When Moss Hart sat down to write his great theatrical memoir Act One in the late 1950s, he didn’t intend to offer “a succession of theatrical anecdotes with famous names splattered among the pages in gossip-column fashion,” as he noted early in the book. He had many such luminaries to choose from just among his writing collaborators, from his nonpareil cohort George S. Kaufman, who co-penned the ageless comedies You Can’t Take It with You and The Man Who Came to Dinner, to Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin (the psychoanalytic musical Lady in the Dark)—although arguably his greatest success may have been as the stage director of the Lerner and Loewe classic My Fair Lady.
None of these works are even touched on in Act One: The book’s narrative ends in 1930, after Hart scores his first hit, with Kaufman, Once in a Lifetime. But it wasn’t just Hart’s death in 1961 that robbed the world of reading about his career’s juicy highlights (Act One ends hopefully with the line “Intermission”). Instead, it was Hart’s insistence on relating, in novelistic detail, the particular story of his willful, deliberate rise from dispiriting poverty in the Bronx to the first blush of theatrical success. The result, every bit as good in its own right as any of his best plays, is a rich, quasi-Dickensian tale of creative pluck and pragmatism that’s never been out of print since 1959, the year it was published. (St. Martin’s Griffin has just released a new paperback edition with a foreword by Hart’s son, actor and director Christopher Hart.)
Now James Lapine, another multi-hyphenate man of the theatre, has adapted Act One into a stage play for Lincoln Center Theater, where it is scheduled to run through June 14. He’s cast veteran actor Tony Shalhoub, last seen onstage in LCT’s Broadway revival of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy, as the elder memoirist Hart, narrating the story of his childhood and young adulthood. Santino Fontana (Cinderella, Sons of the Prophet) takes over the role of Hart as a young man from Matthew Schechter, who plays him as a boy. Later in the play, Shalhoub steps into the role of the enigmatic, methodical Kaufman, and Fontana takes over the narration in a present-tense mode.
Lapine, Shalhoub and Fontana met after a rehearsal in February to talk about Hart, how the theatre has changed since his time—and what will never change about its trials and triumphs.
Rob Weinert-Kendt: Do you share Hart’s feeling about the theatre—that its powerful attraction is somehow both glorious and a kind of curse?
Santino Fontana: Yeah, I’d say it’s kind of an addiction. It’s something I have to do. I hate when people say, “Oh, if you can do anything else, you should do it.”
Tony Shalhoub: I hate that, too.
Fontana: Of course I could do other things, but nothing that I could see myself doing where I’d be as happy or as fulfilled.
James Lapine: I could do many other things happily. I was definitely not a child who wanted to be in the theatre. But I don’t think it’s a book just about that. It’s about anybody who’s obsessed with doing something very specific that they have a calling for in their life.
Hart writes that “theatre is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child.” Without getting too personal, does that idea resonate with you?
Lapine: Absolute truth! [Laughter] No, I think for some people it does, and some people have very happy childhoods, and they go into theatre because of that too.
Shalhoub: There are all kinds of people in the theatre. And I’m not sure there is such a thing as a “happy childhood.” I’m sure there’s such a thing as an unhappy childhood. In my memory, every phase of life is up and down—there are times you remember that were just hellacious and you just wanted everything to be different, you wanted everything to change, and you wanted to be older, or you never wanted to grow up. And then there were times that were just blissful. That’s how my childhood was; it was a bit of a mishmash. So there are a lot of drivers that move people toward, not just theatre, but any creative endeavor.
So it’s not a place to repair something that’s damaged or lacking.
Fontana: No, I don’t think it’s that—or if it is, it’s on such a subconscious level, and that would differ from artist to artist. What I do think, though, for the people who keep doing it—it doesn’t make sense, it’s not logical, it’s not a safe profession or a smart profession if you wanna make money or have a living or have a family. So the fact that we keep doing it means we’re getting something from it that is almost childlike in its innocence.
I remember one of the actors in the show was asking me about the longest stretch I went without working, and I was like, there were eight or nine months where I was between things, and didn’t know what the hell was gonna happen. You have no one telling you that if you stick in this, you’re gonna end up making a living. No one. So to be able to keep doing it means you’re getting something from the doing of it that you can’t get anywhere else.
Lapine: Did you ever have a dry patch, Tony? It must be horrible.
Shalhoub: Sure. Fortunately it was not so terribly long and catastrophic that I ended up sweeping floors. But what I tell a lot of people asking, “How do I do this? What’s your advice?”—my advice is, Save your money. Save your money! The business is so unstable and sporadic that you wanna always keep some powder dry, so to speak, so that you can make choices that are gonna give you the kind of work you want that will advance your career. It’s one thing to tell someone who’s just beginning save your money—it’s another thing to get people to listen who’ve been doing it for 10 years, because they actually start making money, and then they start to divest themselves of that money. You would not believe how many people go through ridiculous amounts of money in a very short period of time because they ramp up their lifestyles.
That’s something Hart admits he did—as soon as he started making money, he spent it like it was going out of style.
Shalhoub: Well, he never stopped spending, but luckily he also worked like an animal.
James, this project seems like a good match for you in a way, because you, too, are a writer and a director, a complete man of the theatre—I don’t know if you’re inviting a comparison to Hart.
