"One night," began playwright Dan Gordon, who is making his Broadway debut this spring with Irena's Vow, "we went to dinner with the two fellows who are most responsible for the inception of this play, Tom Ryan and John Stanisci. Tom and John and Michael Parva, the director, and myself went out for an evening of dinner, talk, and adult beverages. And I will say we did get drunk. We stood outside — it was a particularly cold night — and the marquee had just gone up. We're all making our Broadway debuts, and we're looking at this marquee that has just lit up, and we sang 'On Broadway,' really badly. That was the wonder moment."
Minds grow cynical, hearts grow hard, budgets skyrocket and hopes wane, but somehow, over the decades, nothing that time or circumstance throws at a writer can dampen the wide-eyed enthusiasm they experience when making their Broadway debut.
Gordon has made his mark in Hollywood with such films as "The Hurricane" and "Wyatt Earp," and has had his plays produced on the West End. Still, he calls his premiere on Broadway, "the absolute best experience of my life. Just pure joy."
Patricia Resnick, another Hollywood veteran, agrees. "There's something about doing a musical on Broadway that's not like doing anything else in the world," said the screenwriter (now librettist), who has adapted her most famous screenplay for the stage — 9 to 5, the Musical. "It just gets your heart beating." She continued, "I was born and raised in Miami Beach. My entire family, other than my mother and father and myself, were in New York. I grew up spending summers and Christmases in New York. My family and I went to every show and it was always the most exciting part of going to New York for me. To actually see my name on a marquee on Broadway is incredibly thrilling and sort of a child's dream come true."
Brian Yorkey, the librettist-lyricist of the musical Next to Normal, is, at 37, racking up his first Broadway credit. Like Gordon and Resnick, he had what can only be called his "Marquee Moment." "As much as you try to be professional and buttoned-up about these things, it's Broadway," he said. "I've been dreaming about Broadway since I was eight years old. It's been a dream since watching the Tony Awards in my living room as a little kid. I was on 45th Street having a conversation with [the show's star] Alice Ripley in front of the Booth Theatre with our show on the marquee and I was like, 'Who's life is this?'"
It's Yorkey's life, of course, and, as with the other writers, it's not quite what they expected. It's busier, and more complicated, and just, well, different from anything else they've ever experienced.
There is, of course, the circus that follows Broadway participants wherever they go. "I remember we were recording the album," said Yorkey, "and the room was packed with celebrity well-wishers and people were filming and reporters were scribbling in their pads. I leaned over to [director] Michael Greif and said, 'Is this how it is when you go to Broadway?' He said, 'Yeah, it gets worse, but you can manage it.' I've been writing for a long time. Going into this Broadway experience, I feel I have most of the skills I need to do my job well. The one thing I have no experience with is the circus of Broadway. So I'm glad to have people like Michael Greif and [producer] David Stone who know it well and take me through it."
Resnick, accustomed to the ways of Hollywood, where the writer is the low person on the totem pole, has been taken aback by the relative respect accorded scribes in Times Square. "To have an actor actually ask me if he could change a word, I just about fainted," she said. "That was really shocking. And even the director says, 'Is it OK with you if…' Those are words I don't think I have ever heard before."
Gordon was surprised that his play, about a Polish Catholic woman's efforts to save a dozen Jews from death during World War II, actually improved by entering a less-intimate theatre. "The play, oddly enough, plays better in a bigger house," he said. "I think the reason is that in a larger house there are two things happening. One, there's more of a sense of anonymity in the audience and I think they feel freer to laugh. It usually surprises audiences that go to this play, which is about the Holocaust, that so much of it plays like a comedy. Irene [Gut, on whose life the story is based] always said that the situation was so absurd that, if it weren't for the fact that they could be killed at any moment, it would be hilarious. It's like a French farce. You've got Nazis going out one door while Jews go out the other. In a smaller house, I think it took longer for audiences to give themselves permission to laugh. And oddly enough, that laughing is the gateway to heavier emotions. It allows for a bigger emotional experience. Also, you can feel the energy of a bigger house responding to the play, and the actors feel it. It enhances the actors' performances."
Of course, the experience of every Broadway playwright — first-timer or old hand — is one of rewriting. Yorkey said there has been some tweaking with Next to Normal, though much of the heavy lifting was done during previous runs at Off-Broadway's Second Stage and Arena Stage in Washington, DC. Said Resnick, "At the beginning, we were trying to work it all out with conference calling. But at one point wherever we were, whether is was New York or L.A., we always got together in a room, and we always got so much more accomplished that way. The old-fashioned way is better at times."
Gordon finally accomplished a bit of fixing during previews of Irena's Vow; he had long been eager to make some refinements. "There had been something gnawing at me about this project for years. There was a spine speech that sums the thing up that was missing. It just wasn't there. I was never able to put my finger on it. In the last performance I saw, I was sitting next to the director, and when the lights came up, I said, 'I know what this thing is.' I grabbed a piece of paper from the back of the program and began writing dialogue. We put it in on the next day's rehearsal and put it up the next night, and I think it's the most important piece in the play."
How much Broadway changes a playwright's career, in the end, is up to the fates and the critics. How much a Broadway credit changes their lives, however, is, apparently, entirely up to them.
"Mostly I go home after the show and watch 'Frasier' in repeats," laughed Yorkey. "Occasionally, David Stone will demand that I come out and have a drink. But for the most part I live a quiet life at home. Obviously, the show changes my life in a lot of ways. But the glamour of the Broadway world is for more glamorous people than myself."