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Matthew Lopez’s Sense of Place

In his new play ‘Somewhere,’ the playwright revisits family history to tell a forgotten New York story.

The February “Front & Center” section of American Theatre spotlights a new play by Matthew Lopez, author of the widely produced The Whipping Man. Lopez has set Somewhere, about a showbiz-loving family, in 1959 New York City, against the backdrop of the filming of West Side Story and the demolishing of tenement housing to make way for the construction of Lincoln Center. The play debuted in 2011 at San Diego’s Old Globe and gets a new production at Silicon Valley’s TheatreWorks Jan. 16–Feb. 10, 2013, starring the playwright’s aunt, Priscilla Lopez. Below is the full conversation American Theatre’s Nicole Estvanik Taylor had with Lopez about the show as rehearsals began at TheatreWorks in mid-December.

NICOLE ESTVANIK TAYLOR: There are moments in Somewhere that feel like a sincere tribute to the transporting magic of musical theatre (at its best). What is your personal relationship with musicals, and West Side Story in particular
MATTHEW LOPEZ: I grew up in a small town in the panhandle of Florida, raised by New Yorkers who must have felt very far from home. I really think that one of the things that helped keep them connected to their roots was listening to all the Broadway cast albums that they brought with them. It was the music they were raised with and it, in turn, became the music I was raised with. I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t acutely aware of the transporting abilities of musical theatre. We would listen to My Fair Lady or Man of La Mancha in the kitchen while my mother cooked dinner. We would gather as a family to watch old movie musicals. And, when the opportunity presented itself, we would go see musicals onstage, whether it was at the local community theatre or on Broadway on one of our semi-regular visits back to the homeland. And every time I was immersed in that world, it took me out of my own. I could leave Panama City, Fla., and visit the Court of Siam or the Oklahoma frontier or the steps of the Covent Garden opera house in London. And it was the music, that tidal wave of sound, that would carry me there. For me, musical theatre has always been about escape. And that, in many ways, is what Somewhere is about, as well.

With West Side Story, specifically, there is a unique family connection. When my father was 12 years old, my grandmother took him and his siblings (including my Aunt Priscilla) into Manhattan to work as extras on the film version. Most of the film was shot on soundstages in Los Angeles but the prologue was done on location in New York. For two weeks, my father and my aunt and uncle sat around collecting $25 a day waiting for an opportunity to get in front of the camera. They watched all of those iconic moments being filmed. They watched the dancers warming up and they watched Jerome Robbins putting them through their paces. When I was a kid, I got to watch them film Three Men and a Little Lady across the street from my aunt’s Upper West Side apartment. Big friggin’ deal, right? My father watched them film West Side Story! And on top of that, he’s actually very clearly visible in the movie. At the very end of the prologue when the Sharks are kicking the crap out of Baby John and the Jets run in to save him and the melee ensues, you can see my father at 12 years old standing under an opening in the fence, watching. When I got the Blu-ray last year, I was able to freeze the frame and zoom in on his face. It still gives me goose bumps every time I watch it. Somewhere began as a way to honor that wonderful family history.

You’ve got real Broadway veterans in your cast. In fact, it’s hard to imagine staging the play without that level of talent and stage experience. What thoughts, hopes and trepidations did you have about casting as you wrote these characters? And did you write the part of Inez for your Aunt Priscilla?
I started writing the play many years ago, before I had any real experience as a professional writer. The Whipping Man had premiered by then, but it had not yet begun the exciting journey it eventually took on its way to maturity as a piece and its ultimate landing in New York. I was very naïve, which is sometimes the best place from which to write. Sometimes.

I did write Inez specifically for Priscilla. She has been an instrumental part of my journey through life as an aspiring theatre artist and I wanted to create something for her that expressed my love for her. And, selfishly, I thought it would be cool to go to work with her every day. (I’m happy to report that doing so is just as wonderful as I had hoped.) So I knew that as long as Priscilla was alive and kicking—and we Lopezes live a very long time—that I would be set for casting Inez.

