Podcast Episode 55 Transcript – James Lapine
Ken: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to The Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Now, look, I know a lot of people listen to this podcast while doing other stuff – running on the treadmill, making dinner – but I’m going to tell you right now to stop whatever it is you’re doing so you can give this podcast your undivided attention – that’s how special our guest is today. Ladies and podcast listeners, I’m thrilled to have as my guest today Mr. James Lapine. Welcome, James!
James: You don’t say that for every podcast?
Ken: Not everyone; just you. So, look, they say the book to a musical is the hardest nut of a show to crack. Well, James has won the Tony award for the book of a musical three times – three times! Into the Woods, Falsettos, and Passion. In addition to these incredible contributions to the theatre as a writer – by the way, he also wrote Sunday in the Park with George which won him a Pulitzer – James is also an acclaimed Broadway director, for Falsettos, the recent Annie revival, that production of Sunday in the Park with George and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, among others. He has written and directed movies as well and has been nominated for a billion awards – I’m in his office right now and there’s all sorts of plaques on the wall. I’m going to stop right here so you can just go to his Playbill Vault or his Wikipedia page to read the lengthy credits. James, let’s start at the beginning – how did you get bit by the theater bug? Where did this all begin for you?
James: Well it’s kind of a long story. I didn’t really get bit, as it were, until well in my 20s. I was a graphic designer for the Yale School of Drama. I began by doing their magazine, called Yale Theatre, and Bob Bernstein, who was the dean then, loved my design and invited me to a full time position at the Yale School of Drama, teaching a design course and doing all the graphics for the theater, the Yale Rep, as well as the magazine. So it began then, I guess, because I was surrounded by theatre and, doing the magazine, I was constantly reading plays and reading about the theater. Once I was in New Haven, he ran the place sort of like a conservatory and in January he would take a couple of weeks where everyone in the school, including faculty and staff, had to participate in something outside of their own particular realm. My design students suggest that I direct a play and a friend of mine who was a stage manager produced it and I said to the students ‘Well, find me a play to direct,’ and they came up with this very wacky Gertrude Stein play which was three pages long and five acts, so I tackled that. It was called Photograph, because photography was really my main interest in life, and we put on a very avant-garde production of this Gertrude Stein play and people seemed to really like it, the local paper wrote it up, and it was suggested that maybe I could do it in New York so people got on that. A friend of mine said “Gee, Jasper Johns is a huge fan of Gertrude Stein”, so I got his address and wrote him and he sent me a check for $2,500 and we put it on in a little loft down in Soho and another friend said,”’What can I do to help?” and I said, “I don’t know how you go about getting critics, maybe you could get somebody to review it in New York”, and she just picked up the phone and called the lead critic at the Times, which was Richard Eder, which is bizarre when you think about it now, and she convinced him to come down to see it and he wrote a half page rave review and that’s how I started in the theater.
Ken: It all sounds so easy!
James: I know, ridiculous right?
Ken: Well I’m sure it wasn’t as easy as it sounds.
James: Oh, it was pretty easy!
Ken: One letter, you raised some money; one call, you get a New York Times critic.
James: I know, I won an Obie Award. I think it’s interesting when you don’t have that much emotionally associated with what you’re doing, you’re just doing it for fun. It was a strange enterprise. So here were all these people paying all this money to go to drama school and I was somehow, overnight, getting offers to direct things.
Ken: That’s a very interesting comment – you said you didn’t have all of this emotion, you were just doing it for fun. Even when you were directing it here in New York, were you like “Oh, this is going to be my career now so this is very high stakes?”
James: Oh no, never thought that. I just figured it would all go away one day and I would go back to being a graphic designer. It was not like I had some burning desire to do it.
Ken: And that reduction of stress and pressure maybe actually freed you up to do even better work.
James: Well, I’m of a certain age, of the hippie generation, where you didn’t really think of yourself as a careerist and I just bounced around. I had lots of different kinds of jobs and, as I said, photography was my main interest but I found that I didn’t really enjoy doing that as a living – I was doing journalist kinds of things – so I turned to graphic design, something else I didn’t know that much about, I just had a little training, so I was sort of open to whatever life blew at me.