Lapine: No, but George Kaufman also directed, and he was a critic for the New York Times at the same time. His close friend was Brooks Atkinson, and Atkinson would review him, and sometimes not give him good reviews. It was a real community of theatre people then, which we sadly don’t have now. I don’t know anybody who’s friendly with critics—or if they are, they aren’t reviewed by those critics. And there aren’t many writer/directors anymore. I guess what I bring to it is the experience of collaborating; people don’t collaborate on plays very much anymore. You don’t see two writers on a play anymore. It was, I think, a friendlier time.
And there were so many theatres. Broadway now is just 40 theatres or whatever, and there used to be, like, 100 theatres. If you ran 100 performances on Broadway, you were a hit in those days. You run 100 performances on Broadway now, you’re a flop.
Reading about some of the larger-than-life figures in the book—producers, agents, impresarios—I wonder, do those kinds of personalities still loom as large in the theatre?
Fontana: I think so. I can think of a lot—I will name none of them, but I think those people are still roaming, big-time.
Lapine: Well, not to that degree—they’re not on the cover of Time magazine.
Shalhoub: As the producer Jed Harris was.
Lapine: Also, they had relationships with writers that very few producers do nowadays. I don’t know that there are producers who only produce certain people’s work. We were talking today about Manny Azenberg only doing Neil Simon’s plays.
One key theme that emerges is Hart’s idea that you never really learn how to do this—that you’re always writing a play for the first time. Do you feel the same way as actors?
Lapine: You do? You feel that every time you do something, it’s like you’ve never done it before?
Shalhoub: I do.
Fontana: Yeah, it’s like you’ve got a tool box, like a plumber. “There’s something wrong with my toilet!”
Shalhoub: That’s a good metaphor for my career, and my talent.
Fontana: Stop. But you bring your tools to each new problem—that’s how I feel.
Shalhoub: And they’re all different, because of the material, the people you’re working with, the director, where you are in your life, how the material matches up to where you are in your own life, or doesn’t. There’s a bit of a back-to-the-drawing-board feeling for me.
Lapine: I have confidence in what I’m doing now that I didn’t have before. You don’t want to go into anything knowing everything about what you’re gonna do; it wouldn’t be very good or interesting. My memory’s not good, actually, in the sense that my work is so of the moment that I don’t think about other things I’ve done. It’s always new.
There are a few well-documented or at least widely rumored things missing from Act One: Hart’s terrible struggle with depression, and his reported homosexuality or bisexuality. Are you going to address these in your adaptation?
Lapine: There are going to be several sex scenes. [Laughter]
Fontana: But musicalized.
Lapine: You know, the book is like a fairy tale, a fable. What it deals with is what he chose to write about. It would be unfair to insert those things into this story.
Fontana: Also, he’s not specific about a lot of things: about what Jed Harris says to him, about what did they to fix in Once in a Lifetime in their back and forth.
It just strikes me as a major absence that a memoir of a young man’s formative years describes no sexual feelings or romances—no love interest at all.
Lapine: It is really interesting, and I never thought of this, but there is not really a loving couple in the book—no happy relationships. And one way Once in a Lifetime developed is that they added a relationship for the protagonist—when Moss Hart first wrote it by himself, it didn’t have that.
Fontana: But it’s also not that uncommon in artists, or anyone who’s really driven to do one thing, for other parts of their lives to go by the wayside. I didn’t have a girlfriend in high school, really, roughly the same age as Hart when he was starting. Not really until the end of college did I really open up myself to that stuff, because I was so focused.
Why do Act One now—what does it have to say to the current moment?
Lapine: I don’t think as a writer you think of that. You just pick stories that interest you. The minute you start projecting a message—I don’t think those are the good plays, frankly. So I would be the wrong guy to ask that. But do two you feel it has insights into acting?
Fontana: What it has for today’s audience is what any great story has: a beginning, a middle, and an end. I mean, what is astonishing is where he came from and where he ends up at the end of the book. It’s huge, it’s huge.
Lapine: It’s rags to riches.
Shalhoub: For me, if there’s a relevance, a relatability, it’s that this book is all about success and failure. And failure is a good thing, in the bigger picture—there is no success without failure, and even with success, failure will follow. That’s what this business is; that’s what our society either has become or always was. I am stunned reading biographies of Kaufman and all these different characters how many times they had successes but never felt them—they felt like they were flukes, and, at least in Kaufman’s case, that insecurity did not leave him. It kind of goes back to the original question: Why do we do what we do? Because we need the reassurance, not even from the outside world, but from some mechanism in ourselves, some hole in ourselves, which is: Okay, that’s over, what about now? Can I do it again? Can I do it better? What if I fail? And if I fail, I’m gonna do another one, because I gotta get that failure behind me. It becomes this endless snowball effect.
Ultimately that’s what I have taken away from my experience so far—those times when I feel, and I think we all feel in the theatre, that I just don’t know how to do this, I’m not equipped to do this. I may have been at one time, but I am no longer. And you struggle with that. George Kaufman and Moss Hart became incredibly wealthy—this is during the Depression, for Christ’s sake, these people had millions of dollars in the Depression—and they still were white-knuckling it the whole way.
Lapine: I don’t think Moss Hart worried about money.
Shalhoub: But he worried about failing.
Lapine: He worried about a lot of other things. His depression, and the demons he had, were more about who he was.
Shalhoub: And Kaufman—something in the back of his mind haunted him. He won a Pulitzer Prize, and all he could think of was this guy who had won a Pulitzer Prize 10 years before and then did nothing after that. He became obsessed that now his career was over. It’s true. This is who I’m playing.