At Ease on New Ground

Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar

In "Contact," protagonist Michael Wiley is a guy with two left feet. But the suicidal advertising executive finally makes the right move: He steps into a dance hall and trips all over himself. In this dreamscape--the last in the triptych of short stories that make up the show--emotional fulfillment comes only when one is prepared to assay uncertain territory.

While that may be a new impulse for Wiley, it doesn't appear to be one for his progenitor, the musical's book writer, John Weidman, who co-conceived (with director-choreographer Susan Stroman) and wrote "Contact." The Broadway musical would go on to win four 2000 Tony Awards, including best musical. The Lincoln Center Theater production, still playing at the Vivian Beaumont in New York, is on its first national tour, opening today at the Ahmanson Theatre.

When the dance-musical theater hybrid opened early last year, critics hailed its groundbreaking originality. Stroman, who won a Tony for her choreography, was given much of the credit. But Weidman's Tony-nominated book earned praise as well.

Treading new ground has been a constant in the career of the 54-year-old writer, beginning in 1976 with "Pacific Overtures," the Stephen Sondheim-Harold Prince musical about Commodore Perry's opening of Japan to the West, and continuing through such eclectic choices as revising (with Timothy Crouse) the book for the Tony-winning 1988 revival of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," adapting the film "Big" into a musical in 1996 and two more collaborations with Sondheim: the 1991 off-Broadway musical "Assassins," about presidential assassinations, and "Wise Guys," about a sibling pair of iconoclastic entrepreneurs, which had a Sam Mendes-directed workshop at New York Theatre Workshop in fall 1999.

The track record for his shows has been wildly mixed--hits with "Anything Goes" and "Contact," flops with "Pacific Overtures" and "Big." "Assassins" will get a Broadway production next season, and "Wise Guys" has gone back to the drawing board with a new director, Prince.

"My ears prick up when I hear about something that seems unusual or simply catches my interest in an odd way," Weidman says over an early supper at a Lincoln Center restaurant. He displays a restless intelligence that early on saw his ambitions segue from foreign service to law to National Lampoon editor and would-be screenwriter before settling on his present occupation.

Given his eclectic bent, he says that writing musical books based on unusual subject matter "never seems like a challenge to me. On the contrary, it seems natural to follow that impulse. If I get excited, I figure other people will too."

That's what Weidman thought when, a few years ago, his friend Stroman called him to say that Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten, the heads of Lincoln Center, had given her carte blanche for a workshop. Stroman wanted to pursue an idea inspired by a visit to a pool hall that late at night converted into a swing dance club. There she'd seen a stunning young woman in a yellow dress who, approached by various would-be partners, would silently signal her assent or refusal. "I knew that by the end of the evening, she was going to change somebody's life," she told Weidman.

"John has a very contemporary wit, is very aware of contemporary issues and relationships, and I wanted 'Contact' to be accessible to a contemporary audience," says Stroman, who had earlier worked with Weidman and her late husband, Mike Ockrent, on "Big." "I also knew how much John loved dance. A lot of writers don't because it means an evening without the spoken word. I happen to love it when dance does incorporate the spoken word."

Together Stroman and Weidman developed the story and structure for "Contact," the first of the trio of individual pieces to be created. What evolved is the contemporary fable of Wiley, an extremely successful ad executive who forlornly discovers, as he says to another character, "I've been on this earth for 43 years and I just realized I don't know anybody." His absurd attempt to hang himself shifts to a surreal excursion into a swing club, where an encounter with the Woman in the Yellow Dress changes his life.

Once "Contact" was judged viable in an enthusiastically received workshop, Stroman and Weidman went to work on companion pieces that could provide an emotional ramp up to the final hourlong dance play. With the notion of interpersonal connection as a theme and playing on the word "swing," both in its dance and sexual connotations, the team came up with "Swinging," an 18th century erotic romp based on the Jean-Honore Fragonard painting "The Swing," and "Did You Move?," the liberating dance fantasy of a meek housewife dining with her abusive husband in an Italian restaurant.

