Podcast Episode 91 Transcript – Rick Elice
Ken: Hey, everybody. We’re back here at The Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Our guest this week is none other than three-time Tony nominee Rick Elice. Welcome, Rick!
Rick: Hi, Ken. It’s great to be here.
Ken: Rick is the author of the book and lyrics to the terrific Peter and the Starcatcher as well as the book to The Addam’s Family and, most notably, wrote the book to the megahit Jersey Boys which will be closing this January after over a ten year run.
Rick: More than eleven.
Ken: More than eleven year run.
Rick: In showbiz math that’s twelve years, you know. More than eleven is twelve, so actually we’re celebrating the bar mitzvah next week and it will be twenty years by the time January rolls around.
Ken: Already he has me laughing. He was having me cracking up before we pressed record – I was like “Make sure you do this when we press record!”
Rick: Don’t oversell, Ken.
Ken: You had a very interesting path to becoming a super successful book writer on Broadway. This is why I wanted you here, because you’ve done so many diverse things. Tell me – start at the beginning – where did the love of theatre come from with you? Where did you get bit by the bug?
Rick: Well, if you must know, at the age of three I was taken to a matinee of My Fair Lady playing over here at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, now the Times Square Church. A beautiful theatre, for those of us old enough to remember it, which I don’t but I remember three moments from My Fair Lady, but mostly what I remember, because I’ve heard it a lot since then, is my mother took me and my brother on a Saturday, my brother was six, I was three, she said it was the first time in three years that I shut my mouth so she decided she was going to start taking me to theatre on a regular basis because it was kind of a holiday for her. I suspect that I was fascinated, too fascinated to complain about anything, and we sat all the way up in the nosebleeds – I remember the theatre ceiling brushing my hair as I was plopped on top of five coats piled up. I can’t imagine how irritated the other customers were that a three-year-old was sitting there but, by all accounts, which is to say my mother’s account, I was very well behaved and that’s the advantage of growing up in New York, the son of parents who courted going to the theatre. Remember that going to the theatre in those days was cheaper than going to the movies because it fifty cents to sit up there, or something like that. 90 cents. I remember when Fiddler on the Roof closed in 1971 you could still buy tickets to Fiddler on the Roof, then at the Broadway Theatre – it had been at several theatres but it closed at the Broadway Theatre – and there were still tickets on sale for 90 cents in 1971.
Ken: So you’re three years old.
Rick: I’m three years old. Oh, sorry, I forgot this was an interview! I was caught up in Julie Andrews in the spotlight. So I became a theatre fan because I was raised that way and about the age of ten or so I was more interested in playing in the street with friends and sort of fell out of it and I encountered theatre again when I was 14. It was a rainy Saturday, I didn’t want to go to a movie, a friend of mine said “Let’s go to see a show.” It was Lauren Bacall in Applause, we couldn’t get in, or maybe it was Arlene Dahl by then because it was late, it had to have been after April 1971 – I’ll tell you why in a second – but we couldn’t get into Applause so we went up to the Winter Garden Theatre where a show called Follies had opened on April 4th 1971 and I was very leery because by now I was older, I was 15 or something like that, and my folks had been to see that and my father had said “No, that’s a show you’re not going to go to see because it’s not appropriate for you,” so I was leery of going but I was also a teenager so it was the forbidden thing. We went in and we got standing room tickets for $5 and stood and watched the show and it changed my life, Ken. I didn’t know that things like that could be done in the theatre. I didn’t know what they were, I didn’t understand the Pirandello antecedence, I didn’t understand the midlife crisis aspect of the story, but I understood in some way that was very emotional and very, very powerful what Michael Bennette and Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim seemed to be doing and the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I immediately fell to my knees and thanked God for the day I was born and then promptly went and got a ticket to Company, which had been created by the same people the year before, and I didn’t get it at all – also a show about marriage; I didn’t really understand it – so instead what I did was, having noticed that there were $2 obstructed view seats at the Winter Garden for Follies, which had been a policy of Hal Prince in those shows in the ’70s, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, $2 obstructed view seats and in 1971 and 1972 $2 was cheaper than a movie so on Saturdays when it rained I would go to the Winter Garden and watch this show over and over and over again, and then the following year was A Little Night Music and somehow or over the same friend that I had seen Follies with and this girl that I was kind of desperately pursuing – those things that we figure out when we’re older than 16, or when I was older than 16 – managed to finagle somehow three seats to the opening night of A Little Night Music at the Shubert and the first act ended, a weekend in the country, it was spectacular, I thought I was going to explode and then I realized it was just my bladder that was going to explode and the bathrooms at the Shubert were all the way, all the way, all the way, all the way down from where we were sitting, which was all the way, all the way, all the way, all the way up, so I went tearing down the stairs and smashed into a man in a green velvet tuxedo and his glasses went flying and he turned around to pick up his