Interview: Tom Stoppard on the "Very Huggable Experience" of Bringing Leopoldstadt to Broadway

Stoppard discusses his latest, but, he hopes, not last, new play.

It's fair to assume that Tom Stoppard, now 85 and the author of intellectual works like Arcadia and The Coast of Utopia, would be intimidating to talk to. It was hard not to be nervous when he appeared in the Zoom window, dutifully set up by his wife, Sabrina, to discuss the Broadway run of his Holocaust drama Leopoldstadt, which has been going strong at Broadway's Longacre Theatre since the fall. To my delight, Stoppard is a warm and thoughtful subject, eager to discuss his latest (but, he hopes, not last) play, and how much love he has for his actors.

Tom Stoppard
Tom Stoppard
(© Tristan Fuge)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Where did Leopoldstadt come from?
Well, it came from the fact that, for a long time, I've described myself as having a charmed life. And after a while, it began to seem that, as the young man who represents me towards the end of the play is told, it's almost as though he was forgetting his own history, and I began to think I should try to write about this. I actually thought that much more of this play would be about this young English person, but I began much earlier.

I was going to ask you if that character at the end of the play was a stand-in for you. I didn't expect you to give that up so easily.
I think I'd be hard put to deny it. It seems very close to me. I wasn't at all looking to deflect the idea that he was based on my experience. He speaks for me; not throughout, but there are certain things where he's speaking for me, without question.

I'm curious about the challenges of creating a story like this that spans so many generations and has so many different characters that not only the audience has to keep track of, but you, as writer, have to keep track of. You've done that in so many of your plays through the years.
Luckily, one doesn't really have the view ahead when one is getting into it. If one knew, maybe one would shy away from making the attempt. But what happens is that it grows as you write it, bit by bit. When I was young, I used to think one had to know all about the play that you're writing. For quite a few years now, I've understood something, which is that it can be a bad thing to know too much about where your play is going. I always write from page one to the last page, as it were, in page order. I don't dip in and out of the play at different points, normally. But the essential answer to your question is that you don't really understand what you're getting into. You just get into it.

A scene from the Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's Leopoldstadt at the Longacre Theatre
A scene from the Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's Leopoldstadt at the Longacre Theatre
(© Joan Marcus)

Were there any real family members of yours in mind as you created these characters, and if there were, what is it like to watch these actors embody them?
No, they were not family members. I was anxious to not be writing strictly about my own family, so they're Viennese. My family were from that part of the world, but we were Czech.

Nearly all of the actors in New York were new to me, though a handful came with us from London. I should be able to tell you, because I go to every single day of rehearsal that a play is being staged. I'm watching it from the ground up, really. But acting is a bit of mystery to me. I'm terribly impressed by the actors, but at the same time, I have very high and constant expectations of them to, in the end, come up with just the right kind of performance. I don't feel surprised; that's the job. I think that means I underappreciate them, but I hope that I express my real feelings, which is mostly love.

It's quite a situation, because we are a company that got together to open this play in New York. We were previewing from mid-September. Since that time, the composition of the company hasn't changed that much, but people have undertaken different roles. Understudies have taken over and grown into other roles, and so on. It's been a wonderful, very huggable experience. Lots of hugging.

At this point in your life and career, what does it mean to you for this play to come to New York and be on Broadway and become as rapturously received as it has been?
We felt that New York was the piece's natural home in a sense. That became apparent from the first performance onwards. That sounds a bit ungrateful to the London audience, but it's not, because it had a very good relationship with its audience in London. But there's something about how many Jewish people are involved in New York theater. We'd felt there'd be a lot of people, especially older people, who would relate to this story of this family, and that turned out to be true in London and New York.

My answer is now becoming complicated by the fact that I recently saw a film of the Japanese production, and although the soundtrack was very different, you looked at it and you thought, "Yeah, sure; that's Leopoldstadt." It's a very fine production. It's very different, with a big floor and a revolve in it and so on. It was really rather heartening to find out that even in such a very different culture, it was the same play and felt like the same play.

I know you had given interviews where you said that Leopoldstadt was probably your last play, and then you sort of backtracked on that. Where do you stand on that now?
When this play opened in London — I think we were performing, actually, three years ago — my feeling was that I didn't have to write another play, surely. But since then, I've really wanted to. I'm not actually writing anything at the moment, but at the same time, I very much wish I were, and I'm trying to do something about it.

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Closed: July 2, 2023