Podcast Episode 94 Transcript – Joe DiPietro
Ken: Hi, everybody. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. We have a terrific guest for everybody today. Honestly, I was shocked when he said he could squeeze this recording into his schedule because he’s one of the most prolific writers we have. Please welcome to the podcast two-time Tony award winner Joe DiPietro. Welcome, Joe!
Joe: Ken, it’s always good to see you.
Ken: Joe won his Tony for the book and lyrics to the Tony award winning Best Musical Memphis. He’s also the writer of the Broadway productions of All Shook Up, Nice Work if You Can Get It, Living on Love, his off-Broadway credits include The Toxic Avenger, Clever Little Lies, Over the River and Through the Woods and a whole host of others. Oh, and that little show that has played just about every theatre on the planet, the monster that is I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. So, Joe, tell us, how did you get started in the theatre?
Joe: Ah, well, you know, I always loved theatre. I grew up in New Jersey and my folks would take us to see Broadway shows and the first show I ever saw was the original production of 1776 and I still remember where I was sitting in the mezzanine, the lights came up, you saw the continental congress and I was hooked. Put a fork in me, I was done. I had no idea how to get into theatre, I just said ‘I somehow want to be involved in this,’ and I was a young kid. I think when you’re a writer no one gives you permission to write, you just sort of write, and I always enjoyed writing dialogue. And I was interested in plays from an early age and after 1776 my folks would take us to see a big play a year – this was in the ’70s – like Annie or Shenandoah, one of the big good-for-kids plays. Theatre was never alien to me, it was never this other thing, it was always like people go to the movies, I will see two or three shows a year. So when I started writing I just thought ‘Oh, maybe I can start writing plays,’ and when I was in high school, of all things, I took a creative writing class and we had to write a one act play and then we had to submit a piece of writing we did to something called the Scholastic Writing Awards – Scholastic Magazine, which I think are still around – so I submitted this one act play in the dramatic category, and this is high school kids from all over the country, and it turned out winning, so I put in the very back of my head ‘Maybe I can do this sometime, maybe I can do this,’ which is a great thing for a kid. I didn’t know how to do it; I didn’t know what it meant. I was an English major in college, I got out, I got a job in advertising and I worked in advertising for about twelve years and I was writing very casually at night, no real formal education in theatre or anything, I just liked it, and whatever makes a writer stay up in the middle of the night when they should be going to sleep because they have to go to work the next day, I was doing that and pounding away and not quite knowing what I was doing. And then – long story short, this is over many years – I got involved in this writers group and we were writing political sketches – this was for the 1988 presidential election, the caucus against Bush, and at the time we played at the West Bank Theatre, which Lewis Black, the famous comedian, used to run, the West Bank, downstairs, that great theatre and a lot of great people used to work there and he used to give you slots and he had seen my political sketches and said ‘These are funny, let me know if you ever want to do something here,’ and I just wound up writing this little sketch show about me and my friends dating and got four friends together and got a really good young director to do it and it became these sketches about relationships and the first day that it was done in front of an audience, which was probably my friends – when you work in those places you basically have to invite your friends, they have to buy drinks, and then they invite you back – that’s how you start, at least how I started – and the response to these sketches about dating and just real life was bigger than any political thing I had ever written and this cartoon lightbulb went off in my head, saying ‘Oh, people want to hear about their lives!’ It was like the best masterclass in writing I ever had and since then, I think I write a lot of different things, but the theme of my work is pretty much the human comedy in a, hopefully, universal and relatable way, but those sketches, which played here and there, were popular in this little underground basement theater thing. I was putting money that I was earning in the day in advertising towards trying to mail out postcards and props for the show and all of this stuff. So, long story short, a producer came to see it and said ‘This is a musical revue, put music in it,’ and at the time the only musical revue I had seen was Ain’t Misbehavin and I’m thinking ‘This is nothing like Ain’t Misbehavin!’, which I loved, but this is about trying to get laid, essentially, these little sketches. Someone introduced me to a composer named Jimmy Roberts who was a talented guy and had never quite finished anything but I really liked his music and he said ‘Oh, I really like these sketches. They’re really good – they don’t need music, they’re so good,’ and I’m like ‘You’re my guy! You’re my guy, because you’re questioning me already and I know I don’t know what I’m doing.’ So I worked for two years with Jimmy and I had no idea how to write musicals and I had no idea how to write lyrics and Jimmy said ‘Oh, read Sondheim,’ he gave me the classics to look at and we came up with I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, it became that show. This was when off-Broadway was in its heyday and you could actually make a living off-Broadway, a show could run off-Broadway, but that show, which was the first thing I ever wrote for theatre, came at a time when comedy had disappeared from musicals, it was all heavy, British, chandeliers falling and Phantom and all of that stuff, and we suddenly had this little comedy that made people laugh and feel good and it sort of built very slowly but it sort of just took off and that was my very long story of how I got started.
