A Conversation with John Weidman
October 13, 1999
Lincoln Center Theater's Platform series presents conversations with artists working at LCT before an audience of interested theatergoers. Admission is free and open to all. Platforms are held in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of the October 13, 1999 Platform with John Weidman:
THOMAS COTT: Good evening, everybody. Welcome to our second Platform of the fall. Tonight, we have with us the wonderful John Weidman, co-creator and author of Contact.
To begin, I want to tell you a little bit about John's background. For those of you who don't know, John comes from musical theater royalty. He's the son of Jerome Weidman, who among other things, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Fiorello. So it was perhaps inevitable that John would end up working in the musical theater, too. John, I think your first Broadway show was Pacific Overtures in 1976...
JOHN WEIDMAN: Yes.
TC: ...which you wrote with Stephen Sondheim. You received your first Tony Award nomination for that show, which went on to win the New York Drama Critics prize for Best New Musical. You worked again with Sondheim on the musical Assassins and, more recently, with Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire on the musical Big, for which you were again nominated for a Tony Award.
Lincoln Center Theater audiences perhaps remember you most fondly for your work as co-author, with Timothy Crouse, of the new script for Anything Goes, which played here for two years at the Beaumont and won the Tony Award for Best Revival.
We're so glad to have John back here at LCT with his new show, Contact, which just opened to some of the most over-the-moon reviews we've seen in many years. And we're delighted to have him here tonight at the Platform. Please welcome John Weidman! [Applause]
For those of you who have not been to one of these Platform events before, these events are pretty informal. I'm going to start things off and then I'll ask for questions from the audience. So be thinking of things you want to ask. But first, I forgot to tell people about other aspects of your life, John...
JW: [laughing] Uh-oh, watch out!
TC: ...because you're not just a theater writer. I was intrigued to learn some of this myself. Among other things, you've been an elementary school teacher, an editor at the National Lampoon, you've won nine Emmy awards for your writing on Sesame Street, you're a graduate of Yale Law School, you're the current president of the Dramatist Guild, and the father of two children.
How do you have time to write musicals?
JW: I don't have time to do anything. While we were preparing Contact, we were getting ready to go into workshop with another musical that I'm working on with Steve Sondheim called Wise Guys. Between that and being a father, I feel as though I have not had more than three hours sleep in the last three months. [laughter]
TC: Let's talk about Contact. It's actually been a very quick process as musicals go. This project began earlier this year, right?
JW: It started last year with a phone call from [LCT's Artistic Director] André Bishop to [Contact's co-creator] Susan Stroman. André had seen a number of musicals Stro had choreographed and after seeing her last Broadway show, Steel Pier, he invited her to come here and develop a new work.
She then called me to join her—I'm happy to say—and we started meeting once a week, and talking about what we might do together. Those conversations resulted in a workshop last February here at Lincoln Center.
Contact consists of three short pieces of varying lengths. What's now the third piece in the evening was the one we did first. We did a workshop and after we'd had a look at it and talked to André and Bernie [LCT's Executive Producer Bernard Gersten], we made some decisions about how we would develop it. That resulted in the two pieces which now open the show. We workshopped those in June, and here we are.
Compared to the way musicals usually evolve these days, this was quite a rapid process. Experiences like this one are rare; where everything seems to fall into place, where we don't seem to have taken any wrong turns. As André said to the company the other night, "it's as if this show just happened." And I think it feels that way to all of us. It's been a terrific process.
TC: There's been a lot of talk about the show, which has a distinctive form. I believe that it is a new kind of theatrical hybrid. Did you and Susan set out to do something different, or was that just how it evolved?
JW: The very first meeting that Susan Stroman and I had was organized around an image in her head. She had been to a club downtown, which came together at midnight. People who were interested in swing dancing knew about it, and they would gather at this pool hall, which between midnight and four in the morning became a dance club. Stro had gone out of curiosity.