Ken: So you get a rave in the Times, people are going to see the play – what happens next?
James: Oh, it closed pretty quickly because the lady who ran the Loft had something else coming in. It’s so funny, I always thought “Joe Papp should come and see this and put it on and bring it to his theatre”, but it never dawned on me to do anything about it, which was kind of ironic when I met Joe Papp a couple of years later. No, someone else came to me with an offer to direct something so I did that. Lyn Austin and Mary Silverman had a little group called Music Theater Group or something like that and I had this idea based on a union case history so I did a very abstract kind of thing but I was still teaching and designing. Then I thought I wasn’t really a great teacher and what I didn’t like about designing was that I didn’t have final say, because you’re working for somebody, and I really think, in my heart, I just wanted to work for myself so I got a little stint at a writer’s colony, the Millay Colony, and I said “I’m going to sit down and see if I can write a couple of short somethings so that I can make some money and see if that can pan out”, and it sort of did – I wrote a play called Table Settings which was a sort of arty-farty Jewish comedy and it ended up getting a commercial run and that’s when I really thought “Well I could actually not be in debt and do this thing”, which is pretty funny because it’s pretty hard to not be in debt, starting out in the theater.
Ken: So your writing career starts to flourish, you have this directing career as well.
James: I didn’t have a career, I had directed a couple of things that were my own creation. After Table Settings, it ran a while, I don’t know what I did next. Oh, you know what happened? Bill Finn, we were at Playwrights’ Horizons, which was a great opportunity for several of us of the age then of our late 20s, early 30s, and Bill came after me to direct a show of his, so that was the first time I directed something that wasn’t uniquely my own, only the third thing I directed.
Ken: And it was?
James: March of the Falsettos.
Ken: That little show.
James: That little show, yeah, another one that was just thrown together. André Bishop kind of put us together – Bill had five songs of something, no real sense of what it was, and there were no workshops, André just said, “Okay, I’ll do it upstairs”, this little 99-seat theater, and we just put it together, sold tickets and had an audience come in and opened it, which was pretty wild. I think it was special that way because it was very organic. We had no set design so I’d just say to the set designer “Get me a table, get me a couch, get me this, put some wheels on it”, and just kind of built it together, saying to Bill, “Write a song about this, write a song about that, get a little kid it in”, and it kind of grew that way and became very special.
Ken: Is that the first production where you wrote the book and directed at the same time?
James: Well I didn’t realize I was writing the book at the time, to be perfectly honest. I guess I was, in conjunction with Bill. They were very much Bill’s characters but the drama was undeveloped. He had this idea that a guy leaves his wife for a guy and he had some great love songs and this and that but there really wasn’t a drama in it. He had this psychiatrist and I said, “Well what if the psychiatrist gets together with the wife? And let’s give them a kid”, so I guess I was book writing and not realizing it at the time.
Ken: A lot of people say – and you might have just described it – many people have e-mailed me and said, “There’s no dialogue in that show, how is there a book to it?” What do you think the primary job of the book writer is?
James: People don’t go to a musical for the book, they go for the music, so I think primarily, on a very basic level, structure is what a book writer does for a musical. But it can be varied and every person I’ve worked with has been a little different but I would say that structure is key to a successful musical. The funny thing about musicals is that when they’re good they just look really easy, that’s why everyone thinks they can do them but they’re really so difficult to do and I think book writers are underappreciated, certainly. Because you also have to know what needs to be sung and what needs to be spoken and that’s a big decision to make.
Ken: If you could only choose one of the disciplines to do for the rest of your life, write or direct, which one would you choose?
James: Oh God. Probably directing because it’s easier. I think writing is a more satisfying thing to do but when you say, “the rest of your life”, if I had to have a term of it, I think directing’s easier.
Ken: Who has more control in modern Broadway – a writer or a director?
James: It’s a good question, and you’re talking musicals versus plays. I certainly think the writer with a play is where the buck stops. I think musicals get more complicated, particularly when there are more collaborators, and I’d say it probably falls to the director.
