Three Songwriters, One Voice: Meet the People Behind Broadway's The People in the Picture

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01 Apr 2011

Artie Butler, Iris Rainer Dart and Mike Stoller
Artie Butler, Iris Rainer Dart and Mike Stoller
Photo by Krissie Fullerton

"Beaches" novelist Iris Rainer Dart draws on her past to imagine The People in the Picture, a new Broadway musical, with music by Mike Stoller and Artie Butler.

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Improbably perhaps, the lone female comedy writer for "The Sonny and Cher Show" and the composer who kept Elvis Presley in a memorable state of perpetual motion constitute two-thirds of the creators responsible for The People in the Picture, an original Holocaust-haunted musical that is the final Broadway show of the 2010-2011 theatre season. Now in previews, it officially opens April 28 in a Roundabout Theatre Company production at Studio 54.

Broadway, it seems, is the new (and better-late-than-never) beachhead for the writer, Iris Rainer Dart, a nine-time novelist whose best-selling "Beaches" became Bette Midler's top-grossing "Beaches" movie in 1988. She grew up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where August Wilson sprinkled decades of his denizens in his ten-play cycle. Her father, a social worker at the Irene Kaufman Settlement, "was involved in the first interracial theatre group there, The Curtaineers," and it was always a dream that she would cross paths with Wilson "and we'd talk about those days, but it never happened," she says. Wilson died in 2005 at 60. "We were about the same age."

By five, she had the acting bug and was performing at the Pittsburgh Playhouse Theatre, ultimately turning into an acting major at Carnegie Mellon (then, Carnegie Tech), "but I was such a bad actress that, when my parents would come backstage, they couldn't make eye contact." Taking the hint and her inherited humor, she drifted to the other side of the footlights and wrote varsity musicals for the Scotch 'n' Soda Theatre there. "I pitched the ideas, then wrote the book and lyrics over the summer. When I came back, a 16-year-old freshman called me and said, 'I'd like to write the music for you.' It was Stephen Schwartz, and we won some BMI awards."



Now, flashing waaaay forward, she's taking on Composer No. 2 for The People in the PictureMike Stoller, who has never had another lyricist since he met Jerry Leiber 60 years ago last fall and they started their jukebox juggernaut on a note of political incorrectness called "Real Ugly Woman." (Hey, it was 1950!) Their hit parade of take-out-the-trash-and-go-directly-to-the-bank ditties were gloriously recounted and celebrated in the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history, the Grammy-winning and Tony-nominated Smokey Joe's Café — "Yakety Yak," "Hound Dog," "Love Potion #9," "Loving You," "Love Me," "Jailhouse Rock," "Stand By Me," "Kansas City," "There Goes My Baby," "King Creole," et al. They survived The Beatles, The Rolling Stones — even the sinking of the Andrea Doria (Stoller was among the survivors of the 1956 maritime disaster).

Donna Murphy
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

It was the gift of melody, pure and simple, that drew Dart to Stoller, who hardly had his "This Tunesmith for Hire" sign out. "Who doesn't know Mike and Mike's work?" she asks rhetorically. "I wanted somebody who wrote a great tune that was singable." Her melodic standards were set early, at age 14, when she saw Ethel Merman knock Gypsy out of the Imperial. "And during my acting days I did summer stock where we did 12 musicals in 12 weeks. Shows that are the best are the ones that have tunes you walk out singing. That's so rare now. When somebody suggested I speak to Mike, I said, 'Oh, my God! Mike Stoller! Even I, with my bad singing, can sing every song he wrote.' So melody is back, in this show, for sure!"

Leiber and Stoller (who were born 40 days apart in 1933) took this professional split in stride. "At the time," remembers Stoller, "I did mention to Jerry that I had been asked to write a musical with somebody else (Dart, who penned the lyrics and libretto). He said, 'Well, we're not doing anything at the moment. Why don't you go ahead?' We just didn't know how long a moment that would be."

For Stoller, it has been 11 years — four less than the story has been ruminating in Dart's head. "Both my parents were immigrants," she says. "My mother came over from Russia, my father from Lithuania. We had no money, but it was an idyllic childhood. I look back on it, and it's hard to figure out why. Eventually, I realized it was the sensibility of the Yiddish culture where there was so much laughter. There wasn't anything we couldn't turn into a joke. I spent my childhood laughing. That catapulted me into comedy writing. I'd learned to look at the world in a funny way."

Humor as a survival tool got a profound application during the Nazi march over Poland — as Ernst Lubitsch demonstrated in his classic Jack Benny-Carole Lombard comedy, "To Be Or Not To Be," and as Dart echoes here — only her story is split-level, torn unevenly between Poland in the 1930s and New York City in the 1970s.

Two-time Tony winner Donna Murphy spans this gap, playing one character, a 39-year-old actress who stars in and creates Yiddish musical-comedy films in the face of anti-Semitism and the Nazi threat, who eventually ages into an immigrant "bubbie" trying to share her culture and past with her granddaughter (Rachel Resheff) — but getting turbulent interference from her own daughter (Nicole Parker).

A Grade-A supporting cast includes Stuart Zagnit, Alexander Gemignani, Chip Zien, Christopher Innvar, Lewis J. Stadlen, Hal Robinson and Joyce Van Patten.

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