Calling Debbie Allen a multihyphenate doesn’t seem comprehensive enough. Over the course of five decades, she has been a successful actor, singer, dancer, director, writer, producer and mentor. She worked with Bob Fosse on Broadway, co-hosted a TV variety series, starred in “Fame,” saved “A Different World” from the brink of collapse, shepherded “Amistad” to the big screen, authored children’s books, choreographed multiple numbers for the Academy Awards and took over as the showrunner of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Born into an artistic family — Pulitzer-nominated poet Vivian Allen is her mother, and Phylicia Rashad is her sister — showbiz courses through Allen’s DNA.
“Christmas on the Square” is a musical about a heartless business goliath (Christine Baranski) who barges into her hometown and threatens to evict a group of beloved shop owners in order to build a mall. She’s a Scrooge figure, with Parton — who wrote the music — playing a holiday spirit guide there to remind her what the season is all about. The supporting cast includes Jenifer Lewis, Treat Williams and Josh Segarra.
Allen, who is a peppy 70 years old, called me from the set of “Grey’s Anatomy,” where she was in the process of getting a new director set up to helm an episode. We spent an hour discussing her career, Parton’s glitzy Christmas parties, male gatekeepers, Allen’s failed pop foray, working with Aretha Franklin and implementing structural changes on “Grey’s.”
Walk me back to the beginning of this project. What was it like to get a phone call from Dolly about making a movie together ― if that is in fact how it happened?
Well, actually the call came from Sam Haskell, who is her partner. They did “Heartstrings” together. This movie, “Christmas on the Square,” was really Sam’s idea, and he was thinking of writing it as a book. He pitched it to Dolly, and then she’s like, “Oh, let’s make this a musical,” so she started writing the music. I think at first they started with a stage play, but then, by the time I was called, it was a movie on Netflix.
So you knew what you were walking into from that first call.
Oh yeah. I was walking into a movie that had a ticking clock and time frames that would work to fit with Dolly. I said to Sam, “[Shooting] in Atlanta in the summertime? It cannot be outside. It has to be on a soundstage, because it’s 105 degrees any given day.” It was just a joy, though, when he told me the story. I was in. I actually had to let some things go that were really important to me that I wanted to do — one series that was a musical. But this took priority, and I knew he needed somebody that could really knock this out.
Had you and Dolly met before? I feel like you know everybody.
Yes. Dolly and I used to be managed by the same company, Sandy Gallin’s company. When I first came to Hollywood, I was doing the show “3 Girls 3” and Sandy signed me up. Quickly I was on the guest list for her fabulous Christmas party. She was so well known for her annual Christmas party in Los Angeles. I mean, there would be a reindeer, there would be snow, there would be lights, and all of Hollywood was there. Then she was in the middle of all of it, just sparkling with energy and love. That’s who Dolly is. So I met her, and I really liked her.
She was excited, and we talked on the phone. Then she let me go to work. Because any musical worth its weight in salt is a collaboration. It’s also like a baby. You have to crawl, then walk, and then run, and hope things fly. The music was on the page. It was all there. The story was there. It was about shaping it and making it tighter, molding it to our cast. We had a Jenifer Lewis number that needed to change in its arrangement. I said, “Dolly, I really would like to make this more like a blues song.” She said, “OK. I like that.” She was very open.
There’s a Trumpian parallel with Christine Baranski’s character being a heartless big-business real estate titan. Was that connection intentional?
No, not at all. It just landed where it landed, a natural progression. Especially when you’re talking about selling a town, you are in a world of real estate and you are in a world of big corporations. It was actually even more of that, but we looked and the movie was going to be three hours long, so we actually just kept it specific to what was happening in the town. But it’s interesting how you identify it as a very Trumpian kind of character. I never even really thought about it until you said it.
In what you’ve worked on over the past few years or so, have you felt motivated to look for direct political analogies?
I actually have a musical that I developed called “Freeze Frame… Stop the Madness” that played to a standing-room-only crowd at a community center. It is about the inner-city youth, Black and Latino youths and their disenfranchisement and how they’re having to deal with the police and with gangs and with guns and with drugs and education and religion. It’s a dance-driven narrative, and I hope to get it to the world. It’s a powerful piece, and I started it actually when Obama was president. It needs to come now because the gun violence hasn’t stopped. There’s a big conversation in it about gun legislation.
You mentioned “3 Girls 3,” which aired during the glory days of “Sonny and Cher Show”-era variety series. My understanding is that the first episode received glowing reviews and decent ratings, but NBC had already decided to cancel it. Why is that?