Ken: Has it always been that way? Have you seen a change?
James: I don’t know, I would say probably in the era of Jerry Robbins it was the director, even though he was working with Sondheim and Laurents and Bernstein. He was such a driving force that I think he would have been the person to pull that together. I’m a writer myself and I really feel that what’s great about the theater is that, primarily, it’s a writer’s medium and should remain so. Sometimes musicals can be more director-driven because they’re so hard to pull together.
Ken: So, speaking of Mr. Sondheim – how did that collaboration begin? Obviously a frequent collaborator of yours.
James: Again, another freakish kind of situation. I worked with a fellow named Luis Sanjurjo, who was one of the producers of Table Settings, and he had an office with someone named Lewis Allen and I had this idea, also I was working with a fellow named Stephen Graham who is not producing anymore and Steve said, “Let’s do something else. What are you going to do after Table Settings?” and I said, “I have this idea”, and there’s this book, A Cool Million, by Nathanael West and I thought it would be a cool musical and he said, “Well who should write the music?” and I went “Oh, Randy Newman”, so the next thing I knew I was in Randy Newman’s house having a chat with Randy Newman and Randy Newman told me the material was too dark for him, so that gives you some idea, if Randy Newman is saying it’s too dark, how dark it was. Then Luis happened to be in a discussion and he said, “What about Stephen Sondheim?” and, to be perfectly honest, because I’m not from the theatre, of course I knew he was a bigwig but I’d only seen one show of his, which was Sweeney Todd, and I said, “Sure”, and he sent A Cool Million to Steve and Steve had come to see Table Settings and March of the Falsettos and said he would like to meet me so we were introduced. That was right after Merrily We Roll Along had failed on Broadway so he was kind of down in the dumps and I think it was a turning point for him so we came to meet one another at that point.
Ken: What was the first show you did together?
James: Sunday in the Park. It was funny, he read A Cool Million and he said, “It reminds me too much of Candide”, which he had already worked on, but he said he would be happy to discuss other projects so that’s what we did and somehow Sunday was born.
Ken: Where did that idea come from?
James: Well, to go back, when I did the Gertrude Stein play called Photograph I used the image of La Grande Jatte as one of the inspirations for the play. That play was a themed variation and I did that little three-page play fifteen different times with different kinds of motifs and one of them was Sunday in the Park because it was one of my all-time favorite paintings, so when Steve and I were talking – you have to, again, remember that I was not schooled in the theater arts, I’m more of a visual person, I brought over lots of different images, just things to chat about. Rather than chat about story we would just chat about images, looking at things, and I brought that over and I said “That looks like stage to me”, we talked about it, then I went off and just started writing.
Ken: Talk to me about that part of your process – the “just started writing.” You were inspired by an image – where do you start with something like that?
James: Well it’s a long time ago. I’m very much of the free association school so I’m sure I smoked a joint and sat at a typewriter and started typing, literally.
Ken: If ever there was a case for the legalization of marijuana, that was it – smoke a joint, out pops Sunday in the Park with George.
James: Well, if you look at that show, it’s pretty stoned. I like to not know where I’m going, actually. To me that’s a pleasure in writing. I’m not a big outliner and researcher. I didn’t do any research on the painting, I didn’t want to know about it, I wanted to just have it come from my own imagination rather than be stuck with a lot of facts that would hem me in. The conceit of it was that the painter was a character so that gave me somewhere to go and, as I went along, I remember, again being a visual guy, I put a piece of tracing paper over the image and started identifying characters, just saying, “This guy looks like a boatman, this person looks like another artist” and playing around just what I imagined the mentality of a person who would make that painting, because the more you look at it the more fascinating it is. If you notice, nobody is looking at anybody else in that painting, the proportions are completely bizarre if you look carefully, the repetition of certain images, of the women, and I just started becoming the artist, really, in a way, the way he became an artist to make the painting, I became an artist to make something that’s staged.
Ken: Obviously, in addition to Sondheim and Bill Finn, you’ve worked with a bunch of different folks – what’s your tips for working with a composer and a lyricist? The ones I’ve spoken to, they seem to have the rules of, from what I’ve heard, Sondheim doesn’t like to write a song until the scene is done.
