Jeff Calhoun | Photography by Dirty Sugar
When Broadway director Jeff Calhoun received a call in 2013 about a new musical about a family from West Monroe, Louisiana, he didn’t know much about Duck Dynasty, A&E’s megahit reality show about a hunting family in the Deep South.
“I guess I’d seen promos of it, the guys with the beards,” he says. “But I’d never seen an episode.”
When he was told they were looking for a director for a new musical adapted from a book by Willie Robertson and his wife Korie — and that Michael David was producing with Tommy Mottola — he said he needed to read it and hear the music before making a decision. “I did, and I loved it," he explains. "It had a great deal of heart and it moved me and the music was kick-ass. The score is amazing.”
With music and lyrics by Robert and Steven Morris and Joe Shane, and a book by Asa Somers (who famously played Boy George in the Taboo musical on Broadway), Duck Commander Musical may have seemed like a lark, a wacky creative gig after Calhoun’s huge success directing Newsies on Broadway. Everything changed later that year, however, when Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynasty patriarch, was quoted in a GQ story making bigoted comments, comparing homosexuality to beastiality as well as making comments about race. The backlash was immediate and many people questioned why Calhoun would sit in the same room, let alone work on a musical, with the Robertson clan.
Now that the musical finally opens April 15 in the Crown Theater inside Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, many are still left wondering how an openly gay, liberal New York City-based theater director has managed to stick with something that originally seemed like the punchline of a joke.
Having just opened Freedom’s Song in Washington, D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre, and preparing to head to Las Vegas to begin rehearsals on Duck Commander, Calhoun explains how Willie Robertson visited him there in the breakfast nook of his Upper West Side apartment— his “first gay apartment” — to assuage his concerns over the homophobic comments made by his father, and why he hopes this bit of entertainment, with its opening number “Faith, Food, and Family,” may open up a dialogue between disparate communities and heal a polarized nation. “It’s been profound for me,” Calhoun says. “If this show were to open and close in one night, I think all of the creative team would consider it an invaluable experience because of the education and self-reflection that we’re all going through. You can’t say that about every show you work on.”
Out: Everyone wonders: Is Duck Commander camp? How do you make a musical based on something that already seems like a joke?
Jeff Calhoun: I know, it’s intriguing isn’t it? It’s fascinating fodder for the stage. They’re very eccentric, a lot of them, they’re a quirky and strange family. For god’s sake, they make their living off of duck calls.
Well, they make millions off of merchandise now…
But without the duck calls, there would have been nothing. They talked about that: It really is a true American rags-to-riches success story. But I don’t know, there are a lot of shows that have strange plots. If you pitched it, someone they would think you’re out of your mind: from Sweeney Todd to Urinetown to The Book of Mormon. So I think that’s actually a plus. It’s not a boy meets girl in the first scene and you’re waiting for the wedding. I find it highly compelling.
People could be cynical and say: You’re working on this because you have a built-in fan base and have this pile of money and you’re going to make a hit. Especially since it’s being produced in Las Vegas instead of in another city, such as Toronto. Chicago, or San Francisco.
I don’t know, I choose shows that really interest me. You’re not in the theater because you want to get rich. You go to Hollywood for that. Yes, sometimes you’re riding waves of successes, but you know it’s going to crash and you’ll have to go out and catch another wave, if you’re lucky. No one on this show is going to get rich, I can tell you that. We’re in a very modest showroom in Las Vegas.
But to address your question about Vegas: It’s one of the great entertainment cities in the world, and I haven’t done that yet. And as I said, my career is very eclectic.
I love Las Vegas, and all the shows are spectacular there, but the irony is that we’re not going to be a huge Vegas show, like Celine Dion. It’s going to be a modest entertainment that I hope will surprise a lot of people — that they’re actually going to be moved. I think that’s the last thing that they think when they see this musical.
Since I haven’t read it or seen it yet, is it a religious play? I think people might think it’s a Christian play.
No, it’s about this eccentric family that went from rags to riches and lived the American dream. And through it all, because of their strong faith, have kept together.
Isn’t the tagline, “Faith, Food and Family”?
That’s the opening number. And when you go down there, you really understand how important those three things are to them. I have to tell you, they are great poster children for Christianity. I find a lot of Christians to be very hypocritical, and I see Willy’s struggle with dealing with these issue and his willingness to educate himself as very Christian.
