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A CurtainUp Interview

laywright Warren Leight
By Elyse Sommer

Links to reviews (including re-review of Side Man after its move to Broadway) and other interviews

March 2, 1999 Mini-Interview
The always interesting La MaMa E.T.C. has turned over its club space for a limited run of a new show Night of 1,000 Heels by Cassandra Danz, Mary Fulham and Warren Leight -- this last co-credit by a group known as The High Heeled Women and Warren Leight. This prompted this mini exchange (Not at Blimpie's but via e-mail).

We asked Warren to fill us in on his involvement with Night Of 1,000 Heels and he told us that his collaboration with the original High Heeled Women, Cassandra Danz and Mary Fulham, was his very first theatrical writing job. "They paid me ten dollars an hour to write sketches--usually a collaborative effort with Mary and Cassandra. We'd sit in a Blimpies on Sixth Avenue (it was air-conditioned and our walk-ups were not) and we'd grind out a new hour show every four months."

How did it feel to see his early work given new life?

"I enjoyed the show. It was strange to see material I had seen performed a thousand times performed by all new performers. But the jokes survived and the lyrics and shtick did too. Truth is, the new cast out sings the old cast by a few miles. Out dances them too."

How was the marriage of the old and new material effected?

"Mary (ed note: Fulham who's now the director as well as co-author) cobbled together some of our best sketches using another old rubric of ours --the "Benefit Night." Cassandra and I sat down with her a few weeks ago (at French Roast, former home of Blimpies). We helped her tighten (if that's really the word) the show and added even more shtick."

--The first interview. . .
Editor's Notes: One of the greatest pleasures for a theater critic is to go to an unknown play by an unknown playwright and to hear the ring of that little alarm bell that alerts you that you've lucked into a good play. The fact that this special alarm usually rings at an Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway house sweetens its sound since this enables you not only to share your discovery with your readers but to alert them to the opportunity to see the play at a bargain ticket price not usually associated with theater going.

The best illustration of such a pleasurable experience this season is Warren Leight's wonderfully moving and authentic memory play, Side Man. It's a jazzy riff about a group of backup musicians, (the side men of the title), whose passion for their music persisted even when their job opportunities became a casualty of the post-World War II era. Much of its authenticity is due to the fact that it's forged from the author's own life as the son of a musician to whose world he was drawn heart and soul despite the economic and emotional difficulties experienced by the families of displaced but desperate to survive musicians.

And the especially good news is that the play will have a life beyond its all too brief run at its Off-Broadway location, Classic Stage on thirteenth street. The day before the 4/21/98 closing, the Roundabout Theater company rolled out its pumpkin coach with an offer to give it a production at its Stage Right. With a well-known director ( Michael Mayer), on board even before the CSC production (at a West Bank basement workshop and a couple of summers ago at Vassar) this may not be quite the Cinderella story it would appear to be. After all, the tinsel of Mayer's growing reputation did help to attract critics to see the little known playwright's work. Perhaps the comparison to David and Goliath would be more appropriate for a play that's about musicians but not a musical and that calls for seven actors in a theatrical economy that often can't support a cast of four.

Warren's Leight's writing career has in many ways followed the pattern of the side man or backup musician, doing a lot of what he calls "self-effacing" writing -- patter for stand-up comedians, ghost writing screen plays over which he had little final control. Anything except this play which, now that it's written and produced, has made him determined to focus on pursuing his own voice and with fewer detours down the avenues creative people often must travel in order to pay the rent.

We met Warren twice, a couple of weeks before rehearsals for Side Man in its new home were about to begin -- once (5/14/98) for a "live" chat at Theatre Three where a compilation of nine monologues, most written years before Side Man, were being given a brief production; and a few days later by way of a long telephone conversation. Despite the no-nonsense beard and steel-rimmed glasses, he looks much younger than his forty-one years. I found him, like his alter ego in the play a delightful mix of seriousness, openness and geniality.

