Composers Mike Stoller, Artie Butler & Iris Rainer Dart Talk THE PEOPLE IN THE PICTURE
The Tony nominated musical The People in the Picture's cast album has just been released on the Kritzerland label. To honor that release the musical's composers Mike Stoller and Artie Butler and librettist Iris Rainer Dart shared their feelings about the various challenges of writing and mounting The People in the Picture.
Dart, who also wrote the novel and screenplay for the cult hit Beaches, had this to say:
"I wanted to write a story about the power of laughter. Both my mother and my father were immigrants. My mother came to America from Russia and my father from Lithuania. My father put himself through college and became a social worker in a settlement house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a neighborhood which was later made famous by August Wilson in his now beloved plays. We had no money. We were always behind on payments to the phone company, the utilities and the grocery store. But the great thing was that we had something money couldn’t buy. A group sense of humor that enabled us to laugh at all adversity. Nearly all of my memories of my childhood are about laughing, telling jokes and singing. The Yiddish culture was an enormous part of it. The exquisite humor of that culture was woven into the fabric of our lives. It was growing up knowing about Yiddish films, songs and theater that made me a comedy writer and it was the same sensibility that inspired the great comics and comedy writers of the bygone eras.
As I researched the power of laughter, I learned that the ability to have a sense of humor even during the horrific times of adversity was a characteristic of the Jews. I found that surprisingly there were jokes told in the ghettos and the concentration camps that had a particular dark sensibility that astounded and fascinated me. So I decided to create a character who was the star and creator of Yiddish films in Thirties Poland and tell her heroic story through the war years, culminating in 70s New York where she is a grandmother, with a grandchild eager to hear her Bubbie’s (The Yiddish word for grandmother) stories and a daughter who resists hearing them."
Her challenges? "The challenges with this show came with going directly to Broadway with no opportunity to experiment with what should and shouldn’t stay in the show. We were lucky to have Donna Murphy, a giant Broadway star, and that was a blessing. And to work at Roundabout, the fantastic and generous not-for-profit behind us. But it would have been nice to be more able to have time to experiment, which a Broadway opening doesn’t afford the writers."
Co-musical composer Artie Butler shared the following:
"The main thrust of the project for me was making sure that the score sounded absolutely seamless musically. This is due to the fact that the score is composed by two composers who in life are very friendly with each other, but musically each brings his own warmth and humor to the show. It was truly an adventure of laughter and crying for me. I know it was for Mike as well."
Mike Stoller, of the famous Leiber (Jerry) and Stoller combo is currently still working on projects that he and Leiber, now deceased, began. One is about the life of Oscar Wilde and the other, based on the novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. He added his thoughts on The People in the Picture:
"At first I thought...although I am Jewish, I was not raised in a particularly religious, Jewish family. So I thought that might be a challenge, and yet it proved not to be. However, early on, I invited a dear friend Artie Butler to join me on the project. I have known him for 50 years. It was a very joyful experience to both be working on this wonderful project. "
Why didn't the show become more successful and have a longer run on Broadway?
"This is a very personal feeling. Almost every evening when I was in the theatre, people walked out with tears in their eyes. They were very touched and moved. I think some critics view that with suspicion when anything is that touching.There's nothing wrong with sentiment, but I fear they view it as sentimentality rather than sentiment. Frequently there were Q and A's after the show, and many people from the audience stayed. They loved the show, including children of holocaust survivors. It's a touchy subject, but I think it was handled very well. Iris Dart is a wonderful, wonderful writer. Our collaboration was a dream."