BWW Interview: Playwright Doug Wright on Radio City's HEART AND LIGHTS, Working With the Rockettes, and the Magic of New York City
MSG Entertainment (MSGE) presents a brand new, New York City themed, live theatrical production at Radio City Music Hall, entitled Heart and Lights, which stars the Rockettes in a way that audiences have never seen them before. Heart and Lights celebrates the vibrant, infectious energy of New York City as seen through the eyes of two cousins, who discover their grandmother's surprising past by uncovering the secrets of the city she loved. This 90-minute show features a heartwarming journey through New York City, thread through eight production numbers of dynamically different Rockettes choreography, dazzling costumes and innovative technology including 3D effects, elaborate animatronics and GPS elements. Heart and Lights is set to an unforgettable soundtrack of original music coupled with songs by some of the most influential musical artists of the past 50 years. The production presents groundbreaking technology that will immerse audiences in the magic of live theater in a way only Radio City can deliver.
Recently, BroadwayWorld got the chance to chat with Doug Wright, who wrote the book for Heart and Lights, about the creative process, working with director and choreography Linda Haberman and the Rockettes, and this dazzling love letter to New York City. Check out the full interview below!
The concept behind this show is so awesome! Where did you find the inspiration for this?
Oh, thank you! Well, it was quite a journey. When Linda (Haberman) first approached me about joining her on the project, she had created these remarkable production numbers based on iconic New York locations and she just needed a story that knit them together and took the audience on a kind of journey of their own so that each production number felt earned. So, we put our heads together, and in part it was a process of elimination because we didn't want the kind of story that felt like it was a public service announcement for New York, or a kind of tour brochure, or that felt like it was pitched purely to out-of-towners. We wanted the kind of story that would engage, and surprise, and hopefully delight New Yorkers as well, and so we hit on the idea of these two cousins, one who is a pure, Manhattan city kid who goes to school in the city and grew up here, and the other, his cousin, is a suburbanite, from Westchester, and they meet one morning at Grand Central Station to uncover secrets of their shared grandmother. She left them with a shoebox full of souvenirs from her early days in New York, and has recently passed away, and they want to learn about those first crucial years before she settled down and had her own family. That kind of a scavenger hunt takes them on a whirlwind tour of the city, and they become aware of aspects of New York that had previously been unknown to them, and we hope that the show does the same thing for our audiences.
Since Linda Haberman approached you about the project, does that mean that the show was originally conceived with the Rockettes in mind?
Oh, yes, very much so. It's a project that is a labor of love of Linda's that she has been nurturing for over five years, and she really thought that she could create a memorable valentine to New York City with the Rockettes as its signature element. By the time I came onboard, Linda had already been polishing these production numbers to a high sheen for almost five years or so. So I was just lucky that someone proposed me for the job, and Linda and I met, and I'm such a Broadway fan, and she had such a wonderful history with Bob Fosse, and she's just so persuasive and compelling and smart that I really wanted the opportunity to work with her.
How did your book help to shape the show based on her vision?
It was a really interesting process, because, again, Linda had already created the numbers, so it was a little bit like having someone give you a swath of really beautiful fabric and telling you, "Can you please make a quilt?" That was my job, you know, but it's really fun because the numbers were so great. It's different than a book musical because obviously the central characters in the story don't then launch and appear in the numbers themselves; the numbers are all anchored by the Rockettes, so it functions dramaturgically a bit differently from a conventional musical but we still wanted to make sure every number felt earned and that every number contained a surprise for the two central characters that propels them on their journey. Given the form, which is really sort of more modeled on variety shows with the Follies Bergere than a conventional musical, we're still cautiously optimistic that we're telling a story that is engaging and touching and surprising in its own right.
What kind of form do these musical numbers take? How do they come about in the story?
For example, there's one moment where Abby and Max, (those are our two cousins), they find an old ink pen that has the New York Stock Exchange logo on it, so they head down to the Stock Exchange, where they meet the famous bronze Wall Street bull, and the bull springs to life, and they learn that their grandmother once worked as a waitress in the cafeteria at the New York Stock Exchange, and that takes them on a tour of the Stock Exchange floor, which is populated by dazzling Rockettes doing a tribute to high finance. It's really astonishing. So, as their journey takes them to different places in New York, the numbers almost pop up magically around them. It's pretty fun!