Ken: So that first play that you wrote when you were in high school, do you remember what it was called?
Joe: Yeah, it was called The Dream Stealer.
Ken: Do you still have it?
Joe: I think I do. I’m pretty good at purging the past out of my life – I have a very clean apartment – but I think I do have it, yeah.
Ken: You went from The Dream Stealer to I Love You, You’re Perfect. I Love You, You’re Perfect was your first stage production since high school?
Ken: Spending all that time in advertising in between?
Ken: An entirely self-taught writer, though?
Joe: Yeah, I never took a formal class. I studied English, though.
Ken: Do you think your career as an advertiser and marketer – this is, of course, on the heels of Rick Elice, we had him on the podcast a few weeks ago, who talked about what he learned from that – did it help you, in a sense?
Joe: Yeah, I think a couple of things. A big thing was writing on deadline. I think my skills, if I have any skills, is I’m a really good rewriter under pressure in previews and things, and part of that is because, in advertising, you come in, there’s your assignment, this person wants you to sell this product and you have to write ten different versions from them and they’re probably going to pick the version that you like the least, the safest version, but you have to write that. So writing on deadline without it driving you crazy – a big, big help from advertising – and also this slickness of advertising copy. Sometimes you would have ten seconds to make your point, and especially musicals, where plays you can just bask in language and atmosphere for a while, for musicals, both in lyrics and in scenes, you need to get to the point and move on, so in that sense advertising was a great lesson.
Ken: And when you were doing these sketches at the West Bank, you were acting like you were a producer, it sounds like – mailing out postcards.
Joe: Yeah. I had no idea what I was doing, I was young and stupid, so I thought ‘Oh, I can do this,’ which, looking back, seems ridiculous, and this was the ’90s, before the internet, so in order to get people there I had actually spend money hiring a designer and making post cards which were expensive and getting mailing lists which was hard to do and then mailing them out, for these ten o’clock at night shows in this little basement theatre, and trying to get people to come – so, yeah, it was a challenge.
Ken: It’s easy to think that I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change instantly became a blockbuster hit but is that exactly what happened?
Joe: No. Every success looks inevitable when you look back. When it’s a success, you look back on it. I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, or in any show, I kept thinking ‘If we went this way instead of this way, it would have just sort of disappeared.’ The one thing I think I’ve always had is tenacity – I’m a big believer in momentum of a show and I think the writer being the owner of the show and the initial creator of the show needs to be the one, ultimately, to keep it going – push, push, push. Be smart about it but really push it ahead and also know when to not push it ahead, when it’s sort of done. So ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’ sort of came about because our director, Joel Bishoff, he was the assistant director to Jamie Hammerstein, who was Oscar Hammerstein’s youngest son, he was a great director, he was running the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization and he wanted to get into producing because he was actually going a little deaf – as a director it’s hard to not hear because you get ten thousand questions a minute from every direction – so he had come to see this little show that Joel was directing and he said ‘You know, my mother would have really loved this. I would love to produce it.’ And this was Jamie Hammerstein and I was a kid working in advertising; I was like ‘Oh my God!’ I think we got along, he loved the fact that I loved to rewrite. We were doing these sketches and sketches are a great way to learn how to write comedy or how to write musicals because you write ten sketches and if two don’t work you just take them out of the show and write new ones, you don’t have to go back and see how it affects the rest of the show, you just take it out. So in that sense he was great. Jamie was the one who really said ‘I want to take this to New York,’ and all his friends thought ‘Well, you’re crazy, this stupid little show with the long title that no one understands,’ all of this stuff, there were a million reasons, and Jamie’s like ‘I like it,’ and he had been around for a long time and had done everything and he was like ‘I like a show I want to support it and bring it in,’ and to him it was a fun thing and I think he liked working with us, which was also a big thing. So after the show we would go out to a diner, like you often do after shows, and just rip it apart and put it back together the next day, so I think it was a fun thing and I think Jamie’s expertise, I learned so much from him. The best thing Jamie ever taught me, of many things, well, two things, one