glasses, put them on top of his head and I realized that I had run into Harold Prince, that he was actually a real guy, a guy who was flesh and blood, because to me, growing up in New York, there were certain names, certain boldface names, Harold Prince, Leonard Bernstein, Comden and Green, Stephen Sondhiem, Michael Bennett, that theatre crowd – not the literary crowd, that was another crowd – but to think that this person was actually real was so thrilling for me that the theatre then became the be-all and end-all for me, not supported at that time by my parents who wanted me to be a nice Jewish boy who went to medical school, failing that at least law school – “You want to act, act in a courtroom,” my mother used to say. She used to clip articles out of the newspaper about how many actors were unemployed, anything she could think of to discourage me, and with that enthusiastic support I went away to college at 17 and tried to put it out of my mind but did plays up there, kind of on the sly, didn’t want my folks to know that I was wasting time in the arts, and then rather improbably, my third year at Cornell, there was a terrible, terrible winter and I was living on a farm – it was so far off the beaten path it was actually an RFD address and I was commuting thirty minutes into campus every day and the winter was so brutal and there was so much snow that there were weeks at a time when I was stuck on this farm and I thought “I’ve got to get out of here, I’ve got to get out of this farmland, I need some concrete, I need to get back to a city, I don’t care what city it is!” so I applied, against incredible odds, to the Yale School of Drama and I was accepted. So I called my folks because of course I was going to need their support in order to go and I told them I had been accepted to the Yale School of Drama and like that, in the way that loving parents can turn on a dime, they became wildly enthusiastic supporters of my theatre dream, which was to be an actor, and I went off as the youngest person in the history of Yale School of Drama and I believe I may still be the youngest person to have gotten a master’s degree, which I got in 1979, and on the day I got my degree I was offered a job in two Broadway shows – because the great thing about Yale is you train and train and train and train, you do a million shows, and your last year there you are given more featured roles at Yale Rep, which works in tandem with the drama school, and at the end of your last year, your third year, you’re presented with your Equity card and if you’re lucky and you get some good parts that last year agents are always coming up and you can maybe attract some representation, which I had done, and there was a show we were developing up at Yale called The 1940’s Radio Hour and there was also a show called Sweeney Todd that had opened on, I believe it was, March 4th 1979, which was just weeks before my graduation, and Victor Garber, for some reason, was leaving the show after a few months, Cris Groenendaal, who was in the ensemble, was being promoted to the Anthony track and they looking for a replacement for the Cris Groenendaal track, which was ensemble and understudy Anthony and I went in and sang for Joanna Merlin and then for Paul Gemignani and then for Stephen Sondheim and Joanna Merlin called and said “We’re thinking of offering this to you,” and only minutes before the people from The 1940’s Radio Hour, the show that had been developed up at Yale that we’d all been auditioning for a lot, had called to say “You’ve been offered the role that you created at Yale, to recreate it for New York,” and my new agent said “You should create something new rather than go ensemble.” I was really torn because the idea of being in a Sondheim show felt like winning the lottery to me in a million different ways but I ill-fatedly made the choice to go with the new show and then, after a few weeks, just as we were on the verge of previews, got fired and, having been fired, I no longer had any visible means of support, had an apartment right there in that brown building, a tiny studio apartment, and my agent dropped me because he said “You got fired, you must be a pain in the ass,” and I was kind of unhappy, couldn’t get auditions so I took a job with a friend of mine whom I had known from the time we were five years old, we grew up together, a guy named Fred Nathan, and he was a Broadway press agent and he had left college after one year and started working at Solters/Roskin and Freedman and then opened his own shop and he said “I’ll pay you $75 a week to write pitch letters for me and maybe some body copy for souvenir brochures and stuff I’m working on,” and he kind of saved my life. That $75 was what I lived on until I got a gig at the Westside Arts for a short while, did a stint, sometime employed, downstairs at Studio 54. Steve Rubell had been my tennis councilor at Sleepaway camp and I bumped into him one day and he said “Do I know you? You look a little familiar,” and I said “You knew me when I was seven. “You were my tennis councilor,” and he looked me up and down in sort of the way a great big cat looks at a wildebeest and said “Would you like to be a busboy?” so I started to do that and then American Repertory Theatre offered me a season up at Cambridge, the first season, so I’m a charter member of the ART. I went up there and played a bunch of roles. Peter Sellers, the brilliant avant garde director, took a shine to me, got me a gig at Adams House at Harvard as a teaching fellow, which was free room and board if I taught a class, so I would direct shows at Adams House and I saved all the money that I was making at the rep because I had free room and board and was there for two years and them came back home to New York off of a play that I was doing with Lee Breuer, another avant garde directing genius, Mabou Mimes artistic director and creator, and he was doing a Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest with twelve Ariels and he asked me if I would