Matthew Lopez Creating A Legend In Hartford

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I first interviewed Matthew Lopez in 2015, when Hartford Stage was about to produce his play Reverberation . His two previous plays The Whipping Man, which quickly became one of the most produced plays nationally and which received the Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards for an off-Broadway production. In 2013, his play Somewhere had a reading during the Festival Brand/New presented by Hartford Stage, and a full staging in 2014.

Each one of those plays deals with very different issues, like slavery and freedom (Whipping Man);  a theater loving Puerto Rican family about to be evicted (Somewhere)  or a gay man devastated at the end of a relationship (Reverberation). His collaboration with Hartford Stage, under the auspices of the Aetna Playwrights program in 2012, and productions of his play have been something that, according to Lopez has given him courage. ” It’s a kind of relationship that I imagine any writer would dream of having with a theatre.”

Now, TheaterWorks Hartford is presenting his latest play The Legend of Georgia McBride which had its premier at the Denver Theatre Center for the Performing Arts. This latest Hartford production makes Lopez the most produced  contemporary Latino playwright in Connecticut. :In The Legend of Georgia McBride,  Lopez creates the character of Casey, a straight,, married man who is broke , his wife is expecting their first child and they can’t pay the rent. Casey, has been performing as an Elvis impersonator, but when his show is cancelled, he is presented with the options of no job, or a job performing as a drag singer. In this new play, Lopez allows us to listen to drag performers as they imitate Judy Garland, Edith Piaf and country-western singers. But the most important aspect of this play is its emotional core: How Lopez allows the audience to learn about some of the motivations of men who become “drag queens” regardless of the constant bullying and hateful environment surrounding their daily lives. If a comedy can make you cry, this is it.

The following is an excerpt from our previously published interview in www.CTLatinoNews.com. The play is set in the town of Panama City, Florida, where Lopez grew up. Aside from the production at TheaterWorks  Hartford, The Legend of Georgia McBride has been staged in New York and Los Angeles.

When we last spoke, Lopez was working on a movie with Brad Pitt’s film company, which is a sexy European spy thriller adapted from a Javier Marias novel. And he was getting married in the summer, which he said, was “my biggest and most ambitious project to date.”

But The Legend of Georgia McBride won’t be just in staged productions. New Regency and Fox 2000 have the film rights to the play with the actor Jim Parsons as producer and co-star. Lopez will be adapting the screenplay.

 

IN CONVERSATION WITH MATTHEW LOPEZ

BR: When did you become interested in the theater?

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ML: I think I can literally pinpoint the day that my life changed. It was the day my parents took me to see Hollywood/Ukraine and I got to see this wonderful show and I got to see [my aunt] Priscilla be Harpo Marx and then go backstage and see her. There’s this one photo that is of me sitting on her dressing table at four and a half years old and she’s putting on her makeup and I’m watching her. There’s this wonderful interaction between the two of us and of all the photos that is my favorite because I can see in my eyes and in my face the look of a life changing. That is precisely the moment I think the rest of the course of my life was changed and determined.

BR: At a panel at Mark Twain you mentioned you wanted to be an actor..what happened?

ML: There were several factors informing that decision. I’d been acting in professional and amateur theater since I was seven. I studied acting in college and when I arrived in New York to finally pursue a career, there was a part of me that was already burnt out on it. I had taken a playwriting course my junior year and it opened my eyes to new ways of storytelling that I had never considered for myself. I discovered I was more interested in staying at home and writing than I was in going to vocal lessons, dance classes or auditions. It was a very subtle yet definite shift in my priorities. As I grew in confidence as a writer, I began to share my work with friends and colleagues and I found the encouragement I needed to continue and to ultimately leave acting completely and focus all my energies on writing. There is something ephemeral about acting on stage that I suspect is alluring to many actors. It wasn’t for me. I liked the definitiveness of writing, even as it changes and grows in development and production. There’s also the question of ownership. I wrote The Whipping Man and Somewhere and Reverberation. I own them. Someday someone will inherit them. I like that idea.

