Broadway Goes Back to School: An Interview With Playwright Douglas Carter Beane

by Thomas Burns Scully, OnStage Columnist  Douglas Carter Beane is one of modern Broadway’s most prolific writers. His list of credits includes plays and musicals that have racked up Tony, Olivier and Drama Desk nominations. ‘Lysistrata Jones’, ‘Xanadu’, ‘Sister Act’ and ‘Cinderella’ have all had their books penned by him. ‘Mr. and Mrs. Fitch’, ‘The Little Dog Laughed’, ‘The Nance’, and ‘As Bees in Honey Drown’ are just a few of his plays. He’s known for his quick wit, snappy dialogue and well-rounded stories. On Monday, as winter-storm Juno descended upon New York City, I had a chance to talk to him in a break from rehearsals for his new musical: an adaptation of ‘Robin Hood’. He is workshopping this new piece at his (and my) alma mater, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He has been producing and directing new plays there for the past two academic years with the school’s company of third-year actors. Last year’s offering, ‘Fairycakes’, was a whimsical verse-play about the faeries from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. This year offers the bold decision to put on a full-scale musical. I was offered a glance in to the rehearsal room before the interview began. The offering was impressive.

TBS: In the midst of a fruitful, and, I can only assume, ridiculously busy career, you’ve decided to make the time to come back to the American Academy and workshop new plays. How did this all start?

DCB: I gave the [2012] commencement address [at AADA], and Susan [Zech] had just become President. She said to me “If you ever want to do anything at the Academy, give me a call.” And I thought, “Not really likely.” I had just come in to a place in my life where I was doing a lot of Broadway. I think it was six shows in a row.

TBS: That’s pretty good.

DCB: Pretty good. And then I was doing television for HBO and a film with Fox Searchlight, and I was doing an Opera at the Met, and I was looking at my life, and I thought that maybe it was time to give back and do something vaguely resembling pure in my life. I had the vaguest notion of something based on ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, which is a play that I’ve always loved and wanted to find a way to get inside of. And so I called out of the blue and said “Y’know, I think I have something.”

TBS: The play has hints of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’, did you start with that idea?

DCB: A little bit. Somewhat. I decided that the fairies [in AMND] were the different faeries [from other fairy stories]. My kids are really fascinated by characters with wings, and I just thought it was really funny to put these characters in very contemporary situations, but have them with wings, and going “I really need time to myself right now!”… characters from ‘Girls’ whining about their problems, but they have wings. Michael Flynn who was my assistant on ‘The Nance’ was assisting me as I wrote it, and I said “If I had the balls I’d do this in rhyming couplets,” and he said “Why don’t you have the balls to do it?” And so I did it. We did a workshop kind of reading the first week of January, and a production here in June. A lot of people came to see it. That was nice. I thought I’d like to try and do it again. To try and do it bigger. To do a musical. Which is impossible.

TBS: Which is why you’re doing it.

DCB: Which is why I’m doing it. I wanted this group of actors to have that experience in their arsenal. And you saw, we’re staging it right now.

TBS: It’s amazing how organized you’re able to make it within the resources you have here.

DCB: Y’know, stay easy. Stay fun. A bit of joyful. No pressure, there’s no pressure here. It’s a talented group too. That makes it easier.

TBS: How would you say that doing this is different to working on Broadway?

DCB: (With a cheeky grin) They don’t say “No” here. (Laughs) Like the sword fights, on Broadway there would just be rounds of discussion. Here there’s nothing they won’t do. It’s all “I’ll do it, sure!” (Laughs)

TBS: A sort of benevolent autocracy?

DCB: No, they’re just incredibly naive. (Laughs good-naturedly) And there’s a lot of useful enthusiasm. And no union breaks, so we get a lot done. My composer is very organized, much more than I am. Like, he wrote that song [‘Step Right Up’] on Sunday, scored it out, and, well, you saw it.

TBS: It looks like you’ve been working on it for a while.

DCB: Yeah. But he wrote that this morning. I think I got that at four o’clock.

TBS: Wow. What drew you to the idea of doing a ‘Robin Hood’ musical?

