It is afternoon and Douglas McGrath emerges from the rehearsal room at McCarter Theater in Princeton to talk about his new play, “The Age of Innocence,” opening on Friday, September 7, and continuing through October 7.
It’s a homecoming of sorts for the tall, slender, and affable 60-year-old playwright, film director, and actor who as a member of Princeton University’s Class of 1980 had written and performed for the Triangle Club’s annual show at McCarter.
In fact the writer of the book for the hit Broadway musical “Beautiful” is ready to acknowledge his debt to his Princeton club days, as summed up in the following written statement: “After landing the job to write the book for the musical ‘Beautiful,’ which tells the story of how Carole King became one of the most successful singer-songwriters of her time, I realized that apart from the budget, having written two musicals for Triangle was not much different from doing ‘Beautiful.’ In fact, they made it possible.
“Everything I used to write ‘Beautiful,’ I learned from my Triangle shows: sitting in the audience and listening for what works and what doesn’t and when it doesn’t, quickly finding a way to change it. It was at 185 Nassau Street and McCarter Theater that I first learned not to be sentimental about something just because I wrote it.”
And while plans are in the works for McGrath to write the screen adaptation of “Beautiful,” his attention this afternoon is on his new adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel — co-produced by McCarter and Hartford Stage theater companies.
“I read ‘The Age of Innocence’ late in my 20s,” McGrath says during a break in McCarter’s small upstairs cafe. “I identified with this young man and how he was going to spend his life.”
The story focuses on a romantic triangle involving a young gentleman lawyer, Newland Archer; his traditional and socially proper wife, May; and her alluring yet scandal-tainted cousin, American-born Countess Ellen Olenska, whose return to New York City’s ‘Gilded Age’ era, circa 1870s, presents Archer with a series of emotional, erotic, and ethically charged choices.
“I wouldn’t have liked it if I had read it earlier,” says McGrath about the novel. “In my youthful reading days either a murder or sex had to happen by page five or it wasn’t worth it. But as I read great literature I gave that up and become more interested in the psychology of the people.”
He credits Wharton’s astute awareness of human beings and her ability to build suspense as the elements that inspired his adaptation.
“She is so adept at drawing engrossing characters. You are quickly involved with what’s going to happen. I really wanted to know what would happen. She refuses to simplify people. They become complex. What they do is always correct, but you don’t see it coming.”
In order to transpose Wharton’s somewhat personal literary work — she grew up in Gilded Age New York City and had also lived in Europe — McGrath says he condensed the 380-page work to focus on the “gripping dilemma.”
“The play compresses the story,” he says. “Anything not about the issue is out. So it is a highly telescoped version, a much more emotional piece. Is this man going to abandon his wife?”
In order to maintain Wharton’s point of view and aesthetic use of language, McGrath decided to frame the work with a narrator. “I tell the story from the older Newland’s point of view. It becomes a memory play. Wharton’s writing is preserved by the narrator. I didn’t want to lose the Wharton point of view of that world — that New York.”
McGrath says he has been working on “The Age of Innocence” off and on over the past three or four years, following the 2014 opening of “Beautiful.”
“I thought ‘The Age of Innocence’ would be an interesting musical,” he says, “But when I read through it over again I thought it shouldn’t be a musical. I loved her story too much to give it up to songs, although we do have a song in the play from that draft. Music in those years was a part of everyone’s life.”
While McGrath has feature filmmaking credits — with well received versions of Jane Austen’s “Emma” (1996) and Charles Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby” (2002) — he says the work was designed especially for the stage. “The theater, more than any other media, is the most interested in language. The theater is the most generous to being open to diverse periods and different ways of seeing things. So I thought it was the most natural place for it.”
He says the play’s journey to McCarter began after he gave a copy of “The Age of Innocence” to his agent. He, in turn, shared it with another client, stage director Doug Hughes, whose credits include a Tony Award for his direction of the Broadway play “Doubt.”
