The aviators Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, and the Wright brothers have always had an illusive quality, according to John Weidman, who is collaborating as book writer with lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. and composer David Shire on the musical “Take Flight,” making its American premiere at McCarter Theater through Sunday, June 6.
“We found it very difficult to pin them down in terms of who they really were and what they really were about,” says Weidman. Never clearly defined no matter how many movies are made about her life, Earhart became a “mythical mystery” through her disappearance/death.
“Lindbergh originally presented as an uncomplicated person, sort of like the way Jimmy Stewart portrayed him in the film,” explains Weidman. It seems that later in his life, he actually had two or three different wives and families in Germany whom he would visit for a number of weeks each year. “No one ever figured him out.”
As for the Wright brothers, Weidman says, “as we depict them, they have the same quality of being marginally knowable.” But as they are presented on stage, he says, “we feel we are honest in terms of what we think they were like but people may come away with different responses to their identity.”
I talked with Weidman backstage at McCarter where they were beginning another day of rehearsal, polishing up their production. He tells me that Maltby has always been fascinated with the idea of flight and the invention of flight. “I’m not putting words into his mouth because I’ve heard him say many times that he considers flight as a metaphor for human experience. But I’m reluctant to say the show is about this or that. I want the audience to come in and put the show together ‘piece by piece, bit by bit,’” (he’s quoting a Sondheim lyric.) But he will admit that the collaborators want people who see the musical to come out feeling exhilarated. “It’s optimistic. We need that now especially. After all, it’s not an accident that these three stories about pioneers in aviation were Americans.”
This is Weidman’s second collaboration with Maltby and Shire, having written the book for “Big,” the musical stage adaptation of the popular Tom Hanks movie of the same title that had a six-month Broadway run in 1996.
Maltby and Shire had been working on “Take Flight” for a number of years before Weidman came on board. “I saw various readings and workshops of it. We’d meet afterward, and I’d tell them what I thought.” About four years ago after a workshop at New York’s Public Theater, the three of them went out to lunch. He says, “I had an idea. That’s dangerous. By the time lunch was over, I was working on the show.”
An opportunity to produce their musical in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory proved to be a great “out of town tryout,” where they also picked up the director, Sam Buntrock, who is still with them. “By the time we opened in London, we had a much better show than the one we went into rehearsal with, and we also knew more work needed to be done.
“We try to be very hard on ourselves in terms of defining exactly what we want to deliver, why the stories of these three characters had to be on stage. It wasn’t just about their involvement with airplanes, but also something about who they were, how they behaved, and their view of the world. By telling their stories simultaneously, it would add up to something more than if we just looked at each of them individually.”
According to Weidman, there has been considerable change in the show since its London run. “It’s been more than just tinkering. However, much of the score is the same, but many of the songs are used in a different way. We have gotten tremendous support from McCarter, which gave us a series of readings and a week in a writers’ retreat where we got a lot done.”
Musicals are usually referred to by the composer’s name, such as “the Maltby-Shire musical” or Sondheim’s “Assassins.” Being a book writer for a musical could be considered a thankless job. But for Weidman, it’s the talk and collaboration that make it worthwhile.
His journey to this profession happened circuitously but actually can be looked upon as going into the “family business.” However, this was not what John Weidman had in mind. His father, Jerome Weidman, a prolific novelist who also wrote the stage adaptation of his novel “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” and the book for the musical “Fiorello,” and his mother, who wrote a number of popular children’s books, both saw a different career path for him. “And so did I,” admits Weidman. The original plot line for his own life led him to Harvard for an undergraduate degree, then to Yale Law School, then to passing the bar exam. “I’d be an attorney of some sort and then go into politics. That was my plan.” However, at some point during law school, an internship prompted him to have second thoughts. He says he realized “this isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life. While I was trying to figure this out, I didn’t want to drop out and have to support myself.”
Looking for a clue to another direction for his life, he decided to write a play. Laughing as he remembers, “There’s a way to do something that you don’t know how to do — you can only do that once. I’d never taken any theater or playwriting courses.”
Weidman thinks that many things in his life have happened by chance but “who you know” has also played a part. A family friend, Hal Prince, the noted theater director and producer, gave his play to Stephen Sondheim, the legendary musical theater composer. The play Weidman wrote while vamping out his days in law school and passing the bar exam grew to be the Sondheim musical “Pacific Overtures.” That’s a fast track change in career path for Weidman.
