Catching Up With Martyna Majok on Cost of Living and Her Great Gatsby Musical

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright reflects on her Broadway debut and what’s probably her next theatrical outing.

When you’ve already won a prestigious award like a Pulitzer, does the idea of being on Broadway even come close? For playwright Martyna Majok, the answer is absolutely. This fall, Majok was beyond thrilled to see and rediscover her beautiful play Cost of Living on the big stage of Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, after an off-Broadway run by the company several years earlier. At the same time, Majok was in the depths of putting together a musical version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with songwriters Florence Welch and Thomas Bartlett, for a premiere later this year at American Repertory Theatre. It’s all in a day’s work for a busy and acclaimed dramatist, for whom collaboration is the most fun part.

Martyna Majok
(© Tricia Baron)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How’s The Great Gatsby going?
Oh my God, it’s so great. I’m having a wonderful time. I can’t wait to share the music. The music sounds extraordinary. It’s like the music that I listen to on my runs. It was very meaningful to revisit that book in the depth of the pandemic, in my 30s.

The story takes place after the end of a World War and after a pandemic that killed a third of the world’s population, mostly young people. I understood the kind of feral hunger of the parties and everybody trying to pursue meaning to make up for the death and destruction they had witnessed. I had a hard time writing original work during the pandemic, so working on this helped me process my feelings without looking directly at our pandemic.

How does the experience of working on a musical differ from the relatively solitary world of writing a play?
I hate writing. [Laughs] And one of the main reasons I hate writing is because of how lonely it is. I write to be able to get access to the rehearsal room and work with generous artists. So this kind of jumps the gun, because you’re less lonely earlier. You have someone else who is in the thick of the creative process that you’re in constant conversation with. There’s a camaraderie. It’s just nice to be working on something that you just want to spend your time on even when you’re off-duty. It’s also been fun to collaborate with Florence Welch. She’s very down to play and have conversations about deep topics.

In the midst of that process, you had Cost of Living on Broadway. What was it like for you to see that play on the grand scale?
I was grateful and thrilled that Manhattan Theatre Club chose to amplify that story again, to bring it to more people. I was also grateful for the opportunity to get to translate what I had always seen the story to be, which was more epic and cosmic in scope than on the surface. It’s four people — two kinds of romantic relationships — who double-helix around each other until they converge at the end. It’s a play about miracles and yearning and connections across strangers. Getting to be in that bigger space, under the umbrella of “Broadway,” made me so happy.

David Zayas and Katy Sullivan in Cost of Living on Broadway
(© Julieta Cervantes)

Was there a difference in audience reaction between the 2017 production and the 2022 production?
When I had first written the play, I was dealing with so much economic, financial, and health precarity. It was specific to me and to certain other people who were going through some similar things. When we put it up in 2022, it felt like there were more people who had similar experiences. The responses I received from the audience felt a lot more connected to it than in 2017, and I suspect that it had to do with the kind of collective losses and grief that we’ve been dealing with. It’s so vulnerable to develop and put up a play because you’re questioning, like, “Is what’s in my heart on the page? Does that make it across?” The more productions you have, the more you get to keep crystallizing what those things are and then putting them on stage. So I was grateful for another chance to be with that play.

Cost of Living is such an important play in terms of representation, and yet I’ve heard you say that even with the Pulitzer and the acclaim, it’s still not frequently produced. Has that changed at all in the months since the Broadway run?
Not really. I still have people ask whether I mean it when I say “Please cast disabled actors.” They were asking it a lot earlier, and now I think it’s not that they’re not asking, it’s that they’re just not doing the play. Earlier on, I or my agency would get emails like, We love to do this play, but we don’t know, quote unquote, “any of them.” So I would furnish lists of people who’ve understudied, or theater companies that are disability advocates, and it seemed like they all just wanted permission to do what they’d always done, which is cast people that they know instead of expanding their network. And then they would fall off the map and I wouldn’t hear from them again.

I get less of the requests now and I just don’t see people doing it. I’m hoping to maybe make a film adaptation of the play. If it’s too difficult, or if people are resistant to the requirements that you have to cast disabled actors, maybe there’s some other way to share the story. It’s actually sad, because there are so many great actors that should be it.

Looking backwards at the fall, what does it mean to you to have been on Broadway with this play?
Maybe it’s the poor immigrant kid mentality, but I feel like any sort of public validation of this insane choice to be an artist…I deeply needed that. When I was first starting to write, my mother was so terrified, because it was the most unsafe thing I could possibly do. I kind of made a pact with myself that as long as somebody was paying me to write, I could continue to be a writer. I applied for fellowships and I got into grad school in a funded program. I kept applying for fellowships and awards, anything that was like income, so someone was paying me to be a playwright.

Not dissimilarly, Broadway, the Pulitzer, they all feel like larger validation of the stories and characters and the people that have meaning for me. People kept coming up to me after Ironbound and said “That’s my mom.” “That’s my aunt.” “That’s my cleaning lady.” The DMs I got about Cost of Living, where people were grieving their spouses or had been going through health issues, or were from other first-gen writers who would say that they were galvanized to tell their stories because they saw proof that you could get to this level, is so beyond meaningful. And there’s no plaque for that.

I begin writing to try to claw myself out of my own loneliness and confusion. To try to understand something about myself and the world. To feel less alone and more connected. And when someone comes up to me in response to my work, it closes that circle. Or bridges that divide. It makes me feel more connected to them and the world. Less alone. Validated in my complicated humanness. It makes me feel like there is use to these stories beyond myself.