BR: Your plays deal with many different issues, how do you choose them?

ML: I can never predict what is going to capture my interest and draw me to create. I think it comes primarily from curiosity. I like to play the “what if” game with subjects. “What if slaves owned by Jewish families adopted that religion?” “What if a family living in the proposed footprint of Lincoln Center in 1959 were completely devoted to Jerome Robbins and his work?” “What if a straight guy became a drag queen?” That leads to the next important question of “why?” And then “who?” And so on.

If you look at my first three plays, The Whipping Man, Somewhere and this play Reverberation, there is no superficial connection between them. The first is set in 1865, the second in 1959 and the last in the present. And there was no conscious attempt to link the plays in any way. They were just three separate plays. But once I finished Reverberation, I looked back at all three of them and I realized that what they are all about is the idea that the world is dangerous and that it is safer inside. The three men in The Whipping Man are hiding in that destroyed home from the chaos and the danger of Richmond just after the fall to Union forces; the family in Somewhere are battened down against the irresistible force of Robert Moses and his willful remaking of the city; the characters in Reverberation see the world as menacing; they all see men as dangerous, the city in which they live as unsafe for them and so they huddle in their apartments, attempting to ward off the dangers of the world together. I’ve since gone on to write about drag queens and I’m preparing to write a large play for Hartford Stage about the impact of the AIDS epidemic on succeeding generations of gay men (based on E.M. Forster’s Howards End). But those first three plays perhaps represent where I was in my thinking and emotions at the time that I wrote them.  Unofficially, I refer to those three plays as my “Agoraphobia Trilogy.”

BR: Do you have a favorite playwright?

ML: I have too many. It depends on what you’re looking for in any particular moment. I am a perpetual student. If it weren’t for the friendship and the influence of Christopher Shinn, I would have never written this play. He paved the way for my generation to write honestly about our common humanity and our fears, hopes and ailments. I don’t think he gets enough recognition for that fact. Williams and O’Neill are at the top for me. Miller and Odets and Wilson and Inge. Kushner and Churchill and Simon and Ayckbourn. Oscar Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim. Arthur Laurents. Rajiv Joseph and Annie Baker.

The Legend of Georgia McBride will be playing at TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl St. until April 22. For information visit www.twhartford.org

-Bessy Reyna

At First Performance of ‘My Fair Lady’ In New Haven, Drama Was Offstage

The snow was coming down. The turntables didn’t turn. The star refused to perform. The cast was dismissed, thinking that that night’s show would not go on.

Yet “My Fair Lady” opened improbably, triumphantly, to its first paying audience on that Saturday, Feb. 4, 1956, at the Shubert Theater here, making the night the stuff of theater legend.

The out-of-town circuit for shows destined for Broadway — and its pressure cooker atmosphere — has largely been replaced with the more measured pace of readings, workshops and developmental productions at regional theaters and presenting houses. The latest, highly anticipated revival of “My Fair Lady,” which opens Thursday at Lincoln Center Theater, was developed in-house. The weather forecast is expected to be more kind.

But in 1956, signs of trouble for the new musical, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” came early. In the days before opening, the production’s turntables, a new kind of cable-driven stage device, failed to work properly.Tensions, too, were rising a few blocks away, inside the rehearsal hall at the Jewish Community Center.

Rex Harrison, the show’s Henry Higgins and marquee star, was looking increasingly nervous, as the 20-year-old Julie Andrews, who was to play Eliza Doolittle, was keeping her cool. In an era before microphones could supersize voices, actors had only their own vocal cords to project to the back of the theater, and Harrison — a novice to the Broadway musical, though he had sung in London shows decades before — was feeling insecure.

The show’s director, Moss Hart; its librettist and lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner; and its composer, Frederick Loewe, tried to reassure the temperamental actor, but when he faced an orchestra of 32 musicians in the 1,600-seat, two-balconied theater in a final rehearsal for that first public performance, he became overwhelmed.