be one of the and Raul Julia was Prospero, it was a very starry group of people, the only person I had never heard of in that entire cast was me, and it was kind of a famously disastrous production but it was the first show that I did for Joe Papp and then I did four more, was choreographing a show at the Astor Place Theatre, a Randy Newman jukebox musical, before that term was coined, directed by Joan Micklin Silver, the great film director, the music director and the orchestrator, a gentleman by the name of Michael Starobin, had been engaged across the street at the Public for a new show written by this crazy genius from Canada who had written a show about the Red Baron called The Death of von Richthofen, as Witnessed from Earth, which was to star David Bowie as the Red Baron, Baron von Richthofen, and I went and auditioned for Des McAnuff, who wrote the book, music and lyrics and was directing it, and Jennifer Muller was doing the choreography, it was going to be a hot little hit that was built to move. It was, up to that point, the most expensive show that Joe had ever done at the Public. We played at the Newman Theatre, the same stage where A Chorus Line started and many other wonderful shows, and it was very, very exciting to work on it. Frank Rich begged to differ and so on opening night we screeched to a halt because of the New York Times review but also on opening night I met the guy who ran the ad agency who did the advertising for the Public Theatre and for Joe and he thought that I was amusing, it must have been the liquor – Joe always saved the bar and the food for the actors first. Anyone who’s listening who remembers the great Joe Papp knows that one of the nice things that he did for his shows was to hold off the audiences on opening night, no one was allowed to get to the food before the actors got it, and that was true, of course, also for the bar, so I may have been amusing, I can’t recall, but he thought I was funny enough and said to me, “Do you think you could write some funny headlines for me? My partner and creative director is away for the summer and I need some funny headlines,” and I said “No, I can’t write funny headlines. I’ve never written anything in my life.” He said “I’ll pay you $100.” Now, you understand that my salary for The Death of von Richthofen, as Witnessed from Earth was $149 a week. For an extra $20 I was the dance captain for the company, so $100 was enough for me to say “Maybe I can write funny headlines! Who knows?” and on August 23rd 1982 I walked from my little one-room garret on 57th Street down Broadway towards 45th Street where the office of an agency called Serino, Coyne and Nappi were and I passed by the Winter Garden Theatre which, for me, was a hallowed space because of my Follies history and the box office had just opened for a show called Cats, the same day, the original Cats, not the one that just opened now, the original Cats, and when I got to the office I got some assignments and he seemed to be pleased with it and he said “Why don’t you come back the next day?” and I thought “Well, he’s paying me $100, I guess I should come back the next day,” and that happened until Friday. On Friday I went in and said “Look, Matty, it’s great, I love everybody here,” there were about eleven people who worked in the office in those days, it was a small little shop, and I said “But I can’t just keep coming every day, our show is moving, I’ve got to audition for new stuff, I’m looking for a job,” and he said “Well, okay,” and he gave me a check for $500. He meant $100 a day, Ken. I mean I practically fainted and I thought “This is great, this is amazing.”
Ken: This was 1980…?
Rick: This was 1982, the summer of 1982.
Ken: Pretty good.
Rick: I thought “This is a means of visible support. I can actually eat something besides the tuna I had been subsisting on.” Not even white meat tuna, Ken. I was subsisting really on the cat food tuna, that brown stuff that you really don’t want. The chicken of the sea, not bumblebee. I’m a terrible bumblebee snob but I had reduced myself to Charlie, StarKist, but I thought “Maybe I can get a hamburger,” and a week later the gig was over anyway because his partner who had been away was coming back, a woman named Nancy Coyne, and I thought “Well, that’s the end of that deal,” and a few days, certainly not long after she returned, I was out and I got a call from her and she said “My partner says we should meet. Why don’t you come up and we’ll have a chat?” and we met and we clicked in that kindred spirit kind of way and she said “I don’t have a position for you but I’ll hire you as a part timer and you can spend a couple of days,” it seemed to be kind perfect and a month later I was offered a full time job.
Ken: And how long did you stay at Serino/Coyne?
Rick: Until July 1st 1999, which was 17 years.
Ken: 17 years. And give everyone out there – because I gave this introduction about you being this super successful book writer, which of course you are, but people don’t know some of the things your fingers have bene on, the types of shows.
Rick: I’m not going to talk about what my fingers have been on!
Ken: Get to the dirty stuff!
Rick: This is show business, Ken!
Ken: The show posters your fingers have been on.
Rick: It would be a shorter list to say where my fingers haven’t been.
Ken: So just give us a handful of some of the shows that you leant your creative talents to, from a marketing and advertising perspective.
Rick: Well, I had the world’s greatest teacher, Nancy Coyne, who was very brilliant, everybody knows her, she’s certainly a living legend by now. In those days it was the number two shop of two shops – there was a larger, more successful shop and we were the upstarts and, little by little, I started on Cats and Annie and Grease and Dream Girls and Evita, not a bad pool to be thrown into, and by the time I left I had gone from A Chorus Line to The Lion King and it was exactly 304 shows in between – not that I’ve counted, Ken, you understand!