is write your opening number last because you don’t know what the audience wants until you do the whole show, you don’t know what the audience needs to get into your show, so even if you write an opening number it will inevitably change and I think that’s the reason, so oftentimes when I’m working on a show now I’m like ‘We’ll get to the opening,’ and his other thing, which I love, was when you’re going in to have a song cue, cut the two lines of dialogue into it and see how that works and it almost always makes the song cue better – because you always think you have to write right into the first lyric and oftentimes, if you give the actors breath there, it’s going to be a much more surprising yet sensible song cue. It’s funny, we premiered and ran for twelve years at the Westside Theatre, which was and is probably the best theatre off-Broadway, and Jamie used his connections to get us there and they looked at the show and they were great at the Westside, so supportive of it, but they looked at the show and they thought to themselves ‘This will probably run for maybe a couple of months, or if it does really well it will run until the end of the year, so we’ll give you the August timeslot,’ and their thought was ‘If it opens in August it will run until September, it will close quick and then we can still get something in there,’ because they had a backup ready to go, another show. You know, that was business people and they were very nice to us. It opened and it got middle reviews, the New York Times I don’t think was good but it got some nice enough notices and people just liked it and Jamie said ‘I’m going to keep this thing going because I like it and I’m going to fight for it,’ and it started in the midrange level, probably losing a bit, making a bit each week, up and down, but it had a year run and then suddenly in the second year the numbers just took off, whatever that was, and it just ran and ran.
Ken: Do you know how many productions there have been around the world?
Joe: It still plays. It just opened in South Africa, of all places. How many productions? More than hundreds, I mean thousands, actually. It’s the twenty-year anniversary. I think for the 25th anniversary we might update it and bring it back or something – that’s in the back of my mind.
Ken: Ah-ha! You heard it here first.
Joe: Yeah, you heard it here first.
Ken: What attracts you to ideas? How do you sit there and say ‘I want to do this show. I want to do this play or this musical.
Joe: Well, when you do a show it stays in your life for many years, especially if it becomes a success. I remember Jamie Hammerstein telling me once – he was good friends with Michael Bennett and he ran into Michael Bennett after A Chorus Line was running and running and he said ‘The problem with a hit is you have to keep working on it,’ because you have to maintain it, you know. A good problem to have but it stays in your life for a long time. As a writer, it takes a minimum of two or three years, probably, to get a show up and running, especially if you’re coming in to New York, so you become a different person by the time the show keeps running and playing all over the place and your sensibilities are different, you’ve grown, hopefully, as an adult. I think I have to get obsessed with an idea, I have to like really believe in it and really want to say it, no matter what happens to the show, and it has to really jazz me because I have to be able to get up and work on it with great passion every day.
Ken: Because you were trained in advertising and marketing, do you think about a show’s potential commercial appeal before you start writing it? You’ve written some shows that have been huge successes in the commercial market – does that enter your mind? Like ‘Oh, this could be good because this could play thousands of productions across the world, including South Africa,’?
Joe: I really don’t. Even I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, which, looking back on it, seems like the perfect commercial robot – it’s four people, it’s talking about straight people, it’s about relationships, it’s funny, it’s touching, it’s truthful, it’s got all of those things going for it – we wrote it because we loved it, I thought it was funny, it was making my friends laugh, I liked the songs, we were having a good time doing it, the audiences were responding. I never would have imagined. At the time I thought ‘If this runs for six months it will be considered a hit off-Broadway and it will make my next show easier to get on,’ and I always think – I always say this – if you lined up everything I’ve ever written and had me pick which ones are going to be the ones that really are commercially successful, I would pick the wrong ones.
Joe: Yeah, I would always, always pick the wrong ones. Like if you had told me Memphis, which is a rock and roll musical about racial drama in the 1950s, would have run for three years on Broadway all over the place, and then All Shook Up, which was an Elvis jukebox musical would have run for five months and limped along, it’s had a nice afterlife but I would have put all my money on All Shook Up.