“He saw it the same way as I did,” McGrath says of the stage version. “We teamed up and submitted it here (Princeton) and Hartford because both had audiences that seemed interested. (Both theaters) decided to do a co-production.”
“The Age of Innocence” had its premiere at Hartford in April. The Broadway World review cited McGrath’s “strong adaption,” Hughes’ strong direction “transitioning quickly (and seamlessly)” and “maintaining a strong pace,” and the overall “thrilling evening that transports and transforms audiences through Ms. Wharton’s prose and the magic of the theater.”
McGrath smiles when he reflects that this is only his third venture into theater — in addition to “Beautiful” he wrote “Checkers,” focused on Richard Nixon’s dog. His other dramatic work includes writing for television, starting with Saturday Night Live in 1980, co-writing with Woody Allen the 1994 film “Bullets Over Broadway” (later adapted by Allen for Broadway), the two already mentioned films, and the 2016 documentary “Becoming Mike Nichols” (about the influential American comedian, writer, and film director).
All subjects seemingly incongruous with his early days in Midland, West Texas.
“It is a different culture, flat and dusty and isolated. But it is a wonderful place to grow up,” says the son of a father who drilled oil wells and a mother who sold real estate and raised money for community theater. “You’re away from everything, and since there wasn’t a lot to do, it was food for the imagination. We had to make up stuff to keep the day interesting.”
And while his parents lived in the West, they had Eastern roots. “My father was from Connecticut and went to Princeton (Class of 1946). For his generation, oil was the Silicon Valley of its day. My mother was from Cincinnati and had worked at Harpers Bazaar.”
They also had something else that influenced their son: a sense of humor. “My parents were amusing droll people. One of my most happy moments is how much we would laugh at dinner.” He says it helped him see the human side of life — something that seeps into his work. “All great dramatists have humor in their plays,” he says.
McGrath says his move to Princeton University was hoped for by his father who “loved Princeton and just wanted me to see it. When I got off the Dinky, I said I want to be here.”
He arrived in 1976 and studied English. “I wasn’t interested in Austen, Dickens, and Wharton then. I read Fitzgerald and early 20th-century writers. I wrote a paper on H.L. Mencken.”
He also studied Shakespeare and Ibsen and created a musical for his thesis, “Happily Ever After.” It was produced in by fellow classmate Creigh Duncan, the Princeton-based daughter of Broadway theater producer and U.S. 1 theater reviewer Stu Duncan.
After graduation he landed a job writing for one of television’s best known weekly comedy shows, Saturday Night Live (SNL).
“I got in by accident,” he says. “It was 1980. The first five years (of SNL) had the famous group. But at the end of five years they had had it. (Performers) Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi and producer Lorne Michael — they all left. Jean Doumanian had been associate producer and became executive producer. She had to hire a new staff and there were 30 openings. I had a friend from Midland who worked at the show. She called and said they were hiring. I wrote material and sent it in.”
He says after some advice on structure and an opportunity to rewrite, he joined the staff and remained for a year. In addition to getting the experience of writing for a weekly television show, he says he also got more interested in literature. “A lot of the SNL writers came from Harvard and had read a lot of great writers. And I thought, ‘I went to Princeton, and I should know this.’ So I started reading great literature.”
His personal life also flourished. His future wife, Jane Read Martin, also worked for SNL. A Princeton native and daughter of noted New Yorker cartoonist Henry Martin, she strengthened McGrath’s connection to Princeton and became an unexpected connection to another writing assignment.
Martin — who also writes books for children — had served as Woody Allen’s personal assistant on nine of his films and associate producer of his 1990 film “Alice.” The two have remained friends and socialize together.
“One night, (my wife) said, ‘Woody wants to know if you’d like to write a movie with him.’ And for 20 minutes all I said was, ‘Are you kidding? Don’t kid about this,’” says McGrath in an article about how he went from an occasional actor and adaptor of the 1993 film version of the comedy “Born Yesterday” to working with one of America’s most prominent filmmakers.
