Angels in America’s Tony Kushner and Mean Girls’ Tina Fey Talk Each Other’s Genius in Warmly, Jordan

Interview   Angels in America’s Tony Kushner and Mean Girls’ Tina Fey Talk Each Other’s Genius in Warmly, Jordan
 
Read this excerpt of their illuminating conversation with theatre mogul Jordan Roth from his new email magazine.
Jordan Roth and Tina Fey; Jordan Roth and Tony Kushner
Jordan Roth and Tina Fey; Jordan Roth and Tony Kushner Courtesy of Jordan Roth
Richie Jackson and Jordan Roth
Richie Jackson and Jordan Roth Monica Simoes

In between running Jujamcyn Theatres as President and CEO, Jordan Roth writes and hosts The Birds and the B.S. (his politically-satirical version of Mr. Rogers) and spends #SundayInTheGardenWithJordan on Instagram and #MakingMondays on Facebook Live. He’s carving out a name for himself in couture, and is also father to a two-year-old son and 18-year-old son with husband Richie Jackson. And while his life unfurls outward in a (seemingly) neverending reach, that connection anchors his busy life.

Now, Roth has pioneered a new venture in connection: an email magazine titled Warmly, Jordan.

His chance to explore the world through conversation with the great thinkers and artists of today, each issue features one in-depth discussion with a theatrical bent. To date, his inaugural issue featured a post-Tonys talk with Tony Kushner and Tina Fey; the second issue welcomed fashion designer Zac Posen. Ariana Huffington will lead Issue No. 3 in a chat about media, politics, and wellness.

“Theatre matters when it is in conversation with the culture,” Roth says. “We’re exploring the theatrical in all of the ways it manifests: in fashion, in politics, in social media, in retail, in city spaces, in technology.”

Warmly, Jordan is not just Roth’s latest invention, it’s also his most intimate. “There’s something personal about it and why I called it ‘Warmly, Jordan,’” he says. “That is how I sign all my emails, and this will always be from me to you.”

The “you” part is crucial to Roth. A subscription email may seem like his smallest-scale project, but it has the potential for the widest impact. “Digging into [theatre in all its forms] in a way that’s fun and thought-provoking and exciting and sometimes hilarious is how I want to spend my time—and if we can do that together, we might get somewhere.”

Roth values his place as a gatekeeper of theatre, but rather than bar entry from atop his perch, his joy emanates from swinging the floodgates open. Warmly, Jordan is an invitation.

But it’s not a grab-n-go snack. A trademark of Warmly, Jordan is its length. Rarely do readers encounter a printed interview clocking in at the word count Roth has dared to present. “There is something really refreshing about a deep dive when so much of what we’re offered lately is 15 seconds,” he says. “There’s something about knowing that you have time to follow thoughts and jokes and ideas and stories where they lead you.

“Think about your best dinner party that you’ve ever been to—the one where nobody gets up after dessert. Warmly, Jordan is your best dinner party in your inbox.”

WARMLY, JORDAN: A CONVERSATION WITH TONY KUSHNER AND TINA FEY
In the inaugural issue of Warmly, Jordan, Roth sat with the once-in-a-generation thinker and Tony– and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Angels in America, Tony Kushner, and the Emmy– and Golden Globe-winning comedy genius and Mean Girls musical book writer Tina Fey hours after the 2018 Tony Awards. The hour-and-a-half conversation “will go on my ‘Obsessed’ list as one of my top five moments of all time,” says Roth.

“Tony is so known for drama but his plays are hilarious, as is he, and Tina is so known for comedy, but there is so much depth to her work. And so it seemed that they were destined to explore these ideas together,” says Roth.

What follows is an excerpt from their conversation originally published in Warmly, Jordan. The discussion has been edited and condensed for Playbill.

To read the full interview click here, and subscribe to Warmly, Jordan.

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JORDAN: So I was really excited to bring the two of you together. Not just because the Tony ‘n Tina’s Weddingheadline writes itself— [laughter]
TONY: God, that never occurred to me.
JORDAN: It never occurred to you?
TINA: It didn’t occur to me either.
JORDAN: Well, now you know! And not just because you two are owning 52nd Street with Mean Girls and Angels across the street from one another, but I was thinking about comedy and drama, and Tina, you are known for comedy, but it comes from this very emotionally real and deep place. Tony, you are known for drama, but your plays are hilarious. And that makes me then think, is this distinction of comedy and drama a real thing or just something we make up for marketing and awards?
TINA: Well, there’s certainly a lot of overlap, right? And I think any drama worth its salt will have moments of humor in it, because anything accurately portraying human experience will have humor in it. And I think that any comedy worth its salt will have moments of humanity and some kind of dramatic tension. I think you need to have both.
TONY: Yeah, I agree. I always feel that you can’t write a play if you can’t write a joke, because I think something really essential happens: the audience announces its presence to the people on stage when it laughs. You know from your first laugh what kind of an animal is sitting out there. … If it’s a really great joke that everybody gets at once and everybody loves it, they turn into the audience very quickly. Then the actors know who they’re up against. And if it’s much less of a laugh than they usually get, they strap on certain kinds of armor. I think that’s an essential part of this communal exchange—the “community in the light” and the “community in the dark” exchange that has to happen for theatre to work.

TONY: When you wrote the book for Mean Girls and all the stuff on “Saturday Night Live,” where you had a live audience to work from, do you calibrate it differently from writing a screenplay?
TINA: Well [with the stage adaptation of Mean Girls] it was interesting to try to figure out: what is a joke in this form? Because you aren’t in a closeup and you can’t cut to an insert shot of something. … I wanted to make sure everything was either character-driven or necessary in the moment, because when you start just trying to joke things out, then it usually kills the thing. A good lesson for me from “Saturday Night Live” and from doing episodic TV is that you’ve got to try to get the story and the character moments right. And then there are always more jokes to be had. But they won’t work unless the moment underneath them is working.

