STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with TV Writer and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' Jeffrey Lane

STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with TV Writer and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' Jeffrey Lane This month we speak to writer Jeffrey Lane, whose many TV credits include "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" and "Mad About You."
John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz, stars of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz, stars of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

After realizing that he "wasn't having fun anymore" writing for television, Lane decided to pursue his first love and write for the stage. The result is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. "To do a musical," says Lane, "is something I had always wanted."

Tickets go on sale Aug. 29 at San Diego's Old Globe, where the show's pre-Broadway tryout, starting September 19, is the theatre's premiere attraction of its 2004-05 season. Scheduled to open at New York's Imperial March 3, 2005, Scoundrels reunites part of The Full Monty creative team: David Yazbek (score), Jerry Mitchell (choreography) and Jack O'Brien (direction).

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Jeffrey Lane's yellow-brick road to Broadway began when he was "a gofer for 'Ryan's Hope' [the long-running TV soap opera], making $93 a week. I had been a paralegal for three months, but I wanted to direct. I had to schlep out to Brooklyn to pick up scripts. Those were the days before faxes and computers. Sometimes, the weather was freezing. But I was thrilled, because I was in show business.

"I'd bring the scripts back [to Manhattan] and Xerox them. I had to go to Xerox-training school. They taught you how to put toner in, and I got a certificate that named me as a key operator. I can't find it; I wish I could. I'd have it framed." MGM gave us the yellow-brick road and also presented Lane with his first book for a Broadway musical. "The studio has a list of properties that they're looking to have optioned and developed as musicals — everything from 'The Exorcist' [Frank Wildhorn, take note] to Billy Wilder's 'Avanti.' I went over the list. For some reason, [Scoundrels] kind of stuck out. It was just a gut thing. I met with [studio people] and talked about what I wanted to do. They said, 'Who would you want to write the score?' I said, 'The one person I think is really writing funny, inventive lyrics and superb music is David Yazbek.

"It turned out that David had called them about a year before, asking about the same project — and then never followed up on it. David and I met in New York, and realized we wanted to write the same show, and just started writing together."

Lane claims that the 1988 movie, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" (starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin as con men), "has a wonderful structure and terrific characters. Of course, you have to adapt [the screenplay], bring out this character, pull back that character, clarify things.

"I wrote an outline, and David and I talked about it. Then, I went off to write a first draft. I think David wrote two songs while I was writing the book. [The process] took two years, which everyone tells me is lightning-fast. It's been a really nice collaboration. Last week, David burped, and I said, 'Excuse me.' [Laughs] It was completely unconscious. I thought: Either something's really good — or really scary."

As a way to become a director, Lane's original ambition, he started writing. "Then, I realized this is what I wanted to do. I started writing for 'Ryan's Hope,' moved to L.A. and started writing on 'Lou Grant.' I did two scripts the last year. Then April Smith, who had been the story editor on 'Lou Grant,' became a producer on 'Cagney and Lacey,' and hired me on staff for that."

He wrote for series and scripted several of the American Film Institute tributes, including those for Gene Kelly, Barbara Stanwyck, Billy Wilder and Gregory Peck. "My film professor, Jeanine Basinger, was on the board of AFI, and recommended me to George Stevens [Jr., producer of the salutes]. Suddenly, I was meeting all these people who were the reason I started writing. When I met Audrey Hepburn, I went mute, and had to bring myself back. It's great when you meet these people and think: 'Jesus, I'm sitting here, talking to Gregory Peck.' He was the kindest, warmest, most generous man — a true gentleman. [Working on the AFI shows] was an amazing experience!"

There was a series from which Lane removed his name before its premiere. States Lane, "It was a mess. The one regret I had in jumping ship was that Eileen Heckart [who had a supporting role] was in it. She was wonderful. She took a no-nonsense, this-is-a-job approach. It's great that she got to do The Waverly Gallery at the end — that she had that last hurrah."

"The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" was an enjoyable experience. Lane thinks that its creator, Jay Tarses, "is an amazing writer, and Blair [Brown, who starred] is a dream to work with. I really loved working with her. I did a few scripts for that, and at the same time, was creative consultant for 'Slap Maxwell,' which Jay was also doing."

A project that Lane very much liked was "The Murder of Mary Phagan," which won a 1988 Emmy as Best Miniseries of the season. The fact-based story of a 13-year-old Georgia girl who was killed in 1913, the drama starred Jack Lemmon as Gov. John Slaton. "Lemmon was much older than the governor he played, but once you saw him in the role, you couldn't imagine anyone else," remarks Lane. The cast included Peter Gallagher (as the accused Leo Frank), Kevin Spacey, Richard Jordan, Charles Dutton, William H. Macy, Cynthia Nixon, Paul Dooley and Robert Prosky.

