Nathan Lane(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Nathan Lane
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
From January 9 through 11, The New York Times is hosting its third annual Arts & Leisure Weekend. This international celebration of art and culture will have hundreds of cultural institutions offering free admission and/or reduced prices at museums, theaters and cinemas. Last year, 450 institutions from 34 cities in the U.S. and 13 cities in Europe participated -- not to mention the nearly 30,000 attendees.

Among the attractions are "TimesTalks," 26 separate events in which a Times reporter, critic, or editor will interview a celebrity or two. Theater fans should note that this year's panelists include Nilo Cruz, Lea DeLaria, Joel Grey, Tony Kushner, Barbara Cook, and Stephen Sondheim -- as well as Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Those newly returned stars of The Producers will be interviewed by John Darnton, 62, who's been with the Times for 37 years.

Darnton was a foreign correspondent in Nigeria and then Kenya, where he won a George Polk Award for his coverage of Africa. He became bureau chief in Warsaw in 1979, and in 1982 won not only another George Polk Award but also a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Solidarity Movement and Martial Law. He also served as bureau chief in Madrid and London. Though he is currently an associate editor at the paper, he has also served as its deputy foreign editor, metro editor, news editor, and culture editor -- the post he held when the Arts & Leisure weekend was conceived in 2001. I recently chatted with him in his West 43rd Street office.

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PETER FILICHIA: So, how did this big weekend happen?

JOHN DARNTON: Two years ago, we decided we wanted to do something to celebrate the paper's 150th anniversary. As culture editor, I agreed to pick some of the guests and panelists and interview one or two of them. This year, I'll be doing a double-header on the 11th; before I interview Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, I'll interview Michael Moore.

PF: What made you settle on him?

JD: I've had him in mind since I saw his movie Roger & Me. That movie was unlike anything that had been done before, and -- not that I like this as a standard -- it had made more money than any other narrative documentary up to that point. Michael's confrontational technique was very new and I thought he'd be somebody to watch. That's turned out to be true: He's political, and this is a time when it's clearly interesting to have politics represented in some form.

PF: Whom have you interviewed in the past two years whom you remember fondly?

JD: Bono. I'm not a specialist in pop music -- meaning rock -- so I also had Jon Pareles, our chief music critic, on stage with us. I was interested that Bono was concerned with Africa, where I had been a number of years as a foreign correspondent. So, when we tendered the offer to him, it was made clear that some of this would be a political discussion about debt relief, AIDS, and other projects in Africa. That may be why he accepted, because it's a cause close to his heart. In doing research, I found out that he had toured Africa with the Secretary of the Treasury.

PF: You mean the real Secretary of the Treasury -- or is "The Secretary of the Treasury" the name of a current pop band?

JD: [smiles] The actual Secretary of our Treasury. But you see, I've been interviewed for books and I've come to realize when some questions are more interesting than others. The doctor who gets ill always comes out a better doctor. So I strive to ask people what I suspect they've never been asked before. When they're always asked the same questions, even if their answers were truthful to begin with, in a weird way, they no longer are, because they're saying them now without thinking. For example, Tom Wolfe came last year, and I'd say that was a less successful interview because he's got his white suit and his shtick. I could tell when I was beginning to get the same answers he gave someone 10 years ago.

PF: Who draws up the guest list?

JD: I primarily do, and I try to cover the cultural waterfront -- a nice balance between Marilyn Horne and Lou Reed. We also had Harold Bloom last year, right after his book on Hamlet had come out. He was an excellent interview, a born showman, even though he's an academic.

PF: On the other hand, I imagine that there were some who didn't do as well.

JD: Some people didn't seem used to speaking in public, but some of them turned out to be interesting, too. Matthew Barney [the sculptor and filmmaker] was fascinating when he was asked a question. There was often a l-o-n-g, very long pause before he answered -- a minute long, and a minute after a question without a response on stage is clearly an eternity. He would really think about the question deeply and seriously. It was like watching the lava in a lava lamp go slowly upward. But when he did answer, he did seem profound.

PF: Given that there was an article not that long ago in the Times that told us how miserably unhappy Nathan Lane often is, do you worry at all that he'll show up in a blue funk for his TimesTalk?

JD: If he does, we'll see if we can pull him out of it. But performers, by their very nature, know how to perform when they need to. A gland kicks in -- maybe a gland that the rest of us don't have.

PF: Do you probe into a person's private life?

John Darnton
John Darnton
JD: I take an old-school approach. I feel the reason these people are interesting to us is because of what they've done, produced, created, or the roles they've interpreted, so that's what I stress. There would obviously be exceptions. I was recently reading about Strom Thurmond's [illegitimate] daughter [whom he fathered with a black maid]. That's such an essential piece of biography. Also, if you found in a creative personality a specific piece of information that contributed to his artistry, that would be worth pursuing. But I don't ask questions to get gossip.

PF: How long do the sessions last?

JD: About an hour and fifteen minutes, with an additional 15 minutes for questions from the audience.

PF: Uh-oh! Did anyone take particular advantage of being at the microphone?

JD: There were no speeches, though one woman did say to Bono, "At your concerts, you often ask people to dance..." He anticipated what she was going to ask and said, "Would you like to dance?" And she got up there and did. As for the questions, there was a wide range, from the super-serious to the almost-frivolous.

PF: What's been the biggest surprise thus far?

JD: That we sold out so quickly. When we started, we didn't plan it to be a series, but it went so well that we decided to do it again. Now I've noticed that it's being advertised as the third annual event. That sounds pretty good to me.

PF: Are you much of a theatergoer?

JD: I'd say I'm halfway between a casual and avid theatergoer. I try to see everything on Broadway and much of what's off-Broadway.

PF: What type of theatrical event do you most enjoy attending?

JD: Well, as a young man, I preferred dramas. I saw the original production of Long Day's Journey into Night and then The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards, too, when I was still a teenager -- because I remember not knowing the word "anarchist." I'd already seen South Pacific and The King and I in their first runs, and those musicals I remember vividly, but I did have a preference for straight drama because I felt it was more literary and powerful. But more recently, I've come to have an appreciation of musicals. Some of that has been because of the Encores! series.

PF: And the rest...?

JD: While I was a bureau chief in London, I went to some of the British pantomimes. Dreadful, dreadful stuff the English were putting on while the American musical was being born. That's when I realized how powerful our product was, that it says a lot and isn't just a simple story. Though I do admit that the National Theatre productions of Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady helped open my eyes. Now, I think there's nothing like a really great musical.

PF: Had this series started many years ago, whom would you have most like to have interviewed?

JD: Eugene O'Neill. Arthur Miller, too. Oh, wait -- we did have Arthur Miller, who shocked the audience by saying that "Theater is dead."

PF: Well, no wonder you didn't immediately remember having him!

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[Details of the Arts & Leisure weekend will be available in program guides published in the The New York Times on Sunday, January 4, and Wednesday, January 7; for further information and to order tickets, visit the website www.nytimes.com/alweekend or call 1-888-NYT-1870. Tickets are $25 per event. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide is offering discount packages at 12 of its New York City-based hotels to Arts & Leisure weekend attendees; for more information, visit www.spg.com/al.]

[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]