Alfred Uhry established his Broadway beachhead 29 years ago this month with a simple declarative statement: Here's Where I Belong. A little too simple, perhaps. This musical version of East of Eden went South in a single night.
"I've had other nights on Broadway," Uhry adds impishly, bright eyes masking more self-deprecation on the way. "Little Johnny Jones," he beams with pseudo pride. Donny Osmond doing George M. Cohan also was history in one night.
It hasn't all been one-night stands on Broadway, though. There was The Robber Bridegroom. That not only had a second night, it had a rather respectable run as well, and it even got Uhry in the running for the Tony Award 20 years ago.
All of the above is by way of saying, yes, Alfred Uhry has been on Broadway before as a lyricist and/or book writer, never purely as a playwright. That debut only just happened, with the arrival of The Last Night of Ballyhoo at the Helen Hayes theatre.
The lyrics that led him to this Broadway bow he looks on as asterisks to his real self. The real Alfred Uhry [the comedy-dramatist] didn't start to emerge until about this time a decade ago when his first full-length play began kicking in at Playwrights Horizons. By the time Driving Miss Daisy finished burning up the track, it had logged up 1,195 performances Off-Broadway, done a few national tours and made it into the movies big, as the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1989. The film also got an overdue Oscar for the late Jessica Tandy, in the title role of an elderly Atlanta Jew, and one for Uhry as well (to go with the Pulitzer Prize he'd already collected for the play version). Success such as that can give a guy the willies, and Uhry is the first to admit he retreated into poshly upholstered obscurity to lick his laurels and write high-priced screenplays, surfacing from time to time to ponder the weighty question of what to do for an encore. "I got more and more frightened because I didn't know why Miss Daisy was the hit it was and why it kept seeming to go on forever. I knew, whatever I wrote, they'd say, 'Well, it's not Miss Daisy.' Still, I didn't want to be a one-work wonder. I knew I could write movies very nicely, but basically nobody gets credit for writing movies you get a paycheck so I thought, 'I gotta suck it up and do this.' "
The impetus he needed came, out of the blue, from his hometown of Atlanta. The Cultural Olympiad there commissioned him to write a play for last summer's Olympic Games. Free to pick any subject he wanted, he found his heart listing again toward home the source of his Miss Daisy inspiration and, sure 'nuff, a Ballyhoo's Who of characters emerged from gently rattling his family tree.
The play is set in one of the fancier neighborhoods of Atlanta's German Jews, in an ante-bellum manse much like the one owned by Uhry's bachelor uncle; it's also inhabited by fictional facsimiles of that uncle, his sister, their widowed sister-in-law and the women's two debutante-vintage daughters. True to the nature of this ensemble piece, they dip and twirl to the beat of The Ballyhoo, a country-club gala thrown by the cream of Southern Jewish society around Christmastime during the years between World Wars. There are, yes, gentleman callers in fact, one of the subplots parallels the actual meeting and courtship of Uhry's parents and there is considerable maternal manipulation to align the daughters with the right kind of German Jewish boy.
Ron Lagomarsino, the original Miss Daisy director, tapped his original Miss Daisy to be the chief manipulator here: Dana Ivey who is reprising the performance she originated in Atlanta; so, too, are Terry Beaver and Stephen Largay. Joining them on Broadway are Jessica Hecht, Arija Bareikis, Celia Weston and Paul Rudd. "All the producers who came down to Atlanta to see the play wanted to do it in New York," says Uhry, who chose to go with his original Miss Daisy duo, Jane Harmon and Nina Keneally, and producer Liz Oliver. "They were devoted to that play, and I thought that kind of loyalty deserved loyalty from me."
Starting his playwriting career as a lyricist, Uhry says, "made me awfully economical. When I first came to New York, I was employed by Frank Loesser. He paid me $50 a week to write songs. He taught me and this was just lyrics every syllable counts and you don't use any wasted words. When I started writing plays, I thought of dialogue as two or three pages between songs. I was very minimal. I'm less so now. In the back of my heart, I always wanted to write a play."
The road he took in life as a lyricist, he thinks, is connected to the road that took him out of town. The fact that these his first three plays go so deeply to his roots "is more than kismet. It's because I supplemented my creative life being a playwright for many years doing something I didn't really in my heart want to do writing lyrics. When time came to write a play, I had it there to write. I didn't have to go to the library. It was all there."
Unlike Thomas Wolfe, Alfred Uhry has proved that you can, too, go home again.
-- By Harry Haun