James: Right, correct.
Ken: I’ve heard the opposite from other composers.
James: Yeah, Bill Finn is somebody who sits down and writes a song before he has a show, in a way. He works a little bit more like I work, in a way. I don’t know that there are any rules because you’re dealing with people and everybody is unique. I think the rule is that you have to bend, you have to find how to get the best out of your collaborator and how they get the best out of you. I haven’t done it that much – I know I sometimes get criticized for directing my own stuff – why don’t I let someone else direct it? But, in a funny way, I found the one time I let somebody else direct something of mine in its initial stage it wasn’t very successful and it was mainly because I realized that, through the directing process, I learn what I’m writing. The other nice thing about working with Bill Finn or Sondheim is it’s just two of us and it’s a lot easier than a room full of four or five people, but I don’t know that there’s any prescription for successful collaboration other than Steve had a really great saying – here’s a man that I worked with for years and we never had a disagreement, I mean we disagreed about things but we’ve never had any kind of fight – his feeling is whoever cares most wins, and I think it’s a good adage because whoever’s most passionate about it, if your ego isn’t engaged and you’re really artistically arguing for something, then that should be the way you go. Not that it’s necessarily always correct but you have to give in to some artistic impulse and it can’t really be about whose idea it is, it has to be about who cares most about the idea. I think a lot of collaborations get botched up by ego, understandably.
Ken: Yeah, I knew producers who solve their disagreements by saying “I’m jumping up and down about this”, and that is the signal to the rest of the group, “I’m so passionate about this I’m never going to give up”, and when they hear that the others go “Okay, you win.”
James: I think the interesting conversation is “What is the producer’s role and when does a producer get involved in the artistic decisions?” and that’s changed so much from the days when producers really have ideas that they then hired writers for. I think what’s so interesting about all of these movies being adapted into musicals is that some of them are just a little bloodless because they’re not being driven by the artist, they’re being driven by the producer, and if you’re going to go out and hire somebody to do this and hire somebody to do that, you’re not necessarily getting somebody who has a passion to do it. It’s so hard to make a living in theater, if somebody comes and offers you a job, often they’ll take it because they need a job or they want a job. It’s not the same as them going “I’ve got to write about this or write about that”, and I’ve done that myself, I’ve adapted a movie, and I’ve realized it’s a different kind of animal.
Ken: So how do you like to work with producers? You’ve worked with a lot of them.
James: A lot of different ones, yeah.
Ken: So what are your favorite characteristics or your favorite producers?
James: Part of it is just learning along the way and I have a system that I think works rather well, which is I welcome feedback from producers. Now, when I started there would only be two producers on a project, now there seems to be kind of a little village there, but I always only want to talk to one person and I always ask that notes come to me in written form first because when you’re in previews so many things need to be addressed and I’ll have my list, and my general finding by doing this is that half the things I hear from a producer I’m totally in agreement with and it’s on my list as well, so that’s kind of my method, and also it means I can engage the notes when I’m in a state to be relaxed. Usually I’ll get them and I’ll sit down with them over a cup of coffee the next morning and I’ll always answer them to the producers – I want them to see where my thinking is on it. I’ve done that with actors too, actually, where, rather than give them notes, I’ll write them notes and send them. So I’m pretty collaborative. I think what’s great about the theater is you have this preview process and, little by little, every day it gets clearer and clearer what works and what doesn’t and you have to make mistakes to find solutions. I think, again, like I said about collaborators, producers are different too – they come with their own sense of their own aesthetic and what they’re looking for. The problem you get a lot is you just start hearing so many opinions, as I’m sure you know, and I would imagine being a lead producer and having to listen to all the other producers is difficult and you have audience members and everybody calling you to tell you what they think – everybody has an opinion. I blame it on those TV guys with the thumbs up, thumbs down. When they came on the scene suddenly everybody had an opinion.
Ken: It’s Siskel and Ebert’s fault.
James: Yeah, well I understand the impulse.
