Before he was a powerhouse playwright hyphenate, Craig Lucas was a chorus boy in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. In 1981, with director Norman René, he conceived of a libretto consisting only of stage directions with songs from Sondheim’s trunk to create Marry Me A Little, a story of two people alone on a Saturday night, yearning for connection, just a floor apart. It is perhaps quaintly Austenian in the age of social media, but Lucas is mum about edits that might contemporize ye olde days, before sexting was a gerund, when “grindr” indicated a lunch counter spelling error, and people bought their porn wrapped in paper. Off-Broadway’s Keen Company, under new Artistic Director Jonathan Silverstein, will revive MMaL this month.
Lucas’s diverse body of work has been seen on Broadway three times: Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless, and The Light in the Piazza. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Prelude to a Kiss, his many plays include The Dying Gaul, Prayer for My Enemy, The Singing Forest, Blue Window, and God’s Heart. He wrote the screenplays Longtime Companion, Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless, and The Secret Lives of Dentists and also directed his own Birds of America and The Dying Gaul.
A fearless writer, politically minded, and compelled by the perils of the psyche, Lucas’s plays volley from abject loss and disconnection to the resilience of the human spirit. His dialogue is surgically precise—the discipline of craft over ego—and he writes with honesty, humor, and heart. I first met Lucas as a student in his ’Pataphysics writing class at the Flea Theater; some years later, I was fortunate to experience him as mentor and director via the Cherry Lane Mentor Project. Below are excerpts from a conversation over email, as Lucas was on deadline and sequestered at his desk at his home in the verdant New York State countryside.
Winter Miller (Rail): Gore Vidal’s The Best Man is revived (again) this election season. Is there something particularly marital or singular that makes it a good time to revive MMaL?
Craig Lucas: I have no idea; I wasn’t thinking about anything like that. The folks asked if they could produce it and I thought, “Huh, what would it be like to return to that work and re-examine it?” I always had a hard time with the placement of two songs. This is a chance to see if maybe moving one and replacing another might give us a stronger subtext for the journey each character takes.
Rail: You performed in the initial production. Any thought of reprising your role?
Lucas: No one, least of all me, is interested in seeing me perform again.
Rail: If I’m not mistaken, this was the first theater you wrote. How did it influence your considerable and wonderful body of work?
Lucas: I had written Missing Persons, but MMaL was produced first, because, truthfully, it was thrown together as an idea to fill a late night cabaret spot. Norman René, the director, and I were already starting to talk about certain aesthetic challenges; this idea of mundane or quotidian behavior onstage, how people reveal themselves when they don’t think anyone is watching, when they are “filling the endless hours.” It was very much a part of what Longtime Companion was made out of, how people get through each day, through each night, no matter what is coming at them or not. Kroetz’s Request Concert [an entirely silent, one-person drama] interested Norman, and that minutiae of behavior became one of the strands of our work after MMaL. Three Postcards and Blue Window are also both about what people do in the interstices between the “drama,” what happens in the little gaps for people—alone and then together. Norman was my teacher and student and colleague and friend—when we weren’t fighting—and the artist I miss most, still, after all these years (he’s been gone 16 years). His insights and vision keep me in stead.
Rail: Why was Norman René, in particular, so inspirational?
Lucas: He believed people went to plays to learn how to live their lives better, and this is what characters are always doing, no matter how destructive or counter-intuitive it may seem. Norman taught me to look for that little nub of hope, of surviving, of moving forward, both in the overall narrative but also in the moments for each character. I wanted to blow things up artistically, see fireworks and make people feel alive and a little bit on the edge, shake them up, get their attention somehow or other. Norman was more thoughtful, directed and process-oriented. I always liked the idea of confusing audiences, throwing them into a tailspin, and he believed in respecting their need for a certain amount of coherence.
Rail: Kroetz’s Request Concert goes to a very difficult place—spoiler alert—suicide. Did you have any urge then or now to go really bleak with MMaL?
Lucas: I always have that urge, because part of me wants to punish the audience. Wiser minds and bigger hearts prevailed. In this new version we are considering a different ending. Spoiler alert: not suicide.
Rail: The songs in MMaL are discarded from Sondheim heavy-hitters like Follies, and Company. If an actor wanted excised scenes from your plays, which ones would come to mind?