CONTINUED

The World Premiere of The Flamingo Kid, a New Musical, Closes Hartford Stage 2018-19 Season

The 2018-19 season closes with the world premiere of the musical The Flamingo Kid (May 9 – June 2, 2019), based on the 1984 box-office hit film co-written and directed by the late Garry Marshall that helped make Matt Dillon a household name. The stage musical will be directed by Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Anastasia) and feature book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman (2014 Tony Award-Winner for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) and music by Scott Frankel (Grey Gardens, War Paint on Broadway). The Flamingo Kid will be Freedman’s first musical since A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder and Frankel’s next after War Paint, which earned him a Tony Award nomination and closed on Broadway last November.

In the summer of ’63, against the wishes of his father, Brooklyn teenager Jeffrey Willis leaves behind his blue-collar roots for an exciting job working the cabana at the colorful El Flamingo — a posh private club on Long Island. The music, the romance, and the beach are magical – until tensions grow between father and son when a slick club member takes Jeffrey under his wing.

Interview with Jacqui Hubbard, Executive Director, of the Ivoryton Playhouse

It takes a lot of time, talent and perseverance to put on a show (and a sense of humor doesn’t hurt), but what if the onerous task of producing not just one but seven shows in a single season falls on your shoulders? Would you, like Ayn Rand’s Atlas, shrug, let the weight fall from those shoulders? Well, Jacquelyn Hubbard is not one to shrug, and she hasn’t for close to two decades as she has boarded plays and musicals at the historic Ivoryton Playhouse, where, as the Playhouse’s executive/artistic director, she is hip-deep in the details of creating the venue’s 2018 season.

I met with Hubbard at the Playhouse’s offices, which thankfully had power – the theater itself, down the road, was still dark after a Nor’easter had recently blown through the town. As I walked into her office she was fielding a phone call and giving directions to an assistant – something about the code for the alarm at the theater. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she was also juggling three multi-colored balls in the air and tap dancing.

In a British accent shaded and softened by her years in the States, Hubbard explained the process of bringing seven shows to Ivoryton. “As soon as the last season is finalized,” she said, “I set up a big board for the next season and I start moving different plays around. We have plays that plop in different slots over the course of the year. We know that we’re going to put musicals in the two big summer slots and we know where we’re going to try a comedy or a drama.”

The Ivoryton Playhouse has a supportive board of directors, but over the years Hubbard has earned the board’s trust, so what goes where in the season and what finally occurs when the curtain rises is really her call – and she agonizes over the selection, and it’s not just a simple matter of material to produce.

“I really wanted to do a new play – we ended up going for two new plays, both by women, which is kind of nice. It never really settles until November – there might be five or six shows that I’m definite about but there’s always one or two that I go backwards and forwards on until something pushes it over the edge.”

What gives the push? Well, consider the last show slated for the 2018 season, the world premiere of “Queens of the Golden Mask.” The play was originally submitted for consideration for Ivoryton’s Women’s Play Festival, but it was two acts and the festival limited the submissions to one act. Hubbard called the playwright, Carole Lockwood, complimented her on the play, explained why it couldn’t be considered for the festival but suggested that it might make a wonderful movie. Lockwood told her a deal might be in the works. Fast forward two or three months – the deal had fallen through over script changes the playwright didn’t want to make.

What’s the play about? Well, it’s set in the early Sixties and deals with women involved in the Ku Klux Klan. Current events – specifically the Charlottesville protest and its aftermath – brought the play back to Hubbard’s mind. “I re-read it and I met with the writer,” Hubbard recalled, “and I said to her that I was going to do a special reading of the play during the festival. She was very excited. That was in September, and in October I woke up one morning and said to myself: ‘What am I doing? This play should be produced.’ And that was it.”