I cannot for the life of me understand it. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know. It didn’t make any sense, because it was going to be a smash. People loved it. It was entertaining, and it was funny. [The show’s writers] Kenny Solms and Gail Parent had been a part of the big writing team for Carol Burnett. Anyway, it just didn’t make any sense. But it was a great opportunity.
Did that show directly lead to opportunities for you at the time?
Well, yeah, because it was kind of like my introduction to Hollywood. I had done an episode of “Good Times” before that, and I was performing in Broadway. I had done a lot of theater. But it was a great introduction. That opening number that I did, “Sophisticated Ladies,” in that gold Bob Mackie gown, was glorious. [Co-host] Paula Kelly was already in Hollywood, Lola Falana was already here, and then here was Debbie Allen. I was like the new kid on the block. It was really exciting.
Were you ever interested in getting into pop choreography? Would you have wanted to do music videos and concerts?
I did the “Fame” tours, which were amazing, all over the world. I actually had a record album, because my manager, Sandy Gallin, thought I could be the female Michael Jackson. This is the thing: The music that they wanted me to sing just felt trivial to me. I was a woman and I was talking about little foolishness. I helped to write some of the songs that I really liked. “Special Look” was the big one. What’s-her-name from “In Living Color” came to help choreograph me, Rosie Perez. Rosie Perez had came and taught me some steps, and it was so great. I used all of it.
But I’m a Broadway baby, where we sing out loud. We sing live on stage. In the recording studio, they kept trying to change my sound. One day I remember being in the recording studio and I was singing, “Boy, you’ve got that special look” like I was a little baby. I was singing in this little, weird voice, and then the producer was like, “Yes, that’s it. That’s the sound.” I’m like, “Oh, hell no.” I was a singing, dancing doll. Then they wanted me to do another album. I said, “Child, just change the picture and put that one back out.”
Around that time, Gwen Verdon was coaching you to play Charity in the Broadway revival of “Sweet Charity,” a role that she originated. I’m infatuated with the legacy of her and Bob Fosse and that whole era. At that point, she and Fosse were separated romantically but still collaborating professionally. What was that dynamic like for you?
It was amazing, because it all started with Joe Harris, who was the producer. He arranged for me and Bob to have lunch to talk about it because I was a star from “Fame.” I guess that was the beginning of bringing television people to Broadway. So Bob came over and my daughter Vivian was a little thing, not quite a year old. He had me read some of the scenes with him. He said, “You know, you could do this. This is good.” So that’s where we started.
Then my rehearsals were with Gwen Verdon. It was Cy Coleman and learning the music and doing the dances. Bob came in, after we had learned basically everything, to shape it. The two of them were in the room together all the time. Sometimes I would have Bob by himself, but he relied on Gwen. He deferred to her, in a way. In the middle of “Sweet Charity” opening, he was doing something called “Big Deal.” I remember him leaving rehearsals one day, and there was some altercation between him and Gwen. I just know it wasn’t good, and it left him a little upset because she didn’t come back for a couple of days. He needed to have her there. That’s what he’d say. It was very clear he needed to have Gwen.
How did their altercations affect you in the rehearsal process?
My rehearsals with her were very specific, and then our rehearsals with him were very much about bringing Charity’s life through Debbie Allen. He was not always trying to make me mimic Gwen. We found it in a different way. For me, it was like sometimes you watch your mommy and daddy fight. But it was amazing working with both of them. They were always husband and wife. No matter whoever he was messing around with, there was always Gwen.
Did you watch “Fosse/Verdon,” the Ryan Murphy show, in which you were a minor character?
I know, I heard they had me up there. You know what, I’m going to watch it. I saw one episode that I thought was terrific, the first episode. And then I get so busy, I don’t get to watch anything. I know they called my daughter Vivian to play me, which I would have loved, but she had just given birth like two days before.
You’ve said that you got calls from every studio in town after directing “Polly.” What kind of scripts were you being offered, and what were those conversations like?
The conversations were very interesting. There was a buzz, like, “Who is this young woman that can knock this movie out in 20 days that was supposed to be 22 days and come in under budget and blah blah blah blah blah?” Great conversations is what it was, and that was it. Conversations. Because they were intrigued. They opened the door, but they didn’t really invite me in. One producer finally said to me, “You have the best take of anyone that I’ve heard on this movie, but I’m going to tell you that you’re not going to get the job because you’re a girl.”
Really? What movie was it?
