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Musing on The Muse

A new anthology provides a glimpse at the inner lives of 11 notable writers for the American theater. logo

Jonathan Larson's ideology as a writer-composer-lyricist is contained in the simple fact that Mimi had to live. Rent was based on La Bohème and, in La Bohème, Mimi dies of tuberculosis. But in Larson's gritty-slash-optimistic vision of America at the end of the millennium, Mimi, who has AIDS, almost dies: She seems like she's going to die but she survives, buoyed back to life by love. Similarly -- as Amy Asch explains in her essay on Larson in The Playwright's Muse, a new survey of 11 American theater writers edited by Joan Herrington -- Larson insisted on ending an early project (an adaptation of 1984) with an incongruously optimistic ending. "The melody recurs with the message that we must question the system, while other cast members sing 'love is the key, love is the answer.'"

Larson (who, as is well known, died on the eve of Rent's gigantic success) was seemingly just as sentimental, big-hearted, and ambitious as his boho characters. Asch quotes a 1986 grant application in which the young writer charmingly listed his goal as "to add my generation's voice to and build a new audience for the American musical theatre -- continuing in the traditions set by such people as George Gershwin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Jerome Robbins, Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim." And then there's a letter to Prince wherein Larson explains what he's trying to do in the sprawling, futuristic musical he never quite got right: "Superbia," he says simply, "is an attempt to bring a new audience to the American Musical Theatre."

It didn't work with Superbia, but it sure did with Rent. Larson's story is one of 11 detailed in The Playwright's Muse, and reading about his personal and imaginative journeys right alongside those of August Wilson, Paula Vogel, Edward Albee, and the rest is mightily illuminating in regard to the little things these writers have in common as well as the wild divergences that have given each of them unique voices.

For example: Tony Kushner, who appears in the book in an interview with Framji Minwalla, is roughly Larson's contemporary -- they were born in 1956 and 1960, respectively -- and both men can certainly be described as liberals. But Kushner's liberalism isn't sentimental and optimistic (or, at least, not primarily so); it is rigorous and intellectual, that of a dedicated socialist interrogating a decidedly capitalist world. Rent rails against economic injustice, but it is difficult to imagine Larson having written "a debate about the efficacy of Marxism in an age in which Marx's ideological program, as an alternative to capitalism, appears to have lost its political force," as Minwalla describes Kushner's Slavs! in her introduction.

And that's what the Herrington anthology shows us to great effect: the range of intelligences working in the modern American theater, from Robert Schenkkan (The Kentucky Cycle) to Wendy Wasserstein. There is also rich detail for those interested in the specific processes of the creation of plays. Margaret Edson explains in an interview how she came to choose the academic specialty for Wit's Dr. Bearing: "The only possible choice for her is Donne -- because he's so difficult and obscure. And also because the Holy Sonnets present themselves as having some insight into the interior lives of human beings."

Neil Simon
Among the book's greatest treats is the interview with Neil Simon, whose spoken demeanor, like his work, is deceptively simple -- and whose reflections in this book, in an interview with Bette Mandle, focus much more on the business than on the art of playwriting. "I have had the opportunity of sitting in at every single rehearsal and coming in the next day with rewrites on every play I've ever done," he notes. "You can't do that with a film." He also dissects the difference between winning critical praise (which for Simon hasn't always been easy) and being a popular playwright (which has rarely been a problem for the author of Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Brighton Beach Memoirs, etc.)

The Playwright's Muse is straightforward in structure, moving from playwright to playwright and coupling an intellectual essay on each with an interview. It is one of those books that one might assume to be primarily of interest to playwrights; but, on the contrary, Herrington's classy collection is a perfect bedside read for those who simply love the theater -- and love learning how the lives of its artists affect its creation.

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