Joseph Papp was many things in his lifetime — visionary, tyrant, activist, nurturer, pain in the ass. And now he’s a trend.
Entertainment Weekly famously adheres to the rule that all you need is three similar things to have a trend. Once three movies come out about the Wild West, for example, Westerns are a trend. (To be fair, EW has shied away from the frantic trend-spotting in recent years, but it used to be constant.) Anyway, the man who created the New York Shakespeare Festival — and, by extension, much of what we call off-Broadway — is the subject of no less than four recent projects. We have a trend!
The recent wave began in October 1999, when onetime NYSF mainstay Michael Weller (Moonchildren, Loose Ends) debuted his new play The Heart of Art, which many people considered a thinly veiled tale of Weller’s experience with an autocratic artistic director at an iconic downtown theater. Weller never exactly said the role of Art Dick was based on Papp, but he never did much to disabuse people of that notion.
The next two Papp treatments promise to be a bit more sympathetic. Next came Ernest Joselovitz’s Shakespeare, Moses and Joe Papp, a new play that had a reading this summer at the Round House Theatre just outside Washington, D.C. (“Moses,” by the way, refers to Robert Moses, the equally mythic city parks commissioner who reshaped New York and sparred with Papp over establishing Shakespeare in the Park.) It’s scheduled for a full production in April 2002. And Mandy Patinkin will play Papp in “Piñero,” the Miguel Piñero biopic scheduled to open in December. Piñero is one of many minority playwrights to receive encouragement (and productions) from Papp and the Public Theatre.
We’ll have to wait a bit longer for what may be the most intriguing Papp-related project, “Joe Papp in Five Acts.” Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen have been working on a Papp biography for more than nine years, and it looks like it will finally see the light of day next fall as part of PBS’s “American Masters” series. “I keep telling people it’s the longest relationship I’ve ever had with a man,” says Holder, who met Papp when she was working on the political campaigns of several progressive Democrats. The two documentarians were aided greatly in their efforts by Papp himself, who was seemingly obsessed with getting the history of the NYSF documented. “Because theatre is such an ephemeral medium,” Holder says, “Joe wanted at least one theatre to have a permanent record.” At one point, Papp had four full-time archivists working for the theater, and so Holder and Thorsen had about 1,500 hours of materials to work with, not to mention 169 oral histories. As a result, Holder says, they’ve been able to include the comments of several collaborators who have passed away, including Raul Julia and Colleen Dewhurst. Most documentarians suffer from having not enough material, not too much, but Holder says the project will ultimately be the better for it. “It’s daunting, but it’s also wonderful because we don’t need narration. He’ll really be able to tell his own story on camera.”
Many of Papp’s fellow theatre artists were happy to share bits of their collaborations with Holder and Thorsen. They filmed Ntozake Shange and David Henry Hwang reading parts of their plays, and Kevin Kline performed an impromptu Shakespeare medley on a snowy Delacorte Theatre stage last winter. Papp himself performs a bit of Julius Caesar: The documentary will include footage of the aspiring actor back in the 1950s, when he was a stage manager at CBS. It even has some home movies of Papp and his third wife visiting her family in Utah, where he would often play a villain on horseback. “To see Joe Papp, Mr. New York, riding a horse in the fields of Utah is really shocking,” Holder says.
The documentary hopes to go deeper than clips of famous theatre folk, however. Several audience members offered to share their favorite memories of the NYSF, and Holder says a lot of the piece is devoted to “how he used the theatre to advance social goals.” Before moving to Central Park, Papp would often stage Shakespeare and other plays on a 32-foot flatbed trailer that would drive around the city: “We have incredible footage of that trailer going to different neighborhoods, shots of black kids and Hasidic kids sitting together watching theatre.”
