Playwright and Director (Working In The Theatre #304)

(APPLAUSE) Welcome to the American Theatre
Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminars, coming to you from the Graduate Center of
the City University of New York, now in their 30th year. These seminars give you the opportunity to
learn from the professionals as they share their experiences in working in the theatre. Today’s seminar is with a panel of playwrights,
directors, and choreographers, and these are the artists who provide the creative part
of the theatre. And it’s their work that we will learn about
while we discover how the magic of the theatre is created. I’m Isabelle Stevenson, Chairman of the
Board of the American Theatre Wing. And I would now like to introduce our moderator
for this seminar, Ted Chapin, President of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and
Secretary of the Wing’s Board of Directors. Ted Chapin. (APPLAUSE) Thank you, Isabelle. Thank you. We have a distinguished panel. If my count is right, I count among the talents
we have on this panel are actors, directors, choreographers, librettists, lyricists, composers,
record producers. Have I left any out? It’s a distinguished group. Let me introduce them to you, starting at
my far right, Martin Charnin. Next to him, Michael Kunze. Next to him, Larry Sacharow. To my left, Marion McClinton. Next to him, Graciela Daniele. And next to her, Rupert Holmes. So thank you all for being here. Since this is sort of a multi-tasking panel,
and so the subjects that we will cover will, I’m sure, be multi-tasking, I thought I’d
ask Marion first, since you were the first one who showed up today, thank you. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) You are now a director,
but you also have been an actor. Did you start out as an actor? Is that where you began? Yes, I started out as an actor, because what
I wanted to do was become the Marlon Brando of my generation. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) That’s basically
how I got into it. As a kid, I watched ON THE WATERFRONT and
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and THE WILD ONES, all in one weekend, and you know, started
running around the house with my T-shirt torn, yelling, “Stella!” (LAUGHTER) My mother didn’t take too kindly
to that. But that was the first time I saw an actor
who was different from film to film. You know, usually the actors I saw, John Wayne,
Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Cagney, great actors, but they were all pretty similar from role
to role. But you know, watching this guy go from Stanley
Kowalski to Terry Malloy to Johnny the Motorcycle King, I just wanted to do what he did. Did you ever play any of his parts on stage? No, I haven’t, or directed anything that
he has done before. But – You’ll get there. (LAUGHS) Ah, it’s getting a little late
for me to play some of those parts now! But it was basically the excitement of it. I mean, I was asthmatic as a kid, so I watched
a lot. I watched a lot of movies. There was this wonderful program that PBS
used to have in the sixties, where every Wednesday evening you could watch a foreign classic
movie. So I was watching Bunel, Truffaut, Goddard,
all these as a little kid. So that’s why I’m warped. (LAUGHS) In a good way. In a good way! But when I was in asthma attacks, one thing
when you can’t breathe, you’re petrified. Watching THE WILD ONES, the first one I watched,
I was in an asthma attack and I watched it. By the end of it, I was out of it. So there had to be something about this thing. Mmm, it’s a curative. You know, that took me out of my own reality,
which was a pretty harsh one, and just brought me to another place. And so, I wanted to do that. I don’t want to betray a confidence here,
but I know that Martin, for someone who is known as a lyricist and the creator of ANNIE,
the fact that you were in the original cast of WEST SIDE STORY, yes? Yes. So you started as an actor. You’ve betrayed me! (LAUGHTER) No, I started out in life as a
painter, actually, and I went to Cooper Union in New York City. And on the weekend that I graduated, Jerry
Robbins had put an ad in the paper that he was looking for “authentic juvenile delinquents”
– still! (LAUGHTER) – for his forthcoming production
of GANGWAY, which is was what WEST SIDE was called at one time. As a matter of fact, on the back of the sets
when we were in Washington, the sets, which were painted by the scenic artists, it said
GANGWAY. They never changed it to WEST SIDE. And I went down to an open call at the Broadway
Theatre, having had no experience whatsoever. But I put my hair in sort of a duck’s ass,
and I wore the tightest jeans I could and a pack of Luckies, which I smoked, and I rolled
them up in my T-shirt (GESTURES TO HIS SLEEVE). And there were two thousand people there,
and for some bizarre reason, which to this day I really do not know why this happened,
two thousand became two hundred became fifty became twenty. And at ten o’clock at night, there were
four of us left, and I was one of ‘em, having been put through it all by Robbins and Bernstein
and Arthur Laurents and Steve [Sondheim] a little bit. But at the end of the day, Carl Fisher (PH),
who was the general manager of WEST SIDE said, “Can you come to work tomorrow morning? And you’ll get paid two hundred and sixty
dollars a week.” Wow! A lot. Which was a lot of money in 1957. And the show had been in rehearsal for a long
period of time, and I went into it and played it. Jerome Robbins is known for his strenuous
choreographic abilities. Were you put in – Did you audition? What did you do? I auditioned. I sort of – What did you do? I sang very loudly. (LAUGHTER) I was very articulate, and I could
also sing very fast and end my “d”s and “t”s, which was something that I discovered
was very important to Sondheim and to Lenny. Because I ended up singing “Officer Krupke.” But from Jerry’s standpoint, one of the
things that I could do that not a lot of people could do was this. (SNAPS HIS FINGERS; LAUGHTER) That’s talent! But I could do it without that (DEMONSTRATES,
LICKING HIS FINGERS, THEN SNAPPING), which is what a lot of Jets early on had to do. (LAUGHTER) They had to lick their finger. But did you stay as a performer or did you
soon move on? No. I mean, first of all, my father was an opera
singer. He was in the Met, and he did not like the
musical theatre at all. As a matter of fact, he and Ezio Pinza were
very close, and when Pinza deserted the Met to do SOUTH PACIFIC, my father never spoke
to him again. And so, it was very difficult for me to tell
him that I was leaving painting to become a performer, and particularly a performer
in the musical theatre. But what I did say to him was, “Look, everybody
in the event is Jewish.” (LAUGHTER) So that sort of made it all right. (LAUGHTER) And of course, the piece de resistance
was Lenny. I mean, Lenny was the wunderkind, crossing,
living in both worlds at the same time. Right. I did it for a thousand performances, both
here in New York and on the road. But realized that I couldn’t continue to
do the same thing over and over and over again, which is basically your responsibility, when
indeed you are in a show. You’ve got to keep it the same, and you’ve
got to do it the same. So I decided to leave the acting profession. I never did anything else. And I began to write. Gracie, when you were in long-running shows,
did you stay to the bitter end, or did you want to get out after a thousand performances? No, I was actually very lucky, because most
of my running shows were with Michael Bennett, and he would always be preparing another show
in the same year. So I would stay, like, you know, maximum six
months, and he would say, “Come on over.” I had the other one to come, so I was really
lucky. No, I think that the longest one I stayed
in was CHICAGO, and because I had a responsibility, I was the dance captain. But I wasn’t too happy by just staying,
performing. Now, you know, I discovered late in my life
that my mind was not so much in performing, it was about something else. Rupert, did you have a performing start? Yeah, actually, I was in the record business. I was a recording artist. I actually had the last Number One record
of the nineteen-seventies and the first of the nineteen-eighties, so I can say I was
at the top of the charts for two decades without interruption. (LAUGHTER) Good timing! Yeah, yeah. And it’s infamous, the song has followed
me everywhere. It was called “Escape,” but it’s known
as “The Pina Colada Song.” And I wrote it and sang it, it was in a couple
of movies. And I had a tour, and I did the road for about
three years. And they would say to me, “You’re booked
from Monday to Sunday in Detroit, and then you’re booked from Monday to Sunday in Tokyo,
and then you’re booked – ” I’d say, “That’s not Monday to Sunday. That’s like you’re talking about forty
days without a break.” So I did that for a while, and found that
I couldn’t sing certain lines without pointing this way (DEMONSTRATES), I was so locked into
my blocking, you know, like that. So that wasn’t much fun. I didn’t enjoy it at all. I was glad to bail out of that. Did you have acting? I acted in college briefly and was so terrible
at it, I knew that it was not for me. But I just discovered something quite interesting,
listening to Martin. I was an authentic juvenile delinquent in
Brooklyn. Were you? When WEST SIDE STORY was running, and my entire
gang would go to theatre – The Winter Garden. And second-act the play constantly. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) I saw the second
act about fifty times. And now I know you’re the guy! (SNAPS HIS FINGERS; LAUGHTER) With “Officer Krupke.” How do you mean, “second-act”? You would walk in in the intermission, so
you wouldn’t have to pay for a ticket. (LAUGHTER) Not that this is ever done any more. VARIOUS VOICES
