How appropriate that They All Laughed is the title of the latest project by playwright Joe DiPietro, since laughter has made him a two for-two Off-Broadway hit maker. Who knew back on Aug. 1, 1996, that a little musical revue about love and romance would open and end up running 2,000 performances — and counting, as DiPietro and composer Jimmy Roberts' I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change keeps going strong at the Westside Theatre? And who figured that DiPietro would nix the sophomore jinx with his gently comic, non-musical look at an Italian family, Over the River and Through the Woods, that ran nearly two years (800 performances) at the John Houseman Theatre? Is DiPietro preparing to bring another round of laughter to the New York stage? The answer will likely rely on with the reception of the world premiere of They All Laughed at CT's Goodspeed Musicals (June 29-Sept. 22). Marla Schaffel, Mary Beth Peil, Donna English and Michael McGrath are featured in the tuner, an adaptation of the Gershwin Brothers' tuner, Oh, Kay!.
But that's not the only DiPietro project on the docket. Though reports that his plays The Kiss at City Hall and The Art of Murder might be New York candidates never materialized, he has been working on a comedy featuring the songs of Elvis Presley, Can't Help Falling in Love. The piece won't be an Elvis biography or impersonation, so much as a concept musical using the songs to tell mini stories. DiPietro did a draft of an Allegro rewrite for the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization. Reached during the fourth week of They All Laughed rehearsals, DiPietro weighed in on the process of making a new-old musical, specializing in comedy, and hauling audience members off to jail.
PLAYBILL ON-LINE: First things first: How's it going with They All Laughed?
Joe DiPietro: Putting together a new musical of this size and scope always has a lot of aspects going on. We're using pre-written songs, so when you change or add, you're choosing from a limited pool. Fortunately, in this case, the pool is the Gershwins', which is very large and unbelievably impressive.
PBOL: Have you added or jettisoned any Gershwin tunes in recent weeks?
JDP: Well, to start the second act we added "Hang On to Me" (a 1926 song from Lady Be Good, for Fred and Adele Astaire). We cut "When Our Ship Comes Sailing In," (which was cut from original Oh, Kay!). We do keep three songs from Oh, Kay! In the show. The book takes the basic germ of the plot: bootleggers on Long Island in the late `20s, and a playboy falling in love. People at the Gershwin Estate felt they wanted to do a big comedy show. This was about three years ago, when those were seemingly becoming extinct on Broadway. Mike, who runs the Gershwin Trust, wanted another big ol' musical comedy like they used to write in the Twenties. He looked at Oh, Kay! and felt that, though creaky, it had the best basic plot to start with. My charge was to take whatever I felt like from the book and run with it — and use pretty much any Gershwin song. That's a nice phone call to get. Since then there've been a couple of drafts, a reading, negotiations, another reading for the industry last year, and now the world premiere at Goodspeed.
PBOL: And at the same time, you're busy with an Elvis musical?
JDP: We did the first reading of Can't Help Falling in Love a couple of months ago for the Presley Estate. They got very excited about it. So it's currently being negotiated with producers [Jonathan Pollard, Dena Hammerstein and Bernie Kukoff] to take it over and shepherd it. The timetable looks like it'll have a big regional production somewhere next spring-summer. It seems to be on a pretty quick track right now. PBOL: But it's not an Elvis bio?
JDP: No, the plot is based very loosely on Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream. It takes place in 1950s middle-America, in a depressed town. The arrival of a jukebox suddenly brings color and life to the town, and the residents fall in and out of love. There are about 20 or so songs in the show, so far. There's the title numbers, and in the reading were "Don't Be Cruel," "Love Me Tender," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Burning Love," "All Shook Up." Some were big hits, some from the movies. Thank goodness the rights to the songs were not my problem. I needed to get the enthusiasm and support of Presley people, and I've been told it'll be taken care of. I basically got a list of songs from the music publisher who hired me for this project.
PBOL: On to the next projects then...
JDP: Well, Allegro is very back burner for now. I finished a draft a year ago, and I don't know what's happening with that one. The Kiss at City Hall — there's nothing at the moment. I got distracted by all the musicals, and producers tend to get more excited by those. For example, there's another show, Men, which was written with Perfect/Change's Jimmy Roberts. It had two productions back to back at American Stage (NJ) and Broward County in (FL). Now I'm doing more tweaking on that, but it's on a pretty good track to come to New York relatively soon.
PBOL: The usual producers?
JDP: [Laughs.] Yes. Jonathan Pollard, Dena Hammerstein and Bernie Kukoff. It's such a nice situation to be in with these producers. Sometimes I can't believe my luck.
PBOL: It does seem like a charmed career so far. Any embarrassing or unpleasant incidents to tarnish the glow?
JDP: [Laughs.] Well, I tend to see shows early on when things are very fresh. I do remember one time when some audience members at Perfect/Change were drunk, putting their feet on the stage, being belligerent and yapping through the whole show. I remember coming to see the second act and seeing someone led out of the theatre in handcuffs. That's the most outrageous thing that's happened that I witnessed.
PBOL: Do you remember your first live theatre experience?
JDP: I was around ten-ish and seeing 1776 on Broadway. I can remember sitting in the front mezzanine on the left. I remember what that set looked like when the lights came up: the scene of the congressional room. From that moment I was hooked. And I remember William Daniels' performance to this day.
PBOL: So you were star-struck early on, but what convinced you that you could make the leap and do theatre of your own?
JDP: In any creative field, no one gives you permission to do it. It's not like going to law school where you come out with a degree and teach law. You have to want to do it and will yourself to do it. I've always loved theatre and became a frequent theatregoer. I went into advertising right out of college, doing copywriting. But I'd write plays or scenes at night, without giving it serious thought. I just loved the act of writing so much. I just kept doing it and doing it. New York City is great that way, in that there are a lot of very small, burgeoning theatres and young artists. That's how I learned to write, through weekend theatre companies. And it was just for the love of it at first; it wasn't an effort to sit down and do it.
PBOL: Why did you choose to go behind the curtain?
JDP: I know there are actors who write and writers who act, but I tend to think of them as two different personalities. I like to be more anonymous and never had a desire to act — which I think is a good thing.
PBOL: Were any playwrights a major influence on you?
JDP: I consider myself a comic playwright, so I'm a big fan of the great comic playwrights - George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Charles MacArthur. I'm a big fan of Joe Orton (in a different vein), Oscar Wilde. I'd throw into that mix Arthur Miller, too, for structure. I think Neil Simon is someone who's had a vast influence on American playwriting, certainly. He doesn't always get the credit for it, but he changed the way plays are written nowadays. Most plays have comedy in them now. Even very serious plays like Wit, Angels in America — very intense subjects but they have great snatches of humor in them. And it's Neil Simon-type jokes, just in a different context.
PBOL: Your career is still relatively young, but have you noticed any ideas or themes cropping up in regularly in your work?
JDP: I haven't quite stepped back and figured them out yet. But essentially, I think I write comedies with heart.
— By David Lefkowitz