What I didn’t anticipate is the degree to which the character of Alejandro would emerge as the lead character in the play. Alejandro snuck up on me. From the beginning, he seemed to have this deep well of emotions and a ton of secrets that he hid not only from the other characters, but from me, as well. As I wrote, he refused to be quiet. He refused to stay in place. He forced his way into the center of the play, becoming the catalyst for all the action. I’ve never had a character take me by surprise quite the way Alejandro has. It took me a long time to realize that it was really his story. Once I did, I was way too invested in him as a character and too pleased with what his presence in the play did to the other characters to care what an utter nightmare I had created for myself in casting the role: a young Latino actor in his early/mid twenties who can carry a two-and-a-half-hour-long family drama on his back and who can, at the end, dance a Jerome Robbins–inspired number for four and a half minutes. He has proven to be an incredibly difficult character to cast.

Can you talk about what you learned from the play’s first production at the Old Globe and how that will come to bear on the second production?
This is the first time I’m doing a second production of a play with many of the principal artists returning from the first. As The Whipping Man developed over time in many different productions, we reconstituted the cast and the creative team each time for various reasons (availability, preferences of the theatres, etc.).Here, we’ve got two actors (Priscilla and Leo Ash Evens) and the director (Giovanna Sardelli) and choreographer (Greg Graham) returning.

This isn’t a musical. It’s a play with dance. And much of the dance is interwoven into the dialogue so that characters are dancing and doing a scene simultaneously. We had to learn how to rehearse that. You have to understand the scene, stage it, then learn the dance separately and then work meticulously to fuse the two together. Greg and Giovanna spent so much time in San Diego figuring that out. They know the play just as well as I do, and sometimes I think they know it even better than I do. The experience we had in San Diego made the three of us a storytelling unit. As we go about putting together the TheatreWorks production, we will have a shorthand that is going to be very helpful.

I also did a lot of my own work on the script after the San Diego production. I watched it in rehearsals thinking I was on solid storytelling ground. Then we got it in front of an audience and somehow, despite the ridiculous amounts of talent on stage and off, it didn’t work the way I’d hoped. The highs and lows were blunted and the through-line was muddy. I realized that I wasn’t telling the story I had hoped to. I realized that the problem was me. So I threw it all away and I started again. Same characters (although I switched the birth order of the siblings to make Alejandro the oldest child) and same plot. Roughly the same destination, but this time with a different path through the story.

I completely removed a storyline about Alejandro writing a screenplay about this long-absent father. I realized, too, that I had overestimated the importance of the absent father in the play (which used to be called Tio Pepe in reference to said absent father). I realized that the audience didn’t care too much about an offstage character whose return was breathlessly awaited by the onstage characters. The audience cared about those characters on the stage: how they survived together, how they coped with loss, how they depended on each other and how they clung too tightly to each other. I realized that I was telling a rather simple story about a family with dreams and a world that was indifferent to them. I cleared away everything that wasn’t that and just told that simple story.

I sit here answering your questions on the first day of rehearsals at TheatreWorks. So it’s anyone’s guess whether or not if what I’ve done is ultimately good for the play. But I’m hopeful. If it isn’t, well, maybe I’ll just throw it away and start all over again.

The set and lighting design is crucial to the success of certain scenes. How did design ideas affect your writing of the play?
I had a conversation with [playwright] Annie Baker a while back about this question. She told me that her point of entry with design was costumes. Mine is most decidedly set (and, to a certain degree, sound). I have to believe in the world that I’m creating. I have to see it and know it and understand its effects on the characters.

In so many of my plays, the setting is quite literally a plot point and, specifically, the relationship between a character and his or her home: the ruined house that threatens to collapse on the heads of the characters in The Whipping Man, the endangered tenement and eventual housing project in Somewhere, the Astoria apartment that is both a refuge and a prison in Reverberation. I often find myself writing about characters who are in many ways defined by their homes. It’s not an intentional pattern; it’s just my way in. If I know that the house in Richmond, Va., is destroyed from war, I instantly know the characters have gone through a calamity and are in grave personal danger. If I know that a family’s dilapidated apartment on 65th and Broadway has pictures on the wall and doilies on the chairs, I know that it is deeply important to them—that it is their precious, if threadbare, corner of the world. And if I know that if a character hides from the world by filling his apartment with nothing but memories from the past, I know that the character has nothing but a past and is struggling to find a future. I feel it’s a good place to start. It isn’t the only place to start, but it’s a good one.