Ken: So let’s talk about Memphis a little bit, because we had the producers of Memphis on the podcast and what I loved about their tenacity, actually, and yours as well, is that show had a long process to get to New York. Were there three out of towns?
Joe: We had four out of towns.
Joe: Out of town, I think, sort of means your commercial producers from New York are enlisted but what happened with Memphis was, our first production, we had a dual production at North Shore Music Theatre right outside of Boston at TheatreWorks right outside of Palo Alto, so that was before Randy Adams and Sue Frost, our eventual commercial producers, came on board. Randy was at TheatreWorks at the artistic director and Sue Frost was at Goodspeed and also did their new musical development, so they both had years and years of experience developing new shows so they respected writers, they knew how to speak to writers – which, as a producer, you know is its own skill, because we’re crazy and we have our own needs, and, you know, when you’re rewriting a musical it’s different from when you’re rewriting a movie, where you just fire the writer and hire someone else. It happens sometimes in musicals but not nearly as often, fortunately. So they knew how to develop it and I’m also a believer that each time you have a production or even a reading you’d better make that show better – I always do the rewrite the day after a reading because it’s fresh in my mind, I know I’ve learned stuff, I want to learn because I want to make the show better. So the first two times we had the Memphis productions – it played North Shore and TheatreWorks and the show got better from North Shore to TheatreWorks. It was a big hit in both places; we had some people who were interested in it. We also had the original producer of it, who was a great guy, who owned the rights to it and was older at the time and sort of wanted to bring it in himself and tried that for a couple of years and couldn’t do it and then, once his rights expired, Randy and Sue who had, at that point, called me and said ‘We’re leaving our regional theatres, we’re going to form a New York production company and we’d love Memphis to be our first Broadway show.’ The door wasn’t exactly knocking with a thousand people, you know. Of course there was some interest and I knew them both and I said ‘Sure, let’s do that,’ and I knew they were big believers in development but they were unproven. I think they did a couple of off-Broadway shows to get some New York experience, which was very smart – they’re really smart. And here’s an interesting story about Memphis – so we had booked La Jolla Playhouse because Chris Ashley was our director and he had literally just got the gig at La Jolla as the artistic director so he said ‘We have to start at La Jolla,’ and I’m like ‘Great! That’s good with me.’
Ken: Yeah, shucks.
Joe: Yeah, I know, right, ‘Oh, La Jolla!’ So we had that lined up and then, fortuitously, we were going to come right in, was the idea if all went well there – of course people always say they’ll come right in if all goes well – and all did go very well there but what happened was, and this is absolutely true, is they were looking for another stope, couldn’t find one, ‘Let’s do this twice because this is a new director, new producers, we’re learning about the show, it’s a complicated subject,’ and the Seattle 5th Avenue Theatre called and the chairman of the board there was also one of the Memphis producers and he said ‘The tour of The Color Purple was supposed to come to Seattle 5th Avenue but their set was four feet too big for us and they don’t want to cut it down so they’re going to someone else and we’re looking for a show that has some racial diversity in it. Could Memphis come here?’ That’s literally how Memphis got there, because the The Color Purple’set – thank you, designer of The Color Purple – was four feet too big for the Seattle stage, and we actually wound up fixing a lot of things about Memphis from one stop to another, because we basically would have opened on Broadway with our last La Jolla version but we actually learned so much, we got to go to Seattle and me and David Bryan and Chris Ashley were like ‘Let’s play. Let’s keep trying this and this,’ and that’s how we came into New York with a show that we still worked on but that was pretty much ready to go. By the first preview we knew we had something that we were at least proud of.
Ken: And did Memphis take off right away as well or was it a slow build? What was the critical reception? I forget.
Joe: The critics were actually pretty really good. The Times was not our best friend, which, you know, it’s interesting, this was 2009, 2010, a review from the Times that’s not over the top, like ten years before that would have killed you, probably, for an unknown show with no stars, no brand, just the show. what also happened to that show which was very helpful is the Shubert’s, who owned most of the theatres on Broadway…
Ken: Literally they sit above it.
Joe: Yes, literally.
Ken: Their offices are right above them, looking down on you.