At the club, she saw a woman in a yellow dress who—at the beginning of a song—took a half step out onto the dance floor and waited for men to approach her. Sometimes a man would step in front of her and she would shake her head, and the guy would leave. And sometimes she would give him a nod and she would dance. She would dance one number with the guy and then she would retreat to the sidelines. Stro had been struck by her appearance.
But even more than her appearance, she had been struck by her behavior. Obviously, she had not come to this club to meet a guy. On the contrary, she had come to dance, to have a certain kind of very limited, focused contact—and there were a lot of rules about how much contact she was going to have.
Stro described that to me, and I thought it was a vivid, contemporary image. It suggested a lot about relationships at the end of the century. So we started with that picture and really had no idea where it would take us. We had conversations early on in which we thought maybe we were headed for some kind of a more conventional, familiar musical form, with an original score and substantial book scenes in a two-act form. We really didn't know.
But the more we talked about the content of the show, the more it seemed as though it wanted to come out the way it's come out. There's a protective umbrella you get at a place like Lincoln Center Theater, and we felt we had the freedom to do whatever we wanted. That's a rare thing. The material took us in a particular direction and we're very happy with where we wound up.
But we didn't even know what to call the show until we were finished. There were long meetings about whether it was a musical, a play, a dance play, we didn't know. And we weren't concerned about that until we were through working on it. Then we had to give it a name. Like a baby. [Audience laughter]
TC: How much was written before the workshop process began?
JW: Well, there's two ways to answer the question. One, we had a script before the first day of the first workshop, which was a scenario that described the show...which you can now see down at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. All the dialogue was there and, when there wasn't dialogue, there were descriptions of scenes, even though the scenes were going to be danced instead of talked. This is something that Stro and I had worked out together before we went into rehearsal.
On the other hand, this is a piece in which some of the writing is done in dialogue, but most of the writing is done in movement. So the most significant writing in the show actually took place in the workshops because it was about Stro designing choreography which would tell the story we had to tell.
TC: So you had that first workshop in February, and did André come back to you and say "great, we'll do this...but it's a little short?"
JW: As we approached the first workshop, it became clear to us that what we had was probably going to run about an hour. The length of it—again—was not something we had been concerned about. We wanted it to be as long as it needed to be, to tell the story we needed to tell. An hour is not really a full evening at the theater in New York. although I suppose it could be, and when we finished the first workshop André said, "if you want to, we can put this up as is." But he encouraged us to think about companion pieces that would go with it.
In fact, even before we got to the end of the first workshop, we had begun thinking and talking about what eventually became the first two pieces of the evening. Since the part we workshopped first was made up of dance and dialogue—we thought we would start with a curtain raiser which was all dance. Then we would do a second piece, which was all dialogue, a monologue...I had some ideas for that. And then we would combine the two elements in the third piece—combine dance and dialogue.
But once we saw the third piece on its feet, we felt that our plan had an intellectual neatness to it, but it was not a good idea. We went back and thought about the first two pieces again.
The first piece now has one spoken word in it. It's hyphenated, so it's longer than a single word. [laughter] And the second piece has dance and a substantial amount of dialogue. That would not have been the case if we'd tried to figure out what the first two pieces needed to be before we had workshopped what is now the third piece. And in fact, I think the third piece—although it works very well on its own—is much stronger because of what now precedes it.
TC: How did the story ideas for those first two pieces evolve? We know that the first piece—called "Swinging"—is inspired by a famous painting called "The Swing" by the 18th-century French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard. And the second piece—called "Did You Move?"—is set in 1954 at an Italian restaurant in Queens.
JW: In our earliest conversations, Stro and I played around with the word 'swing' because the third piece is based on swing dancing—Stro's version of swing dancing. The word 'swing' was in the room.
