Somewhere out there in Arkansas, even as you read this, even as it’s being written, there’s a kid whose name you don’t know now, but will someday.
That kid’s a little different from all the others. Has passions and interests and posters on his wall that might get him labeled an odd duck. Maybe she runs around with a video camera, or spends the hours after bedtime writing stories by flashlight. You don’t know that kid, but you will someday. Someday, that kid is going to make people in a theater laugh and cry.
There once was a kid like that named Jason Moore. A native of Fayetteville, Moore — who grew up with a poster from the touring production of “Les Miserables” on his wall — has spent the last 30 years expending the sweat and heartache it takes to go from Arkansas dreams to Hollywood and Broadway reality. As a director of live theater, he shepherded the groundbreaking musical “Avenue Q” from rough concept to the bright lights of Broadway, then on to the three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. As a first-time film director, Moore took a relatively scant $17 million dollar budget and turned “Pitch Perfect” — a scrappy little film about female a capella singing teams — into a toe-tapping musical hit that is quickly becoming a cult fave among millennials who grew up watching “Glee.”
Next up: a new TV show for ABC this fall, a gig directing Tina Fey’s new comedy, a deal with Warner Brothers to adapt the “Archie” comic books into a feature, and big-ticket offers from stage and screen that will keep him busy for years to come.
Though he’ll tell you that one of his first, painful lessons in show biz was that stability is fleeting, for right now at least, it’s very good to be Moore.
A little different
Jason Moore was born in Fayetteville in October 1970, to teacher Judy Moore and Rudy Moore Jr., who would go on to be Bill Clinton’s gubernatorial chief of staff and later a Fayetteville district court judge before he passed away this April.
From an early age, Moore said, he was interested in film and theater. Because his birthday was around Halloween, he always used that as an excuse to build mazes and spook houses as a kid, which he sees now as an early attempt at directing live theater. He always knew he saw the world a bit differently from the way other children did when he was young.
“As a kid, I was kind of shy, but I also felt very comfortable around adults and I was comfortable in a leadership position,” he said. “I was a pretty smart kid. I got good grades, and I cared about that kind of thing. Now, I realize that I was probably shy about being gay. I knew that I was different somehow. I look back now and think: That’s probably why I felt uncomfortable. But in leadership positions — I was president of the student council, and editor of the literary magazine and things like that — I felt more confident and in control. That’s where I was much less shy.”
Though Moore said growing up is always hard for gay kids, he believes it prepared him for the life he would eventually lead. “Growing up different makes you very observant,” he said. “I have the hindsight to look back and see that I was very aware of how people acted and how I was acting. I was always observing human behavior from a really early age and aware of human behavior. That’s really what directing and acting is: being aware of how people act and how people relate to one another — what makes you desirable, or confident, or not.”
Soon, Moore was hooked on theater, and especially musicals, listening to cast albums in his room and watching musical movies until he knew all the words by heart. “I watched ‘Grease’ a kajillion times, and I watched ‘The Muppet Movie,’ over and over,” he said. “Those were my formative, musical movies growing up. That was really my only opportunity to see musicals. At the time, touring shows didn’t really come to Arkansas.”
Moore wanted to be an actor, and started appearing in local productions at age 5. But it wasn’t until his mother took him to see the touring production of “Dreamgirls” in Tulsa when he was 16 that he said he started to think about working behind the scenes. “That’s when I realized that there was this larger world there,” he said. “That’s when I started to understand: people actually do this. It’s not just the entertainment. There’s a life behind it.”
Warren Rosenaur played a dog in the staging of “Peter Pan” in which Moore played his first role. Later, as a drama teacher, Rosenaur became an early mentor to Moore, and directed him in several productions as a student at Fayetteville High School. “He was the blondest Bernardo in the history of ‘West Side Story,’ “ Rosenaur said, laughing. “We had to dye his hair to play Bernardo. Dan Quayle, I believe, was the vice president at the time, and one of the teachers said: ‘I think you cast Dan Quayle.’ “
Rosenaur said Moore was very smart in high school. He knew he would go far. “He’s a very intelligent young man,” Rosenaur said, “and most of the students I’ve had who are very intelligent can figure out and know where their niche is, whether it be acting, technical stuff or behind the scenes. Smart kids can figure out how to make things happen for them, and he was very, very smart.”