How has it been for you, collaborating with the Rockettes? Have you ever done anything like this before?
Nothing, and it just puts it all in perspective. The stage at Radio City is roughly four times the size of any Broadway stage, and the largest Broadway theatre is almost 2,000 seats, and Radio City is 6,000 seats, so it's writing for a scale that I have never attempted before. It's just ginormous! So to write for it means that you really have to craft something that has big emotions and big jokes and a real sort of exuberant, over the top emotionality to it because you're playing to so many people.
How else does this show compare to the other works in your Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning career?
It's wild because as a kid growing up in Texas, I would watch the movie matinee on Saturday afternoons, and I loved those old black and white Busby Berkeley movies, and then as I got older, I got to travel, and I visited the Follies Bergere and the Moulin Rouge in Paris, and I've been to Las Vegas, and I've even been to Tokyo and I've seen those remarkable all-female dance troupe that's not dissimilar to the Rockettes, and I've always had this love of the large-scale spectacle, and while it may seem antithetical in some ways to my career as a playwright, it actually, for me, has really complemented it in a beautiful way because , you know, I AM MY OWN WIFE was a modest, one-person show that a single actor told using doll furniture and, at Radio City, we have over 200 people making the show work every night, we have the world's largest LED screen, we have giant puppets handcrafted for the show by the best puppeteers in the world. So, for me, to have a rich and varied career and get to work in the most intimate venues and the most expansive, that's a life well lived. I have to tell you, it sounds so corny, but to go to work in the morning with the Radio City badge and walk through the stage door, and feel like you belong there, that's just thrilling! It's like one of my childhood dreams!
This whole show just sounds so amazing, I may need to go check it out!
Oh, I'm so glad you feel that way, because we feel that way. We're certainly all smitten with it!
You talked a little bit about the puppets, and the LED screen, and I saw the picture of the giant Statue of Liberty, and everything else that are part of the show. How does that technology add to the story?
It just means that we can do things with the storytelling. We can make New York a kind of magic environment where some of the city's best beloved statues can spring to life, where kids can take a phenomenal 3D journey through the New York subway system, where we can turn not just the stage but the entire theater into Central Park. Even though you're seated, you feel as if the whole city is surrounding you, almost like you're moving through it. What Linda has done with the technology is really incredible, so it's at Radio City Music Hall but it feels like a truly immersive experience.
What do you hope audiences take away from the experience?
I come from Texas and I've been in New York for a little over 30 years, and 30 years in the same city should make anybody jaded. I still have those moments when I'm walking through Times Square, or some charming little tree-lined street in the West Village, or along the Highline on the West Side, and I pinch myself and I say, "I can't believe I live here!" In the best of all possible worlds, everyone will step out of the magical New York that we present in Radio City, they'll step out into the actual, hardcore cement streets of New York, and pinch themselves and say, "I can't believe I live here." It's such a fascinating city! You can live here, and take advantage of all of its resources and it can be a part of your everyday life. I don't know that you ever get tired of it, and I think that's the kind of feeling I want the show to inspire, certainly.
Looking into the future, what are your hopes for this show? Would you want it to have a more permanent run, or a tour, or anything along those lines?
I think it's Radio City's hope that it's a piece they will be able to bring back in the spring, just like they did with the old Easter show, which was a long-standing tradition until I think the mid-90s, so I think they very much are hoping that the show becomes a sort of permanent cultural fixture in the city. Right now, we're just most interested in polishing it to a high sheen and getting it to run for these first five weeks and seeing how the world responds to it.
Aside from this show, what's next from you? Anything new and exciting our readers should know about?
Maybe! I think that's just something you'll have to keep an eye out for!
Preview performances of Heart and Lights begin March 27, 2014 at Radio City Music Hall®. The show opens April 3, 2014 and runs for 5 weeks only ending May 4, 2014. Ticket prices range from $49 - $95 for previews and regular box office pricing from $49 - $149, depending on show date and time. Limited premium seating is available. Tickets are available online at www.HeartandLights.com, by phone via Ticketmaster at 866-858-0007, or at Radio City's Box Office (50th St. & Avenue of the Americas).