By Donalevan Maines
Dan Knechtges looks for “the funny” in everything. “I have a very unique way of looking at the world,” explains the out Tony Award nominee who’s directing and choreographing the upcoming production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS).
“I think ‘the funny’ in this show is the world it’s spoofing,” says Knechtges, describing the 1960s Mad Men-type setting of the World Wide Wicket Company in New York City. “The battle of the sexes, the way people climbed up the business ladder back then—it’s funny how different it was,” he adds, noting how testosterone ruled before the patriarchy was toppled. “Just think, soon we might have a woman president.”
Or we might elect a bombastic old-school businessman. Yikes!
Donald J. Trump would feel right at home with the “basket of deplorables” in How to Succeed in Business—men such as the adulterous J.B. Biggley (who doesn’t heed the song “A Secretary Is Not a Toy”) and Bud Frump (the boss’s conniving nephew who will stop at nothing to get a promotion). Among the women are Hedy La Rue, a ditzy bombshell who exploits her sexuality to get ahead, and Miss Jones, the head secretary who wields her limited authority like a tyrant.
A funny thing is, Knetchtges has already directed and choreographed Clinton the Musical, a 2015 off-Broadway satire that poked fun at Bill and Hillary Clinton’s eight years in the White House with songs such as “The Me I See,” “What Could Go Wrong?” and “That Woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
“It was fun spoofing all sides of that, exploring the cult around Bill and Hillary Clinton,” says Knechtges. “I love politics, so doing the show was a dream come true, getting to fulfill two different interests of mine. Mostly, the Democrats in the audience liked it for the theater part of it, and Republicans liked that it skewered the Democrats as much as it did Newt Gingrich and Kenneth Starr. It was an equal-opportunity offender.”
The New York Times called Clinton the Musical “unimpeachably amusing” and “smartly silly, hilariously impudent and sneakily compassionate.”
Knechtges confesses he gets a kick out of Darrell Hammond’s impression of Bill Clinton on TV’s Saturday Night Live, but adds, “I definitely think this is a very serious election. Whoever gets elected is going to have a huge part of the country not on board, so there will be trouble no matter who gets elected.”
Knechtges hails from Ohio, that mother of all battleground states in terms of the Electoral College. In 2004, for example, when all was said and done, if John Kerry had won Ohio (as some exit-polling predicted he would) the Democrats would have unseated incumbent Republican George W. Bush.
“Ohio is always dicey,” says Knechtges. “It’s a major swing-state because it has a lot of people on both sides of the equation. It is definitely a testing ground, and particularly this election is going to be tough, with a lot of ads on TV—the really ugly part of the election.”
Growing up in Cleveland, Knechtges says, he was eight years old when he accompanied his younger sister one day to her dance lesson. “I watched and thought, ‘I can do that.’”
Like Mike (who performs “I Can Do That”) in A Chorus Line?
“Yes!” he says. “I was totally that guy. That was totally my story! Something clicked—I had to be onstage. I did plays and musicals. I liked both. But I don’t think you can beat the experience of performing in a musical. It requires your brain to fire on all cylinders. Musicals are really, really addictive, in a way. They set me off on my life’s work.”
In high school, Knechtges played Jesus in Godspell and performed in Brigadoon, The Music Man, and Damn Yankees. But then, instead of becoming a Broadway hoofer (like Mike in A Chorus Line), Knechtges followed the urging of his teachers and turned his attention to directing and choreographing.
“I think my teachers saw that nothing scares me. I am sort of a brave person,” he explains. “A lot of directing and choreographing is not just the work on stage, but how you manage. You manage the designers, the actors, the dancers, sometimes the writer. You lead the room. You lead the whole team to a great conclusion.”
Graduating from Westerville, Ohio’s Otterbein College in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in musical theater, Knechtges says, “I left college and went to New York, thinking maybe I could do this.”
Almost before you can say J. Pierrepont Finch (the cleverly ambitious hero of How to Succeed in Business), Knechtges began grabbing gigs as a dancer, teacher, choreographer, and now director/choreographer, working with LGBT fans’ faves such as Liza Minnelli and Audra McDonald, and shining a spotlight on then-rising out talents Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Cheyenne Jackson, and filmmaker Todd Solondz.
Before scoring five Emmy nominations as the out neurotic Mitchell Pritchett on TV’s Modern Family, Ferguson originated the role of “not-that-smart” Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (the sight of Leaf’s buxom sister Marigold in the audience gives another speller an erection and distracts him from correctly spelling “tittup”). The 2005 off-Broadway musical, which transferred to Broadway and won two Tony Awards, catapulted Knechtges to the big leagues of choreographing.
“Spelling Bee was phenomenal and life-changing,” he says. “One of those times where you feel you are absolutely in synch with the art that you are making and the place and time in which you are making it. I don’t know if that kind of experience will ever happen again, but I’m hoping.”
The 2007 Broadway musical Xanadu might not have given Knechtges quite the same flush of excitement, but he was honored with a Tony nomination for Best Choreography. It also led to a collaboration with the show’s out playwright Douglas Carter Beane on the 2011 Broadway musical Lysistrata Jones, in which Knechtges was enlisted to both choreograph and direct.
His experience makes him “an ideal choice” for directing and choreographing How to Succeed in Business, says Sheldon Epps, the new artistic advisor at TUTS.
“Dan is one of the smartest, most clever, and downright funny director/choreographers that I’ve had the pleasure to work with,” adds Epps. “He approaches his work with clarity, passion, and great theatricality. I know that he will bring both great respect to the material, along with a fresh approach and energy that will make it surprisingly new and exciting.”
The 1962 musical, which Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser adapted from a 1952 handbook of the same name by former mail-room clerk Shepherd Mead, won seven Tonys including Best Musical. It was also nominated for Best Revival of a Musical in both 1995 and 2011.
Some audiences might find the show quaint by today’s standards (with its heroine aspiring to play wifey in the suburbs and singing “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm”), but Knechtges loves its heart and hopefulness, even amid a backstabbing corporate world.
“Somewhere in my unique outlook on life is this enjoyment of mismatched love, when the ugly duckling becomes a swan, and the nerdy guy gets the girl,” he says.
“It’s taken me a long time,” he allows, “but there is someone in my life now.”
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.