After high school, Moore went on to Northwestern University, where he was enrolled as a film major, but soon switched to theater. While at Northwestern, Moore directed his first big musical and — with a writing partner — completed his first play, “The Floatplane Notebooks,” an adaptation of a novel by Southern writer Clyde Edgerton.
After graduation, Moore lived for awhile doing “really horrible day jobs,” including dressing up as a hip-hop dancing cat at a local museum. Soon, he’d had enough of the harsh Midwestern winters. “I thought: You know, if I’m going to be poor and unemployed, I want to be poor and unemployed near the beach,” he said. Moore moved to Los Angeles “sight unseen.” He said the first few months were “terrifying.”
“I got there, and I realized that I had absolutely no concept of how anything worked or who anybody was,” he said. “I was reading the trades and didn’t know what it meant. There’s a lot of savvy people there, and I definitely felt like a small-town kid.”
Eventually, Moore got a job as an agent’s assistant and later parlayed that into a gig as an assistant to director Harold Becker on the little-remembered 1996 Al Pacino vehicle “City Hall.”
“I didn’t do much more than get coffee and bubblegum and drive [Becker] around, but I got to read all the scripts that came through the door,” he said. “That was a good education in screenwriting. It was just kind of soaking up everything I saw.”
While those jobs put Moore adjacent to the big time, he started to get a kind of artistic wanderlust. Eventually, he got so tired of Hollywood that he got a job as a personal assistant, and later taught safe sex classes in the Santa Monica School District.
Hungry to work in live theater again, Moore got a job as the assistant to a former college professor who was directing the Broadway adaptation of novelist E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime.” When the out-of-town tryouts in L.A. were over, Moore followed the production east to New York.
“I started working at a Broadway level, with Broadway actors, on a big Broadway show as the assistant,” he said. “I was in charge to a small degree. That was again great training: seeing how the union worked, what actors were like at that level. It was the first time I was being paid a living wage and I could pay my rent without working three jobs, and I was doing theater. That was a big moment.”
Moore signed a contract to work with the production for two years, and it looked like his musical theater dreams were finally coming true. To celebrate, Moore bought himself a trip to Greece. Just before he was scheduled to fly out, however, a blow to the gut: he opened the New York Times and saw that the producer of the show had been indicted on charges of securities fraud.
“It was on the front page,” he said. “I realized at that moment that I didn’t have a job … That was my first really big reality dose of what I’ve since come to know in this business, which is that you just never really know if you have a job or not. You never know where the success is going to come from.”
The view from Avenue Q
With his sure thing dashed, Moore soon found himself sleeping on a friend’s couch and living on unemployment. Eventually, through, the wheel turned, and a connection helped him land a job as an associate director for “Les Miserables” on Broadway. He would wind up working there for six years, an experience he called “both exhilarating and terrifying.” Amongst the fear, there were always those pinch-me moments of understanding that he was living his dream.
“As a kid, I had a ‘Les Mis’ poster in my bedroom. In the early ’80s, that was one of the musicals that I used to listen to, alone, in my room, in Arkansas,” he said. “I’d listen to the music and think about what it looked like. I couldn’t see pictures of it because there was no Internet, so I just had to imagine it. Years and years and years later, when I was actually directing a production, I thought: ‘Yeah, the seed of this moment was when I was 13 and listening to those shows.’ Now here I am. … I’m really grateful for how the world works sometimes.”
While working on “Les Miserables” — which required him to rehearse all the companies, plus supervise the Broadway show and the touring company — Moore was also trying to further his own lot as a director by developing original material, sometimes staging shows in tiny theaters that played to a dozen people.
Around the same time, Moore also started thinking about working in TV. Calling on a friend who was a writer on “Dawson’s Creek,” he started shadowing the director of the series, and eventually directed four episodes of “Dawson’s,” along with episodes of “One Tree Hill,” “Everwood” and “Brothers and Sisters.”
Moore was looking for original material to develop when he decided to interview for a job directing an odd, not-quite-there show about puppets called “Avenue Q,” which had been conceived originally as a television show.