Along came "Mad About You" (1992-2000), starring Paul Reiser (also its co-creator) and Helen Hunt. Lane recalls, "That was great! I loved working with working with Paul and Helen. I was only supposed to do six months. I was working on some miniseries, and I thought: 'This will give me a life.' I wound up having no life for three years, but it was worth it. It was a lot of work — twelve-hour days, six-day weeks — but it was something I could really be proud of, and was happy to do."

Bette Midler starred in the 2000-01 sitcom, "Bette," for which Lane was a writer-producer. "It was not a good experience. Bette's a wonderful entertainer; we had wonderful people on it. Sometimes, it just doesn't work. It was frustrating. We went into it with the best intentions. No matter how hard we tried, we just couldn't make it jell. If I were happy with how the show came out, I could say, 'We did a great show and nobody watched it.' But that's not true. That's when I thought: 'I have to try something different.'"

Before he left television, Lane "did a lot of pilots and had a lot of development deals. If you have success in TV, everybody tries to get you to do it again. It's a crapshoot. I did a pilot called 'Wish You Were Here,' with Joely Fisher. It never went anywhere. It was one of those things they loved, because it was different, and then they didn't want to put it on, because it was different. It was about a magazine writer and a photographer, and each week it took place in a different town. The premise scared people. Now, it's a pleasure to see things like 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' 'The Sopranos,' 'Arrested Development.'

"Friends of mine had to keep writing [for TV], in order to support a lifestyle, but I made sure that I would never have to do that. My work has afforded me a really nice life, and a place to do work I wanted to do. I loved doing 'Mad About You.' But when your work is not making you happy, it's time to go and try to find a place where you can do your best work." That brings us back to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. With book and score in hand, Lane and Yazbek went in search of respectable counterparts to Bialystock and Bloom.

"We met with a bunch of people," continues Lane. "A lot of them watched the movie and didn't see it [as a musical]. One producer said that the problem with it was the characters were scoundrels. We said, 'Yes, in fact they're dirty, rotten scoundrels.' When we met with Marty Bell and David Brown, they saw exactly what we wanted to do — and were really enthusiastic. We were very happy to go with them.

"Jack and Jerry [O'Brien and Mitchell] both wanted to work with David again after Full Monty, but they waited until I had a first draft and David had at least three songs. We had started in November 2002; they came on board in June 2003." Then came casting. "Nine million names went back and forth." Eventually, those were narrowed down to the current leads: John Lithgow, Norbert Leo Butz, Sherie Rene Scott, Joanna Gleason, Greg Jbara and Sara Gettelfinger.

"We did two workshops — in November [2003] and February [2004]. Brian Stokes Mitchell and Norbert Leo Butz were supposed to do the first. Stokes did half of it, and then his first child was born, and Doug Sills came in for the last week. We had always seen Norbert in it, but he threw out his neck in Wicked, and Brian d'Arcy James, who was really a prince, stepped in. Sherie Rene Scott has been with us since the first workshop, in which Denis O'Hare, who was great, played the part that Greg Jbara's doing.

"Stokes did the second one, with Norbert. Joanna Gleason also did the second. I had worked with her before, and it's a thrill to be able to work with her again. John [Lithgow] was invited to see the second workshop. He said he didn't think of it in terms of himself. But Stokes, who was wonderful, went and did something else, and when we called John, it just sort of all fell into place. John's really amazing — onstage and off. I kind of lucked out all over." Scoundrels, Lane explains, "is about a con, and theatre is a con. I tried to use that structure. A con man, to me, is really interesting because he's smart enough and knows people enough that he can look into their hearts and realize what they want, and yet has to put a mask on and stand back from any kind of emotional involvement. That really fascinated me. The analogy between that and musicals, which also create a fantasy, helped me write it. God knows if anybody will ever know that."

Born in St. Louis, Lane lived there two weeks before moving (with his parents) to Belle Harbor, New York, "where I stayed until I was four. I grew up on Long Island, in Wantaugh, gateway to Jones Beach — and, though it's since been moved, the grave of Checkers Nixon. [Checkers was a dog given to the late President.] I have two younger brothers and a younger sister. Michael was a casting director, but went into the family live-poultry business, because he has two kids. Eric is a playwright, who edits books and just did a short film. Lisa is a hairdresser, who's about to have her fourth child." Lane is single.

Incidentally, some sources credit the writer with an appearance in a 1987 horror flick, "Forever Evil," but that's a different Jeffrey Lane. "Nor did I play Clarice's father in 'Silence of the Lambs,'" he insists. (That was Jeffrie Lane.)

Currently, in addition to the musical, Lane is working on a play, and he and Yazbek are discussing "a couple of projects." Here's hoping that this Lane finds as much Broadway success as the one named Nathan. By the way, the excitement that he felt when first working on "Ryan's Hope" has returned. "I have the same kind of feeling about Dirty Rotten Scoundrels [which, as of now, begins Broadway previews January 31, 2005]," admits a very happy Jeffrey Lane.

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review. He's the author of "Between Takes (Interviews with Hollywood Legends)," to be published in spring 2005.