No, no! (LAUGHTER) Perish the thought. It went out in the sixties! (LAUGHS) It went out when the TKTS booth started. But that was the reason I got involved in
the theatre, was because as a kid from Brooklyn, I saw, “Oh, you can put your life on stage! This is fantastic. That’s what I want to do.” And that motivated me to get involved, so
thank you! Good motivation. You’re welcome. (LAUGHTER) Michael, did you start in the record business? I know you have a multi-faceted career. Well, yes, I started out as a songwriter. And in a way, I ended up in theatre because
all these talents, you know, you all have, I hadn’t. And you always admire most what you don’t
have, so I really kneel down before actors, dancers, singers. And I just wanted to be close to these people. That’s why I started to write for the theatre. Now, you also translated a great number of
American musicals into German, did you not? That’s true, yes. I adapted basically, you know, most of the
shows that were shown or are being shown in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, like PHANTOM
OF THE OPERA, EVITA, A CHORUS LINE, KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN, MAMMA MIA!, LION KING, whatever. So yeah, but it was not just adapting the
shows. That gave me a chance to learn a lot about
how these shows are structured. So THE DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES, which is your
show in previews now, was your idea? Well, it wasn’t really my idea to do this. The idea came from the production company
in Vienna, who did my first show, ELIZABETH, which was very successful and still is very
successful. And this was in 1995, and they were approached
by a producer who had rights in the film Roman Polanski did, which is called here THE FEARLESS
VAMPIRE KILLERS. And I knew that film and I liked that film,
and I said, “Yes, I’m interested to do this. But you cannot just do it as a stage show,
because it’s a film, it’s a spoof on vampire films, you know, that makes a lot of fun of
the clichés in these vampire films.” And I went to Paris and met Roman Polanski,
and I was surprised. He said, “You know, I don’t know a lot
about musical theatre. You do whatever you think is right, and you
come back to me, of course, and tell me what you want to do, and I’ll decide if I want
to do it.” And so that – You do all the work, and then he can go (GESTURES
UP AND DOWN WITH HIS THUMB)? (LAUGHTER) Yes, actually, yeah. Actually, yes. But he was pleased with the concept, and finally
took over the direction in the original production in Europe. But he’s not here yet. I mean, he can’t come in, can he? He can’t come into this country yet, I don’t
think. He’s not allowed in. That’s right. I don’t think so, yeah. They don’t let him in. But anyway, I think he wouldn’t have been
interested to do it here. But it brings up an interesting question. As playwrights, directors, choreographers,
you have more control over your fate in the theatre than most people. What projects have started with one of you,
initiated, and you thought you had a passion for something and you just decided to drive
it through? Well, I mean, it took me seven years to get
ANNIE on. A passion to the extent that I saw a compilation
of the comic strip stories and asked my attorney to get the rights, which he did, and for seven
years, I kept – we wrote the show. Charles Strouse and Tom Meehan and I wrote
the show in about a year and a half. And then it took seven years to simply try
and get somebody to agree to do it, and to see it the way that we saw it, ‘cause what
we wanted to do is we wanted to, in effect, put pupils in those white eyes and make her
a real flesh-and-blood kind of character. And everybody who heard it at the beginning
immediately believed that it was going to be Nancy Walker and Bert Lahr doing a satire,
doing a camp. Because comic strips had not been really successful
[as musicals] at all up until ANNIE. I mean, there had been SUPERMAN and there
had been, what? LI’L ABNER and a couple of others. But I guess I liked ANNIE mostly because I
sort of thought Harold Gray was an American Dickens, the guy who created the script. And I remember there being a lot of dialogue
in those little balloons in the boxes, so I knew we had a lot of material to write. And ANNIE was difficult to get on, but you
had to just stick with it. I mean, I literally spent every penny that
I had on maintaining the rights and doing auditions, and finally, we were able to get
it to the Goodspeed Opera House, where Michael Price produced it, and then Lew Allen and
Mike Nichols came and saw it on the last weekend and decided that they would become producers
and took the option and ran with it. Did you pull any of the words from the actual
balloons in the comic strip and make ‘em into – Aside from the names of the characters, nothing
came from it. “The sun’ll come up [SIC; HE MEANS “out”]
tomorrow” wasn’t in it? (LAUGHTER) No, Daddy Warbucks never said that, nor did
Annie. Nobody said that. Rupert, we have an old collaboration here,
because Graciela and Rupert worked on THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD. Was that your idea? Did you come up with that idea? It was a wonderful evening of [theatre]. Well, it’s really because I’m afraid of
flying. And I used to take the train from L.A. to
New York, which is hardly different from flying, it’s only four days. (LAUGHTER) And in those days, on the Super
Chief, we changed in Chicago for the Broadway Limited. And I always had to take along about five
books, because there’s nothing to do on the train. I mean, there were no in-flight movies or
things like that. And I had always been fascinated by this book
that we had on our bookshelves. We had that mandatory set of Dickens that
everyone who had a “nice” home had to have. And the last book in the series was “The
Mystery of Edwin Drood.” And I love mysteries. And my father said to me when I was about
twelve, he said, “Well, you don’t want to read that. It’s not really a mystery like mystery stories.” And he said, “And anyway, Dickens never
finished it.” And that interested me, and I took the book
and opened it up and looked at the last page to see where he had stopped. And they had actually put in a fragment that
had been found after his death of another part of the story, never completed. So it broke off in mid-sentence. And so I read it, and it got this ominous
dash, and I pictured Dickens going like this (WRITES, SUDDENLY GASPS AND CLUTCHES HIS CHEST,
“DIES”) and falling over. (LAUGHTER) And it haunted me for years. So when I was taking this train trip, I saw
a paperback and said, “That’s ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood.’ I gotta read that, and if I’m on a train,
I really will.” Well, I got through it. Dickens died exactly halfway through writing
it. He planned it to be in twelve installments,
and he wrote six and died the day he finished the sixth installment, leaving no notes whatsoever
as to how the story was going to end. Now I’m on a train, wondering where this
story was going and absolutely no way to do any research. You know, I can’t go to a library and look
up what scholars thought about where the story was going to go. And it drove me mad. So from Chicago to New York, I started to
think about it, and I thought, “You know, actually, it would be an interesting musical,
because the protagonist is a crazed choir master. He’s madly in love with his music student,
the fair Rosa Bud. There’s this guy named Durdles who sings
these songs.” I thought, “It could be a musical.” And when I got home, I started to try and
write it, and it was really somber, very dark, ‘cause the book is dark. And I set it aside and just thought about
it for about eight years. And finally, I was actually working at Rodney
Dangerfield’s club, in the days when Rodney Dangerfield could actually be there. And I always wanted to be in theatre, and
I used to produce rock bands in London, simply so I could catch the West End season. I would schedule their recording around the
matinee schedule. And I was working there, and Joe Papp had
been sort of following my albums, because Craig Zadan had been playing them for him. Craig was working there at that time. And he and his wife, Gail Merrifield, sent
me a note saying, “You’re doing theatre within your act. Did you ever think of doing something larger?” And I went to them and basically laid out
the idea of doing THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD and they said, “Well, how would you finish
it, if Dickens didn’t finish it?” I said, well, I thought it could be constructed
in a way that the audience could vote on the ending, and it would be different every night,
which is what’s wonderful about theatre, anyway, ‘cause theatre is different every
night. But this would be a way to really highlight
that and build it into something as formal as a musical. And Joe looked very dubious about it, but
said, “I’m interested,” and I thought, “How many people would be willing to kill
their next of kin to have Joe Papp saying, ‘I’m interested. I’d like to hear what you come up with’?” So then I merely took off three years of my
life (TED LAUGHS) and wrote it, and then I got very lucky. I performed the whole thing for him, in his
office, and I was going to demand a workshop. And he said, “Well, good. Okay, so we’ll do it in Central Park at
the Delacorte, and then if it goes well, maybe we’ll go into Broadway with it.” And I still held out for that workshop! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) And then I got very
lucky, because Wilford Leach and Graciela Daniele came in and sort of took my clumsy
efforts and shaped it into something that went to Broadway. But you had written book, music and lyrics,
right? And I did the orchestrations, too. You did the orchestrations? Which I would never do again. I didn’t know that you can’t do that. (LAUGHTER) I didn’t. Well, actually, the union doesn’t allow