Ken: What I love about your career so far is you’re an actor here, they asked me to do this, I did this, and you did so many of these things unbelievably well.
Rick: No, to be scrupulously honest, or to appear to at least attempt to be scrupulously honest, I should say it was much more like Ben Franklin – I did many things reasonably well. If I had been great at anything I think I would have been happier; I always aspired to be great. The reason I found it easy to leave my acting career, such as it was, behind was because it was hard, as a kid, to accept the disparity between what I wanted to be, which was Meryl Streep or Robert De Niro, and what I knew I was, which was a tall, geeky looking, somewhat effeminate guy who was always going to play the roommate or the friend-if, that sort of thing. And here in New York there was less opportunity to show my wares that I had acquired at a place like Yale because no one was going to let my play an old guy, nobody was going to let me play the leading man or the swain or the short cute guy because New York is full of people who are leading men and really handsome and cute and short and all of that so I knew that I was going to be waiting in line behind people who just naturally were the things that I thought I could become through my craft and I think that my experience in advertising was like that too – Nancy mentored me, I seemed to have a facility, I very much enjoyed spending time in studios and I tried to grow and grow and grow, I learned how to be an editor, I learned how to be a copywriter, I learned how to, therefore, write, I learned how to go into a meeting and sell things, none of which I had ever planned to do but I suppose that’s what makes for an interesting life, just sort of pin balling around the universe as it’s presented to you and trying to keep your head above water.
Ken: So how did you go from, again, being an executive and very successful at this advertising agency to writing the book for a musical? What gave you the idea that “Hey, I want to write now,” and your first one was Jersey Boys.
Rick: Well, I wrote a play with my husband, Roger Rees, in 1985 that was done in the west end of London and played all over the world. He was in Stratford-upon-Avon one Christmastime when I was over there performing in Hamlet and Love’s Labor’s Lost and the repertoire gave him a particular weekend off and we were going to go for a drive somewhere but there was a blizzard and we were trapped in this great big house on a road called Welcome Road in Stratford which had been the home of Trevor Nunn, who was the co-artistic director and he, Trevor, had given it to Roger for the year that he was going to be up there doing Hamlet and we were snowed in and the house had been emptied of furniture and things, there was no television. There was a kitchen and in the kitchen was an egg timer and to pass the time we wrote a play by setting the egg timer on ten minutes and we would try to write a scene in ten minutes and then we would swap. At the end of the weekend we had a draft of a play and through the good offices of Roger’s good friend and frequent collaborator Tom Stoppard we were introduced to an agent who actually got it on in the west end where it played for two and a half years or something crazy like that. So I had had some experience writing things, one thing, that was longer than 30 seconds or 60 seconds long, which is the limitation of advertising. In the spring of 1999 I was having a particularly bad day and the phone rang and it was Peter Schneider from the Walt Disney company who, when I first got to know him, was the president of Disney Feature Animation and he and his executive partner, Tom Schumacher, had taken over the theatrical arm of Disney from the guys who had first brought Beauty and the Beast to Broadway in 1994. In 1997 they were gearing up to bring The Lion King to New York and Nancy and I and some other folks at Sorino made a presentation for the account and they kind of took a shine to us and we became friendly with them and a couple of years later, in the spring of 1999, Peter had been elevated to a new positon, president of the studio, Joe Roth was chairman of the studio at the time, and Peter called and said “I want you to come and work for me,” and I said “As what?” and he said “What would you like to do?” I said “I can’t leave my career here. We just got a really nice apartment, I can’t go out there.” He said “Well why don’t you draft a ten-point plan of your dream job and fax it to me?” and because I was having a bad day I did and he called back half an hour later and said “Okay, and here’s what I’ll pay you and all you have to do is spend ten days out here a month as long as you’re available to me in New York. I’ll get you an office in New York and I’ll get you an office out here. I want to take advantage of all of your skills and I’m just going to throw you into rooms and you’ll try to make things better. That’s what I want you to do, I want you to make things better that we are putting out, creatively,” and what a gift, what a lifesaving gift, and because I was having a bad day I said “Okay” and then I had to swallow really, really hard and I went into my best friend’s office and said “Nancy, I’m going to leave.” I didn’t think I would ever say those words in a sentence, and she very graciously said “Okay, go. Go with my blessing,” and on July 1st I left Sorino and on August 1st I rode up to the building with the big pointy hat at Disney and went to see a charcoal test of a feature animated movie and was then in a note session talking about that film with the people who were making it and I thought “I’ve just died and gone to heaven.” Because of the nature of that particular work, really for the first time since 1982, I had time on my hands, because sometimes there were tons and tons of things to do and sometimes there were just two or three things to do, and one day when I just had two or three things to do the phone rang and it was a gentleman who had been a client of mine at the agency, Mamma Mia had just opened, it was 2002-ish, and he said “I’d like to do a musical with the Four Seasons’ music,” and I said “That’s a great idea, I love Vivaldi,” and he said “Not Vivaldi, you asshole. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons,” and I said “The guy with the high voice? Why?” and he said “Well, Mamma Mia is a great big hit now, with the songs of ABBA,” and I said “But somebody already did that. Why would you want to do that?” and he said “Would you have lunch with Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, the principle songwriter of the Four Seasons?” and I thought, “Okay, a meal is a meal.” I said, “Can I bring a friend?” That friend being Marshall Brickman, one of those boldfaced names that, as a New York kid I grew up thinking “Oh my God!” and, years later, in the mid-90s we were introduced by legendary film director Stanley Donen and Marshall and his wife Nina and Roger and I quickly became friends and we flirted with the idea of maybe doing something – we both assumed it would be a film, maybe I could walk one in at Disney, and I had tried to do that on a few occasions but been unsuccessful – so I called Marshall and said “Do you want to write a Broadway musical with me?” and he said “I’ve never done that,” and I said “Neither have I, so we’ll just waste each other’s time and maybe we’ll have some fun and that’s the worst case scenario,” and he said “Okay,” and so we went together to meet Frankie and Bob, suggested that, after they had spent a lunch telling us about what it was like growing up in New Jersey, what their lives were like – you listen to the music and it sounds like one sort of thing, then you listen to their lives and it was a very different sort of thing, and we just started leaning forward like any audience would when they’re being told a good story – and we thought “Well, shit, we’ve just stepped in it, haven’t we? This is the mother lode, this is not just a true story, it’s a good story, and it’s not just a good story, it’s an untold story.” So we said “Okay, give us a crack,” and we wrote some stuff and they liked us and then said “Now what do we do?” and because of my previous life I said “Well, we’ll find a producer.”, “Well, who are they?” They didn’t know, Marshall didn’t know, I said “But I know them all so I’ll make some appointments, we’ll go and we’ll try to see if anybody’s interested.”
Ken: I’m still mad at you for not calling me, but that’s a whole other thing we’ll talk about later.
Rick: Fortunately, Michael David and Ed Strong, the Dodgers, said “Yeah, we’re interested. Who would you like to direct it?” and the obvious name, not just because he had been a Dodger himself, not just because I had worked on the advertising for Big River and for Tommy: The Musical and the revival of How to Succeed, even A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing, several plays that had been directed by Des McAnuff who had, years and years before, 20 years before at that point, 21 years by the time we were having this conversation, was running La Jolla Playhouse in southern California and I knew that he had always wanted to be a rocker and I thought “Maybe there’s a crazy chance that he might agree to do this,” and it turned out that the very first LP record – which are these large discs that people used to play with needles once upon a time – that he owned as a kid growing up in north Toronto was Sherry & 11 Others by the Four Seasons, so he sparked to the idea, which was great. He said to me and Marshall – this was January of 2004 – he said “Do you think you could have it written before May?” and, never having done it before, we said “Sure!” and he said “Because I have a slot in August,” and it’s a true thing to say that on August 17th 2004 we had our first rehearsal, which was also the first read through, of Jersey Boys in a basement at UCSD and we opened in October of 2004 and the show was an enormous hit for them and we thought “Well, this is wonderful!”
Ken: The first reading was the first rehearsal?
Rick: Well it wasn’t done. We wrote speeches for the auditions just so the actors would have something to say – the few actors that came, because who was going to be in a show about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons? I mean it just seemed like such a harebrained idea. Tara Rubin, the casting director, a brilliant actress, read the one scene that we had with the actors who came in and we wrote some speeches so the actors would have something to audition with and they seemed to work so those speeches ended up being the last moment of the show.
Ken: So you obviously sharpened your writing pencil those many years at the advertising agency, it was a bit of a training ground, or you tell me – is writing writing? Do you feel like you’re the book writer you are today because of the years at the agency? What do they share in common?