Our interview follows the format of others in this series. The letters CU precede CurtainUp's questions The letters WL precede Warren Leight's responses. --e.s.
CU: To by-pass the obvious about whether you're pleased and excited during a season in which Side Man will have opened off and on Broadway, tell us a little bit about your personal connection to the play. How autobiographical is it?
    WL: Since my father was a musician I grew up with a lot of musicians like the ones in the play.
CU: And the family story is autobiographical too?
    WL: Enough. It's because it is personal that I avoided writing it, except in bits and pieces, for fifteen years.
CU: Having seen Side Man at CSC and now these monologues you call Stray Cats, I see a link between the last monologue and Side Man. Is this what you mean about bits and pieces. (ed note: The monologue mentioned is about a teenager, his emotionally fragile mother and a street musician whose saxophone permeates the piece).
    WL: Yes. I wrote the first draft of that monologue twenty-two years ago. I showed it to a few people, put it in a drawer. When I went back to look at it after having written Side Man I thought to myself 'oh, my God, this is Side Man twenty-two years earlier.'
CU: Did any of the Side Man guys slide as far down the ladder as that musician in Stray Cats?
    WL: I've often run into musicians I knew when I was a kid playing in a subway quintet. I saw my father and other great trumpet players hired by Yankee Stadium to stand outside playing Dixieland music. They enjoyed blowing but they were people who had no place to work when the era in which they were stars ended.
CU: Since you were born after these musicians' heyday it seems Side Man is really a history play in the sense that it's not about your own era.
    WL: I was never completely part of my generation. I felt pulled in by the sense of happiness of my father's world. Also, I always loved old New York and in the sixties I would go with my dad to Roseland which was where the musicians union lineup took place every Wednesday afternoon. It was a life that was never really accurately portrayed in movies like The Gene Krupa Story.
CU: I gather then that the son of the play's focal musician is your stand-in and you too are an only child.
    WL: Yes, Cliff is me, but no, I do have a sister. She was a little more independent from the things that pulled at me, so I thought from a personal and dramatic perspective the play would work best without her as a character -- which I did discussed with her when I began working on it.
CU: Besides, you already have seven characters which is a lot for a straight play in today's theatrical economy?
    WL: (laughing) That was one of 85 reasons that seemed to make the play unproducable -- but I felt I needed all 5 musicians. I also felt I needed another woman as sort of an ally for the mother (ed note: This other woman is Patsy the waitress who at one time or another has slept with each of the musicians).
CU: What were some of the other things you say made the play initially unproducable?
    WL: There's some bias against a very personal story and I didn't have an established reputation as a playwright. Also, people associate jazz stories with African-Americans and these are all white guys. Yet the fact is that they did exist which actually made them twice ignored-- by the changing jazz world and on top of that being white in that world worked against you.
CU: What about the device of having your stand-in character serve as a narrator? Was that a means for personal catharthis as much as a device for moving your story forward without even more characters?
    WL: I suppose. Some people people find there's a curse on narration so it's tricky but it seems that a lot of writers end up doing it anyway, some more successfully than others. How I Learned to Drive does it very well.