DCB: My kids love Robin Hood. And I’m just fascinated that at the democratic convention people were wearing Robin Hood hats. I was fascinated by Occupy Wall Street. A lot of Robin Hoods there as well. And the Tea Party [uses the] Robin Hood symbol. I thought: “Isn’t that interesting?” I first started out using the ballads, and making it very artistic. And then I went to the history and read everything I could on the period. And I would find that I would do all this research and it’s just completely unbelievable. That was where I was heading when I was writing it. Then I began to work on it with all these people, I thought “They’re all under twenty-five, they’re all young people” and that’s what this is about, the beginning of it. And I went back to the American version of the stories, “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood”, and just used that as the basis, mixing them and combining them, and having it be about this guy who’s twenty or twenty-five dealing with the problems of people who are twenty or twenty-five. Dealing with barbarians who are beheading people, and 1% of people having all the power, and 99% of people not, and just how a young person would deal with that today. And Lewis’s score took off from that.

TBS: So that’s what you feel you’re bringing to the table as a new iteration of Robin Hood? It’s a very well-known property.

DCB: Well, it’s very interesting, it’s never been done as an American Musical Comedy. There was the legendary downfall of Lionel Bart, who made a musical called 'Twang!' And they did a production in Germany, which cracks me up. One of those big, over-produced, Austrian-German musicals, like Rebecca. One of those ‘Les Mis’ kinda things. And then there was a play that was headed here, it had music in it, I think it just closed. I just, I don’t know. It just spoke to me. I’ve grown to love it.

TBS: Was it just the idea of it?

DCB: There were about five ideas I had, and Robin Hood as a musical has always been one of them. And… I don’t know, I don’t know why. I think it was just, I heard the musical talent [in the company] and there was enough of a folk-pop quality that everybody had. It didn’t sound like “legit” singers, people sang some stuff and it just sounded like… noisy people in a bar. In a way that’s very enjoyable. It’s a like a church or a bar, it just sounds like enjoyable singing. I don’t know why, it just felt like the right thing to do at the time.

TBS: So what are your hopes for ‘Robin Hood’ beyond the next two weeks?

DCB: I would like it to be done on Broadway. I would like it to be on TV, in a movie and be an ice cream flavor. (Laughs) I want everything I do to go the distance, and I’m very lucky, everything I’ve written has gone to a very good place. Even ‘Lysistrata Jones’, it didn’t run very long on Broadway, but it has a pretty good life in colleges, and, soon, in a movie. And once it’s a movie it’ll come back to Broadway. That’s just how these things happen.

TBS: Do you view the work you do at AADA as different to the work you do on Broadway? Do you approach it in the same way?

DCB: No. I mean, there’s a lot more of me explaining things to people, but not really. I mean I keep it light. Upbeat, but pushy. You know, like: “Move it along, move it along. Keep it moving.” (Laughs)

TBS: What would you say is the most important thing when you’re working on new writing?

DCB: Keeping it tight, keeping it enjoyable, keeping it fascinating. The success of theatre is based on the rate of new ideas. You’ve got to stay ahead of the audience, but in a nice way. So that they can go “Oh, I didn’t expect that.” Just enough so that it’s fun and fulfilling.

TBS: You started out as an actor, studying at AADA, are you ever tempted to go back to that?

DCB: Not particularly. Occasionally I’ll do speeches, commencement addresses, that’s a kind of performing. But not really. I said goodbye to it very easily, and I evolved in to this other thing. I was always writing along with the acting. The two things were always going together, and I just said goodbye to one. But I think as an actor when I write. I’m always trying to help the actors.

TBS: What’s your favorite show on Broadway right now?

DCB: I haven’t seen any! ’You Can’t Take it With You’ I love, but I’m actually about to start going to see all the shows again. When this opens I’ll go and see all the shows.

TBS: What show, or idea for a show, would you like to see on Broadway?

DCB: Besides ‘Robin Hood’? (Laughs) I don’t know. If I see something that’s not there and I see a need for it, I’ll create it. That’s kind of how I work.

TBS: And finally, an old chestnut: what comes first, the book or the music?

DCB: Depends on the project. For some shows it is the score. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good way for a show to happen, the best way is if the book comes first. I’m not interested in doing jukebox musicals anymore, or old score musicals, but creating new properties. I did two of them that collapsed for legal reasons, or composer-ego reasons, and I just… my work is so much harder, and sometimes so much better than what I’m being given back. Sometimes people would say “Just do this as a play, these songs are unsatisfying.”

TBS: Well, I think that’s all from me. Thank you very much.

DCB: And thank you.

‘Robin Hood’ opens on February 2nd in the Lester Martin Theatre at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts at 120 Madison Avenue. It runs until February 7th.

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