Rick: It’s a great question. Nancy said to me once “Writing copy is like writing a postcard. You have a very small amount of space and you want to use it in a way that’s memorable,” and I thought “Okay, I can write a good postcard,” and that was helpful. She also taught me not to depend on adjectives a lot, which is sort of hilarious in advertising, the world of “New and improved!” and “Fabulous!” and “Record breaking!” and all that stuff. Advertising seems to me to be almost all adjectives all the time, in that Trumpian way, but Nancy is the daughter of a journalist who taught her the value of declarative statements and so I was fascinated by that and somewhere around 1995, or perhaps exactly in 1995, when a play called Arcadia was playing Lincoln Center and Roger, at that time, had created roles in two great Stoppard plays – The Real Thing, of course, Henry, and Kerner in Hapgood – and we went to see Arcadia and then Tom, Roger and I went over across the street to Fiorello and we were having a meal and Tom said to me “You seem to be upset, didn’t you like the play?” and I said “No, it’s spectacular, Tom. It’s like there’s proof of God that you could write that, it’s like Mozart writing a symphony. I want to kill myself,” I said “I’ll never be that good.” I started to think about when I stopped acting – “I’ll never be that good,” I would say when I went to see The Deer Hunter. “I’ll never be that good. What’s the point of doing it? Who needs one more decent actor? Who needs one more decent copywriter or a writer of plays?” When you’re talking to Tom Stoppard and he said “Well, Rick, don’t you think that there are writers that I feel that way about?” and I said “Yeah, like who? Tolstoy?” and he said “Well, yes.” He said “Why don’t you just write? Stop worrying about whether it’s good or great or shit or anything. Just write. If it gives you pleasure, then do it,” and the difference between stopping acting and keeping writing was the difference between being 25 and being 40, because I heard it differently and I thought “Okay, I don’t have to foist it on anybody but it’s still something that I could do,” and that’s why I said to Marshall “Well, if we screw it up we’ll just have wasted our own time, but so what?”
Ken: Do you find you got second looks, from “Oh, here comes the advertising guy, now he’s a book writer, now he’s a playwright,”? How did you deal with that? Was it hard for you to call those producers that you had worked with as an ad guy and been like “Hey, by the way, I just wrote a musical?” Were you self-conscious in any way about that and how did you overcome it?
Rick: Well, you know, I’m a New Yorker, I didn’t feel particularly self-conscious about it. I thought “If they don’t want to see me they’ll say “No, we can’t see you, we’re not interested’.” But I always found – this may not be true, people may have just been being polite – but I thought they were very welcoming to Marshall and me and even the reception to the show, when we finally did get a theatre – we came to New York full of piss and vinegar and, in quick succession, three jukebox musicals opened and closed and so no one was looking to give us a theatre because jukebox musicals were the new whipping boy in town, I mean it was worse than the Vietnam war, jukebox musicals, never mind that they’re as old as Broadway – they’re older than jukeboxes so it’s even a misnomer.
Ken: I don’t even refer to Jersey Boys as a jukebox musical, I call it a bio musical. I think you guys did something so unique.
Rick: Well it’s not unique either. It was one of those times in one’s life where, if you’re really, really lucky – and luck is so much a part of it because of timing – Des was available, there was a slot to play it in, we were able to get the money to do it, we managed to get actors who were really, really good to play it, Des was working at absolutely the top of his game and did a brilliant, brilliant job, Marshall Brickman is a brilliant, brilliant writer, the audience reaction was like the Super Bowl from the very first day, we finally did get a theatre – on May 17th 2005 the call came through that we had gotten the Virginia Theatre on 52nd Street and we went into rehearsal a year to the day after we started rehearsal in La Jolla on August 15th, that Monday – it was a Monday that year because 2004 was a leap year.
Ken: You’re like Mary Lou Henner, you know all these dates.
Rick: No, it’s not as good as hers, I just remember dates. We still didn’t know what was going to happen, what the reception was going to be like, because it was such a toxic genre. It’s a little like saying “Oh God, not another rectangular painting!” It’s a little, I think, unfair to assume that the genre-ization of theatre or film or books or any sort of form of expression, art, is kind of a silly way to look at things. There are great war movies and then are war movies that are boring; there are hilarious comedies and there are comedies that don’t make you laugh so much. We’ve managed, I think, to catch lightning in a bottle at that moment and the response in New York, really from the very first performance, was very gratifying, because we had nothing but inventory because the public did not particularly express an interest in advance of going to see Jersey Boys – the poor Dodgers must have been pulling their beards out – but because they had a lot of inventory they were able to satisfy the demand that started to build up and it was just kind of the right time for that kind of a show, I guess, and people like it.
Ken: Being a marketing guy, an advertising guy, a guy whose job it was to sell things, now that writing is what you’re doing, how do you find ideas? Do you find “This is an idea I like and also I can sell this.”? Do you merge the two, or how do you come up with ideas for new projects?’
