One for the Play People
A chat with Marc Acito, author of How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater.
Set in 1983-84, the book is subtitled "A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater." Acito's protagonist is Edward Zanni, a New Jersey high school student and dyed-in-the-wool "play person" who has his heart set on studying acting at Juilliard. Major complication: Edward's father, divorced from his mother, decides to remarry and also decides not to pay his son's way to college unless he agrees to major in business. So Edward and his colorful band of friends concoct and then carry out various plans to come up with $10,000 for Edward 's first-year Juilliard tuition. Prominent among the group are Edward's flamboyantly theatrical gal pal Paula ("I call her Sis because she uses her nun costume from our production of The Sound of Music to buy us beer, on the entirely correct theory that no one would ask a nun for her ID"); his girlfriend Kelly, who's "everything a high school boy wants in a girl -- she's thin, she's blonde, and, most important, she likes to mess around"; Doug Grabowski, the hunky football player whom Edward convinced to try out for the role of Danny Zuko in the high school production of Grease and on whom he develops a crush; and the often annoying but fiendishly clever Nathan Nudelman ("He'd look like the Pillsbury Doughboy except he has a huge Jewish Afro which, to add insult to injury, is carrot red"). To say that these people stop at nothing to help raise funds on Edward's behalf would be a gross understatement.
How I Paid for College is Acito's debut novel, but he has already gained a loyal following as a syndicated humorist; his column "The Gospel According to Marc" appears in such papers as the Chicago Free Press and Outword -- Los Angeles. Just how outrageous is this guy's sense of humor? Well, the subjects of some of his recent essays are "Liza's Wedding," "Liza's Divorce," "Sing-a-long Sound of Music," and "Rep. Rick Santorum." And according to his website, www.MarcAcito.com, he has written a screenplay titled It's in His Kiss, "a romantic comedy about a bride who falls in love with the male stripper from her bachelorette party." Though How I Paid for College is set in his home state of N.J., Acito has been living in Portland, Oregon for the past 14 years. That's where I called him for our interview.
THEATERMANIA: Marc, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed the book.
MARC ACITO: You could try. Go ahead!
TM: Well, it made me laugh out loud on public transportation, so I guess that says it all. I see that your agent for the book was Edward Hibbert [best known as an actor for his role as restaurant critic Gil Chesterton on TV's Frasier and for his stage appearances in Noises Off and Jeffrey]. He and I go to the same gym, so I get to see him semi-naked a lot.
MARC: You know, I had a funny experience at the gym the other day: I was hanging up my towel to take a shower and somebody said to my bare ass, "Hey, I just got your book!" How he recognized me, I have no idea. I turned around and this guy fished into his gym bag, pulled out my book, and said, "I just bought it today!" Then he handed it to me and asked me if I would sign it. I looked down at my naked body and said, "With what?" He managed to find a pen, so I signed the book right there in the shower room. I wrote: "To Stuart, whose book I signed naked."
TM: Edward Zanni lives in Wallingford, New Jersey. Is there really such a town?
MARC: There is not. It's a heavily fictionalized version of my hometown of Westfield.
TM: My first reaction upon reading the book was, "This would make a great movie." And that was before I read in the press materials that the film rights have already been sold. You must be so excited about that.
MARC: Yes! The guys who wrote Meet the Fockers -- the sequel to Meet the Parents -- are writing the screenplay. They're at work on it right now, as a matter of fact. Of course, there's no guarantee that the movie will get made, but the fact that they've assigned writers this early in the game is a very good sign. The screen rights sold just two weeks after the book sold; it was a pre-emptive bid by Laura Ziskin for Columbia Pictures.
TM: This may be hard to answer, but how autobiographical is the book?
MARC: I couldn't put a percentage on it. Certainly, the family in the book is not my family. The friends are closest to the truth, and the reason is that I wanted to write a book about a family of friends. I'm fascinated by the idea of urban tribes. For quite some time, I've lived 3,000 miles away from where I grew up, and I've had to create family wherever I've gone in life. I think gay people do that a lot. It's certainly something that happened to me as a high school student: I had this band of nutty friends who took such loving care of one another. The book really is -- well, this is going to sound like a canned phrase, but it's a love letter to my friends from high school. That being said, the kids themselves are all composites of dozens of people. It's been very disorienting for my friends to read it because they keep trying to get it lined up with reality, and yet it exists in its own fictionalized world. Even Edward differs from me in certain ways; I'm not into chicks with dicks, for instance. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- it just doesn't do anything for me. I liked playing with Edward's bisexual confusion. I personally am gayer than laughter, but I think of Edward as being on what I call the "bi now, gay later" plan.