It got us to Fragonard, then led us to an idea which was going to be the second piece, to be called 'Swingers', a monologue set in a bar in Las Vegas in the Rat Pack days of the early 1960's. And then the 1960s Las Vegas idea went away. And somehow we wound up in Queens in 1954. [laughter] At the moment, I don't remember exactly what happened!
TC: [laughing] You had a bottle of tequila, it was a late night...
JW: It evolved out of another idea that we had, which I won't describe because it's too silly. But that was the way in which we worked on this. It was a profoundly satisfying way to collaborate. Because we really felt that we had the freedom to take our time, and to let ideas bubble up.
TC: Do you think the idea of using pre-recorded, familiar music is going to become a trend? Are we going to see more musicals like it?
JW: I don't think so. This piece is what it is. I'd be surprised if it produced imitators. I don't know that I would want to try and imitate it.
TC: So, there won't be a Contact Part II?
JW: I wouldn't go that far! [laughter] We'll see.
TC: Let's take some questions from the audience now. Yes, ma'am?
AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: Dance companies often use recorded music. And I saw the piece that Susan Stroman did for New York City Ballet. I'm wondering if you think it would be appropriate if one or more of the parts of Contact or even the whole show was performed by a company like City Ballet?
JW: It's certainly possible, although I think Stro and I would be reluctant to let the piece be divided up. It feels like—although it is an anthology—each piece feels like it requires the other two in order to tell a complete story.
The piece that Stro did for the New York City Ballet was wonderful, as was the work she choreographed for the Martha Graham company last season. When we were devising this initially, that kind of dance—against recorded sound—seemed much more like the model for what we were doing than a Times Square musical.
But these are theater pieces. They are not dance pieces. One of the reasons why we're so pleased to be here at the Newhouse, is that we are in a building that is about plays and musicals. We feel like we've taken the idea of plays and musicals and pushed them toward dance. Rather than taken the idea of ballet and dance and pulled it towards theater.
AM #2: Can you tell me the background of the dancers involved in Contact? Are any of them classically trained?
JW: There are 23 people in the company. I would say nearly all of them are primarily Broadway dancers. Although there is one fellow from City Ballet—Robert Wersinger—who's terrific. He had to get special permission to do this show. Many of the cast members are dancers whom Susan Stroman had worked with on Broadway in other shows.
Also, the main character in the third piece is not a dancer at all. He's an actor, Boyd Gaines, who has done musicals but—believe me—he has never danced before like he dances here. [laughs] We were enormously fortunate in casting him. Boyd was our first choice. I certainly had no idea—and I don't think Boyd had any idea—what Stro would require of him when he got into the rehearsal room. His courage was astonishing, I mean, he was fearless! He just dove right in. And the story of the character that he's playing—a man who has to take a chance—mirrors his own experience in preparing to do the show.
One of the things I think is most satisfying for the dancers is that, although most of them don't have words to say, they are dancing very specific characters, which they helped develop in workshop. There is nothing decorative about what they're doing. I think they're having a ball for that reason, they really are. It's an amazing company.
AM #3: What is your own musical background?
JW: My musical background? I have no musical background at all, although I've worked in the musical theater much of my life. [audience laughter] No, I have no musical training, no musical background, but I was brought up and spent an enormous amount of time at the theater, and fell in love with musicals as a kid.
AM #4: Who were your idols in musical theater?
JW: The people whose musicals impressed me the most when I was a late teenager/young man, were the musicals on which Hal Prince and Steve Sondheim collaborated. And you can back that up also into Steve's early musicals like Gypsy and Hal's early shows like Cabaret.
TC: By the way, John, you made a face early on tonight when I said it seemed inevitable that you should work in the musical theater because of your father and the shows he wrote years ago.
JW: I made a face because my father's ambition for me was that I become a congressman, and eventually, the first Jewish President of the United States. [Audience laughter] But here I am, talking to you. So, it didn't happen.
AM #5: This show has become so popular. Can you imagine having written this show originally for a commercial Broadway production?
