TheaterMania Logo
Theater News

Memory Lane

Stewart F. Lane on the various stages of his career, from actor to producer to co-author of If It Was Easy..... logo
Stewart F. Lane
Producing was several rungs down the ladder on the "things to be when I grew up," if it was on the ladder at all. Acting and writing, on the other hand, were high on the list, as well as directing.

Having decided at the ripe old age of 11 that I would make a career in the theater, I embarked on a lifelong love affair that happily continues to this day. It all started when I was invited by my best friend to see his father in a Broadway show. My first Broadway show! His father was Sid Caesar, and the show was Little Me. It was written by Neil Simon (whom I later worked with when I produced The Goodbye Girl) and Cy Coleman (whom I worked with on The Will Rogers Follies).

Starting off as an actor (Class of '73, Boston University School of Fine Arts), I toured with Van Johnson and later worked with Ed Herlihy. Looking for work is a full time job when you're an actor; that's the nature of the profession. Producing grew out of a need to have--or, at least, appear to have--some control of my career and make better use of my time. Leaving my beloved New York, I moved to sunny California. After making the rounds for the umpteenth time, I decided to write, star, and (by default) produce my own play. In the Wings was a groundlings version of A Star is Born--sort of a grassroots, Broadway interpretation of it. My efforts received lukewarm reviews ("Mr. Lane deserves half an E for effort..."), and my career skyrocketed to nowhere. My first producing effort resulted in only losing half of the show's investment. I didn't know it at the time, but this was not such a bad thing!

Deciding on a more practical and, hopefully, lucrative role in the industry, I got a job as assistant house manager at the Brooks Atkinson Theater during the waning days of Same Time, Next Year. Later, I worked with Jack Lemmon in Tribute and then was transferred to Annie at the Alvin (now the Neil Simon). But house managing was not satisfying my needs; it was as a producer that I finally became a player in the theater. Woman of the Year, starring Lauren Bacall, won me my first Tony Award nomination, but it was La Cage aux Folles that actually got me a Tony; in fact, we swept the awards, and we ran four and a half years. Next I produced The Will Rogers Follies, which gave me a chance to work with more of Broadway's greats.

The years have been good to me. Working with Raquel Welch and Mac Davis, sharing a birthday with Betty Comden (May 3), dining with legends like Josh Logan, Phyllis Newman, Bob Fosse, Joel Grey, Richard Chamberlain....the list goes on and on. But producing a show is always a start-up operation, and the formula doesn't change. Writing allows me the opportunity to tell my story the best way I know how, through dialogue and theatricality.

Vicki Van Tassel, William Marshall Miller,
and John Jellison in If It Was Easy...
(Photo: Anita and Steve Shevett)
The idea for It It Was Easy ... grew out of a real-life story that started when Ward Morehouse III, then a columnist for the New York Post, called me on Friday of Memorial Day weekend in 1998. He had heard about me possibly doing a musical based on the life of Frank Sinatra; the legendary singer had passed on two weeks earlier, and already the media was announcing Rat Pack movies and Sinatra marathons. I told Ward that I would like to work again with Cy Coleman, who had written some songs for Sinatra. The conversation was brief but, by Memorial Day, it was a headline in the Post and a full page article on page two. CBS News called me at home to confirm the story, and it went national; later, Associated Press picked it up and it went global. The reaction was instantaneous: People from all over the world wanted to play Frank Sinatra! I was inundated with letters, audio tapes, video tapes, photos, and phone calls. Sinatra was truly a universal icon, and I knew I had stumbled onto something.

What finally convinced me to go forward with writing a play was a fellow producer's willingness to give me money. Though I had only a hint of a concept of the play, this fellow was willing to put up hard cash. In my 30 years in the business, even in my wildest dreams (and they have been pretty outrageous), this had never happened to me. I am still interested in doing a Sinatra musical; but, frankly, it was more expedient--not to mention more fun--to write a play about the madness created by the announcement that a Sinatra musical might be in the works.

Since Ward had instigated the whole string of events, I decided to invite him to join me in writing the play. I knew that Ward came from a journalistic family: His father had been a reporter and critic for The New York Sun and The Sun-Herald. What I did not know was that his father had also written a play, Gentlemen of the Press, many years earlier. In addition, Ward himself had written a couple of plays and was very much interested in pursuing my idea.

John Jellison, Bonnie Comley,
and Stewart F. Lane
(Photo: H.E. Yhoman)
First plotting out the play and then designating one or the other of us to write particular scenes, we started to develop characters and a more complex storyline. We did a few "kitchen readings," and then I directed a reading at The Berkshire Theater Festival in the summer of 1999. Later that summer, we did one at The Actors Theater of Nantucket. In the summer of 2000, Seven Stages Theater in Atlanta mounted a production with me directing Kevin Dobson (Knots Landing), Bonnie Comley (my wife), and Bill Miller; both Bill and Bonnie are recreating their roles in the New York production.

The idea of co-writing a play is unusual these days. Teams like Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee have not been seen in years. As a result, I feel that American playwrights have been handicapped by limiting themselves to one point of view. I hope that, with If It Was Easy..., Ward and I are bringing back that kind of collaboration to the theater.

Tagged in this Story