Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, and educated at Brown University, Alfred Uhry came to New York to write in the early 1960's and initially worked for composer Frank Loesser for $50 a week. He began his Broadway career in 1968 with Here's Where I Belong, a musical version of Steinbeck's East of Eden that opened and closed in one night. Ten years later, he was back on Broadway as lyricist and librettist for The Robber Bridegroom, which earned him a Tony Award nomination. His very first play was the smash hit Driving Miss Daisy, produced in New York in 1987, for which he won both the Pulitzer Prize as well as the Academy Award for Best Screenplay for the film adaptation starring Jessica Tandy. His next play, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, was commissioned by his native Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games, and later ran on Broadway for a year and a half. Most recently, Uhry wrote the book for the musical Parade, produced at Lincoln Center in 1999, for which he also won a Tony Award. I spoke with Uhry in Chicago, where he was attending rehearsals for the regional premiere of The Last Night of Ballyhoo, opening April 30 at the Mercury Theatre.
You began as a lyricist and became a playwright. Why did you make that transition?
Lyric writing was always so hard for me, and so painful. I sort of bled into writing books for musicals at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, and I really liked the work. My first attempt at writing dialogue was The Robber Bridegroom and I got a Tony nomination for it. So, I figured I might be in the right ballpark.
After the success of Driving Miss Daisy, your very first play, were you afraid to put pen to paper again?
I was terrified to write a play, because I didn't know exactly what I'd done. My wife said to me, eventually, 'You're a big chicken.' I said, 'Leave me alone, go away.' She said, 'I'll go away, but you're a big chicken.' I said, 'Whatever I write, they're going to say it's not as good as Driving Miss Daisy. She said, 'Well, then, they're going to say it. So, do it.'
Both Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo are about assimilated southern Jews. Do you have a strong Jewish identity? Are you observant?
When I was child I never went to a Seder; I really didn't know what one was. I certainly went to a lot of Easter egg hunts. My wife was an Episcopalian, probably still is. I have a lot of kids that are sort of nothing. I think I'm still a little confused, but my heart is Jewish. I realize that I grew up in a damaging way. I was denied something that everybody should have, which is a clear identity of what you are. We were busy wishing we weren't Jewish. I've probably come late to the party accepting, and being proud of, the fact that I'm Jewish. But I'm here. Am I an observant Jew? No. Maybe I'll get there.
You're a member of the council of the Dramatists Guild. What's the Guild's main message to authors?
Most young playwrights don't understand a simple fact, and that is that they own their own copyrights. Most playwrights who are under 30 assume that it's going to be like the movies, and that somebody else can tell 'em what to do. It's vitally important for a playwright, or a composer or a lyricist, to understand that they are in control of what they write, and that nobody can tell 'em what to do if they don't want to do it.
New American plays have almost disappeared from Broadway. Is there a future for American drama?
Sure there's a future. You go to any major city in America--certainly Chicago, which is the best example--there's always new plays being performed. You go Off-Broadway in New York right now, there are five or 10 really good new plays. In the old days they would have been playing on Broadway, but they're still playing. Yes, I think the American theater is fine. Usually if you're a playwright, you have to do something else, too. A lot of people teach; I do film. It's better than working at Bloomingdale's. The trouble is, I write a lot of movies that never get made. And they pay you money, and they sit there.
Do you live in Manhattan?
For 30 years now, I've had a very old, somewhat dilapidated farm in Connecticut, and an apartment on the Upper West Side. I go back and forth.
Where do you do more writing?
When I started writing, I had four daughters at home, little kids. I learned to write sitting on my bed with my fingers in my ears. So I can pretty much do it where I need to do it.
Do you write on a daily basis?
I try on a daily basis. I'm a "morgen mensch"--I'm a morning boy. I get up early and I like to work in the morning.
Who taught you the most about theater?
Well, this sounds like 'How pretentious can you be?'...Shakespeare. One of the things I had to do to make a living was teach Introduction to Shakespeare. For years, I was introducing ninth graders first to Romeo and Juliet and then to Macbeth. You get inside of those plays, you see how important structure is. I really came to know all that at the same time I was revitalizing old musicals at the Goodspeed Opera House (such as George M. Cohan's Little Johnny Jones). Everyone who had written those shows was long dead, so I had a chance to experiment. So, between Shakespeare and George M. Cohan, I learned a lot.
What's the most fun you ever had in theater?
Oh, the most fun I always have is rehearsals. I love rehearsals. Nothing bad can happen to you in rehearsals. I love the part of giving the play to somebody else who loves it. I love the exchange with actors.
You never had a director threaten to throw you out of rehearsals?
I have had that. I had a director, my first musical (trying out) in Philadelphia that I did, that closed in one night in New York. The director picked up a very large glass ashtray and threw it at my head.
I think he was having himself a snit. He was thoroughly inept. I didn't know that. It was my first show. There was a fire in the lights, in the gels, on the opening night in Philadelphia, and he ran out of the theater screaming. He was the first one out. It was not a good sign.
Was that your worst experience in theater?
The first was the worst. It could never get that bad again. I guess I expected to be carried on everyone's shoulders and hurrahed. It was disastrous. It closed the night it opened in New York.
You've not been overly prolific as a lyricist, librettist, and playwright, compared to, say, Mamet.
No, it's a problem. Mamet started young. He wrote his first play when he was in his early 20's, and he's been churning 'em out ever since. I wrote my first play when I was 48 years old. My old boss, Frank Loesser, used to say 'I write slow and I throw it out fast,' and I tend to do that.