you to do it, interestingly. Although Michael Starobin actually wrote the
ballet, “The Opium Den Ballet” for Graciela. Oh, that’s right. Yes, he did. But I had always arranged all my own work. I’d done albums for Streisand and my own
stuff. It didn’t occur to me that you didn’t
orchestrate your own compositions. Have you found that, doing VAMPIRES in this
country, that there are more things that you would have wanted to do that other people
are doing, or are you happy with the collaborative team? No. I mean, I’m in a different position here,
because I am learning here. Because, of course, this is a total different
world from what I’m used [to]. Of course, the theatre people are the same
everywhere. But I keep hearing, you know, “It’s different
here on Broadway. It’s different. Our audience is different.” I still doubt it a little bit, but I’m willing
to learn, and I’m willing to listen, of course. But I would like to say something, because
we have the students here. It’s true, it takes a long time, sometimes
seven years. One of my shows took really longer, even. But you have these ideas and you try to do
something of it, and you get discouraged and you don’t find anyone to do it. But I find, you know, what really keeps you
going is an idea that wants to be born, an idea that wants to get on stage. And I mean, sometimes, you really feel responsible
for that idea, and you have moments where you really want to give it up and do something
else, because the difficulties get insurmountable. You don’t get the right producer, or you
have a production and shortly before they really do it, you know, they back up and it
doesn’t happen. But you go on. Why do you go on as a writer or anyone who
has such an idea and wants to do it? You go on because you feel responsible, because
you know without you, it would never be on stage. And it’s such a shame, and somehow you don’t
do it because of yourself, you do it because you want to have this on stage. And for me, it’s less, you know, a story
I read in a book. But it’s different for everyone. For me, it’s always persons, always persons,
people who tell me, “You have to tell my story on stage.” And you don’t want to let these people down. And if you have an idea like this – You know vampires? (LAUGHTER) Yes. You don’t know vampires? I mean, the whole idea of the show is that
we are surrounded by vampires. Ah! You’ve never been to the Stock Exchange? (HUGE BURST OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE) There
are vampires all around. But this is something, I mean, everybody has
his own strange thoughts, you know. Right! But that doesn’t matter, you know. There is no formula for this. But the power, the energy to finally bring
it on stage derives, in my opinion, from someone that grabs you and you feel responsible for
it. Isabelle? With all the vampires around, who has the
last word? The choreographer, the director, you? Well, in the theatre, nobody should have the
last word. But you know, it’s a teamwork. But of course, you know, you have several
steps. In the beginning, it’s only the writer,
the librettist, because in my kind of working the composer comes later. But then, it’s the composer and the librettist. Then, you know, all the other people that
come in. In the final stage, I think it should be only
the director. You need to have someone steering the ship,
and this should be the director. Do the directors agree? (LAUGHTER) Yes, and no. I mean, you’ve done a lot of work with August
Wilson. Yeah. And I have to say that I have never seen an
August Wilson personally that half an hour being cut wouldn’t have helped the evening
in the theatre. I don’t know if you agree, we’re not here
to talk about that. (LAUGHTER) But if you had that feeling – I thought that we were a half hour short on
KING HEADLEY, actually. Okay, all right. (LAUGHTER) As a playwright and a director, what I try
to find is that kind of beautiful middle ground where we can argue, we can throw chairs, we
can do everything, but when it comes down to making the final decision, we both agree. And I do that with my actors as well, because
if they don’t agree, I’m only going to get three quarters. Right, so you have to find the middle ground. Not to do what I think it needs, you know? I’ll run through all types of solutions
and things like that. We’ll sit down and talk, we’ll work it
out. But in the end, I need for everybody to be
on the same page with the decision, or else something’s going to be missing. And collaborating with August, who you’re
basically not going to make him go anywhere he doesn’t want to go, you know, it’s
even more important for us to be on the same page, to understand why, whether I want a
scene cut or a character enhanced or something, what’s it mean to the story? To me, the only thing is, does it serve the
story? Does it serve the play? If it serves the story, if it serves the play,
okay, then we’re going to hash it out until we get that done. So at times, I’ve done it with, let’s
say, writers who are younger, where I’ve just gone, “Well, boom! This is what we really need to do here.” But you know, if the writer’s a seasoned
writer, or you know, a writer the stature of August or Edward Albee or something like
that, I mean, they know what they’re doing. So you have to sit down and talk. But you have the luxury in a play to really
collaborate, sort of head to head, with only one person. The problem – not a problem, but it is a
problem – in a musical, is that what you have to do is you have to make the choreographer,
the set designer, the orchestrator, the lyricist, the composer, the librettist, as well as the
director, all happy. I mean, you’re servicing many more people
in a musical. Yeah. So it’s a much more difficult time to get
everybody to agree. But how does the choreographer come into that,
Graciela? Well, I always feel the choreographer, a good
choreographer, is sort of a marriage with a director. It’s compromises sometimes, discussions. But I think that a choreographer, a good one,
is in a play from the very beginning. That’s how I did it – my good work was
always like that, when I could be there from the first. You know, I remember when Rupert brought it
to Wilford at the Public Theatre and Wilford gave it to me, and I sat with Wilford and
we discussed a lot of stuff. And by the way, it was not clumsy! It might have been a little too long, but
it wasn’t clumsy. It was three and a half hours, and I volunteered
to cut a song. (LAUGHTER) It was long! So I think that, you know, when I’m listening
to everybody, as a director and a choreographer, it is no different than a family. You know, it’s a family. That’s what a director tries to create,
to create people who are going to be living [together] for three, six months, whatever
it takes. It’s a short time, but it’s a very intense
time. It’s emotionally and psychologically very
intense. Actors have to totally open themselves completely. So what I think you try to do as a director
is to create a sense of protection, of nurturing, of security, and a sort of a romping room,
at the very beginning, so that everybody can expose themselves, the choreographers, designers
and all that. And then, really, I believe it is finally
up to the captain, who happens to be the director, in a musical, is the one who has to take the
responsibility of making the choice. Because otherwise, it would be total anarchy. So I don’t think that a choreographer is
any different than any of the other designers or the director. What about producers, in the case of musicals,
because there are certainly – Well, it all depends on the producers, you
see. It depends on who the producers are. Yeah. We don’t have too many! I mean, producers who really – A smart producer, realistically, will agree
to allow the director to have the responsibility. Yes! Correct! A good producer. And there are not a lot of them left. No, no. Unfortunately. I mean, everybody complains about what we
really need is more product. I think what we need desperately are more
producers. I agree. Who are cut from the bolt of cloth – you
know, when I was starting out in the industry, the Herman Shumlins and the David Merricks. I mean, as much of a tyrant as David was,
he still really knew how to produce a show. Now, there are more people above the title
of a show than there are probably in the company. Unfortunately, the economics of the theatre
have changed so dramatically that one single individual is no longer in a position to A)
put up the money, or the S.E.C. will not allow the $2500 investments to function the same
way. And somebody like – oh, I don’t know if
I offend anybody on the panel – but somebody like a Sony will come into an event and say,
“Well, there’s software at the end of it all.” So they’ll become involved in the theatre
not because they love the theatre, but more because they know that they can get a CD out
of it, or a videotape out of it at the other end, where ultimately they’ll end up being
able to make the money that they spend back, to get it back that way. So. But these producers are not really involved
in the creation of the show, other than their money. Well, you know, it used to be – Well, no. You’d be surprised. They are. It’s all the way in their minds. (PH) Yes! It’s often in a very unhelpful way. They’re involved. In the old days – again, I talk like I’m
a hundred years old, but sometimes feel a hundred years old (LAUGHTER) by virtue of
the fact that when I started out, it was a producer who went to the writer and said,
“I would like to make a musical out of this movie that I’ve just optioned.” So a David Merrick would buy THE APARTMENT
and then go to Burt Bacharach and Hal David and say, “Do you want to come and work for
me?” So the producers were, in effect, being the
instigators. They were producing the shows. I don’t know, in the last maybe twenty years,
of a producer – with the possible exception of Joe [Papp], who sometimes got ideas and