For Christmas, I gave him the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So. It deals with exactly what we’re dealing with, and I thought it was important that his family see this movie since it showed my motive. This is about both of us growing and getting out of preconceived notions about people different than us. It’s easy to roll your eyes when people talk about Christianity because of controversy in the Catholic church — it’s an open target. It’s like Phil: It’s not hard to make Phil a target. That’s easy. More difficult is to get to know the rest of the family and how they feel. All I can tell you is that, as someone who doesn’t consider himself a Christian, they give Christianity a very good name.
You started working on this at the beginning of 2013 and then Phil’s proudly homophobic comments came out at the end of that year, what was your reaction?
Like everybody else, all of our friends, I was angry, I was saddened. It was deplorable, what he said. But you have to remember, we had all become a sort of family, the creators, and I had brought on designers, lights, costumes, projections, casting directors, choreographer. We were all stunned. I guess that’s where the soul searching began. Why do we want to do this. Should we do this?
Did you think about quitting?
Absolutely. I spent a couple very difficult nights, called a couple of very close friends, and some were understanding and some were not. Some were, like, "How can you even be in a room with these people?" I didn’t know if I could go forward with this show. My career means too much to me for one show.
One of my friends asked me some very pointed questions that I didn’t have the answers to. I realized before I quit, I needed to talk to Willie and ask him some direct questions and my proceeding with this show would be contingent on his answers. So I called him up about 10 days before Thanksgiving [in 2014], and I told Willy that I had some serious questions and my future with this show was in jeopardy. He said, “I’m going to be in New York at Thanksgiving, can it wait till then?” I said, “It really can’t wait. This is a very serious issue.” To Willy’s credit, he cancelled a very lucrative hunting gig he had in New Mexico, and he was in this apartment 24 hours later from West Monroe. I had great respect for that. He came in and Michael, my husband, was here. I thought that was important. He was here for about an hour and then had to go to work. One of the first things Willy said when he came in was, “Guys, I gotta level with you. This is the first gay apartment, or home, I’ve ever been in. And Michael thought, That you know of. But it was certainly his first out gay couple’s apartment.
It was a big deal, and that was the first time I realized that we’re both going through quite a journey. He sat down right where you’re sitting now, and he said, “What can I do for you?” I said, “I gotta know, does your family agree with what your father said?” And he said, “Of course not. I have never even heard my father say that word my entire life, bestiality. It’s just ridiculous.”
But I asked: “What do I say to my friends who say your silence makes you complicit?” He said that was a fair question, and he explained that at that point, A&E had a gag order on all of them. He said, “Jeff, as a family we talked about it, and we didn’t want to lose our show.” But he also said that was over a year ago and asked if it would help if he said something now. I said it would help because, unfortunately, the family is suffering the sins of the father. Because when you mention Duck Dynasty, they don’t think of this loving, wonderful, open family, they think of the father. He said, “OK, let me think about how to handle that.”
I asked what about people who say: “How can you work with a family that is making so much money based on bigoted comments and reputation?” And he replied: “Jeff, when my father said that, we lost so many sponsors, our ratings went down. It really did hurt us and it rocked our world.” It was very moving. He also said to me, “Jeff, you know, I have people to the right of me who think I’m going to hell because I have an occasional drink. Because I let my daughter go to Hollywood and dance on TV. If they knew I was in this apartment, they would think I had lost my mind. He explained that those people will probably never change their minds. Willie said, “I’m interested in the majority of the country that I believe are open-minded enough that when they see my family working with your friends, that we’re going to build bridges.”
That was my quote in the New York Times, about building bridges. I didn’t know if he had stolen that, or if he believed it. But I looked him in the eyes, and I have two god-given talents: tap dancing and I’m a great judge of character — which helps in casting. I took him at his word. We had such common ground. It was about meeting each other halfway. It could become more than just an entertainment but an opportunity to enlighten people. As corny as that sounds, it’s already been happening.
I can tell you firsthand that he is broadening his horizons, and it’s because of this experience. It’s also because he’s the kind of person who is willing to take that journey. And that’s the family that I know. He goes on record all the time to explain that Phil is not a spokesperson for his family or for the show. They were raised to respect their parents, so they won’t publicly disrespect their parents. and I respect that, I wouldn’t do that to my parents. Some people really do believe that blood is thicker than water.
I think people were worried that you had become the apologetic mouthpiece for this family.
I needed to know if that was true or not. Absolutely. Because if that had been true, we wouldn’t be here having this discussion right now. What I would love to happen, I would love the audiences to like the show enough that this could open up a bigger dialogue.
The Robertsons, the family behind the A&E series 'Duck Dynasty.'
So what did Willie end up doing?