JORDAN What’s so interesting to me about Mean Girls is this high school as microcosm of what’s playing out on national and global themes.
TONY: Well, it is all high school on some level. It’s ideology. Everybody subscribes to the same dream of community and the same dream of power. You have to or the whole thing just crumbles.
TINA: And to assert your role within it, you punch down.

TONY: And when [Cady] upsets the apple cart and displaces Regina, everybody starts attacking everybody else. It turns into the war of all against all. Everybody starts killing everybody else because [Regina is] actually serving a very important social function. She organizes it all into a hierarchy that, as miserable as it may be in certain ways, kind of works. And then you pop the top off and the whole thing comes down like a house of cards and everybody’s at each other’s—I love this.
JORDAN: So do I! Let’s keep going. What Cady figures out is that the purpose Regina was serving was to protect the people that she wants to protect. And if you were under that protection, good on you. And then the head gets cut off and grows back. Right? At the beginning of the second act, the head of Regina has been cut off and now gets replaced by Cady. Because we need that function preserved in that ecosystem.
TINA: Yes!
JORDAN: Are we nationally, as a community, Cady, somewhere in Act II, figuring out why we can’t straddle this dissonance?
TINA: I can’t believe we’re doing this!
TONY: One of the things that’s really interesting is that the politics in the second act start to get complicated. It goes from being this social Darwinist paradigm of “We’re the animals and I’m the apex predator” to being more complicated and genuinely multifarious. Then Janis has an amazing moment of stepping up and singing that song. And it’s not reconciled, as it shouldn’t have been, but what you’re left with at the end, I think, is the sense of a community that’s now been completely up-ended. It has gone through successive stages of anarchy and failed attempts to rapidly recreate what developed, clearly organically. It’s like the classic high school hierarchal structure. There was a mean girl before Regina. She stepped into that role when that girl graduated. You just wait your turn and you ascend. But that’s all gotten fucked over now. And they’re going to have to improvise and figure it out. It’s a little bit like Angels. Everybody starts out with the appropriate person. And then at the end, you know, the black drag queen winds up with Roy Cohn and the Mormon housewife winds up with a drag queen and everything expected is undone. The ability to tolerate that kind of newness is the challenge of being alive, especially in our world today when this kind of upending happens so quickly.

TONY: We’ve seen something interesting happening in our little tiny lifetimes that, right now, I would say, an equal number of the really interesting playwrights are women, if not more. Probably more. I mean Annie Baker and Suzan-Lori [Parks] and Anne Washburn and Amy Herzog. That’s an astounding amount of talent. 20 years ago there was this first group of, like, serious women playwrights, and honestly a lot of their work was kind of flawed and messy, because they were taking this form that had been dominated by men for a really long time and they were moving into it. … Hillary [Clinton], she’s of the generation that had to step into a male game. There are obviously equivalences with women in comedy. You can’t master the form exactly [at first] because it’s not yours. It won’t reflect any of your realities. But that’s why people, these figures like Caryl Churchill—
TINA: My favorite playwright.
TONY: It helps that she’s a genius, but these people who took the form and then began to beat it into shape, and now these younger women are coming in and all the ground has been prepared for them by women who came before. And they can start to move in and acquire something. You see the form changing.
JORDAN: Do you see that in comedy?

TINA: Yeah, I know that generationally, within comedy, I am a little bit last gen, as the kids would say. Amy Poehler and I came up together, and coming up when we did in improv and comedy, if you had asked us to be sort of sexual in a sketch we would have been like, “No, you’re trying to trick us. You’re trying to trick us into doing that.” The generation ends with me and Amy and the new one picks up with Kristen Wiig. If you look at something like Bridesmaids, there’s a scene where she’s having sex with Jon Hamm and she’s owning it so fully. It’s not a creepy male gaze thing. And I feel like that’s where the shift happens. You look at “Broad City” and those guys are writing about pegging! They’re just writing whatever they want and it’s not because they want to look cute doing it. When Amy and I were in the touring company together at The Second City in Chicago, we would tour sketches that other people had improvised 10, 15 years ago. And inevitably your lines would be like, “Honey!” Literally all your lines started with, “Honey!” and you were the waitress. And so that was the generation before us, and we were like, “Well, we’re not gonna do that.” When I was starting, [the female to male ratio] was 2 to 14. I think now there are a lot of myths being busted in a lot of positive ways. There’s a lot of made up stuff in show business. I’ve literally heard people say in Chicago, “Well, the audience doesn’t want to see a scene with two women.” Did you poll the audience? You spoke to them? They don’t want to see that? It would just be handed down as fact, and it’s insane.
TONY: I love the episode of “30 Rock” with Carrie Fisher as the old comedy writer. That’s what we’re talking about. You’re so great in that scene because it’s the kind of horror at what this woman had to go through to be in entertainment back then. But in terms of the young people today you sometimes wish that there was a certain awareness of genealogy.
TINA: It’s the way we tolerate our founding fathers.
JORDAN: But there does seem to be a way in which the new generation has to cut and say, “I’m going to make this my own.” And then they start to fill in the pieces of what they didn’t know came before. And they’ll make mistakes, but they’re figuring it out.
JORDAN: This was more fascinating than I could have possibly imagined.
TONY: It was fun!
TINA: Tony, was a pleasure to be in your company. I’ve never felt dumber. [laughter]
TONY: That’s my aim. That’s why I’m invited to so many dinners.

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