PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Joe DiPietro, Librettist of Nice Work If You Can Get It
By Kenneth Jones
April 14, 2012
Joe DiPietro, the Tony Award-winning librettist and co-songwriter of Memphis, gets in touch with his screwball-comedy passion for Broadway's "new" Gershwin musical Nice Work If You Can Get It.
Musicals, they say, aren't written — they're rewritten. It takes a lot of collaborators, a lot of time, a lot of revisions to make a crafty show. Ask Joe DiPietro. His new Broadway musical, Nice Work If You Can Get It, has been brewing for several years; it even had a developmental production by Goodspeed Musicals in 2001, under the title They All Laughed!
The tune-filled Jazz Age-set show, based on the 1926 Gershwin brothers' Oh, Kay!, now has fresh collaborators (including Anything Goes Tony winner Kathleen Marshall at the helm and David Chase as music supervisor), new plot, added classic numbers by George and Ira Gershwin, new producers — and new stars in Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara. We grabbed a few minutes with DiPietro in between rehearsals, shortly before previews began at the Imperial Theatre — the same house where Oh, Kay! played on Broadway during Prohibition.
(It should be noted that some of the information below — such as sing titles — is subject to change prior to the show's official opening night, April 24.)
What was the seed of Nice Work If You Can Get It? What prompted it?
Joe DiPietro: The Gershwins' [estate] approached me about taking their musical, Oh, Kay!, which was produced in 1926 — they wrote it for Gertrude Lawrence, their buddy — to refashion it into a brand new musical. So they gave me the script of Oh, Kay! and said, "Take the germ of the idea, and take any songs you want from the Gershwin songbook except from Porgy and Bess and make of it what you will." And so, I took this kernel of an idea [the original libretto was by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse], and made a brand-new musical…that takes place at the same time that the original musical took place in. I took many other songs from the glorious Gershwin songbook.
Kelli O'Hara in rehearsal
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
What was your original master wish-list of songs like? Did you have 60 hit numbers and cut it down?
JD: Oh, yeah. I essentially listened to every Gershwin song — many, many versions of each. I wanted to use many of their standards, but I also wanted the show to discover a few new songs, so there's a song called "Demon Rum" that I believe was cut from one of the movies that they were working on — it's about the evils of liquor. We have a Prohibitionist in the show, played by the brilliant Judy Kaye, so we gave that song to her. [The score has] many, many songs that we all know and love, sung by glorious voices and [with] glorious arrangements, and also a few new songs that you've probably never heard before, and will be "Gershwin discoveries."
In prepping this show, did you study scripts to old musical comedies or old screwball-comedy movies?
JD: I am a huge old-movie buff, so I love movies — like 1930s-1940s movies. "Study" would be a very odd term because I actually had a good time. [Laughs.] It was fun studying. I knew all the screwball comedies, so I went back and watched "Bringing Up Baby," "The Awful Truth," "The Women" — because I really wanted to capture not what it really was like, but the sort of fantasy of how the fast-talking, wise-cracking folks [talked], in this case, in 1927. I used old movies as research.
Momentum is a huge part of these kinds of shows. Is that a challenge in a musical?
JD: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the show is very much a big old comedy and a farce. It's tricky in a farce when you put music in because music, by its nature, slows down the speed of a farce. So I worked very hard — and worked with Kathleen — to make sure that all of these songs are integrated. They all hopefully seem like we wrote them for this musical and that they all move the action along in a delightful way.
Memphis aside, you're known as a playwright of comedies. In the rehearsal room, with character actors like Chris Sulivan and Michael McGrath, and an old-movie buff like Matthew Broderick, was there experimentation in the room?
JD: Oh my God, yes. [Laughs.]
Dare I say "bits"?
JD: Yeah, if you want to see "bits," come see Nice Work If You Can Get It! [Laughs.] Between Matthew Broderick, Kelli O'Hara, Judy Kaye, Michael McGrath, Estelle Parsons, Jennifer Laura Thompson, we had a really good time during rehearsal. Hopefully, it will translate to the audience. But you're really working with this wealth of theatre pros. People like Matthew and Michael can give you like five or six different takes on a line. We can experiment with moving things. It's been a very open, creative, fun process.
Did any songs get added late in the rehearsal process?
JD: Oh, yeah. Actually, in rehearsal we added a song called "Hangin' Around With You," which Kelli sings. We needed a song for her character in the second act, so we added that. Kathleen and I decided to use "They All Laughed" as our finale. There was also another song we added for Kelli's character called "Treat Me Rough." We discovered that right before we were coming in. This is really a new musical, so you add songs, you drop songs, you work on different lines. We're in that process. It's called previews for a reason! And, you know, we never done this show, so our first time in front of a New York audience will be the first time anyone's really seen this, so it'll be incredibly exciting and somewhat terrifying. I think that people are really going to have a good time.