Hubbard is an actor, a director and a producer. She has been involved, one way or another, with theater since she was a young girl and, given her years at Ivoryton, she is painfully aware of the economics that often determine what is and is not produced, and yet the theatrical seasons she creates are by and large also determined by her gut instincts. These instincts are extremely important when selecting the two musicals that will run at Ivoryton over the summer.

“Often with the big musicals it’s availability,” Hubbard explained. “We are a small theater. People who hold the rights to plays want to make the most money that they can. So, when I apply for the rights to a play, and I have 280 seats, and another theater applies and they have a thousand seats, and it’s at the same time and we’re within a hundred miles of each other, I will lose.”

It often all comes down to money as to whether or not Hubbard can “lock something down.” It all depends on what’s in the Ivoryton coffers at the moment. “Rights to do a big musical,” she pointed out, “usually run around $30,000, and they usually want $5,000 or $10,000 up front, which is a lot of money for us. If we’re doing well at the start of the year, with subscriptions and whatever, then I can lock down some of the bigger musicals.” However, “lock down” isn’t an absolute – sometimes it’s a “Yes” followed by a “No, sorry.” Those who hold the rights to the plays giveth and taketh away on a regular basis, especially when there’s a national tour in the offing.

Although she may not want to admit it, Hubbard has a certain “nanny” mentality when it comes to scheduling some of the shows for the season. By that I mean she senses what her audience – and not just her subscribers – might be needing, that spoon full of sugar that might help the medicine of current events go down just a bit easier. Hence, the decision to schedule “The Fantasticks” as the opening production of the season.

“I thought… feeling extremely…weighed down by the complete mess the world is in,” Hubbard said, shaking her head, “and feeling that we had to open the season after months of hibernation and overdosing on CNN with something that had a bit of a fairytale quality but  also a touch of realism…’Fantasticks’ has that.” It also doesn’t hurt that David Pittsinger, who will play El Gallo (and, yes, sing “Try to remember”) and his wife, Patricia Schuman, were available for the show. Over the past few years, Pittsinger, a world-renowned bass-baritone, and Schuman, a diva known for her stunning portrayals of operatic heroines, have graced the Ivoryton stage.

Pittsinger and Schuman, along with R. Bruce Connelly, who will play Henry, have become Ivoryton favorites, but Hubbard understands that Ivoryton’s future must rest with expanding the venue’s audience, even at the risk of possibly alienating some of the “old-timers” who still help fill the house.

“I think that, twelve or fifteen years ago when we were still in the process of building a subscriber base our demographics heavily influenced what we put on. Less so today. Of course, I have to think about them, but I also know that we have to attract a new audience, so we try to let them know,” meaning the old guard, if you will, “that that is our plan, that we want to produce theater that they will enjoy but also we are going to produce things that may not be their first choice…but please come, and let me know…and they let me know!”

Hubbard has received letters from subscribers suggesting that what the Playhouse is producing doesn’t appeal to them. She responds to them, politely, but points out that the times they are a’changing.

As a nod to the Playhouse’s demographics, Hubbard has scheduled “Love Quest,” by Mary Maguire and Steven McGraw, to follow “The Fantasticks,” with Hubbard directing and starring Linda Purl. It focuses on two women, one in her 60s, the other in her 30s, who are both, well, questing for love in the strange new world of Face Book, speed dating and cybersex. “It’s a new play,” Hubbard said, “and [the playwrights] are open to working on it.” As to why she has chosen this particular vehicle: “I have to find something to connect with in a play. It’s always been to the detriment of the piece if I haven’t.” Hubbard has worked with the writers and she believes that Ivoryton can make the play fun, funnier “and have a few more layers.”

And what if it isn’t fun? Well, that’s always a possibility, especially with a new play. You just never know until it’s on its legs and all you can do is hope that it doesn’t stumble. “I will know,” Hubbard said, “by the Thursday evening of the run, because I will have had my complete audience demographic by then for those three performances.” And if the show isn’t working? “My instinct is to run away,” Hubbard admitted, “but I rarely get farther than the tavern across the street.”