Rick: I’ve evolved. I think I’ve learned, because I’m really only 12 years old as a writer, which is why I’m sitting here in a diaper, sucking my thumb! Just so you understand, I’m really just a kid as a writer. I wanted to do a lot of things. Marshall and I wrote a show that Tommy Tune directed that we did at the Goodman that we dearly loved and had a wonderful time with, we did The Addams Family together, which we dearly loved and had a wonderful time on, a challenging time, a very, very different experience, and shortly after Addams opened someone in the press said to me “You know, you should really only do things that you feel a real passion about,” and I thought “What does that mean?” I learned to love Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons because I got to know the two principle Seasons as men and as artists, as people, as three dimensional people, and I found myself feeling a great affection for that process, certainly fell in love with it, but at the beginning I was as skeptical as anybody else, and I thought about that a lot. I think it’s a little bit like anything else in life – you don’t have to love everything about it; if you can find something to love about a project you can write it. It’s the story, a great story and compelling characters is always the thing that makes something successful, so if you feel that a story is great you will trust that the audience will come the same way I can trust that if I drop a hammer it’s going to hit the ground, I don’t actually have to look because I understand there’s a law of gravity. A law of theatre is, you write a great story and you have compelling characters, people will find it compelling. It’s the nature of storytelling and theatre, of course, is all storytelling. If you’re a writer for hire, someone comes to you and says “This is something I’d like you to do,” I think there may be a pitfall because you thinking “Maybe this is the sort of thing that could be successful,” is probably not a good reason to write something, I have discovered in my vast experience – that’s happened to me a couple of times, although one of the times that happened the thing I was asked to write was an adaptation of a novel called Peter and the Starcatcher. I was asked to write it, sort of in an ass-backwards way, because the two people who were directing it, Alex Timbers and Roger Rees, were doing a workshop for Disney, who were thinking of creating, for the first time, a play and not a musical and they were working on it up at Williamstown where Roger was the artistic director of Williamstown Theatre Festival and Alex was there developing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Alex had been the assistant director on Jersey Boys so I knew him and Roger and I had been living together for twenty-something years by then, so I knew him! And what they wanted to do, these two people with vastly different backgrounds and skillsets and directorial points of view, was exactly the sort of thing that appealed to me, which was a kind of do-it-yourself story theatre, poor theatre kind of production that could take an unwieldy picaresque novel and present it as a theatrical story, sort of in the manner of Roger’s big breakout success, Nicholas Nickleby with the RSC, and I thought that that would be great fun but I wasn’t asked to write the play, they were adapting the novel, they were adapting discrete sections of a novel to show to the folks at Disney and Tom Schumacher, “Here’s what it might be like,” but there was no text, really. The novel was written for a young reader, about aged eight, they weren’t interested in doing a children’s piece, they wanted to do a play for adults so there was really nothing the actors could say that could be lifted from the novel, per se, but they had this notion that they wanted to explore the various forms of narration that one could use in the theatre, in very much the way that Nicholas Nickleby did. And so Roger asked me to just write something that could be sort of a prologue to demonstrate how that would work, so I just did it at a friend of the court and after that first workshop they got the go-ahead to do another workshop here in town and for that they needed some scenes and so, again, just as a friend of the court, because there was no budget, you understand, I mean literally maybe $100, that’s it, and that went to the church on 86th Street where there was some attic room that we sat and played around in. It was all just done for love, so I contributed some stuff for the actors to say and to that presentation came Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, who are the authors of the novel. Dave Barry, of course, being one of the great humorous and Ridley Pearson being somebody who writes science fiction and crime procedural novels, very, very accomplished writers individually and as a team, and they watched this presentation and Dave Barry said “Well, who wrote all that stuff that they were saying? None of that’s in the book,” and because they liked it I raised my hand and they turned to Tom Schumacher and said “Well, is he going to write the play?” so poor Tom is painted into a corner of saying “Yeah, sure. Yes,” and then afterwards said “So I guess you’re writing the play. Go ahead and knock yourself out,” but it turned out to be a very happy experience for everybody involved and, in fact, for the last two years has been the number two produced play in all of North America, two years running, and who would have ever thought? I’m serious – we were dumpster diving for the set because there was no money.
Ken: It’s an incredible piece of stagecraft, just an incredible piece. When you’re working on shows now, do you find you want to get involved in the marketing or do you stay away from it?
Rick: It’s always a temptation to weigh in but I remember when I was the person in the conference room presenting, what that felt like, and it’s very nice when somebody defers to your expertise and I think, you know, when I was in advertising I was good at it and I think I got to be pretty good at it and I got to do a lot of things but that industry has changed enormously in the 16-17 years I have not been there and I think it would be egregiously self-indulgent on the one hand and annoying and stifling on the other to impose what I think because I’m just not paying attention in that way to what trends are, what consumers are looking at, what everyone else is doing. I don’t focus on it anymore and I think my expertise, such as it was, has been very blunted by the years that I’ve spent not thinking about it.
Ken: Your Tom Stoppard advice to young writers out there, or middle-aged writers or old writers or people who want to be writers?