Joe: I think we had thought ‘We would love to be in the Broadhurst,’ which is a great Schubert theatre, it’s like 1,200 seats, and the Shubert’s came to see us on our last weekend in Seattle and the show was a smash hit there and they came the last weekend and there was a cancellation line down the block for the tickets and the Shubert’s saw that and they saw the show and, God bless the Shubert’s, they said ‘We want the show in our flagship theatre.’ So that’s how we got the Shubert Theatre, because they saw this sold out performance in Seattle because The Color Purple set was four feet too big. You can’t plan this stuff. So that’s how we got the best theatre on Broadway, arguable. Certainly the best signage. So we came in, we had no advance sale because no one knew who we were, great producers – our producers really believed in it – and we were coming into town right at the dawn of the Obama presidency so race relations were as hot in our national consciousness as they have been for a long time, and people would literally say to us ‘Did you write this knowing?’ Eight years ago? Are you kidding? We didn’t know who Obama was. When you hit the zeitgeist – which is, also, as we know, important in every big show, movies – we were just in that. The interesting thing about Memphis, if you look at our grosses, and we came in late September, which is a slower time, if you look at the grosses for the first four weeks, we built $100,000 a week in previews. It started at, I think, around $300,000 and the next was $400,000 and then it sort of leveled off but I remember sitting in an advertising meeting early on and our marketer said ‘You want to see word of mouth? Look at this graph,’ so it was always a word of mouth hit, and then it sort of did okay, it had a couple of bad weeks in the winter but it was head above water, it wasn’t a smash bit by any imagination but it was selling tickets. Then really, once the awards season came – it’s funny, because when we were coming in I think we were the first show to open but there were a lot of big shows with great reviews coming in that were supposed to be the big hits of the year, and they were great shows, but they sort of weren’t. If you look at that season, it’s so interesting, a lot of the shows were jukebox shows, like old music, and we were an original show with an original score. And there were a lot of shows that got better New York Times reviews than us but we were the ones that people liked and when the awards came out I had no idea what to expect but we suddenly started getting nominated for everything and then you saw those grosses really go into hit territory.
Ken: So, speaking of jukebox musicals, you’ve written a couple of them.
Ken: You’ve written a bunch of them, actually. Nice Work, of course, All Shook Up, you just told me about something new you’re working on in London. How different is the process, beyond the obvious reason that you’re working with a catalogue instead of a live composer sitting next to you? What’s that process like for you?
Joe: Well, jukebox musicals are writing backwards, because unlike, say, when you write Memphis, you start that with ‘Okay, we’re starting in this underground club, we need a song about this. I’m going to call it ‘Underground’. We’re going to be singing about the joy of this music and what it’s like to be dancing in this sort of forbidden place next to white people.’ So you can really write a lyric that expands that moment. When you’re writing a jukebox musical you have songs, and they’re generally pop songs, that don’t move the story from A to B, they’re generally about one emotion or one feeling, and oddly sometimes if the songs are too story-heavy, like they actually tell you ‘The night the lights went out on Georgia for a random reason,’ that tells a story, that’s hard to put in a jukebox musical because the story is already in the song so what are you doing on stage? So we get these pop songs and they’re all generally about love and you have to write backwards. You have the song and you’re like ‘Okay, let me write backwards. This is the lyric, so the words have to sound okay coming out of this character’s mouth, now how can I write backwards and make this song surprising and make us hear it in a way that we know but also dramatically is different and interesting?’ So it’s just writing backwards, it’s a puzzle.
Ken: So you’ve had some pretty big hits but, of course, when everyone’s as prolific as you are, you’re going to have some shows that don’t do as well as you would like. We were talking a little bit before about All Shook Up – as you mentioned, Elvis music, based on a Shakespearian play, feels like it’s A + B = Massive Hit, right? And it obviously didn’t run as long as anyone would have liked on Broadway. What was that experience like for you?