He stayed for four hours. We really bonded. Willie asked, “Would it help if I said something, after the silence for a year?” Then, 20 minutes after he walked out that door, he called me back and said: “It’s done. I called Sean, I’m going on tonight." I didn’t know who Sean was, obviously I’m not an avid watcher of Hannity. But he went on Hannity that night. They taped it at 5 o’clock. The Ferguson thing had just happened, so it had gotten pushed back a couple of days, but to his credit, he went on and spoke to his audience, his fan base, and said the family did not agree necessarily with what the father said. I have nothing but respect for he and Korie. Since then, he’s been even more vocal. That was the first step for him, and he didn’t have to do that. He’s also taking a big chance.
The fact that he hired an openly proud married gay man to direct his show, to turn his book into a musical, and then had no problem with the entire creative team and some of the actors being gay, I think that speaks volumes. I would just love people to understand that it’s a two-way street. If he’s willing to walk the walk like that, we should be willing to open open our hearts to people who are an easy punchline.
And the production will somehow incorporate what happened with Phil and his comments?
Above all, it’s an entertainment, but we do not shy away from the controversy. It would be foolish not to deal with it or confront it. And we do — I insisted on it. They have also been very proud to truly reflect on it, not just on the good times, since Willie thinks of this as a play about redemption. It’s going to be a fun evening, but it’s very serious for everyone that’s working on the show. To Willie and Korie and everyone.
So now you’re at a point where you’re ready to put the show on the stage, right?
We did a couple of rehearsals in New York, but the showroom that we’re in in Vegas, it’s not really a proscenium theater, so they’re renovating the space. So during the hiatus, while I was working on Freedom’s Song, the Robertsons invited the cast to go down for a weekend to spend with them in West Monroe. So when I tell you that everyone involved with this show is truly being affected first-hand by finding common ground through the arts, it’s really moving. Oh, and I also spent a weekend in West Monroe.
How was that?
Walking in waders through the swamps to go to the duck blinds. Riding ATVs. Eating boudin balls. Shooting my first automatic rifle onto a target. And I hit the bullseye, I have to say. I realized I’m a closet redneck. I’d defy people not to have a good time doing that. It was fun. It opened my eyes. I do think tolerance, it’s a two-way street.
As I said earlier, I was in the camp that would have rolled my eyes and would have said, what’s the punchline. I was in that MSNBC camp vs. Fox. I have also tried to not be judgmental and to be more tolerant. Because it’s not just about doing shows about what you believe and with people who look like you look. It surprises me when people in the theater aren’t as tolerant as perhaps they should be.
I have to admit, tolerance is sometimes a difficult concept to swallow since it doesn’t mean actual acceptance or love. It can mean a lot of things — even, I hate you, but I’m going to let you live.
To me, it really just means respectfully disagreeing with somebody. Instead of refusing to be in the room with them. The gay movement didn’t get this far by disengaging. You have to engage with people. I’m a big Harvey Milk fan, and a friend of mine produced the movie Milk, and he said, politics is theater. You don’t have to win, you have to take a stand and say, “I’m here, pay attention.” I think this is my way to say, I’m here, pay attention, to the Robertsons and their fans. I think that’s really important.
This production couldn’t have been done without a lot of gay men and women making it happen. I think some people are worried about the talent and creativity of gay people being used by people who don’t really accept them.
We’re not working for Phil. If Phil had tried to hire me, I would have declined. If Phil was in any way part of the creative process, I would have declined and I would have left. I don’t believe what you just said is true of the Robertson family, or I wouldn’t have been working with them.
I’m watching them change, inviting me and the cast down there. I’m a very good judge of character; I’m not cynical enough to think that all of these good deeds they are doing is a ploy to get the homosexuals to put on a good show for them. I simply don’t believe it.
In New York theater, we often feel that we’re ‘preaching to the choir,’ but what about a gay couple who is in Vegas and they decide to buy tickets to the show while they’re there. How do they access it? Is it for them as well or just Duck Dynasty fans?
I’m not creating a show for any base, nor have I ever. My job is to try to make a show that I like, and I hope if I like it, the audience will like it. When I cast a show, it’s people I’d want to have dinner with, because it’s a date. I assume that if I enjoy their company and their talent, then the audience will. All I can tell you is this is a show that I like: It moves me and entertains me. I hope it does that for a huge demographic: both fans and not-fans. I won’t consider it successful if it only has one specific fan base.
Hopefully a lot of people will love the show for many years to come, but like I said, it could open and close in one night and I’d be happy — because I’m a better person because of it. And I hope that continues. I think our tragic flaw as people is our lack of memory. How many times do we have profound experiences, and we can’t remember to change? I hope that this continues to affect me and continues to allow me to grow.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.