“They wanted to develop it as a musical. I went in for that interview, and I had an idea of how to do it, and because of my TV experience, I had some animation ideas which ended up in the show, and how to do ‘television’ on stage.” The show, which features puppeteers operating Muppet-style puppets while singing risque songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn,” would go on to be a Broadway smash that’s still running in New York. Though Moore believed in the show thanks in part to the great music and his childhood love of “The Muppet Movie,” everybody he told about it thought the idea was a little nuts.
“Literally everyone did,” he said. “A lot of people knew the music and thought it was funny, but didn’t see it as a musical. They saw it as a TV show. I told my best friend about it and he thought I was crazy. … I had a lot of explaining to do. I had puppets in my living room. I’d have people over and there were a bunch of puppets sitting around. I definitely got a lot of sidelong glances.”
Moore and the rest of the minds behind “Avenue Q” believed in it, however. The story of a flighty English major named Princeton who struggles with deep anxieties and commitment issues while trying to find his place in the world, the show resonates with people, Moore said, because it’s about struggling to find your purpose. “Anyone can relate to that: If you’re in college and you don’t know what you want to do, or if you’re a 50-year-old woman and you just got divorced and you have to re-enter the dating scene, or if you have lost your job and have to retrain at age 60 and figure out what your purpose is,” Moore said. “It’s a question that everybody asks: What’s my purpose?”
Jeff Whitty was the writer of the spoken dialogue in “Avenue Q.” He said Moore understood the humanity of the show from the start. “Jason, himself, is just such an incredibly sensitive, gifted artist that he had the ability to bring out the humanity in those puppets and in those situations,” Whitty said. “The reason it worked is that it had a certain sensitivity, which is, I think, a hallmark of all of Jason’s work. … What made the show a success is that people felt emotionally connected to the characters. It’s the rare director that can pull that off. I still feel so blessed to have had Jason behind the wheel.”
With the music for “Avenue Q” written and a debut scheduled for March 2003 at the off-Broadway theater The Vineyard, things appeared to be going swimmingly for Moore. Then, on the day rehearsals were to start, he got a terrible phone call. His mother had collapsed at work, and lapsed into a coma from which she’d never recover. “I had to fly home, and we took her off life support,” Moore said. “So the whole period of doing ‘Avenue Q’ felt like it was fraught with tragedy to me. I was working on this really funny, weird puppet show, but my mother had just passed away. I felt very disoriented a lot of the time.”
Six days before the show was about to open, still more bad news: The show’s main puppeteer fell off the stage and broke his ankle, forcing Moore to have to cast a stand-in puppeteer, with the actor who was originally supposed to play lead singing his lines from offstage. As if that wasn’t enough, the Bush administration announced that the U.S. would declare war on Iraq on the night of the show’s debut.
“I just thought the whole thing was going to be a grand disaster,” Moore said. “It was a deep excitement and a deep sadness. It just felt like it was under the weight of too much pressure.”
But the night of the show, the curtain went up, the puppets began to sing, and there was uproarious laughter, which Moore called “a real salve to the way I felt then.”
“The morning after, the headline of the paper was about declaring war, but the headline of the arts section was our review, and it was a rave,” he said. “There was this sense of: You can go through darkness, you can have horrible things happen, and if you’re focused, you can still create something that connects.”
Three months later, “Avenue Q” moved to the John Golden Theater on Broadway. The show did well, but wasn’t a nightly sell-out. Then an Arkansas connection came calling: Former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton came to see the show.
“They got their pictures taken with the puppets,” Moore said, “and that picture of President Clinton and the blue, gay puppet of all things, made every news agency. We noticed that right after that, ticket sales picked up considerably. Then there was kind of this momentum.”
Avenue Q would play on Broadway until September 2009, with ticket sales totaling over $100 million. In 2004, the show was nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Director for Moore. It went on to win for Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book — though not Best Director, something Moore said “didn’t sting at all” given that it won Best Musical. Since then, the weird little puppet show that could has toured the world.
With the blockbuster success of “Avenue Q,” Moore suddenly found the offers rolling in from both coasts. He went on to direct a revival of “Steel Magnolias” on Broadway, as well as “Jerry Springer: the Musical” at Carnegie Hall, and “Shrek the Musical” for Dreamworks, among other projects. Keeping with his career theme of “two trains running,” Moore started looking around for a film to be his feature directorial debut. In 2008, while working on “Shrek,” he read the script for “Pitch Perfect.”
