PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with George C. Wolfe

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with George C. Wolfe Graffiti art. Club life. Breakdancing. House music. New Wave. Andy Warhol. The 1980s reign again at the Public Theater with Radiant Baby, the new Off-Broadway musical about late pop artist Keith Haring.

Previews began Feb. 1. Official opening is March 2. The world premiere features lyrics by Ira Gasman, Stuart Ross and Debra Barsha, a book by Ross and a score by Barsha. It is also the first musical directed by Public poobah George C. Wolfe since The Wild Party on Broadway. The material immediately spoke to Wolfe, who came to New York City around the same time Haring arrived and experienced the same scruffy, sloppy, seedy, souped-up, pre-Disney New York art world the famed and short-lived pop artist did. Wolfe, talking in his typical hummingbird-paused-in-flight fashion (tongue tripping, eyes wide, hands a-flutter), recently discussed the project.

Playbill On-Line: When did Radiant Baby come to you?
George C. Wolfe: It came to me four years ago or something like that. I came here [New York] in 1979. I think he came here one or two years earlier than me.

PBOL: What was your life like back then?
GW: I was totally struggling. I was teaching acting. I worked at the Cellar at Macy's selling candy at Christmastime. At one point, I served drinks around the pool at Manhattan Plaza. I was trying to do the artist thing, but I had so many jobs at one point I quit everything and went to NYU for my masters. I wasn't a club boy. I went from time to time. I went to Paradise Garage [which Haring frequented] a couple times. That energy and the sexual energy of the city at the time! And then a bomb got dropped and it was AIDS. All of a sudden, everything instantly changes. The energy of the city literally lives inside my body, and, it's interesting, working on this piece—I remember things that I thought I had forgotten. Details have come back, sounds and senses. It's been very valuable, because one gets so busy and goes from project to project to project. You tend to catalogue your memories and forget where you kept them. It's so great when a project forces you to react and reactivate in a very immediate and visceral way.

PBOL: The musical seems to be not just about Keith Haring but about something bigger that he represents.
GW: There's a line that Andy Warhol, who's a character, says to Keith. He says, "Keith, you're an '80s zeitgeist kind of guy." I think it is true to me. We're dealing with the intimacies of his story in a very specific way, but it's also what he was about. He was a part of the Lower East Side movement. He was a part of the early Hip Hop movement that was happening in the south Bronx. All those energies and influences defined him and shaped him, from creating art in the subway to being in the galleries of Soho at their peak, when money was pouring into the city during the Reagan era. Then, all of a sudden he had to negotiate a relationship with a time limit on his life. It makes his life so incredibly compacted, but, to me, it also makes his life so large. In a sense, all of us can find pieces of ourselves in his life.

PBOL: Do you think New York is no longer a place where an artist like Haring could succeed the way he did, rising from the streets to the top?
GW: Maybe it's nostalgia, but when I first came to New York, it felt messier and rougher. It was the perfect time. It seemed to have the right energies for artists of my time and generation to create a world. Now it feels very different and in many respects impossible to me, but I think maybe the new artists that are coming in are very different animals and have the right muscles to transform this city. PBOL: It would be nice to think so.
GW: I choose to believe that people keep coming to New York and want to take it apart and put it back together in their way. I'm so grateful that I came here when I did. I remember walking down Amsterdam Avenue in the summers. All the energy was just spilling out onto the street. It was very heavily Latin. You walk one more block and it would be Columbus and it would be very, very Yuppie. And 72nd street, there used to be this mom and pop Italian place and down the street there was a black, gay bar. The way things used to smash together, I loved. Those places are disappearing.