    I felt I needed the narrator because my secondary characters didn't seem to have enough perspective on their very specific 1952 jazz guy world. For example, in the scene where the musicians are in a booth at the Melody Lounge after they've all collected their unemployment checks, the kid is literally an interpreter translating their vernacular. I also needed Clifford as a mediator between the husband and wife of the story.
CU: So, once you were able to deal with this subject you'd been avoiding for fifteen years and wrote the play, what happened next?
    WL: (chuckling) First I didn't write it and once I did I became very protective of it. I had a first reading three years ago but I didn't jump to have it workshopped but waited until Michael Mayer was available to direct it.
CU Was he a friend, someone, you knew?
    WL: He directed a Craig Lucas play at the Atlantic Theater about three years ago and I was impressed with his work and introduced myself and said I might send him something. He then came aboard as the director about half a year later and has been very loyal to it.
CU: Where was the workshop production he first directed held and what was the next step in the play's journey?
    WL: The first workshop was in the basement theater at the West Bank Cafe. In fact, that brings to mind another piece of the play I did before I wrote it. At one stage of my life I performed stand-up there and one of my routines was what became the unemployment scene in Side Man (ed note: and one of its comic highlights!).
CU: You say first workshop-- was there another?
    WL: There was a production with the same actors at Vassar in Poughkeepsie. It still needed some refinements but it played well -- until the night some important and big money people came up and, either by coincidence or because of the pressure of the expectations, everything went wrong. Zoe Caldwell made a remark 'I hear this is Gene O'Neill meets Neil Simon' I thought 'oh, no, we're finished.'
CU: Fortunately you weren't finished and the production did make it to New York and the CSC. Were there any additional refinements made during that limited run?
    WL: The rehearsal period gave me a chance to improve the play, eight lines one day, 10 lines the next, 3 words the next day. The longer I stayed with it the stronger the structure became and the more specific the characters.
CU: What besides the critical praises and the final invitation from the Roundabout was most rewarding for you about that limited run?
    WL: Having worked as a hired hand on screen plays, I treasured not having guys in suits telling me how to write -- Side Man it was a collaborative process with people like Michael (Mayer) and the cast working with you to make it better. It was collaborative in a healthy way.
CU: Has being such prolific, for hire writing made the process of writing generally easier for you -- easier than the blocked writer in one of the Stray Cats monologues?
    WL:. Oh, no. That kid in Stray Cats is very much me. I torture myself and 99% of my life is spent eating myself up about why I'm not writing. I hate the ratio, and while I've been able to make a lot of changes about priorities the thing that has resisted me the most is procrastination.
CU: Since the CSC is an intimate space, did you receive a lot of audience feedback?
    WL: The audience was wonderful. I don't know where they all came from, but they were a real mix of young, middle aged and older people. The most important audience group, the one I worried the most about, were the musicians. It was great to see musicians of all colors come and to have them tell me 'you nailed it!' I'd been worried they'd be upset by the family stuff but they didn't mind it and they loved a lot of the inside stuff in the play. Some of them came to me to tell me about their jazz days and wives exclaiming 'that's my husband there!' I also received long letters from children of jazz musicians. I take all this very seriously and that's why I resisted any suggestions to fudge with the musical details.
CU: Side Man's move to the stage where Michael Mayer directed a revival by our premier elder statesman of American Playwrights, prompts me to detour to the opportunities, or lack of them, for new American playwrights to be seen and nourished and remunerated. This past year excepted, Miller's own work has in recent years fared better in Great Britain than in America where British and Irish playwrights seem more welcome than native sons. How do you as a playwright with a very American voice feel about this exaltation of British-Irish playwright, which extends even to younger American companies like the New Group?
    WL: I respect the British and Irish playwrights but some of my American playwright friends like Richard Greenberg and I joke about statements from theater people to the effect that they have a hard time finding American plays.
CU: What do you think differentiates your playwriting from some of the most talked about of these imports?
    WL: While the people in Side Man are always clobbering each other they're not overtly, purposely cruel. They're struggling and in over their heads but they don't gratuitously torture each other as some of the characters do in the English and Irish plays I've seen this season.
CU: As in Beauty Queen of Leenane, Goose-Pimples?
    WL: Yes, and especially so in Shopping and Fucking. American plays like How I Learned to Drive and Crimes of the Heart are tough stories but the characters aren't degraded.
CU: So, the characters you've put on stage and want to put on stage in future are not alienated to this point of being cruel?
    WL: I never want to make fun of my character, especially since the type of plays that tend to interest me are not written from an agenda in which a character is assigned a theme to represent.
CU: In terms of these type of plays, what other theatrical mountains do you look forward to climbing -- a musical instead of a play about characters who make music. . . a straight comedy?
    WL: I've already written a musical book (Mayor) and have done lyrics which I love so, yes I'd love to do a musical. When it goes well, nothing's more fun than a musical. As for straight comedy -- I've done a lot of hill climbing in that area writing one-liners for comedians. But if I were to write a straight comedy now, I don't think I'd approach it as 'just comedy' which is awfully hard to pull off. Besides, I think it meant a lot to write something like Side Man that really moves people.
CU: Are any of the characters we might meet in future plays of yours likely to be once again from the world of jazz?
    WL: I have a first act of a play called Glimmer Brothers written. It's about two brothers who were both jazz players. One got out of the business thirty years ago to become a corporate executive; the other remained a musician but was so estranged from the family They meet again through the corporate guy's daughter who didn't even know she had an uncle or that her father had been a jazz player. There's a possibility that this may have a reading up at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer.
CU: Well, I certainly hope so, since I cover that area in the summer so that I'd have a chance to see it in its early developmental stage -- which brings us back to a final double question about the move of that play. Do you foresee any changes in the Roundabout production and what are your feelings as this big move is about to take placed?
    WL: Well we'll have to see if how things look in that space --but Michael knows it (ed note: from having directed View from the Bridge there earlier in the season). There's also the cast change, the only heartbreak of this move. Edie Falco who, like Frank Wood (her stage husband) has been with the play since the first workshop, has a long-standing television contract. (Ed note: Her replacement, Wendy Makkena distinguished herself in a recent off-Broadway play, The Water Children )

    My feelings about the move. I've had a sort of monkey on my back about not having written my serious family play and then when I finally did it I was worried that it would never get produced and that if it did, it would play for five weeks and then never be seen again. Now, I feel this tremendous relief that it's going to really have a life.
CU: And may it be a long and successful one, not just at the Roundabout but at lots of other theaters.
Links to reviews mentioned and other interviews

Interview with director Ethan McSweeny--Part one. . Part 2
Interview with translator James Magruder
Interview with director Sharon Ott
Interview with playwright Peter Zablotsky
Interview with set designer Derek McLane

Warren Leight Plays Reviewed at CurtainUp:
Side Man at CSC. . .Stray Cats. . .Les Gutman's Second Thoughts on Side Man's "second coming" at the Roundabout. . .re-review when the show moved to the Golden . . .Night Of 1,0001 Heels, a collaboration with The High Heeled Women.

Plays Mentioned:
How I Learned to Drive
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Shopping and Fucking

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©Copyright 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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