By Kenneth Jones
07 Apr 2012
|Photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio|
John Lithgow won his second Tony Award for playing the influential, bruising (and fictional) celebrity and gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker in the musical Sweet Smell of Success. He's now back on Broadway playing a real-life newspaperman from the same era — Joseph Alsop, whose political commentary was seen in newspapers around the country between the Depression and Vietnam War eras.
The Columnist is Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn's first play on Broadway since Proof, but it's not his first project since that smash. He's written and/or directed films ("The Lake House," "The Girl in the Park," "Proof"), directed plays Off-Broadway (Michael Weller's Side Effects) and regionally (A Delicate Balance) and penned adaptations of The New York Idea and The Journals of Mihail Sebastian, both seen Off-Broadway.
The 1989 New York Times obituary for Joseph Alsop said that his personal style included "an exaggerated old-school manner." He sounds like he was an over-the-top character.
David Auburn: [Laughs.] He was a huge, larger-than-life, flamboyant guy — the kind of person that you want to build a play around.
John Lithgow, your Alsop, played a dangerous fictional gossip columnist in Sweet Smell of Success. Are these characters cousins?
DA: Well, I wouldn't put it in that category because he really was a serious journalist. In no sense was he sort of like a gossip columnist or a scandalmonger. He was a serious foreign policy-oriented journalist, who had a lot of influence over public opinion and also was very close to the White House through a bunch of different presidencies and was really a Washington insider.
|photo by Andrew Eccles|
Perhaps they were more akin in their dashing, fastidious personal style?
DA: Yeah. In terms of personal style, he was famously charming and disarming and warm in many ways, but he also could be terrifying and scathing and domineering, so there are a lot of contradictions in the character that seemed to create opportunities for a lot of a drama.
Alsop's great objective in life was to contain or crush communism; he supported the Vietnam War. He was an ideologue.
DA: He was a New Deal Democrat: Liberal in a lot of social issues, but a very hardcore hawk on Vietnam. The play focuses on that as the thing that both made him so prominent and important and influential in his day, and also that undid him — Vietnam was the thing that made him and also ultimately caused him to lose his influence.
I'm curious about the seeds of this play. How did you first come to think of Joe Alsop as the subject of a play?
DA: I was interested in writing about journalists and war and influence and power and those kinds of things, and I started reading about Joe, and he was one of those people that sort of pops up in footnotes in a lot of different places. I realized, here was this person who was so well known, so influential — almost a household name in his day — and now he's completely obscure. The play came out of wondering, "How does that happen? How do you go from being that central figure to being, at first, a kind of joke and then almost forgotten?" It was in digging into that that I found the story.