I’m never going to say it, because the producer is someone that I felt was the most honest of all the people that I had sat with. He was being honest. They made the movie with a guy, and I knew it better than he did.
I would have all of these interviews. I had one interview about a movie about guys in prison and what they had to go through. I had the meeting with the producer. When I started rolling about the movie, he says, “Wow, you really understand this.” I said, “Well, what makes you think because I’m driving a Jaguar that I don’t understand my community?” I said, “Do you have any family in prison? I do.” Then I said, “What makes you right to produce the movie?” He said something to me about, “I thought we’d get somebody more from that world.” I said, “Oh, you mean somebody that is really a criminal to direct the movie?”
Yeah, what does that even mean?
[Laughs] I have gone through it, child. I’m going to write the book.
Just scanning your IMDb page, it feels like there was never a real lull in your career. You were always working in some medium at some point consistently. Do you agree with that? Or were there moments when you felt shut out?
Yeah, I was constantly working. That’s the good news. I would not call it a lull, but it was a very difficult time for me when I was trying to get the movie “Amistad” made. I knew the story needed to be told. It was a trip to Howard University, my alma mater’s bookstore, and I picked up a book called “Amistad.” I knew it needed to be a movie because it was not in history books. It took me, what, 18 years? I finally, through [producer] Laurie MacDonald, got to Steven Spielberg. He and I actually had children in the same school, but you don’t go pitching a movie over breakfast at the school. It took forever to get it made, and then when we made it, it was interesting. The Amistad Africans were controversial in their death, and they were controversial in their rebirth in this movie. I still look at that movie and know it’s the forerunner of the move that Jamie Foxx did, “Django Unchained.” It was the forerunner of the one that Chiwetel Ejiofor starred in [“12 Years a Slave”].
Were you always comfortable having a white director make that movie?
I didn’t think about white or Black. I thought about great. Great storytellers are great directors. I would feel a little odd if I was only designated to direct Black people. Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest storytellers of our time. Especially after I saw “Schindler’s List,” he became my Obi-Wan Kenobi. That’s who he is to me. He really is. He went through a lot on that. But he has Black children in his family. This is a shared story. I loved “Jurassic Park.” In one of the sequels, Jeff Goldblum has a Black daughter, and there’s no explanation of that. She just happens to be Black.
I do love the matter-of-factness that you’re referring to, when a character’s identity isn’t the only thing that defines them.
Right. And right now, this is a time that Black filmmakers and writers and directors behind the scenes are emerging, as they should, because it’s been really tough. I’ve made a big difference over here on “Grey’s Anatomy.” We had never had a Black man direct this show until I got here. Then I hired 50% women. Nobody told me to do it. I just knew that was what I could do. When you get the place of power, how do you use it? I could hire myself to direct every other episode, but that’s not the party I want to have.
Ellen Pompeo has praised what you have done for “Grey’s Anatomy” as showrunner, like shortening the work days and making the set more hospitable. Not everyone in showbiz, particularly once they achieve some semblance of power, cares about implementing something like work-life balance. Was that something you were always conscious of?
Well, I’ve always been one who could make a decision. I’ve always been one who did my homework, so I never walked on the set trying to figure it out. I would prep a script from beginning to end. I believe in cinema. Sometimes you should let it work. When you do that, your day might go a little bit better. The first time I directed on “Fame,” one day they went home at like 3:30, and they were like, “What? Watch this little girl. Let’s bring this little girl back.” But it wasn’t just about being fast. The work was good.
I’ve always been aware of a crew who works tirelessly. I’ve always been part of it, since “Fame.” I was the choreographer, and I watched the people come in at 6:00 in the morning. They’re there every day, and they’re there at the end. When directors come in and just act like they’re doing a remake of the roads, they have no appreciation for the people. I always have had appreciation for those incredible men and women who work so hard that no one ever sees.
I remember when I was directing “Polly” for Disney, little Keshia Knight Pulliam was so beautiful in that movie. She and Brandon [Adams], they were so cute together. But she could not understand this one line that was very important. She was sitting on a little bridge, and she had this one line, and I spent an hour getting her to say that line right because it was important. You take the time when you need to take the time.
And “Grey’s Anatomy” isn’t the first time you’ve stepped on to an established, fast-paced show. The evolution of “A Different World” has been well-chronicled, and we all love Lisa Bonet and Denise Huxtable. But I wonder if losing the show’s star was actually something of a win, because it meant you could make it more of an ensemble. Otherwise, she would have been this nucleus around which all of the show revolves.