JW: This particular project could only have developed the way it developed under the auspices of an institution like this. The pressures and the requirements of the commercial theater would not have allowed this to happen the way it happened. We would have had to make decisions about what we were doing before we knew what we were doing, and we would have had to live with them.
Also, I did Assassins at Playwrights Horizons back when André Bishop was running that theater. And I had worked with Bernie Gersten on Anything Goes here. So to come back here, to work again with both André and Bernie, it was like a wonderful reunion. It's a group of people for whom I had the highest regard and all of a sudden they gave me an opportunity to work on something that has been enormously satisfying. These things don't happen very often. This kind of process does not happen often. It's important to savor it.
TC: There are so few people who really have had successful, long careers in musicals. You've been doing this now for years... is there any kind of training you can recommend for people that want to be part of this crazy business?
JW: Writing books for musicals is like barrel making. It's a profession that used to exist in a way that it does not exist anymore. In the 40's and 50's, it was a career, it was a profession. People did it, they did it well, and they did it over and over and over again. Maybe one show a year, one every two years. That's not the case anymore.
These days the form has been pulled in so many different directions that the traditional book writer doesn't really exist anymore. There are still a couple of people who do it regularly. Peter Stone still writes what we think of as conventional Broadway musicals. Peter's the guy who does it over and over again and knows how to do it. He has experience and expertise.
But it's not a job description that a lot of people hang on themselves. I happen to like it. I really like collaborating and when you collaborate with the right people—when you are collaborating with Stephen Sondheim or Susan Stroman—the collaborative process is thrilling.
TC: Let's talk a little bit about your collaboration with Sondheim, because Wise Guys is the third production you're doing with him. Can you talk a bit about how that collaboration has changed over the years—starting with Pacific Overtures, then Assassins, and now this new piece?
JW: Well, each project has been different. Pacific Overtures started as a straight play I had written while I was in law school. Hal Prince optioned it and was going to do it in New York...
TC: ...as a play?
JW: As a play. We were in the middle of casting and I thought, "oh, look at me. I'm going to be a Broadway playwright." And, at the last minute, Hal changed his mind and decided that it wasn't going to work as a play, it needed to be a musical. I thought that was a polite way of saying, 'that was the end of that'. But he took it to Steve, and he and Steve discussed it and eventually we were off to the races. But that was a collaboration which had a director at its center. Hal was in the middle of that project from the beginning.
Assassins was a show which grew out of conversations between me and Steve, and we finished writing it before it was ever exposed to a director. So that was a writer's show. It was finished before we showed it to Jerry Zaks and he decided he wanted to direct it.
TC: Assassins is probably more of a play than a musical, wouldn't you say? A play with songs in it, but not like a traditional musical.
JW: Well, it has a structure which is entirely correct for Assassins, but does not suggest any musical other than Assassins. But again, that was a little bit like Contact, that was a case where the form the show took evolved as we talked about what it was we were writing about, and what we thought was the most effective way of expressing it. We didn't make any decisions, going in, about what kind of show we were going to write. Or about what style the show was going to be.
Wise Guys, which has been interrupted several times by other projects, has had a more complicated genesis. Steve and I wrote through it once—or, I guess, twice. And then Sam Mendes, who had directed Assassins in London—and who we really liked—became attached to it as the director, and the three of us have been re-working it since. Each show gets to the finish line in its own way. Each one is different.
AM #6: Can you discuss how you decided on the title Contact?
JW: It originally was a working title, just something to put on the front page of the script. There's no question that the three pieces are about people trying to make connections with each other, either failing or succeeding. So ultimately it turned out to be a good title.
AM #7: Who will produce the show if it moves to Broadway?
TC: Lincoln Center Theater will. We produce shows here at the Beaumont and Newhouse, but we also produce shows in other theaters. We've produced some shows directly on Broadway, like The Heiress or A Delicate Balance. And some shows started here and later moved to Broadway; Sarafina! and The House of Blue Leaves come to mind.