did indeed go to writers to have them execute them – I don’t know any producers who
get ideas for shows. It’s always the passion of a director, of
a writer, of a composer or a composer and lyricist, who have to go out and find producers. Whereas it used to be – How did you – I know one, and he’s not even allowed back. Garth Drabinsky. That’s one. He can’t get in the country either! He can’t get in the country! So there you have it. (LAUGHTER) I don’t think there’s a good (PH) lesson
here. But I don’t regret it, actually. You know, I don’t think producers should
choose what you write. I don’t think they should – It’s not a question of choosing. It’s suggesting, asking you if you’d like
to write. The only reason being, the assumption has
to be if a producer has gone to the trouble of optioning a piece of material, he also
therefore has the money with which to produce the play. Right. But then you’re tempted to do it because
he has money, you know. And this is not good. (LAUGHS) That’s not a good reason to write
something. But I think when you do get someone who comes
to you – I have a show that’s on Broadway right now, about the life of George Burns,
called SAY GOODNIGHT, GRACIE. And I wrote it because someone came to me
and said, “I think that George Burns’ life would be a wonderful thing to have on
a Broadway stage. Could you do it as a one-man show? You would be the right person to write it.” And at no point did he then turn to me, as
it was developing, and say, “Why did you write this?” In other words, I didn’t have to convince
him it was a good idea. And I thought, “Well, I think that’s a
fabulous idea.” So we always were, you know, in league with
each other. And he had the same commitment to it emotionally
as I did. I have a musical right now, MARTY, and it
started from one guy who had a dream of MARTY being a musical and took money out of his
pocket. And he came from theatre. He was in the original cast of MERRILY WE
ROLL ALONG, his name is Jim Weissenbach. And he took money out of his pocket, out of
his checking account, and convinced the Chayevsky estate that it would be good and convinced
MGM that it would be good. And then he paid for the rights and he paid
for the renewal and then he paid for a reading. And at no point did he ever look at me and
say, “You know, maybe this was a stupid idea.” He knew that he had this passion for it. So these are not people who have produced
before, but they have a passion for what they’re doing. And it is not just their money that’s at
risk. It’s their dream that’s at risk, and it’s
their idea. They want to wake up in the morning the next
day, after it opens, and say, “I was right to have believed that.” And that’s the kind of thing you can’t
necessarily get from a large bank, whether it be a corporate entity or, you know, [whatever]. The other thing that has happened which is
really significant is that if you’re dealing with an original idea, your road to the production
ultimately occurring is a lot different than if you have to go through the machinations
of getting the rights from a motion picture company or a playwright, a previous play or
a book or whatever it is. And it can go all the way down the line. There are not a great many original musicals
that are done. A lot of original plays that are done, but
not a lot of original musicals that are done. They all seem to have generated from some
source, from some place. Mostly from the movies. Well, recently from the movies, but mostly
from, well, a lot of Dickens. I mean, Dickens has – I picked the most obscure Dickens novel. That was good. The one he didn’t finish. (LAUGHS) You picked Dickens, and I picked Harold Gray
because all the Dickens was taken! (LAUGHTER) Every time I turned around, if
you look at TALE OF TWO CITIES and [GREAT] EXPECTATIONS – Sure. I mean, the whole library of Dickens has been
musicalized. I’ve been writing a musical over the course
of the last five years, based on THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. There’s, I think, a zoning regulation that
there must be a DORIAN GRAY musical in every state of the Union. I mean, there’s about nine other versions. Right. It’s hard. You know, when you work with a public domain
property, it’s scary. That’s scary. Luckily, no one’s ever tried to do their
EDWIN DROOD, but I suppose they could. But I also think, part of what you’re talking
about, all of you, in terms of producing and ideas and holding on to it, has to do with,
in some ways, nowadays it’s called marketing. Because the idea is, you know, what is it
that will be successful? What will be good, and will “good” then
be successful? And I’m wondering if, you know, there’s
sort of the buzzword about marketing now isn’t partly people trying to sell something that
may have been put together as a conglomeration, and somebody says, “Okay, now, how are we
going to tell people this is good?” Well, the fear that one always has – and
I think we all have it, everybody sitting here – is that the marketing ultimately
absorbs what you really started out to do. That unless it’s marketable, it can’t
get on. What do you mean by marketable? What do you mean by marketing? Well, I mean, unless you can make the deal
with McDonald’s to, you know, sell the Sippy Cup along with, you know, two tickets on Friday
night. I mean, I am astonished at how many avenues
have opened up for marketing. Everything is being marketed. Are they putting people in the seats? Yes and no, I think. Up to a point. I mean, in the old days, it was a full-page
ad in the New York Times, and you know, then somebody decided to advertise on television. Right. And the radio, and now if you see – It’s a question of reach. It’s a question of a full-page ad in the
New York Times only, in effect, reaches the people who read the New York Times. It’s why advertising changed from window
advertising in specific locations in and around New York to bus advertising. Because the bus goes all over the city, so
the advertising for CHICAGO on the side of the bus reaches more people than any kind
of static advertising would necessarily, you know, be in one place. I know that you directed THREE TALL WOMEN. And I wondered, were you involved in any of
the notions of how an audience was going to be found for that play? Well, it’s fascinating to hear this conversation,
because outside the realm of large Broadway musicals and the kind of high profile corporate
packaging that you’re talking about, when we get into Off-Broadway and a small production
in the Promenade, three hundred seat theatre, you work with selling the play. There’s a whole different level. It’s not nearly as pressured as what you’re
describing. And the producers that I worked with were
collaborators, literally collaborators on making the artistic event of the play and
the production sell itself. That was the goal. And I can only work with people who work that
way. I couldn’t work in a corporate kind of setting. I would get very angry. And when I work with those producers, and
we’re still very good friends right now, and with Edward [Albee] and possibly the next
play he’s doing next year that we’re collaborating on at the moment, there’s a sense that the
event is the play, rather than anything else, and that it sells itself. To those of you who have spanned working with
producers in the old days and the corporate types, do you find that it makes you somehow
more resistant and therefore, perhaps, dig in your heels more, if you have to answer
to a phalanx of people who you don’t think know what they’re talking about? Yes, I do. And that’s the reason why I choose to work
in the non-profit theatre more often than in the commercial theatre. Because I feel that, just like you do, with
Lincoln Center, Second Stage where I’m working right now, they commission something or they
ask me, “What would you like to do?” And they open their arms and they nurture
me. And that’s the difference between aiming
for the play to be successful, than just to do the play. Now, of course, that is subscription audience
and all that. But I do find that working in the theatre
– not with everybody – but in the theatre with certain commercial producers who I actually
do not respect, it’s hard for my nerves. (LAUGHTER) To say the least. It’s a lot of swallowing, trying to, you
know, keep everything calm. Right. I have to tell you that the very first play
I ever directed Off-Broadway in 1969 was a play I generated myself, through improvisation
with recovering drug addicts, called THE CONCEPT. Mmm-hmm. It was a major breakthrough at the time, because
it was the first time real people had performed their own lives on stage. And then, after that came CHORUS LINE and,
you know, performance art and everything else. There was a commercial producer who took it
from the La MaMa Theatre to Off-Broadway, where it ran for three years. And he would come to rehearsals, and in the
play, a very dramatic moment at the end, they break down, they’re screaming, they’re
crying, and they have to say, “Will you love me?” And there was a white woman and a black man
who would embrace. And the man came up to me and said, “You
can’t do that. Change it. She has to embrace a white man.” And I uttered an expletive (LAUGHTER) and
said, “Get the hell out of the theatre!” He said, “I’m pulling my money out.” I said, “Great, pull your money out!” And he walked out the door. Didn’t change it. Of course, he never pulled his money out,
and it went on to run for three years, played at the White House twice, toured the world. That’s super. But I wouldn’t let him distort the event
that I created. It was my play. Congratulations, that was a bold move. I mean, I think that those are the moments
that you’ve made the right – Right. Yes, yes. You hope you’ve said the right thing at
the right time. But at least, you can – even if he did pull
his money out, you would have felt okay the next morning. Yeah! Yeah, yeah. And that’s the most important thing. And I think that a lot of the people who are