The book writer of a musical usually gets very little notice, unless the musical is a flop. Then it’s usually considered to be the writer’s fault. So you may not know his name, but Weidman has collaborated on a number of musicals. Also with Sondheim, he wrote the book for “Assassins,” a startling musical that explores the disturbed men and women who have attempted (successfully and unsuccessfully) to assassinate a president of the United States. This daring material was mystifying to audiences and critics when it first opened in 1990; but with the changes in political atmosphere, a revival in 2004 met critical acclaim and awards.
Weidman found the material compelling and very personal to him. “I was 17 when Kennedy was shot. I believed in ‘Camelot.’” Disheartened, Weidman went to Washington for the funeral. When he was approached to write the book for the musical, he thought this would give him an opportunity to look again at the motivations behind the various assassins.
“We looked at them not as individual freaks but as a group. We put them together to try to figure out where these murderous acts came from. Our hope was to produce something productive rather than thinking that some exotic conspiracy was to blame.” “Assassins” is often produced on college campuses. “As a theater experience, I think it has value at this particular time. In a sense, it’s more relevant now than it’s ever been. The anger of the people who feel marginalized in this country is really frightening.”
More recently Weidman and Sondheim have written a musical based on the lives of the Mizner brothers and their adventures and misadventures during the early 20th century (Addison and Wilson Mizner were con artists during the Gold Rush and in the 1920s Florida land boom; Wilson went on to become a playwright in New York). First titled “Wise Guys,” then opening in Chicago in 2003 as “Bounce,” the season before last it opened at the Public Theater in New York titled “Road Show.” I was fortunate to see the latter two incarnations and liked both. Somewhere I still have a T-shirt with the “Bounce” logo and tried desperately to find it to wear to my interview with Weidman. No luck. He tells me that I should look again, as it’s probably valuable.
Over the years, Weidman has won awards and garnered even more nominations, including a Tony Award nomination for best book for the dance show Susan Stroman’s “Contact.” There is no dialogue, so many would think there was no book. But talking about this gave him the opportunity to explain the book as “the spine” or “the architect’s plan.”
Even more impressive, he has received more than a dozen Emmy Awards for Outstanding Writing for a Children’s Program for his work on the television series “Sesame Street.”
Writing for this landmark children’s series also came as what he describes as “a happy accident.” Way back when he was at Harvard, he had been the editor of “The Harvard Lampoon,” which led one of his buddies to think of him when the movie “Animal House” burst on the scene and every producer wanted a comedy like that. “So, I became a screenwriter for films termed ‘youth comedies.’”
None of his efforts, however, ever made it to production. “Returning from Los Angeles after working on some project that had just stalled after four rewrites and a polish, I sat down on the sofa next to my three-year-old daughter,” he says. They watched “Sesame Street” together. “Juxtaposed with my experience in California, I was impressed with the level of wit and intelligence and integrity of the show I was looking at. It looked like worthy work.”
Over the years, he has written scripts for “Sesame Street” which had the added bonus of impressing his children when he took them on the set to meet Big Bird and other Muppets. He has been writing for them for 20 years. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
He and his wife, Lila Caleburn, a therapist, live in New York and have two children who don’t seem headed toward joining “the family business.” When I asked him about this possibility, he replied, “Thanks goodness, no — I sound like my dad.” This spring their son graduates from Brown with a degree in economics and sociology. Their daughter wants to “save the world” and is finishing a graduate degree in law and business at Stanford University, which should give her more “muscle” for foundation work. She recently became engaged to a calm centered, graduate of Stanford Law School, says Weidman.
“At 21, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I still don’t,” he says wryly. “The idea of retirement has been given a bad name by golf clubs and yellow pants. It’s important at certain points to really think about how to spend one’s time — what’s a worthwhile way to spend one’s time. I’m struggling with that.” Meanwhile, he still has several projects lined up after “Take Flight.”
“Writing can be thrilling but I have always found it hard — hard work. In many ways the best part is the collaborative conversation with someone you really respect. The invention is the part that is most fun for me.” That’s an idealistic American point of view that takes flight.
“Take Flight,” Berlind Theater at the McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, June 6. American premiere of new musical by Richard Maltby and David Shire with book by John Weidman. Sam Buntock directs. $20 to $65. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.