Ken: So you talked about getting criticism sometimes for directing and writing your own work – obviously you’ve done it unbelievably successfully. How do you maintain your objectivity when you are also the director of a musical and you are “No, this is how it should go. I want it to be this way?”
James: That takes learning in general, for anybody. I think one thing is I leave the writer out of the room – I’ll come into a rehearsal room and I’ll say, “The writer’s not here today so don’t talk to me about changing lines or this and that.” At some point, as a director, you have to take what the writer gives you and make it work and I have to kind of have a split personality. Like when I did Table Settings, I spent half the time rewriting it with the actors in the room rather than directing it and then I thought, “Wait a minute.” I realized, maybe not in that but from that, that you have to kind of disassociate yourself as the writer to be a good director.
Ken: What do you think about today’s musical theater writers, the next generation of them? Do you think the future is good for us?
James: Oh I think the future is amazing, actually. I’m very envious of a lot of the talent that’s out there, it’s fantastic. I think the theater is thriving, actually. I came through when theaters were closed. The commercial theater, in particular. I was sort of on board more of the birth of Off-Broadway, with Playwrights Horizons, and then I worked at the Public, which was obviously already more established, but I think it’s very bright, I’m excited by the new work.
Ken: How is writing movies different from writing plays or musicals?
James: Well that’s interesting because I’ve just been in a writing movie phase and, in fact, after doing Into the Woods, I’ve adapted Sunday, and I just wrote an original movie of my own which I made this past year. That’s also been a learning curve for me. I feel like I’m just now really at the point of being a good screenwriter. You have to think imagistic-ally. One of my strengths is not prose writing, which is hard because screenwriting is a lot about description, but you’ve got to, in a movie, paint a kind of enthusiasm and a visual that you don’t really have to do in playwriting or writing librettos, I think. They like to do three actors in movies, so it’s a slightly different structure, you don’t have the gift of language that you have in theater and I think also you can’t write a scene that’s more than a couple of pages, whereas plays are all about just the opposite.
Ken: Well the Into the Woods movie is one of the best musical to movie adaptations I think I’ve seen.
James: Thanks. I learned a lot from Rob Marshall, it was really wonderful to work with him on that, very liberating. He had a real sense, visually, of how he wanted things to look and be and it was very collaborative. It was kind of terrific.
Ken: You’ve been a part of such monumental music productions, and obviously plays and movies as well – in fact, I will just tell you a side story – Falsettos, I was at NYU when Falsettos was here, and you’re not going to like half of this because I second acted it like 27 times because I was so in love with that production and I want to ask- this is one of my James Lipton questions- if the Smithsonian called you today and said, “We have room for one of your shows in the institute, we’re going to put one in here and you can choose which one that would be”, what’s the one show you really want to be remembered for?
James: I don’t know. I love Sunday and I would say Sunday but other shows, like I think Passion is a great show. I love Passion, I think it’s a perfect collaboration, but I like Sunday just because it was my birth, it was a moment of artistic and creative freedom and vitality that you can only have when you’re starting out with something and you’re a bit of a virgin. But it’s funny that you talk about Falsettos because we’re going to revive it and I’m going to direct it and that’s one of the ones I think people probably say, “Why is he directing it again?” and I say to myself, “Why am I directing it again?” It’s like your baby, you know. It’s kind of your baby but when I did the revival of Into the Woods, I thought I could make it better, which is why I did that, and the irony was, at the end of the day, I realized it was just fine the way it was. It’s imperfect, there’s no question about it being imperfect, but it is what it is, and Falsettos– I’m just curious to do it again. There were a couple of people that I thought would do a great job of it who weren’t interested in doing it and I thought it was the best thing I ever directed so the challenge for me now is just to rediscover it and see how I think about it today, see if that will change the way it comes out, I guess.
Ken: So my previous question about your objectivity – and I just witnessed you say it – you just talked about Into the Woods being imperfect.
Ken: What about it do you think is imperfect? Tell me about a moment that’s like, “Ah, that bugs me. That didn’t work out the way I thought it would.”