putting the money in and pulling it out have absolutely no commitment, or don’t have
the kind of intense commitment to putting the event on the stage. They’re in it for the cash. They are the vampires, maybe. Maybe there are vampires! They have the money. Yes. But I have to say, you know, ironical as it
may be, for VAMPIRES we have wonderful producers. I mean, there are still producers around that
understand, you know, that they should not interfere with the artistic work. I mean, once they have agreed to a director,
I mean, the director should have the say. And also, you know, it’s not only the producers
I work with with VAMPIRES, I have the best experiences with Disney. I mean, maybe I shouldn’t say so (LAUGHTER
FROM THE PANEL), but they were very interested in the theatre. They came up to the office and said, you know,
“We don’t think that’s right.” You discuss it. And sometimes, I mean, they have a point. And that’s part of what happens in the theatre. Absolutely! I’m not saying that they don’t have a
point. I mean, of course they [do]. I mean, the guy who sells orange juice could
theoretically come up to you – Right. — in the back of the theatre when you’re
standing there watching a scene and how to figure it out, and say, “Well, if he exited
stage left instead of stage right, it would be a bigger beat for you.” And you have to admit, “Yes, you’re absolutely
right,” take that and use it. And I’m certain that there are producers
around, and maybe the cycle, maybe it’s turning a little bit, to the extent that more
producers are willing to instigate properties and then walk away until they – What I’m finding right now is that because
so much of the not-for-profit theatre is dependent on subscriptions that they’re starting to
play it a little bit safer. Yes. And if I have a risky project, there are several
commercial producers who I know like to take risks – I will bring it to them before I
will to a not-for-profit theatre right now. Mmm-hmm. It’s fascinating how the dynamic is beginning
to shift. There’s a lot of not-for-profit theatres
now, who let their subscription audience lead the theatre, rather than they lead the audience. Right. Yes. With, for lack of a better phrase, art. I remember having a similar experience with
Disney myself on this musical on the Harlem Globetrotters. Now, this was brought to me, after they had
done two or three different versions that didn’t work. And Stuart Oken, who’s head of that division,
said he has this love for the game of basketball, he has this love for the story of the Harlem
Globetrotters, because they were basically like the Negro leagues in baseball, no one
knows it. He says, “I want to put this on. I know you love basketball. I know you know this story. Do you want to do it?” “Yeah.” “Okay.” This is a situation where I was not expecting
– I mean, ‘cause you can’t get more conglomerate than Disney, you know. I mean, I think we’re all gonna either work
for Disney or Time Warner (LAUGHTER) before, you know, the next five years. You know, I’m on Disney now. (LAUGHTER) But the thing that pleasantly surprised
me was Stuart’s passion for this project. Well, he’s just a good (PH) man. You know, his butt’s on the line on this
project. He’s already, you know, has lost a lot of
money on it, but he’s pushing and pushing, you know? And we’ve got Suzan-Lori Parks doing the
book for it. Now, who in their right mind would say Suzan-Lori
Parks is going to write a book for a musical? He wants to do something special here. And our sessions of sitting down and hashing
out the story with Suzan, myself, and dramaturg Oskar Eustis, and Stuart, and now Jean Tresorian
(PH) is brought into the mix, are pretty intense, you know? We’re telling each other, you know, throughout
the session to go [blank] themselves. But we’re coming and melding something that
we’re all becoming quite proud of. And I wasn’t sure how I was going to be
able to last with these guys, because I say what I feel like saying. And I was told, when I was being trained as
a director, “Be able to walk away from anything.” He said that if you walk away from anything,
you’ll be able to walk away with your pride, you’ll be able to walk away with your integrity,
you’ll be able to walk with your artistry. He said, “So whenever it gets to a point
when that’s what’s on the line, (CLAPS) walk.” Which I’ve done a couple of times already
this year, with not a lot of producers, but with smaller producers, because they didn’t
believe in the project. They believed in what you said, they believed
in the money they think the project might make, but they didn’t believe enough in
the project to put money behind it so you could actually actualize that. I said, “Well, that’s going to cost you. We can do this, but you’re going to have
to put some money in. You know, are you behind this project, or
are you not behind this project?” You know, Stuart is definitely behind the
project, whether it works or not. You know, I have a lot of respect for him
for how gung-ho he’s been about it and given us pretty much everything we’ve needed,
knowing that if this doesn’t work, he might be in trouble. Where, you know, a project I did earlier this
year up at Williamstown, it wasn’t the same kind of thing, because I never believed that
the producers were really behind it. I’m not talking about Williamstown, the
independent producers. It’s interesting that, I think, Disney,
since that’s the subtext here, we’ve talked about a little bit, they did hire theatre
people. Yes. I mean, Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher,
who were the ones who said Julie Taymor was the one that [should direct THE LION KING]. That’s right. And if you think about THE LION KING, THE
LION KING really, except for the score, bears very little resemblance to what the movie
looks like, feels like it perhaps. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And that’s a pretty
bold move, and so that’s, you know. And they have Matthew Bourne, I think, doing
THE LITTLE MERMAID. Yeah. In my limited experience, other movie companies
aren’t quite so enlightened. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) You know, if they try
to find it from the inside, it doesn’t seem to – Well, Thomas Schumacher comes from a theatre
background. Yeah. No, they’re clearly theatre people. But am I wrong? I think we talk too much about producers here. (LAUGHTER) Yes, but the producers are, I mean,
at the end of the line. And I want to come back, you know, to what
I said in the beginning. I don’t think that a writer should sit down,
thinking of “Who’s gonna produce this?” or “How do I intrigue a producer doing it?” Or, which would be worse, you know, “I do
this only because a producer approached me,” because I think that’s not the right approach
for writing a musical or a play. I want to ask, Martin did a very interesting
musical called THE FIRST, about Jackie Robinson. And my sense of it, was it your idea? Mmm-hmm. And then sort of, as with ANNIE, you had to
interest, you had to find people who joined you in your passion? I think, with maybe one or two exceptions
– a couple of times, I worked for David Merrick, years ago – most of the things
that I’ve done – for example, when we did TWO BY TWO with Dick [Rodgers], Dick in
effect was the producer. He was my collaborator, certainly, as a composer. But he was also the producer. So a Richard Rodgers musical was going to
get on. Similarly, I REMEMBER MAMA was Alex Cohen,
who was the last of them, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, yes. Individual producers, who would be the producer,
and knew when to, you know, when to walk away. But THE FIRST, funnily enough, is having a
whole resurgence. It came at a very odd time. There were two major black musicals heading
to Broadway at the same time. One of them was DREAMGIRLS and the other was
THE FIRST. And the one that obviously was the more interesting,
from an audience standpoint, was DREAMGIRLS. And I’m not talking about quality or subject
matter or anything, but the one that had the glitz and the one that looked like it could
have the life beyond the life looked like it was DREAMGIRLS. It seems to me, just what Michael was saying
about a writer, if it starts with the writer, and there are writers here, you know, you
need a producer at some point. But I think what you’re saying is, the passion
should get lined up creatively? But I don’t know if we’ve talked about
it, but the way you get them on now is an entirely different way. And you go through – a project will go through
many steps now. And that was one of the things in the old
days that one did not do. If David Merrick were to produce a show, you’d
book the Shubert Theatre in Boston, you’d play it for five weeks. You’d then to go whatever in Philadelphia,
and then you’d come into New York. Now you have the luxury, and it’s a great
luxury, of being able to do a small workshop production, followed by possibly a bigger
production at a regional theatre, possibly going to a next step. So you incrementally spend the same amount
of money probably, and possibly even more, but at least you get an opportunity to see
the work, to grow the work and to be there. You have to make a commitment, however, to
be there for the entire run of the event, which does not necessarily follow linkage. You know, it doesn’t link one to the other. But Martin, don’t you think that that was
also the amount of time that we spent? Like for instance, PROMISES, PROMISES we rehearsed
six weeks in New York. Then we worked, like, six weeks to Philadelphia,
another six weeks to Washington. But you don’t do that any more. When was the last time you had a six week
rehearsal period? We can’t do that. We can’t do that. And isn’t it a pity? It is replaced. Oh, it’s terrible. What I’m saying is that the time, which
is what we need, is replaced by these readings, these workshops, this out-of-town, because
