Sunday, July 26, 2009

Reel Thoughts Interview: Terrence McNally - Love, Talent, Compassion

Talk about a split personality! It’s a wonder that renowned playwright Terrence McNally hasn’t developed one the way he launches from premiering new original plays to adapting popular films for the musical stage.

His latest feat of boomerang virtuosity included opening the original drama Unusual Acts of Devotion at the fabulous La Jolla Playhouse and then jumping on a plane to Seattle to create the book for the new musical Catch Me If You Can, at the equally fabulous 5th Avenue Musical Theatre (where Hairspray and Shrek had their debuts). I don’t get as star-struck by celebrities as I used to, but having the opportunity to speak to the man who brought Love! Valour! Compassion!, Ragtime, The Full Monty, Corpus Christi, Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Ritz to life gave me serious jitters. How do you talk to the man who epitomizes brave gay theater? As it turns out, very easily, as Mr. McNally could not have been more gracious and eloquent as he described his latest project, bringing Stephen Spielberg’s hit film to life.

As if you don’t have enough reason to escape the heat for cool, green Seattle, you have three weeks to witness the birth of what is sure to be one of Broadway’s biggest hits of next season. Aaron Tveit (who blew audiences away in Next to Normal), plays Frank Abagnale Jr., a teenage con man who fooled people into believing that he was a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, and other difficult professions while kiting checks in the thousands. In the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio won hearts over in this role, and Tveit is sure to match the star’s brilliance. Norbert Leo Butz, Tony winner for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, plays Tom Hanks’ role, while the beautiful Kerry Butler (Kira in Xanadu and the original Penny Pingleton in Hairspray) plays Amy Adams’ role as the girl who steals Frank’s heart. Tom Wopat, who is so much more talented than his Dukes of Hazzard days revealed, plays Frank Sr., the incomparable Christopher Walken’s Oscar nominated role. McNally praised everyone he’s collaborating with, including director Jack O’Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell and composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and described why he is amazed at the times in which we’re living.

NC: What drew you to Catch Me If You Can?
TM: Well, first of all, Jack O’Brien and Jerry Mitchell and I worked very happily on The Full Monty together, and I was a big fan of Hairspray that Marc and Scott did. And I loved the movie, so when they called me and asked, "What do you think of making a musical of Catch Me?", I really didn't hesitate, considering the talent involved. I thought it was a property that would really take on a lot of new colors with music and dance added. It’s really challenging because it’s a very cinematic film, and obviously, it’s a chase story essentially, and a lot of the chase aspects that the film does so brilliantly, we could not do. You know, like people escaping in 747s through the toilet and coming out of the landing gear — it’s very hard to do that sequence in the theater. I thought it would be a chance to let the audience use their imagination and let the writers and creators use their imagination and try to retell a story that Spielberg did so brilliantly as cinema to reimagine it as a musical.

I always like projects that are challenging, that I don’t know how I’m going to solve the problems. I didn’t think it was going to be easy, but I thought it would be fun to try to solve it. We’re working to bring it to a happy opening night here in Seattle. We’re doing some rewrites right now. We got on the stage this week — we did a beautiful run-through last week in the rehearsal hall, and now we’re upstairs with the sets and the lights and the costumes, trying to make it all come together with the same power and force and charm and humanity and humor it had last Sunday with none of those elements added, just the actors. Then the final surprise will be just about a day or so before the audiences come, we add the orchestra. Every time they add a new element to the show, you learn something new about it. It’s an adventure – there’s never a dull moment. It’s not a piece of cake, it’s a lot of hard work to make it look effortless and fun and light on its feet.

NC: It’s fascinating with YouTube that people can watch your creative process (including a one night preview presented in June).
TM: I think we did three or four songs that night, and it was the first time those songs had been sung in a large space, and there were three leading men filling the space. It’s very exciting for us — the music became public that night. It’s been our little secret for all these years we’ve been working on it.
NC: Your “Coming Out Party …”
TM: Yeah, yeah, that was part of the process. Every day is a new adventure — it’s very exciting.

NC: Do you find it difficult to inject your voice into an established story versus when you write your stage plays?
TM: Well, it’s very different, because my stage plays are original. This is an adaptation of a man’s true story, his life. So I went back to the book (by Abagnale). The film was also an inspiration. We’re trying to make it sound as if one voice were telling the story, because in a play I’m the only author, but in a musical, the lyricist is a co-author, the composer is a co-author and even the choreographer’s a co-author. Once they start moving music, that’s a point of view about the characters, how they move. I’ve got three other collaborators on this show. In a play, the only voice you hear is mine. Also, when you do an adaptation, the ones I’ve done at least, I try to honor the original property. I want this to be a musical that both Steven Spielberg and the real Frank Abagnale Jr. like, or approve of, just as I wanted E.L. Doctorow to approve of Ragtime, and not feel that I’ve violated his work, or the original screenwriter of The Full Monty. That’s very important to me to respect the tone of the piece it’s being based on, and not turn it into “a Terrence McNally show” — that’s not my job here. You have to respect the tone.