James: Well, what I love about the movie is there’s no narrator and I don’t know whether that might have been a more interesting show without a narrator on stage. It’s lumbering, a little bit. What’s great about Steve and I is we have so many ideas, that’s the crazy hard part for us, because we have so many ideas and having to reduce them was tough. When I say imperfect, it’s got three ballads at the end and you could pick it apart. It’s funny, when we did the movie and Cameron Mackintosh came to the movie I said, “Cameron, we’ve cut ‘No More’”, because he kept telling us to cut ‘No More’ at that point in the show, nobody wants another ballad. Of course I hate that it’s out of the movie – some think it’s a shortcoming of the show but that’s the show, and God knows the show has been done endlessly so, hey, that’s okay with me.
Ken: Everything is imperfect, I think that’s what makes things interesting.
James: I think Passion is kind of perfect, as perfect as you can get. You’re right, everything is imperfect. I don’t know, some shows are perfect – Gypsy is perfect. I think there are definitely some shows that are perfect that I wouldn’t touch, I couldn’t even imagine making a change to.
Ken: Is there a show you want to direct?
James: Oh, wow.
Ken: I’m asking this also as a producer!
James: Not off hand, to tell you the truth. There are shows I love but I don’t know if I would want to direct them. It’s funny, nobody’s ever asked me. I very rarely get asked to do anything.
Ken: I’ve read a famous article that asks Steve about what songs he wishes he wrote – what books to musicals do you wish you wrote?
James: Oh, well there are tons of those – Gypsy and I think Spring Awakening is prefect, I love Spring Awakening, and I think the recent revival of it proves what a great show it is, that it could be revived so soon after what I thought was a really terrific production and have a completely different production of it that illuminated the show. That’s really what stands the test of time. I think Sweeney is a pretty perfect show. There’s tons of them, really. Gypsy, though, I think is a masterwork.
Ken: So, to your own admission, you had a pretty easy beginning of your incredible career.
James: Yeah, well it didn’t feel easy at the time. Sunday I thought was going to put me in my grave, that was just a horrific experience, actually, in many respects.
Ken: What made it so difficult?
James: I was so inexperienced. You have to realize I had only worked on one other musical, which was March of the Falsettos, which is a little one act with five people, I had never done a Broadway show, I had never really written a real book for a musical, I had never really directed – you go down the list – and there, suddenly, I was on Broadway, just totally unprepared and so naive. First of all, we ended up going into the Booth because I had only done little off-Broadway shows and 150 seats was the largest thing I had done so when we looked at these theatres they were enormous to me so I picked the smallest one on Broadway and the producers kept saying ‘I don’t know if we can make any money at this theatre, why don’t you go over to this one or that one?’ and I guess I was pretty stubborn, I said, “No, I really want it to be a little jewel box” and then I had this stupid idea because I thought they never amplify musicals, until the technology came to bare, I said, “We’re in the smallest theatre, let’s not use any amplification”, and then Steve didn’t finish the score so suddenly we were previewing with half of a second act and I had written these monologues to put in the places where songs went because something had to go there and we were so far behind teching the show that we hadn’t lit it by the time the first audience arrived. So the first audience arrives, it must have been April, and there was a horrible heat wave and they didn’t have any air conditioning on in the theatre so we put this show on, you couldn’t hear it, you couldn’t see it because there were no lights up, it was endless and there were three songs in the second act and it was so long that people were pouring out of that theatre. I thought I was going to have a heart attack – I was hoping I did so that I didn’t have to come back the next day. It was a real trial by fire and the producers were like “What the fuck’s going on here?” So that was tough, and the actors were not on my side, because I didn’t know how to direct actors. So it was a real tough ride, that one.
Ken: And how did you right the ship in that short period of time?