Joe: All Shook Up was a masterclass in writing for Broadway and also writing in the circus of Broadway, which is, as we get more and more internet savvy – I’m sure we’ll get more so as the years go by – it was a great experience, I’m very proud of the show. I got a call, I had written, really, I think I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change was my big thing at the moment. Because it was out of town and coming in, we were waiting for it to come in, and I had nice success off-Broadway and regionally and had a lot of things playing and was making a living as a writer and was very happy and then I get this call from my music publisher who happened to also be the music publisher of the Elvis Presley catalogue and she said ‘Would you be interested in turning the Elvis songs into a Broadway musical? And I said yes before she said the word musical. I was like ‘Yes! Yes, yes, yes!’ Because I love Elvis. If you listen to ‘Jailhouse Rock’, that record still sounds like you could have recorded it yesterday and it would be a hit. The performances are amazing when you actually start to analyze them – that’s why he’s Elvis, or was Elvis. So I got this opportunity, and this is right after Mamma Mia was a big hit and every song catalogue in the world was calling writers and saying ‘How can we turn our catalogue into a Broadway show?’, which is still happening but really then, like I remember I got a call from The Village People, whoever owned it, it was literally ‘Can you turn The Village People into a musical? but we don’t want to make it too gay.’ What are you talking about? Have you listened to these songs? What is ‘Y.M.C.A.’ about? So you’re getting that. Anyway, but this Elvis thing, I was like ‘Yes, it’s Elvis, I love Elvis,’ I had this idea, and they didn’t want to do a bio – this was before Jersey Boys changed all of those rules – they just wanted to stay away from, so I had this idea that I pitched them about Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and taking these Elvis songs and putting them into this Shakespeare comedy mashup and putting it in the US, in the middle of the country in the 1950s and an Elvis-like character comes into this town, this black and white dull town, and changes everything. So I wrote it, Stephen Oremus, who’s a great arranger, before he had done the gazillion things he’s done, someone gave me his name and I called him up and he said ‘Oh, I love Elvis, come over,’ and so I met him and he must have been 12 and he had a poster of Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret in ‘Viva Las Vegas’ – I walked in the door, I was like ‘You’re the guy!’ So we had a great time developing this and we made all of these different arrangements, we were so happy, we did this reading for the Elvis people and they were thrilled and we did a couple of other readings and people were throwing money at us, like we had to duck because they were just throwing money at us, we had our choice of everything, the Elvis Presley lawyer takes me out one day and sits me down – this is years ago – and says ‘Joe, the Elvis Presley Organization wants to make you happy,’ and I was like ‘What?!’, just like ‘What are you talking about?’ So the show had a couple of out of town tryouts, the creative team got along great, we had a lot of different producers with a lot of different opinions and I was new at this and that was harder to navigate. I’ve gotten much better at that but that’s a big Broadway thing, especially when you have a commercial venture, as we have more and more jukebox and movie studios, it’s a different thing than having the Jamie Hammerstein or the Randy Adams and Sue Frost producers who are theatre animals and they know, so it was sort of a weird time backstage but the audiences were liking it and we had a great out of town in Chicago, we got the Palace Theatre, a great theatre in New York, we came in and we sort of came in after Good Vibrations had opened, which had gotten slammed, and it was interesting because I remember we had three big feature articles that some of these newspapers, when we had newspapers, were going to do and they cancelled them because of Good Vibrations. We were like ‘What?’ and they were like ‘No, no, we don’t want jukebox musicals.’ So we came into this toxic environment, sort of got beat up critically, although we got some nice reviews, if I remember. We got shut out of the Tony’s completely and the show sort of limped along for five months. I’m still proud of it, people seemed to like it, but as I said we were labeled ‘not cool’. That’s the worst thing you can be, is not cool, and it since, God bless it, has had a wonderful regional life but it was devastating because this was my Broadway break and for two years I had done nothing but this show. I had set aside everything because they told me it was a sure thing, there was money, money, money, I wish all my projects had that much money available, and I thought to myself, I don’t know what gave me this wherewithal, I said ‘There are two things you could do. You could go away and work on one show, maybe go to LA, do some TV stuff, and lick your wounds and disappear for a little bit. Which writers do, and having been through it I totally understand why they do it, ‘or you could surprise everyone and double down and write more than you ever have and make up for it and really just show you can do this and really learn from what you’ve learned here,’ because I had learned so much I said ‘I would hate to just have that disappear in my life. I want one more shot! I want one more shot, I want to get to Broadway, I want to get back on my own terms. I believed in All Shook Up but in a personal show and an original show and with a producing team that really likes and supports me, where we all believe in the same thing.’ So that’s what I did for two years, got no phone calls, there’s no one throwing money at me anymore, no organization wanted to make me happy, I was on my own and I wrote, I wrote, I wrote and I wrote a bunch of things and one of the things which I completed then was Memphis which I think, maybe five years later, back on Broadway, won a bunch of Tony awards and I had my show. Memphis was my reaction, emotionally, to All Shook Up. It was like ‘I want to do this personal statement to prove it to myself,’ kind of thing. And I wrote some other things too that got produced in New York and some other places. It was a great lesson in terms of looking at a writer’s career, which is so weird to begin with, as a continuum. I don’t believe in flops/hits as helpful to describe your own work; I believe I’ve learned from every show I do, I hopefully get something out of it and then I hopefully take what I’ve learned to the next project. It doesn’t mean the next project is going to be successful or not and they all shouldn’t be reaching for this big, what? You’re running a musical on Broadway, you need, what? Half a million dollars a week to keep your doors open? More? It shouldn’t all be that. I learned that from All Shook Up.
