgender person to play a prominent role on Broadway. What has her presence meant for the show? Do you think it will have an influence on Broadway?
RF: I hope so. I hope that we quickly become one of many shows that utilize transgender actors and actresses on Broadway. I really do. It’s not stunt casting. Our character the Oracle [who Peppermint plays] is gender fluid; and we wanted someone who really would express gender fluidity and be non-binary; and so she was the perfect cast for it. We were looking at many different actors, some of them cisgender, some of them transgender, male, female, non-binary, we were looking everywhere.
BL: And this show challenges gender stereotypes and roles does it not?
RF: Ironically, our lead character, Musidorus, dresses as a female, disguises himself as a female. And so, there’s a lot of gender-bending in the show; there’s a lesbian romance in the show; there’s that romance with a shepherd boy who is dressed in female clothing. There’s a lot going on that has to do with acceptance, and with inclusion, and with modern love, with loving in a modern way, and having an open mind. That’s what the show is about, actually. To me, the entire production is about love and I’m really proud of all of it, from beginning to end.
BL: Aw, I love it and I feel like that is definitely something that Broadway — and our whole world — really needs right now. I can’t wait to see the culmination of your incredible journey in person at the Hudson. Thank you so much for talking with me, Rick.
RF: It was my pleasure.
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This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.