we need the time. That’s the main thing. But both of you, if you had the choice today,
would you do the old school thing? No, I would do what I do now. You would do what? Workshops? I like better the reading, that allows to
develop the material more, before you spend millions of dollars on sets that you might
throw away. Yes. So I believe in this. I find it much more fulfilling and healthy,
for the development of the piece. Also, there was an interesting article recently
about how, in the old days, you could throw the sets out because they dropped in or they
wheeled in. That’s correct. And nowadays, you really can’t do that if
you go out of town. No, you can’t do it. Can’t do it any more. Because the computers are all programmed and
you can’t – Absolutely. He says you can only afford one set! (LAUGHTER) It’s the other way to look at it. I always think that professionals don’t
need a full-staged production to find out what’s wrong with a show. That’s true. I mean, a reading is wonderful. A workshop is luxury, which is great. But actually, you should know what you have,
you know, when you have a workshop with some audience, eventually. That’s all you need. I don’t think you need the full-staged productions
to the play. Well, for a musical, you need a workshop. Yes, you need a workshop. But for a play, a reading is enough. Why the difference? I think that for a musical, don’t you think? You need a workshop. If you have a good – I’d have to agree. I think you need a workshop for a play, too. Oh, you do a workshop for a play? Yes, yes. Oh, definitely. Definitely. Yeah, a workshop is great. That’s when, you know, the actors start. Oh, to have a week or two of actors for a
straight play, and then you see it. You know what the script needs after a week
or two. Yeah. Exactly. And the designers get to see it. Yeah. So they are inspired before – they sort
of talk it – And they collaborate. Exactly. They collaborate on the process, with the
writer and director. Yes. It’s a very European way of doing it, too. I mean, as I remember it, right? In Europe, you do that a lot. We do that a lot. I mean, the whole system is different in Europe,
of course, because we usually don’t have private investors. Right. Which, in a way seems a luxury, it’s much
better. But the people who invest the money, even
if it’s the public or the government, you know, they are not much easier to handle than
producers. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) So in the end, you’re
not better off. But it’s great to have a reading and a workshop. And I think for the musical, you definitely
need it, but you need it with some audience. Oh, yes, yes. With some audience in a small theatre, but
not fully staged. I mean, no sets, no big lighting things, you
know. No costumes. But workshops are becoming more elaborate
now. They’re doing three and four days. Yes. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) You’re absolutely right. What’s starting to happen, which is dangerous,
is that people are grading how well the workshop is done, as opposed to how good the play is. Exactly. Or how good the musical is. And they’re looking at the production of
the workshop. Right. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) As opposed to, what is it? What’s the text? What is the score? There’s another danger which happens, is
that you cast a reading, and a lot of not-for-profit theatres do this, and you only rehearse for
a day or two. And if you mis-cast the reading, and I have
known artistic directors to say, “Oh, I don’t like that play.” And the play was fabulous, but the wrong actor
was in the reading. Right. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And the person can’t distinguish the text
from the actor that’s doing it. And that’s a disaster, as far as I’m concerned. But it all goes back to somebody keeping the
vision, keeping the eye on the vision. Yes. And you know, if it’s yours, you have to
do it. What I’ve actually done a couple of times
now, lately – I love to write straight thrillers. No one writes them any more, and I love thrillers. I grew up enjoying SLEUTH and DEATHTRAP. And I actually will do plays now with community
theatres, and that’s the first play, that’s my workshop. I’ll actually find some really good, you
know, people who do it on the weekend, who if their career had gone in another direction
[would be professionals]. And I’ve had, like, casting calls for some
of these community theatres where I say, “I could be, you know, on 44th Street watching
these people right now,” in terms of the quality that comes in. And that’s my workshop. And I get to be just [the playwright]. I don’t direct it myself. I let the person there do it. And I mean, you get to hear what’s working
with the audience. You have to be very brave, because just as
you can have that in a workshop, you’ll find you’re doing a community theatre and
there’s just no one competent who can play that role, so you have one role that’s just
going to be played terribly. But it’s a fabulous thing. I had one, for instance, that’s been done
[THUMBS}. I gave it to a little community theatre in
New Jersey. Then it went to the Helen Hayes in Nyack. It’s at the Cape Playhouse. Now it’s gonna go to L.A. And those have
been my workshops. It’s been a great experience to do that. That’s great. It’s time for us now to take a little pause
and hear a few words from Isabelle Stevenson. (APPLAUSE) Before we get back to the American
Theatre Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminar on playwrights, directors and choreographers,
I would like to remind you that these seminars are only one of the many year-round programs
that the Wing undertakes. You are probably familiar with the American
Theatre Wing’s Tony Award, which is given for achievement of excellence in the Broadway
theatre. But we also have important grants programs,
providing aid to Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theatres. We now offer six different scholarships, for
promising students to pursue studies in the theatre arts. We have an expanded career guide program for
beginning professionals. As a long-established charity, dating back
to World War One, and again in World War Two, when we operated our famous Stage Door Canteen,
all of our programs are designed to reward and promote excellence in the theatre, to
introduce young people and their families to theatre and the magic it unfolds. We take pride in the work we do and are grateful
to our members and everyone whose contributions help make possible the dynamic programs of
the American Theatre Wing. We are proud to be part of this exciting industry,
as we continue to provide services to the theatre and to the community. Now, let’s return to our panel on playwrights,
directors and choreographers, and our moderator, Ted Chapin. Ted? (APPLAUSE) Thank you, Isabelle. Since we have a fair number of students in
the audience today, and they’ve asked some questions about training, I thought that I
would want to focus the conversation a little bit on training, what kind of training you
guys recommend, and perhaps where you think this training might be available. And I thought I’d ask you first, since,
Larry, you are the director of the theatre program at Fordham University here in New
York, yes? Yeah. And Fordham’s located right near Lincoln
Center. And it’s mostly an actor training program,
but there’s a track for directors, playwrights and designers. And it’s a very eclectic curriculum, because
for me, I was very fortunate to have been very close with a man named Jerzy Grotowski
in the last ten years of his life. Many of you may not have heard of him, but
especially in Europe, he is sort of known as the only other person since Stanislavski
to actually develop an approach for actors. So in our curriculum, we begin with some of
the more physical ideas that Grotowski had about acting and the visual imagistic ideas,
and then we move into a sort of straight Stanislavski, and then evolve into performance art, self-created
work, and then Shakespeare and text. So we call it the work of psycho-physical
actions, which is the psychological and the physical together, and then heightened speech
to articulate the being very very present in the moment for the actor. And it’s a kind of training that we’ve
had great success with. Our students are grabbed up by casting directors
and agents when they graduate, and we get lots of calls from the graduate schools, from
NYU and Yale, “Please, you know, have your students apply.” And it’s eclectic. And we also have a summer program in Orvieto,
Italy, where you go in-depth in this kind of work, and it’s attached to the Grotowski
Workcenter, which is in Pontedera, Italy. And so, I teach there every summer, in conjunction
with Thomas Richards, who now runs the Grotowski Center. And we’re opening a place in conjunction
with RADA in London. I’m about to start on something in Moscow. So we have an international base, where we’re
going to collaborate with the Moscow Art Theatre. I work in Russia a lot, and have been there
many, many times. A lot of my productions have gone there. And the sense of the educational model is
both artistic and social, in terms of the concept of being a citizen of the world and
you as an artist can make a difference. Whether you’re an actor, writer, director,
designer or stage manager, you have the power to actually empower a sense of an event in
the community. And in the times we live in right now, I think
it’s more important than ever to have a sense of responsibility for who you are in
the world, so your art matters and you make a difference with your art. And for me, the totality of training, not
just technique, but the totality of a vital approach, in addition to a heightened sense
of awareness of the community and the world today, is what we try to communicate. And that’s a point that’s been made repeatedly