Ken: You are very prolific – do you have a specific process to your writing? Do you get up at seven o’clock to noon? ‘I’m going to write until one o’clock.’
Joe: I wish I was one of those. I think, when you read about the people that get up at seven and they’re fresh and they write until twelve and then they have a light lunch and then they walk the dog and then they write… No, that’s not me. I write a lot. I’m not a morning person at all – as I said, I went into theatre so that I can stay up late – and I oftentimes write at night because, you know, what happens at night? The phone doesn’t ring, no one emails you, so sometimes I’ll write at night but I pretty much write at least six days a week, I would say, for three or four hours, generally late morning into the afternoon, and if I’m really hot on a project I can write into the evening.
Ken: You seem to be very attuned in to the business side of Broadway as well – you were talking about the grosses and the advertising in the press – is that important for a writer, to understand the business of Broadway, the business of theatre? Do you think it helps you?
Joe: I don’t think it helps your actual work, like it doesn’t help to sit down with a blank page and say ‘This next sentence is going to be part of a hit show.’ Like that doesn’t help, it actually freezes you. When you write, you have to just think ‘I’m writing what I’m writing and some people are going to like it, some people won’t. I’m writing about this because I feel it’s an important thing for me to express and I’m enjoying this process.’ I only learned more about the business because of All Shook Up, I felt like there were business decisions made that if I was smarter about the business I would have been able to throw a red flag at, so I’m generally much more involved now. I want to know what the advertising is going to be, I want to know what the plan is, I ask now what the weekly is, you know how important that weekly number is, especially if you go off-Broadway, and on Broadway too, because my name, as the writer of a show, is going to be attached to the show if it makes money or not or if it runs or not so I want to be responsible, and I don’t have full responsibility for it, I don’t go to all ad meetings, I don’t do all that, but I think it’s just helpful to learn for myself.
Ken: What do you look for from a producer? A producer calls you up – someone out there listening wants to produce one of your shows – what do they need to say or show you in order for you to say ‘Yes, I’m going to trust a Joe DiPietro original to you.’?
Joe: Well, they need a plan, they need to have a passion for the project. I want to hear what they really think, I want to hear their comments on it, but I think that I want to know what their plan is, like should we do it in New York, is it a downtown show, should it come to Broadway, if it comes to Broadway does it need a star? I want to know those things and I also want to know how you’re going to finance this, because even off-Broadway is a million dollars – how are you going to finance this? I think that’s an important question. I’ve worked with younger, new producers and they’re learning, which is great, sometimes you get the great young Ken Davenport who has to start somewhere, but I want to know that they know that there are things they don’t know about the business and that they’re willing to find out. That really, actually, would be a much better answer than my babbling. I want to know that they know that they’re not reinventing the wheel here.
Ken: So you said it’s been twenty years since I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change – how has writing for the theatre changed in those twenty years? Has it? Maybe it hasn’t.
Joe: I don’t know. As a playwright, you’re still starting from scratch with a blank page, you own the copyright, which is a way it’s very different from writer-for-hire work in Hollywood, so you’re not sitting in a writers’ room with five other writers, throwing out plot ideas and all that kind of stuff. I still think it’s you, it’s every woman or man against the blank page, is sort of the thing. If I have a good idea I’m jazzed by it; if I have an idea that’s not working it’s agonizing and terrifying. Certainly I think the marketplace has changed but I think the marketplace would have changed over twenty years, but I think as far as what you want to write about, I still think you can write about anything for theatre, which is one of the things I love about it, and you have control over it, which, as a writer, I love, you sink or swim on that, but there are technical differences – the intermission-less hour and a half, 80 minute, hour and forty minute is much more prominent than it was twenty years ago, so that’s possible – the traditional, well-structured play doesn’t seem to be as popular with new writers and a lot of critics now so I think you can be a little more experimental in a way, but those are all technical things.
