A Fine Tune

By Jeremy Kinser

Originally published on Advocate.com September 13 2012 3:00 AM ET

The vivid, larger-than-life characters that populate the work of Jason Moore, director of the zeitgeisty puppet musical Avenue Q and the stage adaptation of Shrek, are about to make some new friends. His first feature film, Pitch Perfect, which follows a ragtag band of collegiate a cappella singers and stars Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick and Bridesmaids sensation Rebel Wilson, is another tribute to colorful, relatable outsiders.

“It has what I love about the other stuff that I’ve done,” Moore says by phone from his newly purchased Hollywood hills home, once occupied by Rock Hudson. “It has an irreverence to it, but it’s about friendship and finding your place in the world — all themes which are so universal.”

True, but it’s a gleefully wacky, left-of-center universe his characters inhabit. It’s also a world Moore knows well. The oldest son of divorced parents, he was raised with his younger brother in Fayetteville, Ark., by his single mother. His father, three hours away in Little Rock, was immersed in the larger-than-life world of Southern politics as chief of staff for the state’s then-governor, Bill Clinton. Moore, now 41, still laughs remembering that after he came out to his family, his liberal father revealed that he occasionally judged drag contests during his political career.

Like many children of his generation, Moore discovered a love of music after obsessively watching a certain 1978 blockbuster. “Grease was how I learned that I really liked music and musicals and movies that included music,” he shares. Moore can’t help but chuckle with irony when recalling another youthful obsession, with The Muppet Movie, creating a familiarity that would serve him well later in his career. “I wanted to watch it again and again, so I got my recorder out and held it up to the TV for the entire two hours so I could just listen to the movie.”
Moore continued his fascination with musical entertainment by dabbling in community theater, where he played Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol and a Lost Boy in a production of Peter Pan. “I wore a little loincloth and insisted everyone call it a loincloth,” he remembers. “Because they kept calling it underwear. My mom always says, ‘That’s when you realized you were a director, you were already telling people what to say.’ ”

After graduating from Northwestern University, Moore headed west for Los Angeles, where he further honed his directorial skills and eventually worked as resident director on the epic musical Ragtime. The experience gave him confidence to try his luck in the theater epicenter, Manhattan. Soon, perhaps buoyed not only by his success in L.A. but by his childhood obsession with the Muppets, he landed the task of turning Avenue Q, then planned as a television series, into a full-fledged stage musical. It’s a challenge that would pay huge dividends when the show almost immediately became a cultural phenomenon, winning a Tony Award as Best Musical and a directing nomination for Moore.

“For your first musical in New York to go to Broadway and be nominated for a Tony is a dream come true,” he says. He hadn’t fathomed that the potentially shaggy production would ultimately change his life: “It took us all by surprise, but partially I think the show was what it was because we were all not really employed and had a lot of time during the day to sit around and figure out jokes and how to tell that story of young people who were unemployed and looking for purpose in life.”
The global success of the show led to Moore helming the 2005 Broadway revival of Steel Magnolias, Shrek, and even a 2008 Carnegie Hall concert performance of Jerry Springer — The Opera. It’s no wonder that Moore responded to the source material for the musical Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, which he directed in a short but acclaimed run in San Francisco in 2011. He plans to stage the show on Broadway within the next two years. But for now Moore is content to keep in tune with Pitch Perfect. It’s a triumphant roll that will undoubtedly continue with the October release of the film, which bears favorable comparison to other gay-adored outsider-themed comedies such as Heathers, Bring It On, and Mean Girls. Based on a novel by gay writer Mickey Rapkin, the new film certainly continues the outsiders theme apparent in Moore’s previous work.

While not exceedingly political — Moore jokes that he’ll never be found kissing in front of Chick-fil-A — the director says he doesn’t necessarily feel a responsibility to tell specifically gay stories, but he does respond strongly to material that features LGBT characters. For example, Pitch Perfect’s female a cappella group includes a lesbian who is initially mistaken for a man. “You’ve got 10 girls, one of them’s got to be a lesbian, you know,” he offers with a chuckle. “There’s some funny running jokes about her, but I believe that we should be able to make fun of ourselves and everybody should be made fun of. That’s comedy to me, no one’s above reproach.”

Watch a clip from Pitch Perfect below.