on these panels, and in the Careers in the Theatre program that the Wing has done, that
rather than focus only specifically in one particular discipline, the more open you are
to the world, you know, the more important it is. Any teachers here? Have you taught, Gracie? No, I haven’t. I mean, I still don’t know anything, I’m
still learning! (LAUGHS) But I do agree with you so much. I mean, I started as a dancer, and I just
went very slowly, you know, from dancer to assistant choreographer to choreographer to
assistant director to director. And I think that my – not the talent, but
the facility I have, is because I started physically, connecting the drama in a physical
way. And as a matter of fact, I came to this country
because of WEST SIDE STORY, when I saw WEST SIDE STORY in Paris, because I thought that,
“Oh, my God, to be able to tell the story in so many different idioms, that’s what
I want to do with my life.” So I think that the more you experiment, the
more you learn, the more you read – read a lot, it’s very important. You know, every single thing that you read,
every single day, is a learning experience. But you know what’s really also important,
and it’s rarely, rarely said, and I kind of am very passionate about history. And one of the things that I find young people
today neglecting or believing that they don’t have to bother about is what has come – Before. What their past is. The musical theatre does have a heritage. There are laws of gravity that literally will
never change. And I think it’s vital for anybody going
into the musical theatre to know who Cole Porter was. Granted, he passed away a hundred years ago,
or however long ago it was. And this year, of course, there are all of
these Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein celebrations, so it’s a centennial experience. I don’t think Cole Porter is necessarily
going to have that kind of an experience, or the Gershwins are going to have that kind
of an experience. But one of the most disillusioning things
is when I do an audition and somebody comes in and I say, “Who wrote that song?”,
they don’t know! (GRACIELA LAUGHS) When an actor does not know
who has been responsible for the material that they’re auditioning [with], it’s
very distressing to me. They don’t know the shows. They don’t know their history. It’s really very, very simple. And I think it’s vital for people to remember,
to learn and to examine it. Because it’s by virtue of what has previously
occurred that indeed, I believe you can make any sense out of what will ultimately happen. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Well, it’s the same thing with an actor
who comes in and has a monologue and doesn’t know who the playwright is. That’s right. Exactly. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) It’s absolutely distressing. And it’s not necessarily saying that they
have to duplicate the Kowalski moment. You don’t have to do Stanley Kowalski the
way Marlon Brando did it. But you have to know that Marlon Brando did
it for a reason and where it came from and why. One of the questions that came was whether
the perceived death of the big British mega-musical now will give a new generation opportunities
for new musicals. Anybody feel one way or the other about that? Well, I don’t think it’s a death, to be
perfectly [honest]. I think cyclically, it happened. We were caught napping, if you want to call
it that. But Cameron [Mackintosh], as a producer, simply
saw how to enter into – everything that the British musical learned, they learned
in effect from us to begin with. They then, secretly, like what? The Iraqi programs in hidden palaces (LAUGHTER),
all over, you know, Buckingham Palace, were developing musicals. (LAUGHTER) And then, all of a sudden, voom! They sprung these musicals on us, and for
about twenty years, we were assaulted with these British musicals. The problem that the British musical presented
is a problem that we all face cyclically – I mean, I think Rupert as a composer would agree
– is that when a young writer hears – sees, not hears necessarily – but sees how successful
an Andrew Lloyd Webber is, that he loses his approach to what his own vision of how to
write is and begins to write like Andrew Lloyd Webber. Now, prior to Andrew Lloyd Webber, when Sondheim
was writing a show every two years, every single kid that I would work with in the ASCAP
program started to write like Sondheim. And now, they don’t write like Sondheim
any more. Now, they’re writing like Andrew Lloyd Webber. Another thing is now happening. THE PRODUCERS has opened and has become a
kind of approach to musicals, so things have gone that way. Back. What you can’t do is lose your own voice. I mean, that’s the most significant thing
that a young person starting out, either as an actor, as a lyricist, as a director, you
have your own specific voice and you have to maintain it, no matter what the din outside
is. I couldn’t agree more, but of course, I
watched this success of Andrew Lloyd Webber on Broadway, and all that follows. I also think it’s not the death of that
kind of musical, the mega-musical or whatever. There will always be people who want to see
big shows, spectacular shows, opera-like shows. But on the other hand, I think something is
very important to understand by people here, especially by students here, Broadway today
is not only an affair of New York or plays or theatre for the United States are made,
it is an international marketplace. People come here from all countries of the
world, and they see the musical theatre. And in a way, this is the standard of what
happens. But on the other side, it cannot be without
consequence for the style of the Broadway musical, because a lot of people coming to
Broadway are not in the tradition of the typical Broadway audiences. What they want is, they want to see on the
stage a show with their kind of music. They want to be moved by the story, they want
to be moved by the music. And I think part of the success of Andrew
Lloyd Webber was that he had a new approach. He used, basically, his musical voice he knew,
which was basically a rock music [voice]. I mean, I still think that the revolutionary
piece he wrote was JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and everything else followed from that. But I think that was a very important step,
because all of a sudden, rock music, the music we all grew up with, was used for a stage
show. And also, you know, the shows I write are
not Broadway shows. These are shows that just try to tell a story
with music. And there are so many ways to do this. And it may come as a relief, you know, for
students who are really intimidated by the masters, like Rodgers and Hammerstein, and
all the other big ones. And they say, “How could I ever do it like
this?” And this is why they try to be like them. But the tradition of the musical theatre really
goes back to the Greeks. And it’s an old idea. Even Shakespeare was always done with music. I mean, it’s an old idea to combine words
and music for the stage. And so, everything is legitimate in a way. Everything can be done. And I think what we really need is new approaches. And without this, you know, looking up to
the big masters, “Am I good enough for you?” No, just do something and do it for a small
audience, to begin with, and then there will always be producers who say, “Okay, we can
make a big show out of it,” and then you have the spectacular one again. What’s really interesting is, I was telling
Graciela before the panel, I still remember her choreography in PIRATES OF PENZANCE. And long time ago! [1982] Yeah. And it’s vivid in my mind, because of the
dynamic kind of energy. And what was happening in New York City at
that time was a huge proliferation of experimental theatre, groups like the Living Theatre, the
Open Theatre. Downtown – downtown was extremely exciting! Uptown was extremely exciting, because of
the kind of work that you and other people were doing. And each thing feeds the other. And when you have a fertile climate for exciting
theatre, it doesn’t matter whether it’s in a tiny coffee shop or on a Broadway stage,
you’ve got a sense of the theatre as being nurtured and growing. Right. Yes. And that was a time where that was very exciting
in New York. It was the golden years. I was so fortunate to be working at the Judson
Church and with Judson Dancers. And then you would see from that work trickles
into Broadway productions from the kind of innovative techniques that were being developed. And it was the sense of a total community
feeding the other. And that climate, I think with you young people,
is something that you can also nurture, because each generation has to nurture its own sense
of fertility, that the theatre can move forward from. But I also wanted to say, in reference to
what you were saying, in terms of your own voice, when Gracie did CHRONICLE OF A DEATH
FORETOLD, I remember having seen your wonderful work for years, and suddenly I thought, “I
think we’re seeing more of Gracie here than we’ve ever seen.” Yes! (LAUGHS) Yes, yes. And you know, it felt like suddenly you had
opened something up in your – you were given the opportunity to do something. The opportunity, yes. And that was Lincoln Center, yeah. And it started, actually, years before Lincoln
Center, actually. There was a little organization called INTAR,
a Hispanic organization on 42nd Street. And I was giving some kind of a class or something,
and the artistic director said to me, “Would you like to do – ” I was a choreographer
up to then. I think it was just after DROOD, I think. Yeah, right after. And I had only choreographed. And Max Ferra said to me, “Would you like
to develop something of your own?” I went, “Oh, my God!” You know, all of a sudden the whole world
is looking at you! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) “What am I going
to do? I don’t know where to start!” And I developed something, and I went back