Now that talk of the “Phantom of the Opera” movie has died down, I probably get more questions about “Chicago” than about any other project. Theatre chat rooms and gossip columns abound with suggestions, and I don’t have any real inside scoop. But I can quote Variety, which reports that Catherine Zeta-Jones is in negotiations to play Velma. Foxnews.com says Renee Zellweger is the top name for fellow murderess Roxie, but that’s pretty speculative. The Variety article went on to mention Hugh Jackman and Kathy Bates as Billy and Mama. Director/choreographer Rob Marshall is aiming for an early 2002 start. I have no idea how much of this casting is accurate, but Zeta-Jones, Jackman and Bates are all excellent choices. (I have my doubts about Zellweger, who seems a bit too soft and “modern.”) The script, which has always been a — if not the — major sticking point, is done. So who knows?
The future looks bright for Hedwig. In its first weekend, the “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” made just over $250,000. That may not sound like much compared to the tens of millions earned by “Jurassic Park III” in that same weekend, but bear in mind that “Hedwig” is playing on only nine screens, compared to “Jurassic’s” 3,434. It boasted the second-best per-screen average of the weekend’s Top 50 films, and the (deservedly) great reviews should lead to comparable business as it platforms into other big cities, starting Aug. 3. I’m still convinced that the movie’s real value will become aware in the years to come as it attains cult status, but it’s entirely possible that it can also be at least a modest success in the short run. Smart move of New Line, the original distributor, to hand the property off to its niche film division, Fine Line: There is no doubt in my mind that a wide release would have gotten a poor marketing campaign and quickly fizzled away. Keep it up, Hedwig.
I should mention that The Den of Cin in downtown Manhattan is currently screening a modern-day production of “Richard II” as part of its “Sicko Cinema” series. I should also confess that, since I just finished moving to a new apartment and since the reviews were ghastly, I haven’t seen it. I also hear that HBO’s “Dinner With Friends,” which premieres Aug. 11, is quite good. I’ve always been a big fan of Dennis Quaid, who can do charming and flawed better than just about anyone; I’m just surprised that he’s playing Gabe, the “good” husband. Norman Jewison is a great director, and this could be just as impressive as HBO’s last stage project, “Wit.”
Cutting-Room Floor: It looks like the Bruce Willis “True West” will make it to Showtime later this year. Willis directed and costarred with Chad Smith in the play in Idaho earlier this year. … Names continue to trickle out concerning this fall’s New York Film Festival, but the Toronto Film Festival just snagged a theater-themed project. “Focus,” based on a novel that Arthur Miller wrote two years before making a name with 1947’s All My Sons, will star William H. Macy, Laura Dern and David Paymer. The festival opens Sept. 6. … Wallace Shawn, who had an unforgettable cameo in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” reunites with the Woodman in “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” (Aug. 17). “American Outlaws” opens the same day, featuring Harris Yulin, who starts rehearsals for Hedda Gabler next month. And Ian Hart, so strong in the Lincoln Center Festival’s recent production of The Homecoming, plays a decidedly friendlier suitor in “Aberdeen,” which opens in limited release on Aug. 17.
My Favorite Thought: A fair number of you wrote in about “Hedwig,” most of you positive. Some of you loved it, a few of you didn’t like it much at all, and the majority fell into the “favorable but with qualms” category. Here are Jenny and Jonathan, respectively, with their thoughts. I usually prune these back if they run long, but both writers seemed fairly passionate about the subject, so I’m running them intact. Vive le difference!
Jenny: “I have been a devoted fan of ‘Hedwig’ ever since it opened here in NY back in 1998. Upon hearing the news that this stage gem would be transferred to the screen, I eagerly anticipated how this piece would play on the big screen. Well, on Friday I went to two screenings of ‘Hedwig’ and was not let down one bit. The film exceeded any expectations I may have had before, and I don't hesitate in saying that I found this to be one of the best films, if not the best, film in a long time. Considering the lack of musical films — or do I dare say, lack of good films — these days, this one in particular seems like a possible vehicle to end the drought. With ‘Moulin Rouge,’ I didn't know what to expect and every scene took me by surprise. Though I enjoyed it, there was a lot for the eyes to take in with every scene. In my (perhaps biased) opinion, ‘Hedwig’s’ simple yet effective construction made the story come across more directly, more fluid. The songs and the score by Stephen Trask continue to rock and definitely enhanced the story. Too bad the score is not included on the soundtrack, you know? The transformation from stage to screen was seamless, though I do agree with your point of view regarding the whole Hedwig/Yitzhak relationship. I only knew the significance behind their estrangement from one another because I saw the stage production. This is probably the one aspect that could have been a bit more elaborated upon for the audience's benefit.