Hubbard explained that minor adjustments can be made during the run of a show, but if major surgery is required the patient is left to gasp out its last stertorous breaths and then is silently put to rest. “We simply don’t have a long enough run to make major changes,” Hubbard said, then added: “I try to get directors I trust. There have been times…well…I won’t dwell on the past.”

Following “Love Quest” on the schedule is “A Night with Janis Joplin,” a show that, after previews, ran for 141 performances on Broadway in 2013-14. Again, it’s a show that was lodged somewhere in Hubbard’s mind and she associated it, and the demographic that the show might appeal to, with the same demographic that had made “Million Dollar Quartet” such a hit at Ivoryton. She wondered what had ever happened to the Janis Joplin musical and so she did a bit of research, sent an email, and then “my phone rings and it’s the guy who owns the show and he starts talking to me about the show, saying he’s putting together a tour.” Hubbard’s response: “Well, keep us in mind.” It turned out that the show ended up being staged by North Carolina Theatre in May, and so Hubbard opted to “piggy-back” the production with the North Carolina venue. “We cast it together,” Hubbard said, “and we’re bringing in the whole production – sets, costumes, everything. It’s not a little show – it’s got an eight-piece band! In costumes…and wigs.” Hubbard smiled waggishly: “I just love that music, so that’s going to be fun.”

For the summer, undoubtedly the most important part of Ivoryton’s season, the venue will be boarding “Grease,” immediately followed by “A Chorus Line,” both to be directed by Todd Underwood, who has become the go-to man for staging many of Ivoryton’s musicals. To say that the run of these two shows will be make-or-break time for Ivoryton is an understatement.

“These two productions represent the bulk of our revenue,” Hubbard explained, but then added a BUT: “They cost us almost what we spend on them. They are our anchor shows – they bring people in and if somebody comes to one of them and says, “Hey, I’ll buy a three-play subscription,’ well…in some ways these shows are ‘lost-leaders,’ we sell out but they’re so expensive for us to produce – expensive for housing, for everything else that goes along with a big musical.” Hubbard paused, then shrugged. “Nobody will come out for small shows in the summer,” she said, “so we have no choice, but they give us the freedom to do, well, the other stuff.”

The nanny in Hubbard influenced her choice for Ivoryton’s penultimate show, “Once.” Again, she’s offering that spoon full of sugar for a world she sees as somewhat weary and woebegone. “I saw it several times on Broadway,” Hubbard said, “and I thought it was a little gem but…well, nobody has heard of it,” the “nobody” meaning the folks who normally patronize Ivoryton. She sees “Once,” as she does “The Fantasticks,” as a bit of a fairytale, something that just might lighten the hearts, if only for a moment, of those who attend.

As experienced as Hubbard is, she knows that she can be wrong and is willing to learn from her mistakes. She referenced the recent women’s play festival and, well, here’s how she explains it: “One of the writers came in with a piece and it ended with four minutes of silence, a couple just looking into each other’s eyes. That’s it. I said to the author, ‘You can’t do that. That’s death on stage,’ and she said, ‘I’d really like to try it.’ Well, this is the reason we bring these writers up here, to try these things. So the play was about a couple who was separated and the husband is trying to get the wife back, to get her to stay, and throughout the whole play, well, you just want her to stay, and he asks her to sit, just for four minutes, that’s all he’s asking for. And…you know…the audience held its breath for four minutes and at the end of it, when the lights went out, they were all on their feet and I thought, well, I’m happy to say I was wrong. I thought it would be disastrous. but it worked, so there are things we can do that I didn’t think were possible…and there you go.”

Yes, it worked, and much of what Hubbard does at Ivoryton “works.” The lady doesn’t wear rose-colored glasses, but she, nested in the Connecticut hinterlands, does love theater, and loves what she does, and that is evident, and perhaps it all works so well because, quite simply, she cares…and can smile even when the power goes out.

– Geary Denihy