to my roots. I went to the Latin roots, and the same thing
happened with CHRONICLE OF A DEATH FORETOLD. And I did what I wanted to do. I co-adapted it and choreographed it and directed
it and did my own thing. And I think that that’s when I started finding
much more inside of me that I had up to then, perhaps because I only had used, or been asked
to use, fifty percent of myself up to then. And all of a sudden, somebody gave me the
opportunity of saying, “Go ahead. You can do it. Fly!” And you know, there’s something about me,
just all my life I feel like somebody knocks at my door and I open and somebody says, “Do
you want to come out and play?” and I go, “Yeah!” (LAUGHTER) I’m telling you! I mean, I just went with it. But, on the other hand, I had producers who
nurtured me, who said, “Go, girl, you can do it!” And it wasn’t about money, ‘cause there
was not too much money. And CHRONICLE was exactly the same thing. I was, you know, resident director at Lincoln
Center, I go to Andre [Bishop] once in a while and say, “Well, I have this crazy idea about
– ” (CLAPS) “Okay, go ahead. Do you want a reading? What do you need?” That doesn’t happen too often. You know that! (LAUGHS) One of the questions was whether you felt
that, as a woman, there were more roadblocks in your way than there would have been. No. Never, never. I think that perhaps in the commercial theatre,
I would say, I think there was a time when it was sort of like a man’s club. And women were mostly known as choreographers. They were, you know, brilliant. Agnes De Mille, you know. But I felt that there were not too many directors
[who were women]. I mean, there were some [women] directors
in the past, but it didn’t. But I think that it has changed now, and I
was never affected by it. I never think, in the theatre, when I am working
in the theatre, I never feel that, “Oh, yes, she’s the Latin crazy woman. (LAUGHTER) She’s just one collaborator,”
you know? I never felt that. Maybe other people have, but I haven’t. No, not at all. Rupert, teaching? Have you taught? No, no. As a matter of fact, I’m barely a student. (TED LAUGHS) But my background was I went
to Manhattan School of Music. That’s where I studied music. As far as writing goes, I’ve learned primarily
by what Gracie was saying, just taking in every play. I never saw any play, and I mean, any play,
that didn’t teach me something. In one or two cases, saying, “Well, I should
never ever do that!” But I mean, I’ve learned. And I’ve tried to be an equal-opportunity
enjoyer. You know, Duke Ellington said, “There’s
two kinds of music, good and bad.” I love Ibsen, and I love the worst farces
that you’ll see in England, or Christmas pantomime, which is a very unique British
tradition, is really responsible for a lot of DROOD. Yeah. [DROOD] is based a lot on Christmas Panto. Gilbert and Sullivan. Our London production of DROOD opened at the
Savoy, where all their works did. But no, the only thing that I [did], I learned
from my collaborators. You know, like right now I’m writing with
Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, and I remember the day I went to the library and took out
the first record that the library had that you could take out, and it was BYE BYE BIRDIE. The first album I ever bought was GOLDEN BOY. So I learned so much from them, and from Gracie,
from Wilford Leach, from the directors I’ve worked with, Marshall Mason, Mark Brokaw,
John Tillinger. So I’ve been in show business and have been
writing – I’ve done ten albums, written lyrics for most of the wonderful pop singers
of the seventies, and suddenly found that my first opportunity to write for theatre
– not that I hadn’t wanted to – ended up in a Broadway musical that won the Tony
Award. So it’s kind of strange to start that way,
and I’ve had to kind of learn very fast, on-the-job as it were, with every play that
I’ve done. So training never stops? No, it’s just barely beginning, yeah. Martin, you were involved with the early years
of the NYU program on teaching musical theatre. Yeah. Is that a possible thing to teach? To an extent, it is. But basically, one of the things that is inherent
in all of what I think we’re talking about is a kind of ability that you’re somehow
born with. You really can do it or you can’t do it. I don’t know that you can learn it. You could possibly learn the technique of
it, but the way to make theatre happen is to want to make theatre happen. For example, I’ve had twenty-five years
now of teaching, only little girls. I mean, I teach little seven, eight, nine
and ten and eleven year old little girls how to act on the stage. Where do you teach that? When I do a production of ANNIE, I mean. (LAUGHTER) Oh, I see. That’s really learning on the job. But it is on-the-job training, to the extent
that these children have had no experience. Well, maybe they’ve done some tap classes,
but they’ve certainly never learned how to fill their own space on the stage and how
to relate to adults and how to memorize in the same way that children have to memorize,
and how to maintain performances. So it is, you know, a teaching experience. But I think all directors, in some way or
another, do teach. They teach intention of possibly what the
playwright had in mind, when indeed a play is done or a musical is done. But you can write music or you – and I agree
totally, there’s good music or there’s bad music. And there are good lyrics and there are bad
lyrics. And I think one finds out early whether or
not they’re going to be able to accomplish what they want to do. So am I right in saying that advice to students,
if you want to be, for example, a playwright, is to write? Is to write. Yes. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) The advice is, it’s all on-the-job training,
even if it doesn’t necessarily get produced. But there’s no better way to write than
to write. And there’s no better way to write lyrics
than to try to write lyrics, and if you don’t have a collaborator, write lyrics to “Some
Enchanted Evening.” Use that melody. But where do you get people to hear you? Eventually, there will be programs here in
New York, and there aren’t that many right now, that do listen to new writers as they
come along. The NYU program lasted too briefly and then
became embroiled in a whole mess of politics and didn’t, unfortunately, go the direction
that a lot of the teachers, if you want to call us that, at that time wanted it to go,
and it just fell apart. I disagree, by the way. You know, I think you have to learn the craft,
as a playwright. And it’s like an architect building a ship
or a bridge. I mean, if he doesn’t know about the problems,
technical problems, you know, he can not build a ship. I mean, I think to write a good musical or
play is as complicated as building a ship or constructing a high-rise. And I really think the craft – and this
is really something you have here. You can learn it. In Europe, we don’t have these kind of courses,
and I really think you have to learn the craft to do this. So what you’re disagreeing with is that
it can’t be taught? No, I think it’s wrong to learn writing
by writing. You should write a lot, don’t get me wrong. But also, first you have to know the theory,
to know how the dramaturgy has to be build up, how a good play has to be constructed
to work, and you have to learn this. I mean, this is something you can learn, like
when you’re a painter, you have to learn how to prepare the canvas or, you know, have
to know something about perspective. All these you can learn. You will not be Picasso after that, but you
can learn it. No, but unless it is your intention not to
utilize perspective in the painting that you’re painting. Yeah, but you have to know about it, even
if you don’t utilize it. That’s right. I agree with you. To an extent, you have to know about it. But I don’t think you necessarily have to
learn it. How do you know? Well, I really think it’s a wrong message
for these kids. They should learn it. Marion? Well, I teach kids from time to time that
are high school age, because I like to get to them before they get to college and get
ruined. (LAUGHTER) (POINTS TO THE AUDIENCE) So, take a lesson! But the main thing that I tell them is to
keep three things to the forefront, whether you’re an actor, whether you’re a director,
whether you’re a writer, is passion. You have to have a passion for what you’re
doing here. Absolutely. You know, the passion is its own reward. Whether a producer sees it does not matter. You write because you have to write. The play you need to write, you have to write
it. There’s no other reason to write it, but
“I have to get this out of me and put it down on paper.” Knowledge. You know, I agree and disagree with talking
about craft, because craft, structure and what the well-made play is changes over history. Ibsen was not exactly greatly loved in the
beginning. I have this book at home that’s all these
bad reviews of all these great plays, you know. “KING LEAR, easily forgettable.” (LAUGHTER) Okay. You know, “Chekhov, boring.” I don’t want to stop you, but on that passionate
note, I think we have to wrap up. Oh! (LAUGHTER) Think of the passion. Well, do you want to say something final? I don’t want to leave KING LEAR as a bad
play there. (LAUGHTER) No, I was going to say, passion, knowledge. You have to know what’s come before you,
so you can see what’s possible to do. And the last one is imagination. If you do not have an imagination, it doesn’t
matter how much craft you have. That’s a good place to stop. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And a little madness! (LAUGHS) And a little madness. A little madness, yeah. Okay, thank you very much. We are coming from the Graduate Center of
the City University of New York. These are the “Working in the Theatre”
seminars of the American Theatre Wing. Thank you very much. (APPLAUSE)

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