“Also, I don't think there could have been any other way to close the film. I found that when Tommy and Hedwig appear to one another, it clearly shows that Hedwig has come to some kind of resolution. The two of them have let go of one another, though now they have some closure. Despite what Tommy did to Hedwig to gain fame and fortune, he is able to apologize to her through her song, no less. Through his words, Hedwig can finally see that she is whole within herself and that she doesn't need to go searching for her other half. I think that the lyrics "And if you've got no other choice/You know you can follow my voice/Through the dark turns and noise of this wicked little town" evoke the sense that both Tommy and Hedwig will be there for one another in their souls. They had been through a great deal together and apart, and now they both must go on with their lives. I think Hedwig now knows that she is a strong and beautiful and talented person, inside and out, without Tommy.
“I think the actors did a superb job in portraying these unique characters, quirks and all. I loved how John Cameron Mitchell wrote the parts for Tommy, Phyllis Stein and company — i.e., the fact that they were actual characters and not people Hedwig just talks about. All the actors embodied their portrayals better than I could have conjured up in my mind. I don't think I can praise this film enough. I am sure that I will return to the movie theatres for a third and fourth helping of ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch,’ if not more. I was especially happy when other audience members sang along during the MTV video-like structure of ‘Wig in a Box.’ It is almost as if I felt like I was back at the Jane Street Theatre again.
“Two last notes about Hedwig: I loved the animation. Emily Hubley's creations are fantastic and effective. And finally, I hope that with the film's release, Hedwig's story will reach out to more people and be accepted by audiences all over. This film is not to be missed, whether you're a ‘Hed-head’ or someone who's just being introduced to this amazing, creative and original piece of theatre/cinema. Kudos to John Cameron Mitchell, Stephen Trask and everyone else involved in the making of this beautiful piece.”
And now Jonathan: “I loved much of the film. The costumes were terrific! I think my fave was Hedwig's Menses Fair pink outfit. I also loved Tommy's pants in the ‘Wicked Little Town’ reprise — SO sexy. It was great to see Hedwig's past acted out. I loved the head-in-the-oven sequence. And the moment when Hansel is dancing on the bed was such a nice touch — rarely do movies include such intimate, private moments. I think the best song, visually, was ‘Wig in a Box’ — I got teary-eyed when he picked up the picture of Hansel.
But I can't say the film was great. I had a lot of problems with it. They cut ‘The Long Grift’ — why bother having Tommy searching for the right chord if you're not going to include the song? Why did they cut all of Yitzhak's stuff from the play? Since the audience really has no idea who he/she is or what his/her motivations are, why would they care about his/her transformation at the end? The whole `Rent’ tour thing was hilarious the first time, but when it became an entire subplot, it lost its appeal. I found ‘Midnight Radio’ MUCH less moving when it was sung on the heels of Hedwig's fame and fortune. (What was up with that Rosie cameo??!!)
“John Cameron Mitchell gave a brilliant performance, of course. But since the film version doesn't have the same emotional journey that the play did, his work doesn't seem as noteworthy, and I don't know how much it will be recognized by film awards a few months from now. Miriam Shor was excellent, but her part was so strangely rewritten that she hardly has any lines except in the passport scene, and the dialogue there is less than satisfactory. Andrea Martin is funny, but Phyllis was much funnier when she was never seen.
“I really respect the people involved with the production, and I wish it tons of success. But sadly, I can't say that the film worked for me. Maybe it's just because I was so obsessed with the stage version. But the whole film just seemed so off-balance (less important scenes/songs were given lots of screen time, while more important ones were shortened or omitted). And movie theatres really need to turn up the volume on this movie. I saw it in Chelsea, and the songs were WAY too quiet!!”
Your Thoughts: Which Joe Papp project are you most excited about? What other theater greats are due for critical reappraisal? Clifford Odets? Elia Kazan? Boris Aronson? And did “Hedwig” open in your town on Aug. 3? What did you think?
Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.