TM: The press materials also say that you were kicked out of "one of the finest drama schools in the country." In the book, Edward wants to go to Juilliard. Is that the school you were kicked out of?
MARC: No, it was Carnegie-Mellon. I was in the musical theater program there, but I didn't think that anybody would want to read a novel about some kid's dream of going to school in Pittsburgh.
TM: Well, when you put it that way...! Your bio says that you've sung opera. Are you still doing that?
MARC: No. I walked away from a very promising career; it was promising to be lousy. Ever since I stopped singing, people would ask me, "Are you going to go back and do any opera?" And I always said, "When I've established a writing career, then maybe I'll go back and do some singing just for fun." Strangely enough, the very day that Edward Hibbert offered to represent me, I got a phone call from Portland Opera -- which had never hired me before -- asking if I could be a last-minute replacement for the Emperor of China in Turandot.
TM: Not the largest role in the repertoire!
MARC: Exactly! I knew the opera because I had played Pong in Seattle, so playing the Emperor -- three minutes' worth of music that's very easy to sing -- was a no-brainer. They gave me this great headdress that made me look just like the dog in How the Grinch Stole Christmas -- you know, when they put the antlers on his head? It was about three or four feet wide. They actually had to strap me into the set because the costume connected to it. In any event, it was a wonderful chance to kind of do a victory lap -- to return to opera seven years after I had left it, just to do a little something. Opera was unsatisfying for me because I was frustrated being a thread in someone else's mosaic. I cannot tell you how many times I had directors come up to me and say, "Marc, what you're doing is very original, but you're not in the same opera as everybody else." I would look around at everybody else's opera and I would think, "You know what, mine is way more interesting!" I actually had a director come up to me once and say, "Marc, this opera is called Carmen, not Remendado, Prince of Smugglers. Take it down a notch!" So I don't sing opera anymore; I just sing naughty cabaret songs.
TM: Since you mentioned that: The piano bar in the book sounds like Marie's Crisis. Is it a specific place?
MARC: It's not a specific place, but I did model it on Marie's Crisis because I like the geography there -- though my friends and I hung out at The Duplex. Again, I didn't want to be limited by actual locations; I wanted to sort of create the world that I wanted to create, where things are bigger than life, if you will. That's why I ended up fictionalizing certain things.
TM: I'd like to ask you about the fact that the book has not one but two deus ex machinas -- or however you say the plural of the term.
MARC: That was quite deliberate. I think deus ex machinas have gotten a really bad rap. People look at the use of a deus ex machina and think, "You couldn't solve the problem so the cavalry comes running in." What they fail to understand -- this might sound too grand for my little book, but it's something I actually thought about -- is that the purpose of the deus ex machina in Greek drama was to reaffirm the existence of a rational universe. I know that, on the surface, the book appears to be Ferris Bueller meets Risky Business, but one of the themes I really loved working with is that we do live in a rational universe and that there is a benevolent God. The book has a lot of Catholic imagery, and I definitely wanted there to be a deus ex machina in the story. In fact, there are two, as you said -- but I would ask you not to reveal what they are.
TM: Other than Stuart at the gym, what kind of responses to the book have you received?
MARC: So far, the most passionate audience for it has been the play people -- current and former. I get e-mails every day from people who say, "This is who I was in high school; I have to get on the phone and call all my old friends and tell them about it." I've also heard from kids who are doing high school plays now, saying "Thank you so much for writing this book!!" with lots of emoticons and exclamation points. It's really very sweet. I've had e-mail conversations with kids as young as 13, including a number of gay kids who've loved the book. That's enormously gratifying.
TM: It seems the perfect time for a movie version of the book, with so much entertainment geared towards youth and with gay/straight/bisexual humor everywhere...
MARC: Yes, and '80s nostalgia. The studio told me they want to keep the 1980s time period as well as the sexuality, which is thrilling to me. We'll see what happens once it goes into the sausage factory, but they have the best of intentions.
TM: Those roles could make several actors' careers, but they'll have to be very young actors.
MARC: A number of people have said that Marissa Jaret Winokur from Hairspray would be perfect as Paula. She still looks quite young, and if Stockard Channing could play Rizzo...!
TM: One last thing: I was wondering if you're related to Tim Acito, who wrote the musical Zanna, Don't!