“I’m a very optimistic and dream-minded person. But I wasn’t thinking that that was going to happen. So I told her yes and she told Woody yes, because he’s very indirect in that way. Then one day he asked me to come by his apartment. I assumed it was to talk about writing and when I walked in he said, ‘OK, here’s how I like to work.’ I thought, What? Oh my god.”
The theater-centric dark comedy “Bullets Over Broadway” explored theater and the creation of art.
When he was finishing his work with Allen, McGrath says he turned to a project that he had been thinking about, a film adaptation of Austen’s “Emma.” “I thought, you know, I’m going to have a brief window here where I might be able to get something made that would be a little harder to get done if I hadn’t just done a movie with Woody. Then Bullets, which was made independently, sold to Miramax so I knew Harvey [Weinstein, the producer and Miramax co-founder] from that experience and so we brought Miramax the ‘Emma’ script.”
The results were positive. Rolling Stone magazine noted, “Credit first-time director Douglas McGrath, who adroitly adapted the 1816 Austen novel, for not sugarcoating the pill as the bossy Emma manipulates everyone in the small English village of Highbury. With a sweet smile, of course, bitch. McGrath’s script is faithful: fierce when it needs to be and devilishly funny.”
While many of his recent projects were self-generated, he says the musical “Beautiful” was unexpected. And when Broadway producer Paul Blake — known for the stage version of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” — approached McGrath about creating the book based on the musical legend Carole King, he initially declined.
The reason was that the subject as well as her co-writing ex-husband and two other collaborators were alive and potentially interested in promoting an idyllic vision of themselves. “It sounded like four people who were going to drive me crazy,” says McGrath, who elaborates elsewhere, “I did not want (King) hovering over my shoulder, airbrushing the struggle and pain out of her life. Luckily I was talked out of this moronic decision.”
Blake says in a published interview that he was taken with McGrath’s ability to create touching characters. “Anyone that came in and treated it like ‘the great Carole King,’ we didn’t want to work with,” he says.
The key was in McGrath’s approach that he used in “Beautiful” and “The Age of Innocence.”
“‘Beautiful,’ for a want of a better term, is a slightly more real musical. Everyone is singing because they’re songwriters. It was a great song musical to work on,” he says adding that he collected and reviewed hundreds of pages of interviews while listening to King’s songs to find the “story” and structure.
“Every time I start I think about the people in the story. How do you make the audience relate to a dilemma? There is a way to tell stories that makes people care about (the characters). Who are the people and why do we care about their story? We always have to know what the event is that people hope will or won’t happen. And ask what are we waiting for in this scene?”
For “The Age of Innocence,” he says it all came together with the characters and their situation. “It’s the greatest of human questions: ‘Who am I going to love?’ Wharton asks how our individual actions affect other people and society as a whole. The play is very much about what is society and what is civilization. If we’re part of a community, what does that obligate us to?”
“What makes it interesting is that Wharton asks a moral question, ‘Is it wrong to love someone? And she surprises your expectations about what is going to happen.”
“The Age of Innocence” features four-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines as the Old Gentleman and Narrator. He is joined by Broadway and West End actress and vocalist Sierra Boggess as the Countess, Juilliard-trained Broadway and regional stage performer Helen Cespedes as May, and Broadway and Lincoln Center actor Andrew Veenstra as Newland Archer.
McGrath and director Hughes will also make an appearance after the Sunday, September 16, matinee when they talk publicly about bringing the novel to the stage and take questions from the audience.
Additional public discussions include post-performances conversations with cast members and artistic staff on Wednesday, September 20, and Sunday, September 23, and the 45-minute “An Evening of Etiquette” pre-show talk led by etiquette consultant Mary Harris on Tuesday, October 2.
The Age of Innocence, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through October 7. $25 to $80. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org