Rick: I think my story is a good example, not to sound too la-de-dah about it. All I ever wanted to do was work in the theatre and, I can tell you Ken, I have swept a stage, I have stage managed, I have assistant stage managed, in theatres in basements in churches, I have run lights, I have worked lighting boards, I have designed lights, I have choreographed, I have acted, I have sung and danced and kicked my little legs on stage, I have advertised. All I ever wanted to do was work in the theatre and now I do. All I ever really loved about the day to day experience, for me, was being able to walk in through the stage door and not have the guy at the stage door say “Who are you? What are you doing here?” That feeling of belonging. Clearly this is, I’m sure, something that we all share and have in common, this sense of community and sense of family, the non-traditional family of friends, this band of brothers, as Henry V says, whether we’re brothers or sisters, but that’s what we are, we are a band of people who try to make people glad that they are alive. Nothing less than that. So my advice, my parting advice, isn’t really about writing, it’s about if you want to work in the theatre, find a way to do it and it will be a great love affair for your whole life, because that’s what it’s been for me.
Ken: Okay, my last question, which is one of my James Lipton-like questions, it’s my Genie Question. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to see you.
Rick: Oh, it’s not Barbara Eden?
Ken: I did dream of that genie many times.
Rick: Okay, I got it now.
Ken: So the genie from Aladdin comes to visit you and says “Rick, I want to thank you for your decades of incredible service to this industry in so many ways – you’ve swept floors, you’ve sold tickets to shows through advertising and now you’ve written such amazing pieces, the number two most produced play in North America last year! I want to thank you for all of that by granting you one wish.” What’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that gets you angry, that keeps you up at night, that would have you put your fist through a wall, that you would ask this genie to wish away?
Rick: Right now, my answer today is probably different to what my answer might have bene a year ago. I think there’s a lot of great work out there that people cannot see because there is such a limited amount of real estate. They say never confuse fantasy and realty – it’s an old showbiz joke – but the real estate issue is problematic so I would look at that genie and say “Why so blue?” No, if I could look at that genie and say “Here’s my wish…” my wish would be to have fifty theatres instead of forty. I’m a kid who grew up in New York, I remember what it was like on Broadway before A Chorus Line moved up from the Public and opened at the Schubert in July of 1975 and there’s a paly Noel Coward wrote called Tonight at 8:30, that title would have to be changed to Tonight at 7:30 in the early ’70s because nobody wanted to go to the theatre. Nobody wanted to go, it was over, it was done. All the shows that are piling up now to be done, that are waiting, all of them could have opened in 1974, easily, and shows just being written now could have opened in 1974. A surprising side effect of all of the technology that we have now, all of the things that are supposed to cocoon us in our homes, and does for so many people, but what that has also done is created a, I believe, conscious and unconscious need in the population that, really on a DNA, genetic level, a craving for the live event, a craving for connection, for the socializing experience of sitting in the dark with a thousand other people and watching something that you know is not true and, for those two hours, believing that it absolutely is, and even though it’s expensive and even though it’s at a time that they tell us we have to be there and even though it’s in a part of town that’s a pain in the ass to get to, people keep coming. Why are they coming? They are coming because they want to, in ever-increasing numbers they want to. We don’t seem to be able to dissuade them. God knows there are a lot of reasons not to go but people are coming back and back and back and they are bringing people with them and we don’t have enough real estate because more people want to see theatre, and so if I could change something I would say “Let’s build a second and third theatre over the Booth and over the Schoenfeld and over the Jacobs and over the Golden and over the Schubert and over the Broadhurst and over the Majestic, just to pick those theatres. Let’s build three tiers of theatres, if we can, like we were talking about before, if you could jack up the Palace Theatre with the thing in the back of my car – if I had a car, I would have a jack – if you could jack up a theatre for two floors you could build a second and third theatre over those theatres and have ten extra houses and they would also be new, up to code technically so you could do anything in theatres in New York the same way you can do anything in theatres that are being built now around the country.” New spaces where audiences will come and flock and be happy and where we can have our work seen. It’s called a play for a reason and it can be brilliant. Tom Stoppard could write fifty more plays but if there’s not some theatre for them to appear in they don’t really exist. They’re not made to be on the page, they’re meant to be on a stage in front of an audience and it would be great. My wish would be that there would be more places here in New York so that more voices could be heard, more actors and dancers and singers could be seen, more ushers could usher. The industry is bursting at the seams with product but we don’t have the space.
Ken: Tom Stoppard’s great and all and I would love fifty more plays from him but I would also love fifty more plays from you.
Rick: They’re coming! They’re all sitting on my desk, I’m just waiting for theatres, dammit!
Ken: Well, we’ll see what the genie can do about that. Thank you so much for joining us. I also want to say, we mentioned his name several times, but I wanted to just say that Roger is, of course, sorely missed by this entire industry.
Rick: And by me, every day.
Ken: Thank you, all of you, for listening and we will see you next time.
The top 10 grossing shows from the week ending in…
The top 10 grossing shows from the week ending in…
The top 10 grossing shows from the week ending in…
Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.