BWW Interviews: Jim Brochu of ZERO HOUR at American Theater Group 10/3
American Theater Group is a new performing arts company that will offer musicals and plays, a new musical reading series, and education programs at the new Hamilton Stage for the Performing Arts in Rahway, New Jersey. They begin their season with ZERO HOUR: a one-man tour-de-force about the life and times of the famed, talented and controversial actor Zero Mostel. The play is written by and stars Jim Brochu and Broadway World was able to catch up with the delightful (and hilarious) award winning writer/actor prior to starting his run at American Theater Group.
Welcome to Broadway World, Jim. Just looking at your website and all that you’ve done, I see your love of character actors. Can you tell us why you enjoy writing about them?
Jim Brochu: I love them because I’m one of them. It’s like belonging to a club. I was so lucky to have come along at the right time and the right place and to have been able to touch them and know them and learn from them and be changed by them. I met Zero Mostel though my mentor David Burns who was one of the great character men of all time. He was so good that he won Best Supporting Actor in a Musical and he didn’t sing a note. Davy brought me into a world of Lou Jacobi, Jack Albertson, Jack Gilford, Hans Conreid…some of the great character men of all time - all of who took time to help a young guy who wanted to follow in their footsteps. So, I feel like a link in the chain and love to write about them so the next set of character guys to come along will know them.
You had a stellar off-Broadway run with ZERO HOUR which garnered you a Drama Desk and Helen Hayes award. Please tell the readers a little about this play for which you have written and star in.
“You forget about the Ovation Award for Best Play!” he said humbly.
You got me! I knew I was missing something.
No serious, whatever anyone says, awards are important to an artist. They’re important to me. Our egos are mostly fragile and when a large volume of your peers tell you they like your work and hand you a beautiful remembrance of it to keep forever is a transformative moment. Anyhoo, it took 30 years for ZERO HOUR go from idea to the stage. A critic, Jerry Tallmer, said I should play Zero back in 1970. When I sat down to write the play in 2005, it just about wrote itself. After 35 years, it was all there – this larger-than-life life – ready to put on the stage character that also happened to be a real person. There was a protagonist (Zero) vesus the antagonist (Zero) and will the shy serene artist ever calm the angry, attention-seeking loudmouth. The play is framed as his last interview before starting rehearsals for his last play, THE MERCHANT. He reveals himself as a painter who does comedy to buy his art supplies but explodes as he is forced to relive the pain of being blacklisted. But Zero was a funny man despite everything so the play has plenty of laughs. And with all the awards, the greatest satisfaction came when Zero’s son, Josh Mostel hugged me after the show and said, “You got him!”
What a wonderful connection to his family. How did you meet the producers at American Theater Group to bring this show to New Jersey?
I met Jim Vagias first at a friend’s house in Delaware. Our mutual friend, Rich Bloch, who was one of the original producers of ZERO HOUR in New York, invited us to his beach house for a weekend. Then, last June, I did a reading at the new theatre – which is absolutely perfect for actor and audience, a really great space – and that’s when I met Joe.
What was it about Mostel that made you want to write the show?
He was a complex man full of contradictions whose life was set against a chaotic time in American history which he was swept into.
As a child living in New York, your father had a very famous friend that you went on to write about as well. Can you tell us about your connection to Ms. Merman and the show you wrote in her honor?
Well, up until the time I was 13 I was attracted to the costumes and the scenery and the music – I’m talking about the church and being an altar boy. In fact I knew it was my destiny to be the first Brooklyn born pope. Then on June 20, 1959 when I was 12, my life changed. My father worked with Ed Zimmerman who was Merman’s father and he got us her house seats for that matinee of GYPSY. I met Miss Merman on the stage after and knew that my church had become the theatre. She became a guiding light in many ways and though I didn’t know her well, whenever I came to a crossroads in my life she seemed to appear out of nowhere and give me a few words of wisdom. When the Laguna Playhouse in California asked my partner Steve Schalchlin and myself to come do a special evening for them, THE BIG VOICE: GOD OR MERMAN? was born and took on a life of its own. Ethel’s son Bob Levitt came to see the show in San Francisco and cried and laughed all the way through it.
As a writer and an actor myself, I’m always so happy to speak to people who can maintain both careers – and you have. From being a working actor all across the country to writing several plays…can you tell us how each feeds a different part of your creative soul?
I’m really two people: there’s the writer and the actor. The actor: Look at me I’m working! Loves the spotlight. Loves it. The air in a theatre is pure oxygen. The actor loves the parties, the shows, the publicity, the…did I say the spotlight. Laurence Olivier said people become actors because they need attention, need to be looked at and I think he was right. But then there is the writer: Leave me alone and world go away. Don’t look at me I’m working. When I write I sit in the theatre of my mind, alone, and watch a play in my head and then try to put it down as best I can. Where I fuse the two of them is when I write plays like ZERO HOUR and CHARACTER MAN and then have the good sense to cast myself. I write in the dark so I can step in the spotlight.
I can’t tell you how much I love that answer, but I’ll move on. You won the GLAAD media award with Steve Schalchlin for an incredible musical THE LAST SESSION for which you wrote the book and could infuse humor into such a serious topic. What was it like to see that show garner such an amazing following the way that it has?
I’m so happy you mentioned THE LAST SESSION. Believe it or not, it opened in London just this month (9/25) at the Tristan Bates Theatre right across from the Palace. So many people tell me that the show changed their lives and gave them hope at a dark time. The jewels of TLS are Steve’s songs which are indelible to those who have heard them even once. My book is only the setting and since I find funny in just about any situation, I tried to find the humor in confronting stupid bigots and facing death. Steve’s songs were written at a time when the creative process was helping to restore his health and he was turning his sickness into melody. It doesn’t seem possible that the show debuted 15 years ago. With the London production opening and the hits the album is getting on the internet, TLS seems to be having a renaissance.
I’m truly in awe of your career and recommend for everyone to go to your website to read wonderful stories and photos that you share there. Can you tell us anything more audiences can expect when they enter ZERO HOUR?
Well, I begin with a Judy Garland impersonation they may not expect and then morph in Zero. Seriously, what I think they will find is an evening of theatre that will make then laugh, perhaps make them cry and definitely make you think. And thank you, I love being awed at.
Lastly….your own caricature at Sardi’s. That must have made the New Yorker who saw Merman in GYPSY very proud.
I was stunned when I first saw it. It was really happening. A dream was coming true. A goal was being fulfilled. After walking into Sardi’s for the first time when I was 15 to seeing that drawing in front of me started my whole life in the theatre dancing in my head. And when I saw it on the wall for the first time, I sat there crying and just looking at the other faces I had joined up there. These people were giants and I thought now I have to work just a little harder to make sure I deserve being among them.
I can tell you all there are many people that know Jim deserves it and I can’t thank him enough for joining us. Don’t miss him Oct 3-21 in Rahway, NJ. For more information on American Theater Group and this production, please visit http://www.americantheatergroup.org