"This show could never exist in its present form had it been produced under different circumstances than those provided to us by Andre and Bernie," Weidman says of the involvement of the nonprofit Lincoln Center Theater. "We were under no expectations or obligations; we were allowed to just create whatever we wanted."

Using taped music rather than an orchestra, all three pieces use the syntax of dance where songs might occur in a traditional musical. After the show opened at Lincoln Center's small Mitzi E. Newhouse and then transferred to the Tony-eligible Vivian Beaumont, some Broadway purists questioned whether "Contact" should qualify for Tony consideration as best musical, given that no one sings and there is little dialogue.

The debate, which was settled when the show prevailed in nominations and awards, exasperated Weidman because it betrayed a certain ignorance of what a book writer does: not only provide dialogue, but also structure and concept that can heighten the effectiveness of song and dance.

"What we were creating," Weidman says, "always felt like a musical. What I found odd about 'Contact' had less to do with the fact that characters burst into dance rather than song, and more to do with the fact that there are three discreet, thematically connected stories. And there is the fantastical nature--nothing about them is naturalistic."

Nonetheless, Wiley is a recognizable urban professional who bears some similarities to Weidman himself. As "Contact" opens, Wiley is drunkenly accepting his fifth Clio-like advertising award; Weidman has won 10 daytime Emmys for writing "Sesame Street," which he still does on occasion. Like Wiley, he can't dance. When the writer is asked how autobiographical Wiley is, Weidman laughs and says, "More than I was aware of when I was working on him. The courage that is required of him to make himself vulnerable to another person, not through wit, or irony or language, is something that I'm familiar with."

Weidman's reticence stems to some extent from his parents who, although he describes them as "wonderful and loving," were emotionally reserved. As one of two boys born to a successful novelist and playwright father and ex-journalist mother, Peggy, Weidman had a privileged childhood, growing up first in Connecticut and then Manhattan. As a second-generation Eastern European Jew, his father, Jerome Weidman, wrote of the immigrant experience in such short stories and novels as "I Can Get It for You Wholesale" (which he later adapted into the 1962 Broadway musical that would launch Barbra Streisand's career) and "The Enemy Camp," about urban Jews migrating to WASP suburbs.

Weidman says his father never encouraged him to pursue a writing career ("It was not an easy life for him") and that he basically discovered the theater on his own, going to every play he could on and off-Broadway. His theatergoing reached an emotional apex when, in his teens, he attended a performance of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

"There was a vividness and intensity to the way emotions were dealt with in this darkened space that I found thrilling," he recalls. "I was just flabbergasted with 'Virginia Woolf,' the rawness of the emotional events, and the fact that they were taking place on Broadway, the same street where you'd find the latest S.N. Behrman comedy, was stunning. In musicals, Sondheim and Prince were doing that in 'Company' and 'Follies.' "

Years later, Weidman would collaborate with Sondheim and Prince on "Pacific Overtures." But his early interest lay in global politics, which led him to major in east Asian history at Harvard. At the time, Weidman thought he might go into foreign service. But he quickly discarded that idea after a summer of working at the State Department.

Weidman turned to law, winning admission to Yale. There, his classmates included Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham, Lani Guinier and Clarence Thomas. On a summer outing for law students, he met his future wife, Lila Coleburn, who would later become a clinical psychologist. (They have two children, Laura, 18, and Jonathan, 13.) Coleburn's close friendship with the Clintons gave the couple the opportunity to visit the Oval Office during the Clinton presidency. "I'd never clapped my eyes on a living American president before, and here was one calling me by my first name in the same office where I'm thinking, 'Wow, Nixon sat here, and Haldeman here, and Ehrlichman here," he says.