James: Well the next day I put on a little light and I said, “Get sound equipment in here and get mics on everybody.” I think what you have to do is be fearless and I think I have that quality where I don’t mind making huge changes. I think the worst thing is when people make these little tiny changes that they think are really going to fix everything. In a good way I’m not precious about anything. At one point I had to have Steve Sondheim come in and talk to the company because they were so discouraged and I also remember Michael Bennett, who I had met, saying “Part of your problem is the producers have sold all of these previews to benefit group sales and they’re just not the audience for this show,” so we had the kind of audience that were coming because they were supporting Sloan-Kettering Hospital and they just really weren’t in the mood for that kind of piece, particularly the second act. The last song came in literally a day before the critics came and I think the orchestration came in the day the critics came and the thing that happened was we really were in the trenches together and this cast that was sort of hostile towards me came around and I learned from them. When I say hostile, Bernadette Peters was a saint and I remember one night when we were doing “Move On”, Mandy and Bernadette said, “We are not leaving this theatre until we crack this number” and we stayed there, everybody left and we kind of had a ghost light on the stage and the three of us were there until the wee hours of the morning figuring out the blocking and the staging and every little moment of it. I think they raised my game so much because they taught me what it was like. They don’t fuck around – Mandy was really intense but it was always in service of the work and I realized that actors need to have a strong director. I’m a sort of passive and laid back guy and I had to learn to instill confidence in people and be definitive. That was sort of where I learned how to rise to an occasion and take over, even though it’s not in my nature.
Ken: In great collaborations I think everybody realizes everybody else’s game.
James: Exactly, yeah, and being in trouble isn’t a bad thing – the bad thing is when it creates a kind of panic. To this day people ask me questions and I’ll say, “I don’t know the answer today. I’m not going to bullshit you with an answer. The question is a good question and we’ll answer the question but you have to go into things, that’s part of the excitement of what we’re doing. You should just do revivals if you want to do things where you’re not making something that’s new because then you don’t have those questions.” The reason it’s so good a show is because Steve took all that time to write it. He always said to me “I don’t want to write the wrong song, I want to just wait until I know exactly what I’m doing and what needs to be done”, and that’s what he did and we went successively. Each time a song came in you could just feel that second act pulling together. It’s a hard show because people liked the first act and once we had gotten that down it was hard to top it.
Ken: Tips for young writers and directors starting today that are, frankly, super passionate and have such high emotions of success – the opposite of the way you started?
James: I would say don’t wait for somebody to do your work, do it yourself. Like I put on that Gertrude Stein play. The great thing about theater is you can put it on, get it up, work on it, don’t wait for people to do it for you. People seem to be running around with this material and it’s hard to read off a page. I’ve turned down some really great shows because I just can’t read them on the page. If somebody had done a reading of it or whatever I might have actually gotten involved, so I would say you’ve got to get it up and if nobody’s getting it up for you, get it up yourself. Crowd source it, do whatever you need to do, get a room and put it up and get people in to see it.
Ken: Okay, my last question, which is known now as my Genie Question.
James: Oh, okay.
Ken: I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to see you.
James: Does it have to be the one from Aladdin?
Ken: Any genie you like.
James: Any genie, okay.
Ken: I wish all of you could see James’s face.
James: I happen to love Aladdin the musical, I just don’t know if I want that guy in my room, and I love that actor who, by the way, I take credit for bringing into the world because he was in Spelling Bee in San Francisco. He’s so talented.
Ken: So imagine any genie comes to you.
James: How about the one from TV in the bikini?
Ken: Perfect. And says, “I want to thank you for your incredible contributions to musical theatre by granting you one wish. Just one.” I want you to think about the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that makes you angry, you can’t sleep at night, is so frustrating to you that you would ask this genie to wish away. What’s the one thing you would ask?
James: That’s a complicated wish. If I had to wish one thing for Broadway it would be that there was a Broadway house that wasn’t driven by commerce somehow. That young people – there’s so many talented young people – have a chance to work in a big theatre like Broadway every year and that there would somehow be, I know there have been attempts to create a venue for new work. I would like to see that happen. I don’t know whoever would do it but you never know. But it’s true, you learn by doing and if you don’t get a chance to do you don’t learn, it’s that simple.
Ken: Very true and thank you very much for being here.
James: Yeah, wow, we chatted a long time, didn’t we?
Ken: And I’m very much looking forward to that revival of Falsettos so I can’t wait until it happens.
James: You can come to both acts, I’ll get you in.