Legendary book writer John Weidman comes to A.R.T. with Arrabal
For over 40 years, John Weidman has been responsible for some of musical theater’s most complex and daring works. From Pacific Overtures and Assassins to Contact, he has made a career out of writing the kind of theater that shatters expectations, revolutionizes structure, and stimulates the mind as much as the soul.
His latest venture, Arrabal, is a no less complex work that uses dance and music—and a company of performers from Argentina—to explore the journey of a young woman who tries to make sense of her father’s disappearance amid dangerous political turmoil in Argentina. With music by Academy Award winner Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain) and his band, Orquesta Bajofonderos, and choreography by Julio Zurita, Arrabal is directed (and co-choreographed) by Tony-nominated choreographer Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, On Your Feet!).
I spoke to Weidman at length about the origins of his career, collaborating with Stephen Sondheim, and the function of a book writer.
I am a big fan of yours, so this is very exciting for me.
Well, I’m happy to hear that. That’s a good way to begin the conversation.
To give you some idea of who I am, after the junior prom, when everyone would go to the beach for the weekend, I stayed behind and went to see Contact with my date. So that’s me.
[laughs] Okay, well, I have to say, if you’re going take a date to a show, that’s probably a pretty good one to pick.
Before I ask you about Arrabal, I want to go back a little and ask you about your origins. What I think is so amazing is that your father was a novelist who wrote for the stage, namely for I Can Get It for You Wholesale and Fiorello!, for which he won a Tony and a Pulitzer. Were you old enough to have memories of that time?
Yeah. My dad was primarily a novelist; he wrote well over 20 novels in his career. He worked in the theater for a fairly focused period of time, from about 1959 to about 1967. His first show was Fiorello!, which was a huge success and, as you said, won the Pulitzer, won the Tony, won everything else. I was 13 years old when Fiorello! opened, and we had lived in Connecticut, but we moved into the city, so I became a New York kid with a dad who had this big, glamorous success on Broadway. It was a heavy experience for somebody who was entering adolescence, but theater was never considered the family business. I had no ambitions to go into the theater, no ambitions to be a writer. I went to college and then eventually law school. I liked law school a lot; I was at Yale—a very interesting period of time at Yale—but when I came out the other end, I thought, “Well, I really don’t want to practice law.” I had a conversation with myself about what I might do instead, and I was a baseball fan and I loved going to the theater, even though it had never appealed to me as a profession. So I wrote a letter to Bowie Kuhn who was the commissioner of baseball at the time and I asked him if he had any internships available in his office for law students. I got a form letter back saying “no,” and I wrote a letter to Hal Prince asking the same question, but with a P.S. saying, “By the way, I have an idea for a play about the opening of Japan and I would love to hear what you think about it.” I never expected to hear anything other than the same kind of pro forma response I got from Bowie Kuhn, but Hal wrote back and he said, “No, I don’t hire interns, but the play idea sounds interesting, and if you’re ever in New York, make an appointment and come in and we’ll talk about it.” I did that, and that evolved in a variety of different ways to become Pacific Overtures, which was my first project. It’s a completely improbable sequence of events that, in some sense, I feel like could only have occurred in the ’60s when stuff like that seems to have happened. Maybe it was just the pot everyone was smoking. So that was the beginning of everything. That’s the origin myth.
So Hal is responsible for the pairing of you with Stephen Sondheim?
Yes. What I wrote, initially, was a straight play, not a musical. Hal had a reputation then, which persists, which is accurate, for liking to work with the same people over and over again when he had a good relationship with them. But he was always very curious about new writers and he was very generous in terms of his time and his interests when he was confronted with a new person or a new idea. From the first moment I talked to him—and I don’t know that anybody other than Hal would have responded this way—what he heard in the idea of a play about the Perry expedition to Japan was an opportunity to do something audacious, which was to take conventions of American musical theater and the large technicolor conventions of Kabuki theater and mix them together. He decided, actually, in order to have the size that it ought to have he wanted it to be a musical, not a play, which I heard as him saying, “I’m not going to produce your play.” But he cajoled Stephen into starting to work on it and off we went. I knew at the time how improbable it was, but in hindsight, it seems nuts. Hal is a really, really courageous producer and he produced Pacific Overtures at the Winter Garden, just like Cats and Mamma Mia!, so it was a different time. I don’t think Hal expected that a show with an entirely Asian cast that was done in Kabuki style was going to run for three years at the Winter Garden, but Broadway was where he worked and it never occurred to him to do a piece like that any place other than the mainstream commercial theater. Those times have changed, as well.
