Thursday, December 27, 2007

Rambling Thoughts on a Running Theme

Posted by Bruce Miller

The playwrights from this year’s Signature Season are a somewhat diverse lot, but there’s a common thread that ties several of them together.

The late Carson McCullers (The Member of the Wedding) wrote with the distinctive voice of a young woman reared in a small Southern town during the 1930s and 40s. Ron Hutchinson (Moonlight and Magnolias) is an Irish-born playwright who came to fame in England and now lives in LA, working predominantly for the film industry.

John Patrick Shanley (Doubt, pictured to the left) is a former Marine who was raised in the Bronx. His writing has earned him an Oscar (Moonstruck), a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize (Doubt). Douglas Carter Beane (The Little Dog Laughed) is a gay playwright who grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and wrote the libretto for the current Broadway musical Xanadu, a re-make of the 1970s cult film. Beane is currently writing the libretto for the upcoming stage musical remake of The Band Wagon, now re-titled Dancing in the Dark.

Our summer musical, the great American classic Guys and Dolls, features music and lyrics by Frank Loesser (pictured to the right) and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. Frank Loesser, born in 1910 in NYC, also wrote Where’s Charley? (produced by Barksdale in 2003), The Most Happy Fella, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and the songs "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" and "I Don’t Want to Walk Without You" (currently heard in Swingtime Canteen) and "Baby, It’s Cold Outside" (recently heard in our Holiday Cabaret).

Jo Swerling (co-author of the Guys book) was born in Russia in 1897 and, as a child, fled the Czarist regime with his family, arriving in New York’s lower East Side via Ellis Island. Before working on Guys and Dolls in the late 40s, he was called to Hollywood by Frank Capra, where he helped to “polish” the screenplays of both It’s a Wonderful Life (recently produced as a radio drama by Barksdale’s Bifocals Theatre Project) and Gone With the Wind (the re-screenwriting of which is the subject of Moonlight and Magnolias).

Abe Burrows (the other co-writer of the Guys book, pictured to the left) was a renowned radio writer and comedic performer, who went on to serve as “script doctor” for numerous Broadway and radio shows. Interestingly, Abe Burrows is also the father of James Burrows, the legendary television director of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and co-creator of Cheers.

As Moonlight continues its laugh-a-minute run at Barksdale Willow Lawn (I saw it again last night and it was GREAT), it’s interesting to follow the theme of the un-credited “script doctor” and re-write artist. In Moonlight, Ben Hecht, played by Scott Wichmann, is brought in to rewrite the screenplay for Gone With the Wind. Moonlight playwright Ron Hutchinson (pictured below and to the right) earns a very lucrative living doing the same thing today.

Discussing the movie industry, Hutchinson writes, “Now, as back then, in the last weeks, days and hours before shooting, there’s a mad scramble to finally get the script right. That’s where guys like Ben Hecht came in then and where guys like me come in today. In 25 years as a rewrite man, I’ve been parachuted into movie locations in places such as Morocco, Mexico, Australia, South Africa and really bizarre places such as Burbank.”

Carson McCullers (pictured to the left) has always given credit to her principal “script doctor,” fellow Southerner Tennessee Williams. Douglas Carter Beane (pictured below and to the right) is becoming somewhat of a specialist in rewriting the librettos of vintage movie musicals for contemporary Broadway audiences. And his real-life experience in which unnamed “script doctors” transformed the lead character from gay to straight in the Hollywood adaptation of his Off Broadway hit, As Bees in Honey Drown, inspired the comic story he tells in The Little Dog Laughed.

Both Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows were considered among the foremost “script doctors” working to polish other author’s work in both Hollywood and New York in the 40s through the 70s. In Deathtrap, produced by Barksdale at Hanover Tavern earlier this fall, the lead character of Sidney Bruhl offers to serve as a “script doctor” for a young playwright, citing the fact that George S. Kaufman (pictured to the left) served as his “script doctor” when he was polishing his first play. In his memoirs, Abe Burrows credited his success in the theatre to his work under George S. Kaufman, director of Guys and Dolls.

For many years, the expression, “Get me Abe Burrows!” remained Broadway shorthand for “this script is awful and needs an emergency rewrite.” Burrows himself downplayed his “script doctor” role in his memoirs. “I have... performed surgery on a few shows, but not as many as I'm given credit for. I've been involved in 19 theatrical productions, plus their road company offshoots. Only a few of these have been surgical patients. And I don't usually talk about them. I feel that a fellow who doctors a show should have the same ethical approcah that a plastic surgeon has. It wouldn't be very nice if a plastic surgeon were walking down the street with you, and a beautiful girl approached. And you say, "What a beautiful girl." And the plastic surgeon says, "She was a patient of mine. You should have seen her before I fixed her nose."

Of all our playwrights this season, John Patrick Shanley seems to be the only one who has little to no experience rewriting the scripts of others and/or putting up with others who are brought in to rewrite his work. Long may he wave.

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

Your mind astounds me.

I am in awe.

Thank you for the woven stories.

C. Smith said...

Speaking of Frank Loesser, when are auditions for "Guys and Dolls" going to be? You've usually held auditions for your summer musicals by now in the past. Any word would be great!