Here, the tone is somewhat of a thriller — is he going to get away with it? And also, it’s a preposterous story in many ways. There’s also something very moving about it that a young boy runs away from home when his parents divorce and he’s trying to get them back together, and his father falls on hard times and he also hopes that he’s going to be able to help his father get back on his feet. At the same time, the man assigned to chasing him is a childless, divorced detective who, once he realizes — and it takes him quite a while — that the person he’s chasing all around America is a teenager, starts developing paternal feelings that maybe this kid shouldn’t be put behind bars, that maybe he can be helped. Something very moving happens to the character that Norbert Leo Butz is playing, that Tom Hanks did, and I think that’s a very important element of the story too. It would be wrong to come see this expecting a new play by Terrence McNally.”

McNally hopes that they will finish their work in Seattle, and it was refreshing to hear that even a multi-Tony winner can admit uncertainty. “More can go wrong in a musical than can go wrong in a play, I’ll put it that way,” he laughed. “In a sense, they are harder to get right than a play. Part of the reason is that there is more than one author, but it’s got to seem, at the end of the evening, that just one person wrote it. It should seem one voice, one point of view, is telling the story. That’s our challenge.” McNally called the cast “spectacular” and praised Tveit as “phenomenal,” also showering praise on Butz, Wopat and Butler. “Every one of them is just irreplaceable.”

McNally has earned a place of honor in the GLBT community for his commitment to bringing gay characters to life on stage who are three-dimensional, and for exploring issues related to AIDS for many years in his plays. He is happily married (in a Vermont civil union), and is looking forward to spending time at home when his work is done on opening night. I asked him what advice he has for GLBT writers who would like to follow his lead.

“The same answer I would give to any writer. Tell the stories that you feel passionate about, and tell them honestly. The more specifically we tell our stories, the more universal they become — I’m not the first person to say that, but I’ve found it to be true. If you try to write a play about gay life, you’ll probably run into a lot of trouble. But if you try to write a play about six or seven gay men you know, maybe it’ll reach other people.

“That’s the trick. I don’t think the theater is a good place for preaching — it’s a good place for creating individual characters and getting involved in their stories. We can change hearts and minds with the theater — I think hearts usually change before minds do. I hope my plays have to some degree helped to lessen homophobia in this country, but it’s not conscious.

“I don’t sit down to write a play about that, but when a play like Love! Valour! Compassion! gets to Broadway and runs for quite a while, you hope that some of the people that see it come away with a different perception of who we are. I mean, we’ve made such strides. When I wrote Love! Valour!, and it hasn’t even been 20 years yet, who thought we’d now be talking about gay marriage and that same-sex couples adopting children has become so matter-of-fact, you don’t even look twice when you see two men or two women with a child at the airport or at the park. We’ve made incredible progress so fast.

“Homophobia will always remain, be we can chip away at it by living our lives proudly, but look at the legislation changes! It starts there. With the stroke of a pen, Obama can do a lot for us, just by signing some legislation, which I hope he’ll get around to sooner or later. But in the meantime, the simple fact of his election has to have lessened the degree of racism in this country. It’s wonderful. These are very heady times to be alive in as a member of any minority group. The Sarah Palins of this world are really on the defensive. The America they talk about has vanished and they just seem so crazy when they think they’re speaking for this majority — they’re not a majority anymore, and that was the great lesson of the last couple of months. All these states are realizing that it’s a civil right, marriage.

“I’m 70, but I think it’s going to happen in my lifetime. Same-sex marriage will be legal in every state and I look forward to that.” McNally mused, “Gay rights did not exist when I came to New York. You hoped you weren’t in a bar that got raided that night — that was like the norm, and suddenly, there was Stonewall. History, we can’t control it. It just rears up and roars sometimes, and it’s been going in our direction a lot lately, and that’s very thrilling. Just be a part of it and keep pushing and pushing. I think the best thing that ever happened in this country was when people started being out. So much of homophobia is based on fear and ignorance. We don’t fear what we know.”

He continued, “When we know people, we’re not afraid of them or threatened by them. You don’t have to like them. I mean, I don’t like all gay people by any means,” he laughed. “It’s been a good time. A very good time.”

Book your own good time in Seattle and catch Catch Me If You Can while you can from July 28 to August 16.

Editor's note: Per, the first week of previews of Catch Me If You Can were canceled following the death of Norbert Leo Butz's sister. Teresa Butz was murdered in her Seattle-area home on July 19. Her partner, Jennifer Hopper, was also attacked in the overnight tragedy; the two had planned to marry in September.

Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

1 comment:

  1. OMG, how awful about Teresa Butz's murder. I hadn't heard. My prayerful condolences go out to her partner, brother, family & friends.


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