"It's hard to translate a book into a play, simply because a book is prose and a play is dialogue. I had this experience once when I wrote an adaptation of Swifty Lazar's autobiography. It was very funny and very clever, and there were a lot of wonderful lines, but it wasn't a play. I thought it was going to be very easy, and it wasn't.
"That's why I think James did an amazing job. I sorta picked him. We talked about it a long time before he agreed to do it. I chose him because there's a similarity between his plays with Stephen Sondheim and my father's plays with Kaufman. There was a sense of 'What was it like to work with your idol?' They were both in the same boat. The fact that I was very moved by the play is a tribute to James' ability to stay true to the book. There are so many great stories in that book it's hard to winnow it. Without trying to do any kind of mimicry, he got the sensibility of it."
One of Hart's acting classmates in college wound up bringing the play to the stage — Andre Bishop, the producing artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater. He encountered the book at age 10, and the dye was cast. "What's great about the book is that it means so much to so many people," Bishop said, "and, hopefully, the play will bring a new generation of young people into the theatre. I always thought Moss had been planning to write 'Act Two,' but Chris said no. He said Moss knew the most exciting part of any career was getting there. 'Act Two' would be 'Then I did this... '"
Lapine, slow to rise to the bait, was happy he did. "It was a perfect show to do with Andre, whom I've worked with for 30 years," he said. "He, too, saw the possibility of indoctrinating a new generation, "but I'm not a message guy — the kind of guy who says, 'This is what I want people to take away from it' because, with a good piece of theatre, people take away from it what they want to take away from it. When you do something good, it can mean different things to different people."
First question to Fontana: "What did the prostitute say?" And, like any theatre-savvy guy who has seen Elaine Stritch's one-woman show twice, he knew the answer: "It's not the work. It's the stairs." He is the one person in the cast who get to play just one person, but this is hardly a light sentence, given the exhausting number of stairs that he has to zip up and down at every performance. The pounds are melting away.
"This is, in a way, a kind of Cinderella story," suggested Broadway's erstwhile Prince Charming. "It's about a guy who comes from nothing, is determined to make it — so determined to get what he wants that he doesn't give up. He's an emotional kid who scraps his way through to finally writing this hit play at a very early age.
"I get the lucky job of taking on Moss when his father makes him drop out of school to make money for the family up until he is able to take his family out of their terrible housing situation — in a cab — from the Bronx. What a joy to play!
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