We lost Lisa Bonet, and it wasn’t what we wanted. We really wanted her. We wanted to have her pregnancy on the show. We wanted all of that. Bill [Cosby] decided that was not a good idea. The show was always a big, wonderful cast, but it still revolved around Dwayne and Whitley [played by Kadeem Hardison and Jasmine Guy, respectively]. It still had a center.
Right. I guess I mean more in the sense that “The Cosby Show” was so popular and people knew Denise, so when you’re making a spinoff, everything becomes about Denise. Maybe that freed you up to explore things you otherwise might not have.
Again, honestly, we were looking forward to exploring things with her. She was pregnant, and the story we wanted to tell was that she did not want to get married. Here was this upper-middle-class girl, and it was going to be amazing because we didn’t want to just tell the same old story. She was not the image of what you’d expect the unwed mother to look like. [Producer] Susan Fales was so excited about that storyline, then Bill Cosby crushed it. He said, “No. Lisa Bonet is pregnant, not Denise Huxtable. She’s coming back home.”
You attended an HBCU, and you’ve often said you brought your own history to “A Different World.” Are there other times in your career when you brought that specific experience to projects you were working on?
“Amistad,” because I was a lover of history and I did a lot of research and reached all around the planet to find the right experts that could give us the right information. Steven always was so great with that. He wanted it to be accurate. When I did “Fame,” I had been touched by Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham and all these people. A lot of that is in the “Dance Dreams” documentary that’s going to come on Netflix on the 27th.
What went into getting Aretha Franklin to sing the “Different World” theme song?
Oh my god. I called her up. She said, “Well, you know I’m not flying over there.” We said, “We’ll pay for your bus.” She came and it was glorious. She defined that theme song. I redid the titles. [Producer] Caryn Mandabach, I have to give her a lot of credit. She was producing along with Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, and she was like, “Debbie, we need to make this opening like a video.” So we did. We used that motion-controlled camera, and I designed the whole thing. It was great.
Had you and Aretha met before? How does one just call up Aretha Franklin?
Our paths have crossed at award shows and specials. She actually is very sweet. She was someone who would call me occasionally and check on me to see what was going on. She was very, very loving in that kind of way. I was there when they were celebrating her at the Kennedy Center. She’s just amazing. I say “she is” because she always will be here with us.
On some level, she’s still with us.
Yes, honey, yes. “Respect” was the anthem to every woman on this planet, and still is.
I know it’s a sensitive area, but I do wonder what it was like for you and Phylicia to process the conversations surrounding Bill Cosby after his allegations became a national talking point in 2014.
I can’t speak for Phylicia, and I wouldn’t even try. I know for me it was very painful, and it was just tragic, however you looked at it. Whatever side you looked at it, tragic. He had done so much, from “I Spy” and movies. “The Cosby Show” redefined the idea of who Black people are to the world. It still remains a very painful situation. I’m wondering, when are some of the other people going to join him in jail?
Are you referring to people whose assault accusations we’re already familiar with, or others who have not yet been outed?
Yeah, people out there in the public. There’s accusations of people all the way to the White House. It’s a different time now. I’m just happy women are being looked at with more respect. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.”
At this point in your career, do you find yourself being sought out for advice, mentorship or even just friendship with younger artists, particularly younger Black artists?
I do. I have done so much, and they know that I am a well of knowledge and information and connections, possibly. I’m happy to do that. I’m looking at Issa Rae and Ava DuVernay and Gina Prince-Bythewood, who was actually a writer on “A Different World.” And Yvette Lee Bowser. There’s so many. Cinque Henderson, who was my executive on the movie “Amistad,” is a prolific writer who’s written books. So yeah, there’s a lot to mentor. There’s a lot for me to look at and see, “How do I help?”
I just directed a pilot of what is probably going to be one of the most talked-about sitcoms, “Ms. Pat,” written by Jordan Cooper, who is inarguably one of the most talented playwrights to come out of New York in the last five or six years. I directed it, and it has an energy and a truth to it and a reality that is beyond anything we’ve ever seen on network television. They will probably have to bleep out most of it, but it’s really a wonderful story. They sought me out because they loved “A Different World” so much. I said, “What we had then, that is missing now, is the live audience.” We actually shot the show in front of an audience, so you really could find your way, like an actor on a stage.
Is there a dream project you still have your eye set on? Either in front of or behind the camera?
“Freeze Frame… Stop the Madness” is something that’s so relevant to right now about what’s happening in our world, in our country. And “Brothers of the Knight” is a book I wrote, an adaptation of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” I’m working to turn that into a television series. It’s a wonderful story.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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