Not surprisingly, the film’s underdog-power plot appealed to Moore. It’s the story of Beca Mitchell, a rebellious loner and musical wiz who is cajoled by her straitlaced professor father into joining an all-girl a capella group stocked with outcasts at the fictional Barden College. Finding the group mired in hopeless, soft-rock lameness, Beca butts heads with the mean girl, then uses her music-mashup superpowers to remake the group and cleverly save the day as they make their way to the national finals.
While “Pitch Perfect” is never going to give “Singin’ in the Rain” a run for its money, it’s a funny, classic story, and the plucky tale with a musical twist struck a note with Moore. It took him three years to get the film made, including seeing the production “die” once when the budget didn’t come together, and another instance in which it was shelved for awhile after the success of “Glee.” Eventually, though, the project was greenlit by Universal Pictures on the very tight budget of $17 million. Moore prepped the cast in L.A., then went to Baton Rouge, La., where they shot for seven weeks. Moore delivered the film in August 2012, and it came out last October. While the film wasn’t a blockbuster by any stretch, Moore’s instincts about the film’s appeal clearly paid off for Universal Pictures, with “Pitch Perfect” debuting at number three and earning back almost four times what it cost to make from domestic ticket sales alone. Even better, it’s a film that seems to be well on its way to being a cult fave, becoming a reliable repeat rental since it came out on DVD. According to the website boxofficemojo.com, the film has made $113 million and counting so far in foreign and domestic markets.
“It’s a movie that people went back to and they rented it a lot,” he said. “It spawned an album that went platinum, and it spawned a music video. For Universal, it’s their third highest grossing rental title after ‘Bridesmaids’ and ‘Ted.’ It’s the kind of thing people see and want to see again and rediscover. … It’s been a really nice, surprising long-running hit in that way.”
Not that the relative success of the film was surprising to Moore. He said that because of shows like “High School Musical,” “Glee,” and “Hannah Montana,” there are millions of young music fans out there who are primed to buy tickets to musicals on the big screen. “There’s an entire generation of kids that grew up on those things that are in their 20s and 30s, and they actually accept musicals much more,” he said. “When I was growing up, no one would accept musicals. You had to be a singing mermaid to sing in a movie. Now, the reason [the film version of] ‘Les Mis’ exists is because the pendulum has swung. People accept that as a form now. Not everybody does, mind you. But more people do.”
The next story
With a successful film and a successful career on Broadway in his cap, the future looks bright for Jason Moore. He finished two TV pilots this year, one of which — “Trophy Wife” — has been picked up by ABC for the fall season. He’s got two films in the works, a project with “30 Rock” creator Tina Fey called “The Nest” and a big-screen adaptation of the “Archie” comic books for Warner Brothers. (Moore nixed odd online rumors that the adaptation would feature Archie, Veronica and Jughead fighting off hordes of ravenous zombies, saying: “I would probably go see that movie, but I don’t know if I’d make that movie.”) He recently bought a house in L.A. and an apartment in New York, and said he’s in a great relationship with his boyfriend. He also has several musical projects in the works that he can’t talk about just yet. He’s even managed to become a role model.
“A lot of the messages I get from people from Arkansas from people on Facebook or people who somehow get in touch with me tend to be gay kids,” he said. “I think there is sometimes that thought: ‘Oh, look, there’s somebody like me’ … Certainly after ‘Pitch Perfect,’ I got a lot of that because a lot of young girls and boys watched that movie and made the connection.”
Moore said losing his father in April caused him to be more introspective. For the first time in a long time, Moore feels like he’s taken a step back from the rat race.
“You spend a lot of time as an artist chasing things,” he said, “trying to get the job, trying to get people to see your show. There’s kind of an always running, always needing, always struggling thing. It makes you really hungry and it makes you work really hard. Right now, in the past six months, I feel kind of an inner peace and happiness that I’ve been able to accomplish these things and I’ve been able to do these things.”
“I feel so grateful and bewildered. This is what I had dreamed of,” Moore said. “This has been a really special year. I’ve been feeling really grateful that I can do the things I wanted to do as a kid. Now I want to do more. I’ve always felt like I was being pulled in two directions. Now I just feel like: What’s the next story that you want to tell?”
A previous version of this story mistakenly said that Paramount distributed “Pitch Perfect.” In fact, Universal Pictures was the distributor of the film.