You collaborated again with Sondheim on Assassins, which he frequently talks about as the show of his that he’s most happy with. I’m inaccurately paraphrasing.
That’s accurate enough, yeah. He’s described the show as [being the most] successful in fully realizing what our intentions had been when we set out to write it.
Did you feel that when you were creating it, or did you kind of think, “Wow, this is kind of wacky, I don’t know if people are going to get it?”
Neither one of us thought that a show about everybody who had tried to assassinate the President of the United States was ever going to push Cats off stage at the Winter Garden and play to 1,400 people a night eight times a week for three years, but we weren’t thinking about that. We had been excited about this idea, and so we followed the idea creatively until we thought we had completed what we had set out to achieve. It opened at Playwrights Horizons and the critics loathed it, and it was done the next year in London, where the critics loved it. There was a production at the Roundabout about 12 years ago that Joe Mantello directed, one that sort of reestablished it as a major Sondheim piece in New York. I’m very proud of it; I feel the way Steve does. What’s on stage is what we wanted, and that doesn’t always happen.
The critics loathed it?
That’s the word: loathe. The show made a lot of the critics angry because they felt as though—this is a generalization, so it’s not entirely accurate—but they felt as though to deal with such serious material in the musical theater at all was to treat it frivolously. If you were to deal with this kind of deeply serious subject matter, you couldn’t write a musical about it because that’s not what musicals did. And also, the show does not announce at the beginning that it’s bad to shoot the president—we assume that everybody would come into the theater sharing that idea with us—and that the show’s intention was to do something else, which was to gather these characters together and let them speak for themselves and kind of explore what actually motivated them and see if there was some common grievance they had that it would be useful to listen to. And that was a hard lift for critics and for audiences the first time around. I have my Google alerts set for Assassins because I’m curious to see what people make of it when it’s done around the country.
With something like Contact or Arrabal, which are dance shows with little or no dialogue, does the book inform the choreography as much as the choreography informs the book?
Yes. Book writing is an odd profession, and people don’t get quite what it is, and I think most people are inclined to think it’s the talking in between the songs, but in the end, really, the book writer’s fundamental responsibility is to be the custodian of the story and to make sure that the story pieces are in the right place, that the story beats make sense, and that things are adding up emotionally. Most musicals tell stories and the ultimate task of the book writer is to make sure that the story is told well. The tools that are ultimately used to tell it may be music and lyrics or, in some cases, may just be movement, but still, the clarity of the story and the impact of it, that’s the thing that the book writer has to monitor.
And the book writer, a lot of times, gets blamed when things don’t go well.
Without question. Yes. If the show isn’t working, or if the show is of no interest, or if the characters seem ill conceived, yeah, the book writer takes the heat for that and that’s probably not wrong, although there’s usually enough blame to go around. [laughs]
Do you think that if your experience with Contact had not been so amazing and if it had not been so well received that you would be doing Arrabal?
No. The reason why I was approached was because of Contact. Nobody had ever done anything like it on Broadway, and there’s never been anything like it since, so if people were thinking about who would be a good person to bring in to write the book for a musical in which the story is going to be told through dance rather than through dialogue: Who’s got John Weidman’s number, let’s start with him.
How much has been rewritten or retooled since the world premiere in Toronto?
Mostly what we have done is to clarify and refine. We’ve made it better. I’m very eager to see it on stage again.
I can’t wait to see it. It looks beautiful.
Yeah, I feel like everybody’s done really good work. Fingers crossed.
And you’re coming back to your old stomping grounds!
Yes! I’m not sure how much stomping I did when I was there, but yes, I did my four years at Harvard, my daughter went to Harvard. It’s a town I like a lot. I always thought I would end up living in Boston. It’s a pleasure to be back.
ARRABAL. 5.12–6.18 AT AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATER, 64 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATER.ORG