Lucas: There are lots of scenes I cut from The Singing Forest and from drafts of God’s Heart, my most ambitious plays. I’m not one, however, to revisit earlier material. I don’t envy Mr. Sondheim his career of so many revivals. For me, it’s always the next one that intrigues.
Rail: What was the catalyst for you to shift from acting to playwriting? Have you ever looked back?
Lucas: Sondheim suggested to me in 1980 that being a playwright would suit my temperament. Writers have the privilege of being able to express themselves. I was not born to perform. I did it largely because it pleased my mother and I had the fakakta idea that it would be an easier life. I learned a lot quite late and the hard way.
Rail: You’re subbing in two songs to the new version. What was it like working with Sondheim then and now?
Lucas: When I worked on the first version of MMaL, his position in the world of theater was very different; a lot of people criticized his work for its purported coldness, lack of melodic rewards, technical virtuosity over natural beauty. All of those people have died and burned in hell, and he is now generally held to be the finest practitioner of his art in the last 50 years. He is a natural teacher, and he’s direct, which I prefer. I’m not afraid of informed criticism. For criticism to wound, it has to be malicious, intelligent, well-crafted, and perfectly aimed. Given the laughably low-level of dramatic criticism in America, most artists worth their salt in theater are permanently safe from pain.
Rail: How does psychoanalysis influence your plays? First lie down, then tell me.
Lucas: I see an analyst on a regular basis and find it to be a nearly religious form of enlightenment regarding the progress of my soul.
Rail: What are your thoughts on marrying a little, monogamy, and polyamory?
Lucas: I don’t have any hard and fast rules for myself, much less anyone else. Never have I met a person who found maintaining a long relationship easy. We’re good at making art and good at making war, but making love last does not seem to be among our strong suits.
Rail: The Singing Forest is one of the most inventive, hilarious, and devastating nights of theater ever created, yet it is not one of your most well known. Is there a penalty for writing what you want to write, and, if so, do you have advice for writers?
Lucas: Yes, my advice to writers is to make the murder look like a robbery.
Rail: What is a play you wish you had written?
Lucas: Well, there are lots of plays I’d kill to have been able to write, but I wouldn’t be on my own journey if I had. I hope I can write my own next play. Any more than that would belie an ingratitude for the challenges and gifts I’ve received, which are so copious as to beggar my powers of description.
Rail: You studied with Anne Sexton. What is one unforgettable lesson she offered?
Lucas: She would say “Make it strange,” meaning, grab our attention with something in the language, an image or metaphor or the shock of sound or something.
Rail: “Torture the heroine” is one of your writing precepts. Can you explain how that works to our readers?
Lucas: I learned that from the novelist Joe Caldwell; when you get stuck, make things get much, much worse for the character, put them through hell, that’s what we’re watching for.
Rail: What have you seen recently that has blown your mind?
Lucas: The only living American playwright whose work has consistently blown my mind from first play to last and always provides some new deep “sob in the spine”—that ineffable thing that constitutes, for me, the correct honoring of theater’s innate genius—is Wallace Shawn. And I loved Tribes.
Rail: What are you writing these days?
Lucas: I am working on a number of musicals; it’s much less lonely than playwriting, and colleagues are always so helpful in solving narrative challenges. Christopher Wheeldon, Rob Fisher, and I are working on a re-imagined version of An American in Paris. I’m adapting an unpublished Anne Rice story with two wonderful songwriters. I have two new plays, one of which is—I think, I hope, I’m almost certain—being done this season. Christopher Wheeldon and I have a new version of Prokofiev’s Cinderella for the Dutch National Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet.
Rail: What is a scene or circumstance we will never see in your work?
Lucas: I won’t make any promises, but I will try to never end a play with the title in the last line, and I don’t plan on humanizing any Republican characters in the eleventh hour by revealing how deeply good they are despite it all. But, I might do those things, and everyone should feel free to ridicule me for selling out, which I probably would do in about one second if I could figure out how to get away with it.
Marry Me A Little—songs by Stephen Sondheim, conceived and developed by Craig Lucas and Norman René—runs September 11–October 21 at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th). Produced by Keen Company and directed by Jonathan Silverstein. For tickets and further info, visit www.keencompany.org or call Telecharge at 212-239-6200.
Winter Miller’s musical Amandine debuts at the Cherry Lane in January 2013. A founding member of the Obie-winning playwriting collective 13P, her plays include In Darfur, The Penetration Play, The Arrival and Paternity.