STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: A Chat with Peter Stone

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: A Chat with Peter Stone He's famous for writing the books for Titanic and 1776 -- and winning Tonys for them, too. But you know that if I get a chance to talk to Peter Stone, I'm going to want to know about Kean and Skyscraper, his first two musicals.

He's famous for writing the books for Titanic and 1776 -- and winning Tonys for them, too. But you know that if I get a chance to talk to Peter Stone, I'm going to want to know about Kean and Skyscraper, his first two musicals.

He'll be genial about it. Oh, there are times that the tall and burly Stone -- who, in his trademark casual tan jacket seems ready to go on safari -- looks imperious. In a previous life, he might well have been a Roman senator. Take a look at pictures of him on the back of your Sugar album, and see if you can't picture him in a toga, with a laurel leaf on his head.

But in this lifetime, he's one of our best bookwriters -- even if it did take him a couple of shows before he had a bona fide hit.

"In 1953," says Stone, "I was living in Paris, where I saw a production of Jean Paul Sartre's Kean -- about the famous 19th century actor Edmund Kean -- and was tremendously taken with it. When I returned to New York in the late '50s, my agent, Robert Lantz, asked me if I'd like to write the book for this musical version of Kean that he was producing with Alfred Drake in the lead. I had admired Alfred from seeing him in Kiss Me, Kate and Kismet, so even though musicals had not occurred to me as something to write, I was impressed that I'd be working with the dramatic-singer-actor of the age. I had felt terribly secluded as a writer, and I thought I wouldn't be if I were working on Broadway. So I went ahead and said yes, and signed the contract on my wedding day."

Then he realized, "Now what?" "I went to Frank Loesser, and asked, 'How do you do this?' He was articulate, knew everything about it, and what he told me is still used regularly today. It was terribly helpful."

Soon, though, Stone would learn what every bookwriter comes to realize: Write a good scene, and it will be appropriated by your songwriters. Take the song, "Let's Improvise" on Kean's original cast album. A few Mondays ago at a tribute given Stone by the York Theatre Company, the audience heard the scene as he originally wrote it. It was amazingly close to what Wright and Forrest musicalized.

Says Stone, "I had to learn that if you work correctly with the songwriters, you'll write up to the song, but not into it. But if you write the book and give it to a composer and lyricist, they'll take it and make it their song."

One other thing you'll hear on the Kean album was Stone's idea, too: The marvelous ending in which Kean must apologize on stage to the Prince of Wales for his transgressions, but doesn't want to. Sartre's play ends before we can find out what happened. Stone's book didn't.

"It took me a long time to realize that Kean could use Shakespeare to apologize, and hide behind him" -- which also supported the show's theme that Kean couldn't separate the man from the actor. "Then it took me days and days to get all the right Shakespearean quotes to make it work."

Stone has fond memories of the 1961 Boston tryout. "We were a triumph there. Only the Christian Science Monitor said some negative things, but they educated us. Then Drake became ill," he says diplomatically.

"What was bad, though, was that everyone on staff got someone smug about our reviews. The show got worse by not getting better -- which is death. We went to Philadelphia, where the reviews weren't as good. We were running downhill, especially when Alfred started doing only three or four performances a week. The hit we had in Boston was not to be found in New York."

Skyscraper came five years later. "Feuer and Martin had had a wonderful run with musicals, he says of the producers of Where's Charley, Guys and Dolls, Can-Can, Silk Stockings, Whoop-Up, How to Succeed, and Little Me. "I liked them, and liked being around them -- especially when we went to Sardi's. They had two shows they wanted to develop. One was a musical of the old Elmer Rice play, Dream Girl (about a woman who had some not-so-harmful hallucinations), and the other was idea about a woman who owned a house and wouldn't sell it to developers. It occurred to me to put the two stories together."

The result was Skyscraper. "I enjoyed the project. (Leading lady) Julie Harris is the most wonderful actress I've ever worked with, a saint as well as an enormous talent, the nicest person who ever lived. What we discovered, though, was she was an actress and not a performer. There is a difference. Once we had to buttress her performing, we somewhat distorted the work."

There were other problems, too, with Victor Spinetti, who came with a high pedigree, having beaten out Jerry Orbach and Jack Cassidy for a 1965 Tony (in Oh, What a Lovely War). Stone brushes off his diplomacy once again when answering what happened there: "Victor just wasn't doing what we needed him to do."

So into Detroit flew Charles Nelson Reilly. "And that's the lasting legacy of Skyscraper," says Stone. "for that's where he and Julie met." Reilly has since directed Harris in many projects, including last year's The Gin Game.

Skyscraper became famous for another reason -- when it got scraped by Dorothy Kilgallen, then the doyenne of newspaper columnists. (If you don't know who she is, do find and read Lee Israel's stunning biography of her). Kilgallen went to a preview, and, weeks before the opening, printed that the show was a turkey. Was Stone rankled?

"It was bad," he admits, "but stuff like that is still happening today. Only now you've got Ward Morehouse (of the New York Post) doing it."

A musical that rivaled Skyscraper for the 1965-66 Best Musical Tony turned out to be Stone's next project: Sweet Charity, for which he wrote the screenplay.

"You don't want to -- or have to -- rewrite Neil (Simon, the original bookwriter), so what you do can be described by the three ugliest words in the English language: Open it up. I put in a scene in an employment office, one where Charity and Oscar go for their wedding license, and I enjoyed doing those. Doc's work is just too good and too funny. No one is going to do it any better."

Nevertheless, Stone and director-choreographer Bob Fosse had consternation on how to end the film. The stage show had Charity meet a Good Fairy, whom, she assumed, would make everything right -- except that the Fairy was a paid flak who was sporting a sandwich board that advertised a CBS special that night.

"Fosse was always looking for a different ending. In making a musical out of Fellini's film (The Nights of Cabiria) into a stage musical fable, the fairy godmother was a good idea. On stage, it's fanciful. But when you make something into film, that hardens it up. Bob even suggested an ending where she'd suddenly emerge from the Lincoln Center fountain. We went there at three in the morning, and out emerged Shirley MacLaine like a Venus. We shot it, cut it into the picture, but it was such a wrench with reality.

"Then we tried one where the two of them got together" -- which was shown in some markets. "But the one we eventually used was where she ran into some flower children -- this was 1969, you see. It may seem old-fashioned today, but it worked well enough then."

When Stone did the movie of 1776, he tried opening up that one, too. "I took every opportunity to get out of that congressional chamber and get into the air." Those who know the first laser-disc of 1776 know that he even inserted a scene where a fire engine comes by the congress, and everyone rushes out to see it.

"But I found that the claustrophobic nature of the chamber was important to the property, just as it is in The Diary of Anne Frank. When they went into the attic and saw the skylight, all the tension seeped out of the picture."

As William Goldman said in "The Season," it's hard to be smart. But Stone has scored more than he's missed. He's appreciated for that, as that York Theatre tribute showed. Stanley Donen called him "the best bookwriter ever." Maury Yeston lauded him for "giving his ideas so generously. And though Scott Ellis admitted that Peter Stone "can be tough," how could he not be? After all, Peter means rock -- so what do you expect from a guy who's essentially Rock Stone?

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com