JW: By producing Contact here at the Newhouse, Lincoln Center Theater gets to be both the producer and the landlord. In a Broadway house, they would be the producers and somebody else would be the landlord. But here, they're in charge. Thank goodness.
AM #8: I haven't been able to see Contact yet. Can you describe the kind of dancing that is in the show? Is it Broadway-style dancing?
JW: Well, Susan Stroman has worked primarily on Broadway, although she has certainly worked elsewhere. Particularly in the last year. But most of the dancing is built out of Broadway steps, although there is a great deal of classical music and classical dance in parts of it as well. It's hard to describe.
People dance the story, but they do not do it in a self-consciously 'dancey' way, if that makes any sense. Part of the third story takes place in a club so the choreography begins as a literal expression of people dancing with each other on a dance floor, then evolves and becomes more abstract as the story develops. And dance is used in different ways in the other two pieces.
TC: I'd like to add that all three of the pieces have a remarkable, dream-like quality to them. That's my opinion, at least. To me, the dancing often feels like the 'unreal' way people can dance in dreams. It's more than just regular dancing. It's the way that people can surpass reality in your dreams.
AM #9: Since this is such a demanding dance show, how many understudies do you have?
JW: There are 23 people in the cast, including four swings—
TC: What an ironic word!
JW: Yes, "swing"! And four is probably not quite enough.
TC: The swings are amazing. For those of you who are not familiar with the jargon of the theater, a swing is a kind of understudy. Some of the regular cast members understudy each other, but there are also these four people whose job it is to cover all the different parts.
You can imagine how tough it is for them since they have to keep track of so much different choreography. And there are also two dance captains who have to know all the parts, so that when new people come into the company they will be able to teach them.
JW: There's a wonderful dancer named Joanne Manning who is one of the swings. Swings are not less talented than the regular dancers on the stage. In many cases, they have to be more...
JW: ...versatile than the people who are on stage. I was watching her taking notes one day during rehearsals, and I said "temperamentally, I am not equipped to do what you do". And she said, "last time I did this, I got an ulcer!" [Audience laughter] It's amazing how hard they work, and how prepared they are.
There is a room which is available to them during all performances, and if you stick your head in there, there's a television monitor in there with live feed from the theater and the swings are watching the show and dancing. They are working different tracks in the show to keep themselves ready every evening. It's like they're doing the show every night, even though they're not on stage.
AM #10: What do you mean when you say they're working?
TC: They're rehearsing, they're dancing...
JW: They're on their feet. They're not necessarily doing the entire track. But they're doing this bit or that bit, and they'll partner with somebody else there...it's remarkable.
AM #10: Do you sell tickets to that? [Audience laughter]
JW: We should, they're really something.
TC: John, how would you compare Contact to an earlier show that LCT produced—again, directly on Broadway—called Chronicle of a Death Foretold. That's also sort of a dance play, no?
JW: I saw Chronicle of a Death Foretold and thought it was wonderful. It's based on one of my favorite pieces of short fiction, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. You know, I don't know how to answer that. I thought one of the great successes of Chronicle was the way [director/choreographer] Graciela Daniele used dance to tell a story. It had an atmosphere that was so clear and specific, you could have cut it with a knife.
I think the same is true of Contact. Particularly the third part. Although the spirit and the intention of the pieces are entirely different. But you're talking about two wonderful choreographers who are—obviously—about more than just creating dance steps.
TC: Chronicle also had an original score by Bob Telson and Michael John LaChiusa which gave that show a cohesive sound. Whereas Contact has quite a large range of musical styles, from Benny Goodman to the Beach Boys to classical music. So that gives a kind of different character to this piece.
TC: John, would you talk a little bit about your 'other' life as a writer for the TV series "Sesame Street" and how you got involved with that? Are you still doing that?
JW: Sort of. My kids are not—I was going to say they're grownup, they're not. My daughter is 16, my son is eleven—
TC: I'm sure your 16-year-old would say she is grown up!