Weidman says it took him all of "20 minutes" to know that he didn't want to be a lawyer--even though he graduated from Yale and passed the bar. But while in law school, he wrote "Pacific Overtures." Almost on a lark, he wrote Prince, whom he knew informally because Prince had produced his father's 1960 Pulitzer-winning "Fiorello!" Was Prince interested in hiring a Yale law student for summer work in his office, he queried, adding that he had written a play. The producer-director expressed interest in the play but not the internship. Prince saw "Pacific Overtures" as a musical and thus, in 1974 at age 28, Weidman was collaborating with his onetime idols.

Prince largely acted as a go-between on "Pacific Overtures," but Weidman's collaboration with Sondheim on "Assassins"--and "Wise Guys," for that matter--was based on absolute parity. "I found the idea of him intimidating, but nothing in the way Steve behaved was intimidating," Weidman says. "He is a fabulous collaborator who is beset with the same insecurities and doubts that beset everyone else who does this work. He relies enormously on the book writer he's working with."

In the late 1980s, Weidman says, he became intrigued when Sondheim suggested a musical about presidential assassins. Like most of his generation, Weidman had been emotionally devastated by the death of John F. Kennedy. It was his first experience with loss and, even today, as he recalls the seminal event, he struggles to control his emotions. "I went to Washington, D.C., with a friend that November and stood on the sidewalk outside the Capitol," he says. "[For] people who are younger than me, who did not have that Camelot experience, it's hard to describe the emotional connection to John and Robert Kennedy and the possibilities they stood for. I think writing 'Assassins' was an attempt to make sense of something that didn't makes sense to me when I was 17 and had never made sense to me since then."

Premiering the work in 1991 at a limited engagement at the small off-Broadway Playwrights Horizons theater, Weidman and Sondheim took a seriocomic approach to the subject of presidential assassinations. From John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, "Assassins" sought to explore the twisted psyches and odd displacement of those who found an outlet--and source of blame--for their frustration and rage at being incapable of realizing the American dream. There is even a romantic ballad sung by the two would-be assassins, John Hinckley (target: Ronald Reagan) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Gerald Ford), who sing lovingly of their obsessions, Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, respectively. The show builds to a surreal climax in which all the assassins over history gather on the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository on Nov. 22, 1963, to persuade Oswald to kill Kennedy rather than himself.

The Playwrights Horizons production was greeted with mixed reviews, including a lukewarm one from the New York Times. Audiences too seemed somewhat confounded by the creepy slapstick and the unsettling notion that these deranged losers somehow reflected American society.

Weidman recalls standing on the sidewalk outside the theater when he overheard a man telling his companion, "Do you know what that show is about? Presidential assassins. How sick is that?"

"He wouldn't have said that if it were a play," Weidman says. "He obviously believed that there was something inherently frivolous about treating such painful material in musical theater." But that may be changing. Weidman notes that Mendes' 1993 Donmar production of the show in London was well-received by critics and audiences. (A production at Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1995 was also acclaimed.)

"I would rather let the show speak for itself," says Weidman, noting that "Assassins" will finally get a Broadway production this fall under the direction of Joe Mantello ("Love! Valour! Compassion!").

Some of the changes, including a new Sondheim song, "Something Just Broke," about the country's emotional devastation in the wake of assassinations, will be incorporated in the Broadway production.If "Assassins" is a success, it may further signal that the boundaries of what the art form can tolerate are expanding. Nothing would make Weidman happier. "If there are any taboos left, you'll have to tell me what they are," he says. In addition to "Wise Guys," he is working with the songwriting team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens ("Ragtime") on a new musical called "The Glorious Ones" about a 16th century commedia dell'arte troupe.

And then there's the film version of "Contact," which producer Laurence Mark is developing with Stroman and Weidman. "We took the third piece and really exploded it," Weidman says happily.

What it will look like when all the dust settles is anybody's guess at this point. But the iconoclastic writer says he hopes that it will be, above all else, "unexpected."

*

* "Contact" at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Opens today. Regular performances: Tuesdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Additional performances July 15, 22 and 29 and Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m., Aug. 2, 9, 16 and 30 at 2 p.m. $30-$75. Ends Sept. 2. (213) 628-2772.

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