What about the setting of 1959 New York captured your imagination?
As I mentioned earlier, my family is from New York originally. I spent a lot of time there as a child, off and on. I considered myself a New Yorker-in-exile from birth and because of that, I responded strongly to its depictions in film. It was nothing like my hometown but I knew that it was where I was from ancestrally and it was where I longed to return. I knew that the place my parents had ended up did not define us.

That’s a very powerful feeling: knowing that you don’t belong to the place that you are from. I think that perhaps that feeling has influenced much of my writing. And so I sought it out in the one place I had access to: the local video store. I fell in love with the New York of West Side Story that is also quite powerfully rendered in my imagination by the film versions of Bells Are Ringing and On the Town. And later The Apartment, The Seven Year Itch and It Should Happen to You. Those films were either made or set in the ’40s and ’50s and that’s where my understanding of New York comes from. Men in hats and women in dresses. Enormous apartments that cost nothing to rent. I am nothing if not an utter romantic.

That New York doesn’t exist anymore, if it actually ever did. Certainly not in my lifetime. Somewhere lives in that world but hopefully with a little bit of a realist’s eye toward the more painful realities of life in New York that have always existed. The heartbreak of New York as it’s depicted in the play is that it refuses to be that fantasyland for these characters. It tempts, it teases, but it never fully delivers on that dream. I daresay many people feel that way about the city still.

Gentrification is a hot topic in New York City. Was that part of your impulse to write this play?
I never purposefully set out to write a play about gentrification, but it certainly is one. That happened by accident or, at least, it happened on an unconscious level. I wanted to write about people fighting to make their dreams in a city (as embodied by Robert Moses) that is indifferent to those dreams. Robert Moses would have told you that progress requires sacrifice and the good of the many outweighs the rights of the few. And there is, unfortunately, some twisted logic to that. No one could say that the presence of Lincoln Center has not been an absolute good for the city and, by extension, the nation. The play simply asks, “What did it cost?” It makes no judgment as to the value of the enterprise. It simply asks that the audience consider who was there before and what happened to them after. That is the story of New York and, again by extension, the country. It is the same question that must be asked when we send young men and women off to war. When we decide that healthcare is too expensive a burden for us to cover as a nation. And, as we have recently and tragically learned, when we decided that the rights of gun owners are more important than the safety of children. The question must always be asked: at what cost?

What does writing through a historical lens change in your writing process?
I never set out to write historical plays. Of all the plays I have created or am working on, only two are set before I was born. I chose the topic of The Whipping Man because of the grand historical coincidence of Passover beginning the day after the surrender at Appomattox. I chose the topic of Somewhere because of my father’s experience working as an extra in West Side Story and my desire to create a kind of 1950s family drama with people who look like me at the center of the action.

What I do think can be gleaned from writing historical plays or fiction is the ability to take advantage of the fact that the audience will feel absolved from any responsibility for what happens on the stage because it happened so long ago—and then to present them with a work that is so immediate and so clearly addressing our own time that they cannot help but take it home with them and apply it to what they see in the world. When we were working on Whipping Man at Manhattan Theatre Club, Doug Hughes always liked to say that we are still fighting the Civil War, and he’s right. If you look at the Electoral College results from this past election, you see the Confederacy is alive and well. And so too with Somewhere. If you doubt me, take the train out to my neighborhood and check out the ridiculously shoehorned Barclays Center that has so rudely insinuated itself next to our homes. Full disclosure: I say this as the resident of a new high-rise in Brooklyn, so I’m like a vegetarian who wears leather shoes. But it is my neighborhood and I have lived in it for many years and I care about it greatly

I did an enormous amount of research for The Whipping Man. I had to learn about the war, the home front, the lives of slaves, the lives of Jews in the South. There was very little about what I was taking on that I knew much about. I had to teach myself everything in order to tell the story. And with a play such as that, I knew that I had to be unimpeachable in my research or I would lose all credibility as a storyteller. With Somewhere, I didn’t feel that kind of urgency. Somewhere is much more a play about the feelings and the rhythm of an era than any settled historical fact. I even consciously fudge some history in the writing. Most residents living in the path of Lincoln Center were given 90 days to vacate, I gave the Candelarias 30 days because it’s simply more dangerous for them and exciting for the audience. I couldn’t have gotten away with something like that in The Whipping Man.

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