Warren Leight's Tony-nominated play, Side Man, is autobiographical in more ways than one. It's well known by now that Leight drew upon the life of his unsung trumpeter father to pen his paean to the lost world of jazz journeyman. But change the play's characters from musicians to writers, and Side Man could be the story of its author. Before Side Man made its unlikely fairy-tale journey to Broadway, Leight was something of a side man himself: writing screenplays, night club acts, one-acts -- anything to make a living. Even at this late date, with a Tony Award within grasp, Leight hasn't forgotten those days. He spoke to Playbill On-Line about the great chasm which separates a gig at Starbuck's from a lunch with Christian Slater.
Playbill On-Line: The jazz world, which you capture in Side Man, the upcoming Glimmer Brothers and a bit in Stray Cats, is a rather neglected milieu in recent American drama.
Warren Leight: I find it appalling. It is America's only native art form, and completely neglected. There have been a few interesting things that have caught on, but if you compare the number of plays about painting and painters to the number of plays about jazz musicians, it must be a hundred-to-one ratio, and you can't tell me it's anymore exciting to watch a painter onstage than a musician. And even plays about writers, plays about dancers, plays about actors; for some reason--partially racial- jazz, in particular has been [ignored]. I had a hard time getting a first production of Side Man because jazz was considered a bad topic for a play.
PBOL: Were there any jazz-themed plays that influenced you?
WL: I wish there were. There were all those bad jazz movies when I was a kid, which I was very aware of. Musicians hated them, whether it was "The Benny Goodman Story" or "The Glenn Miller Story" -- a bunch of guys saying "Hey, man! Dig it!" At the age of eight, I knew that stuff to be "jive." I think Maynard G. Krebs was about as close as America ever got to depicting jazz.
PBOL: After years of knocking about, did you begin to feel like a side man yourself?
WL: Yeah. I was able to make a living writing screenplays that didn't get made, or, if they did get made, were humiliating. There was a period in the early eighties, when every nightclub act, every bad cabaret act, every girl singer, I had written their act. I used to hope they wouldn't go see each other's shows, because they'd hear the same lines. I got $10 an hour; that was my rate. But that's not a great way to spend your life. Ultimately, that's pretty dispiriting. For whatever reason, I couldn't crack one Off Broadway theatre in New York; none of the not-for-profit institutions. There were a few people who where looking out for me, but they were struggling: there's was Alice's Fourth Floor, on Dyer Avenue right by the tunnel; or John McCormick, when he was at Naked Angels--he now runs All Seasons Theatre; and the West Bank Cafe. But that was it. Every institution just seemed like a closed set. Apparently Margaret Edson sent Wit around for eight years before she got a New York production. It did feel like there was no way into New York theatre. I'd been doing one acts here and there for the last ten years and I'd get the occasional reading, but nobody would give even a workshop production of a full-length play. I just wasn't in whatever their group of loop was. I didn't fit their profile or agenda, or I just hadn't gone to college with them. I don't know what it was. I knew my father to be a beautiful trumpet player, and, for whatever reason, he didn't get asked to record as much as some other guys who, in retrospect, weren't any better or any worse than he was. I did begin to worry whether I'd get a shot at it, like a 34-year-old minor leaguer. "I swear if they let me up to the bigs, I could hit .260."
PBOL: In all those years, you must have had some interesting experiences as a playwright. What's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened in connection to one of your productions?
WL: Well, I did Stray Cats, that evening of monologues, at a Starbuck's on Astor Place, with really good, lovely actors. And the entire time that actors were doing it, they were being drowned out by the sound of frappacino machines and people yelling "Two short decaf lattes!" People walked by us as if we were crazy people shouting. That was pretty bad. PBOL: Side Man has an odd, highly improbably road to success, something like an MGM musical plot. Did it ever become surreal for you?
WL: There was this very awkward period -- the very first production [of Side Man] was at Vassar College at New York Stage and Film in 1996. I'm at the point where I get nervous when people say "Kid, you've got a big show here." People were coming up to Poughkeepsie in limousines to see it. It sold out and played beautifully, with four of the actors who are still in it to this very day. Zoe Caldwell was clutching my hand to her bosom, saying "You're the young man who's going to save American Theatre." I'd never met her in my life. And how long does one leave one's hand on her bosom. And I said, "Oh, I loved you in Master Class." And she said, "Why didn't you come back stage?" I said, "Um, you don't know me."
That was one of the first surreal moments. I was assured by everyone that this play was going straight to the top and then, over the next 20 months, every attempt to get a production fell apart. It was turned down by every not-for-profit theatre in New York and New Jersey and Long Island. Everyone said "Seven actors--that's too many," or "Narration--that's old fashioned." Then, the reviews [of the 1998 Off-Broadway production] on 13th Street were quite wonderful, and then we were going to close after five weeks. I remember being told the night before our last show by one of the producers, "Look, you've had a lovely succes d'estime, and you're next play all of these theatres will take a serious look at." And I thought, my next play? Do you have any idea how hard something like this is to write? I didn't know whether I could write something as good as Side Man. And then [Roundabout Theatre Company artistic director] Todd Haimes called; lucky for me, the Burt Bacharach musical they were planning fell apart. Someday, I will buy Bacharach a steak.
PBOL: What about when Christian Slater was suddenly up there saying your lines?
WL: Yeah, he showed up and suddenly everyone was, "Well, can we afford him?" and "Is he right for it?" Michael Mayer and I had lunch with him and it was, "Where has this guy been all our lives?" He just wanted to be in the play. He didn't care about his name. He was just, "Can I do it? Would it be alright with you if I did this?" And I thought, What the hell is going on here?
PBOL: Have any jazz greats come to see the play?
WL: That's been a blast. I was very nervous about those guys coming. This will sound strange, but the person I was most excited about was [legendary jazz trumpeter] Clifford Brown's widow, LaRue Brown. Still alive, very cool L.A. chick. And she came back stage on a Sunday afternoon. There are all these celebs from time to time, but to meet Clifford's widow! I was very nervous about how she'd react. She said, "How did you know about that solo?" She then told me the story of Clifford's last night on earth, which features prominently in the play. I don't know if I made it up, but I have the father telling the son, "[Brown] played like he must have known he was going to die." She said, "I heard that line and I almost popped out of my chair, because that's what I've always known. After he died, I didn't understand why he was at that jam session. Clifford was the best trumpet player in the world, but he never played that beautifully. I always thought, he must have known he was going to die."
PBOL: You don't play an instrument, do you?
WL: I'm a bad trumpet player. I just started noodling when I was 15, which is egregiously late to begin work on an instrument.
PBOL: Do you have a dream project?
WL: It was probably Side Man. In some strange way, I had wanted to write about that world. I wanted to capture those guys, and capture the loss of that world and how hard that world was. So, not that I'm without dreams right now, but that was pretty good. It felt like a monkey off my back when I finished the first draft.
--By Robert Simonson