The former law student and onetime actor admits he didn't have a plan for a playwriting career when he wrote the warm beauty-shop comedy that featured characters based on his mother, sister and women of his Louisiana hometown. He just wanted to tell one little story.
That tale blossomed into a 1987 Off-Broadway hit that enticed Hollywood producers. The play swept through regional theatres, a starry movie was released and Harling accepted Hollywood screenplay offers ("Soapdish," "First Wives Club") and never looked back to the theatre. Until now.
The current Broadway production of the play, directed by Jason Moore at the Lyceum Theatre, has inspired Harling to work on more theatre projects (a musical version of "Soapdish," for one), although he also just completed a draft of a feature screenplay of a satiric take on the famed TV series, "Dallas."
Harling talked to Playbill.com about Hollywood, the theatre and how the success of Steel Magnolias—and the opportunities it presented—took this unlikely creative writer by surprise.
Playbill.com: How soon after Steel Magnolias landed in New York in 1987 did Hollywood come knocking?
Robert Harling: While we were still in previews. There was interest and people wondering before we had even opened. I can't remember the specifics, but we transferred to the Lortel in June and by August several offers had been made, and then by the fall we had settled on Ray Stark and TriStar. Playbil.com: I assume there were studios that said they wanted to bring their own screenwriter in.
RH: If they did, I don't know about it. That was just part of the deal [that I would want to write the screenplay].
Playbill.com: You never intended to be a dramatist, you wanted to tell a specific story.
RH: Right. Because I went to law school and I was in New York trying to be an actor, it never dawned on me that I'd ever write for a living. I decided I was gonna tell one story. I remember telling a friend that it's gonna open and do what it does and nobody'll ever hear of it again, and then I'll go back to being an actor and figure out what I'm gonna do the rest of my life. I had no delusions of writing grandeur.
Playbill.com: Did you have a writing agent at that point?
RH: When I finished the play, I gave it to a receptionist at a literary agency in town, and I said, "Does this look like a play?" and she said, "Yeah!" and she gave it to one of the literary agents and they sent it out.
Playbill.com: I mostly think of you as a filmmaker because your work after the original run of Steel Magnolias was in Hollywood. You didn't exactly leave a life in the theatre, you left an experience in the theatre.
RH: I have all these fabulous writer friends who have all these things they can't wait out get out of them. I just wanted to tell that particular story. I was drawn out to film. That was what was presented before me. I didn't have any particular training as a writer or experience as a writer. Somebody said, "Do you have another idea?" I said, "Well, I worked in soaps and I think it would be really fun to write a movie about soaps." Then someone handed me a book and said, "Can you turn this into a movie?" and I go, "OK, let's give it a whirl!" and it's "First Wives Club." [Laughs.] When bright and shiny things cross my path, I follow them. That's kind of the way my career unfolded. The one thing this [Broadway] experience has done has made me sort of crazed to get back to the theatre, and I'm trying to do that.
Playbill.com: It seems like it's less of a mountain to climb to get a play on than a film produced.
RH: I've been very lucky in film. I've worked with extraordinary people: Scott Rudin, who is brilliant. I've worked with Ray Stark, who was one of the grand producers of Hollywood. I've had terrific experiences there. But Hollywood is also full of very very nice people who just do terrible things to your work. In theatre, the process seems so much more nurturing and focused on a singular vision, and that's so hard to achieve in Hollywood. It can be done in theatre. I'm starting to think maybe I do have a couple of things to say and maybe it's time that I started to say them.
Playbill.com: Growing up in Louisiana were you a huge fans of movies?
RH: Oh, yeah. Louisiana's not a hotbed of theatre. I think that's also part of why I gravitated to films. I kind of understood films. I'd seen films, was obsessed with films as a kid. Theatre was something that happened on special occasions in faraway cities. I felt more like I understood what a movie was.
Playbill.com: Did law school help organize your thoughts in a way that helped you be a dramatist?
RH: They teach you, especially in your court classes, to organize your arguments for the best possible effect and impact. In a way, you're doing a one-man show in front of jury. You are trying to do something for a desired effect. You are trying to convey ideas…it's still all structure and that is really drilled into you in law school.
Playbill.com: You never practiced law, did you?
RH: No, I had a choice of taking the bar or learning to tap in a summer stock production, so I learned how to tap in a summer stock production.
Playbill.com: And then you came to New York City. Were you a consistently working actor?
RH: A working actor in that I was doing voiceovers and commercials and that was actually going well. I was not going out to Indiana Rep to play Lenny in Of Mice and Men, but I was doing fine. I was Equity and SAG. Nobody was beating down my door to see my Hamlet.
Playbill.com: I read somewhere that you wrote Steel Magnolias in a fairly short period of time.
RH: Yeah, it was like around 10 days or something like that.
Playbill.com: The play is based on the relationship between your mom and your late sister. Did your mom read the play first or see it first?
RH: She read it first. I remember telling my mother in Bergdorf's. She had come to visit. She was asking me what I was up to, and how things were going. I told her I had written a play. This sort of flabbergasted her. She asked how you get it on the stage. I told her, "Actually, we're going into rehearsals next week." She asked what it was about and I said, "You." Later that day I gave her the rehearsal script and she read it and I'd stick my head in the room and she was in tears, sobbing. I felt so bad because it's such a personal story. It was so recent in the family events. I was thinking, I will stop the show somehow. We won't go ahead with the production. She said, "Oh, no, no, no — you have to. I love it." That was kind of her blessing at the time. The one great thing about my folks is, if they look at something and it's the truth…they go with it, they honor it.
Playbill.com: Do you think you will write other plays with Southern characters?
RH: Yeah. There's a thing that fascinates me about where I'm from. I'm sitting on a mother lode of great, great stories, mostly in period, of the whole American experience down there in Louisiana. There's one very special situation that I've been trying to get right. I put it away and come back to it and put it away and come back to it. It's a little on the existential side, quite different from anything I've done. I keep working on it. My plan this summer is to really knuckle down and beat out something.