Ken: Advice to new writers, young writers, out there?
Joe: Yeah, as probably my life proves, and Rick Elice too, there’s no straight path for writers. If you want to write for theatre – and of course one way it has changed is because of how many scripted television series there are now, there’s a market for writers, and when I started there were thirty shows on the air so it was easier for me, because I was making a living in New York, to not go to Hollywood and do that stuff – so if you want to write for theatre you have to have a passion for it. I also say I am a lifelong student of theatre, like I see a lot of things, I read the plays I don’t get to see, and I’m sort of self-taught but what teaches me is other writers, just going to a play that’s a big hit and saying ‘I don’t really like this and this is the reason,’ and then going to a play that’s limping along and I’m like ‘I think this is really good and this is why.’ Having those sort of opinions, I always tell younger writers, especially, go to theatre, have opinions and do that also with your own work – don’t write what you think people want you to write, you’ve got to write what you want to write. I sat up many a night just writing when no one cared for many years because I love it. People who are writers sit down and write.
Ken: Okay, my last question, my infamous Genie Question – I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to see you and says ‘Joe, you’ve contributed such wonderful pieces to the theatre over the years, you’ve made a lot of people laugh, a lot of people smile, a lot of people cry. I want to thank you for your contributions to the American musical theatre by granting you one wish.’ What’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that makes you mad? Look, if you could see the big smile on his face right now, Joe is one of the nicest guy’s the industry has, if only they were all like Joe it would be a much happier business. What makes you mad and gets you angry and has you pounding your fists on the table that you’d ask this genie to change?
Joe: Well, the genie in Aladdin is James Monroe Iglehart who was in Memphis.
Ken: That’s right, so he thanks you for that.
Joe: I love James and, yes, I see him all the time, so thank you, James. Because of James let me have a two-part answer because one’s off-Broadway. Let me start with off-Broadway. Mr. Genie, make commercial off-Broadway as vital a choice as it was 25 years ago, which is where I started with I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, Over the River and Through the Woods ran for two years and is playing all over the world still. You used to be able to do a show off-Broadway for $400,000, $500,000, it could run for a year and make money. That doesn’t exist anymore. It’s hard to get people to invest in off-Broadway because the margins are so tight. Every once in a while a show will play, like a one-person show can make money off-Broadway, but it’s one person with barely any set so it couldn’t be cheaper to run. Shows that had ten people in them would start at Second Stage or Manhattan Theatre Club and then move and run for a year off-Broadway and these were great plays and they didn’t have to open on Broadway and make half a million dollars a week with a big star to run. So if I had a big genie wish I would say that I wish that commercial off-Broadway was as vital a place for writers and directors and actors to start and it wasn’t just the not-for-profits running it. That would be my one wish and because you mentioned James and all my other wish would be – and I think we’re sort of getting there – that more and more non-traditional casting gives more and more opportunities to really talented people. It is definitely a different thing if you’re a talented, pretty, young white actress, you have a very different plethora of opportunities than a very talented African American actress on stage. Those career paths, they still have one, but I wish that there was more equality. Clearly, we’re getting there and having those conversations. It’s like James Iglehart, we saw him in Memphis, and James came onto Memphis late, it was the third of fourth stop, and I was like ‘Who is this guy?’ and if he was on from the beginning that role would have probably been twice as big because he’s a phenomenon. That man is super talented. Then he gets Aladdin but he’s been in Aladdin for two or three years and recently I said to him ‘You must be really enjoying it,’ and he goes ‘Yeah, I really am. People keep asking me ‘What’s the next big thing? Why aren’t you leaving for the next thing?’,’ and he was like ‘Well, what’s the next big thing?’ This is a Tony award winning super talented guy. So I hope those opportunities continue to grow.
Ken: A fantastic answer and we all look forward to your next big thing as well.
Joe: Thank you, Ken.
Ken: Thank you so much for doing this. Thanks to all of you for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe at TheProducersPerspective.com. See you next time!