PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with John Guare

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with John Guare John Guare the playwright. Everyone in the theatre knows him. But John Guare the librettist-lyricist? Not as well known.
John Guare
John Guare Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Yet, Two Gentlemen of Verona, the adaptation of the early Shakespeare comedy that was Guare's first produced musical, has earned the writer his only Tony Award to date, for Best Book of a Musical. (The show itself won for Best Musical, beating out Follies, to the eternal disbelieving indignation of Sondheim fans.) The show was created with director Mel Shapiro and composer Galt MacDermot for a Central Park production during the turbulent New York summer of 1971. Producer Joseph Papp was expecting a streamlined version of the comedy, adorned with a couple songs. He got a full-fledged musical which transferred to Broadway for a healthy run. The show, once thought too dated to be revived, is currently enjoying a critically praised second life—once again, at the Delacorte in Central Park. Guare, talking to Playbill.com, cast his mind back to the days of his and the Public Theater's youth.

Playbill: It's been nearly 35 years since New York has had a revival of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Had you begun to wonder if you'd ever see the show staged again?
John Guare: Musicals are such weird behemoths. I look at all the other shows that haven't had revivals. When was the last revival of great shows like South Pacific or—if it hadn't been for Nick Hytner and the National Theatre—when was the last time Carousel had been done? There are just a lot of shows out there. And musicals are not that easy to throw on.

Playbill.com: Kathleen Marshall said she had begun mentioning a revival of Verona to you before the Public Theater had the idea to do it.
JG: This is the third time Kathleen and I have worked together. The last couple years she has said, "God, I'd love to do Two Gentlemen. Let's do that." We had been talking obliquely about where we could do it. When the chance came to do it, when [Public Theater artistic director] Oskar Eustis asked me, I said, "Yeah. Kathleen should do it."

Playbill.com: You suggested her name.
JG: Not suggested it!

Playbill.com: What did you think she had that made her right for the job?
JG: We had worked on a production of Babes in Arms at City Center Encores! And then we worked on Kiss Me, Kate. In both those shows, she reached an ecstatic state on stage: in "Too Darn Hot" and in the opening in Kiss Me, Kate. And then in Babes in Arms, I felt that spirit [in her] that Two Gentlemen is. She just seemed to be absolutely ideal. Playbill.com: When Eustis called you, did he say why he felt it was right to do Two Gentlemen right now?
JG: He didn't have to ask me for any motives. He just said, "John, what to you think about doing Two Gentlemen?" I didn't say, "Well, what do you think your motives are?" My immediate response was "Yes! Let's do it, but get Kathleen!"

Playbill.com: When you wrote it originally, was that the first time you had done a musical?
JG: I had worked for a year in 1968—a nightmare year in my life—on a musical with Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim that just suffocated under its own weight. It was done for Zero Mostel. It was called Exception and the Rule. It was a show where everyone saw a different show. But it was an extraordinary experience working with Jerome Robbins on a show for a year.

Playbill.com: When the idea for Two Gentlemen of Verona came up, it began as a much more modest proposal.
JG: Joe Papp hired Mel Shapiro to direct Two Gentlemen of Verona in the Park. But he said, more importantly—and this was the deciding factor—that it was going to be sent out on the mobile unit. In those days, the Public takes one of the plays they would do that summer and put it on a truck and send it out to parks and playgrounds and the streets of the five boroughs. The summer before, the mobile unit of the Public production of The Scottish Play, Macbeth, was attacked on the street with beer bottles and bats and cans. And this summer of 1971 promised to be one of great racial unrest. Mel said, "Holy God. They threw beer bottles at Macbeth. What will they throw at this play about courtly sentiments of love? They'll get out machine guns." The play has many inconsistencies in it. Mel asked me if I would shape it into a 90-minute version that could be played out on the street and protect the poetry. Galt MacDermot was going to be resident composer in the park that summer, composing for the three plays. And so we had this idea that, wouldn't it be great—if we're going to be playing out on the street, doing competition with fire engines and police cars—if we had a couple songs that in colloquial terms would act as subtitles, so the audience would know where they were in the play. We told this to Joe Papp. He said "I like this idea" and he went off on vacation!

Playbill.com: How long did he go away?
JG: The time of rehearsal, a month. He came back and said "What is this?" He never left town during rehearsal again.

Playbill.com: Some accounts have him as being angry when he returned.
JG: He was stunned. He was a great control freak. He was angry that it was very, very successful. The audience loved it and he had had nothing to do with it.

Playbill.com: Did he attempt to pull it apart and reshape it?
JG: Oh, don't even go there. Luckily, [then New York Shakespeare Festival associate producer] Bernard Gersten was our guiding light on the show. So whatever was happening with Joe, Bernie took care of it.

Playbill.com: He smoothed things over?
JG: That's Bernie's genius.

Playbill.com: There were reports that you were going to make some changes to update the script.
JG: I counted up the changes I made. I changed 29 words.

Playbill.com: That's interesting, because some critics said this show couldn't be revived because it was too much of its time.
JG: I'll tell you something. I've seen three productions in the past 10 years. The one constant is everybody said, "Oh, this play sounds as if it were written today!" I never felt it was in prison, like a fly in amber, in 1971.

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