JW: Stay out of this! [Audience laughter] I came home one day when my daughter was, I guess, two, and she was sitting on a couch and she was watching "Sesame Street"—an American institution to which I had never been exposed. It didn't exist when I was a kid, and I had no younger brothers or sisters. I sat down and I watched it with her, and I thought it was wonderful. I watched her watching it, and I thought it was terrific.
I had a friend who wrote for the show and I called him up and said "how do you do this?" And he said, "well, there's an audition process". So I went through that process, and I became one of the dozen people who write scripts for "Sesame Street". And when my kids were small, it was particularly satisfying, because I would take them to the set. And they would meet the puppets...it was great!
And I have continued to do it, depending on how much time I have. In part because I enjoy it. But also because I feel like it is honest work; it pleases me to do it. A lot of what people who work in the theater do or have to do to support themselves is not so great. You know, I feel like that's something I sort of fell into and I feel like it's honorable work. And I've enjoyed continuing to do it. And it's right across the street. [Audience laughter] Which helps, too.
AM #11: Did you get involved with the Muppets as well?
TC: Do you mean the TV series, "The Muppet Show"?
JW: No, I was not involved in "The Muppet Show". But both shows were done by the same puppeteers. While they were doing the new series, Frank Oz and Jim Henson continued to work on "Sesame Street"—Jim did until he died. Even when he was sort of 'running the puppet world', he would come and do his characters. It was really thrilling to work with those guys.
TC: Was working for "Sesame Street" a natural segue for you to get involved in the musical Big, which is essentially a child's story?
JW: No, Big was one of those things that had nothing to do with anything else. I got a phone call one day from somebody who had acquired the rights to Big and wanted to make it into a musical. My first reaction was that it was not a good idea. I thought the movie was a finished piece of work, that the story had been told really well.
At the same time, I really admired Richard Maltby and David Shire [who wrote the show's score], and I had always wanted to work with them. We started to sit around and talk, and we talked some more, and talked some more, and pretty soon we sort of found ourselves just sort of doing the show, without having decided to do it. It went on from there.
TC: I saw the show in New York and then on the road, where it had changed a lot. I'm curious: were you involved in that?
JW: Yeah. We re-worked the show when it went out on tour and solved what we felt were a lot of unsolved writing problems in the Broadway production. In many ways, I think the writing on the road was better. There were some ways in which it was a better version of the story and other ways in which I think the Broadway version was better. It never quite settled. That was a project that never quite found its feet.
TC: How do you generally feel about stage adaptations of movies? Or is that a loaded question?
JW: I think movies can be especially difficult to adapt because they are already—for the most part—more naturalistic then what you are going to pull them back to be when they turn into musicals. I would be reluctant to adapt a movie again, unless it was something I felt I had to do.
AM #12: This is more of a comment than a question. I just wanted to say that Big was my favorite musical of that season. The ironic thing is that the show that won the Tony that year, Rent, I think is the worst show on Broadway. I just wanted to say, the Tony that went to Rent should actually have went to you instead.
JW: Well, thank you! I'm a big fan of Rent myself, but I would have been happy to receive the Tony award. [Audience laughter]
TC: Last question: do you know what you are going to work on next, after Wise Guys? Or are you just going to take a long vacation to Aruba?
JW: I'd like to take a long vacation to Aruba. I'm working with Lynn Ahrens and Steve Flaherty, who wrote Ragtime. We've optioned a novel that we're going to turn into a musical. They are wonderful people to write with. And I'm actually looking forward to doing that.
AM #13: What's the name of the novel?
JW: I guarantee you would never have heard of it. But I always feel that the less said about these things, the better.
TC: Absolutely, we don't want to jinx anything! Unfortunately, we're out of time. John, thank you for being here and thanks to the audience for coming, too. Good night, everyone. [Audience applause.]