InDepth InterView Tony Awards Edition: Joe DiPietro - Part 2: NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT, THE TOXIC AVENGER & What's Next

By: Jun. 01, 2012

Today we are talking to a two-time Tony Award winning lyricist and book writer who was responsible for the 2010 Best Musical winner, MEMPHIS, and who has since written the libretto of the Gershwin revue NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET and received a well-earned Tony nomination for his efforts; one of the show's ten nods - Joe DiPietro. Discussing the finer points of his many musicals with a special focus on the two currently running on Broadway - MEMPHIS and NICE WORK - DiPietro eloquently elaborates on the process of creating both shows and the challenges new musicals these days face on their developmental road to Broadway. Additionally, we discuss Montego Glover, Chad Kimball, Matthew Broderick, Kelli O'Hara, Judy Kaye, Adam Pascal and the many other talented individuals onstage and off who have participated in the two hit productions treading the boards eight times a week. Besides the complete 411 on MEMPHIS in Part I and NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT in Part II, DiPietro also opens up about his new musical endeavor with Bon Jovi and MEMPHIS composer David Bryan, THE TOXIC AVENGER, and its star, Constantine Maroulis - and don't miss my exclusive interview with Constantine all about the most recent Alley Theater iteration of the show, available here. Plus, DiPietro shares fond remembrances of shows past - I LOVE YOU, YOU'RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE; F*CKING MEN, ALL SHOOK UP and ALLEGRO - and future - CHASING THE DREAM - and expresses his infectious enthusiasm for the theatrical arts in general by revealing his early theatre memories, favorite scores and general love for the art form. All of that and much, much more!

In this concluding portion of our conversation, DiPietro and I break down the process of creating NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT and he comments on the starry cast - including Matthew Broderick, Kelli O'Hara, Judy Kaye and Estelle Parsons - and the process of collaboration in bringing the 2012 Tony Awards top nominee to the Broadway stage. Additionally, DiPietro fills us in on the future for THE TOXIC AVENGER and its tentative Broadway plans, as well as the upcoming West End mountings of MEMPHIS and, hopefully, NICE WORK - and, a look ahead to his next David Bryan collaboration, CHASING THE SONG, as well. Plus, a glance back at his work on I LOVE YOU, YOU'RE PERFECT NOW CHANGE, F*CKING MEN and ALLEGRO and his favorite current pop acts.

More information on MEMPHIS on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre is available here.

More information on NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre is available here.

Nice Work If You Can Write It

PC: Did NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT develop out of the Gershwin revue OH, KAY!?

JD: Yes. That's what this show grew out of - OH, KAY!

PC: What was the first step in the process of devising the show? How did you become involved in the first place?

JD: Well, I got a call from the Gershwin Estate - many years ago now - saying that CRAZY FOR YOU had a been a crazily successful musical, but they considered it sort of a dance show and they still had all these shows from the 20s that were sort slapstick comedies; the Princess musicals, as they were called, named after the Princess Theatre where they premiered. So, they asked me if I would be interested in taking one of those shows and transforming it into a new musical comedy. And, I love the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s and I love the George S. Kauffmann play, too - I knew that style. So, I agreed, and, then, I took OH, KAY! - which seemed to have the most solid germ of a story that I could still sort of make relevant and delightful to modern times and then I chose the songs that I thought were most relevant.

PC: Had you ever seen OH, KAY! before?

JD: No, I had not. What I did for research was to read all of the scripts for the shows from the 1920s that they did and then I listened to their great songbook over and over again.

PC: So, the Gershwin Estate gave you carte blanche, more or less, to adapt at will?

JD: Yes. They said I could use any song as long as it wasn't from PORGY & BESS or OF THEE I SING.

PC: That's more than fair.

JD: Yeah, right?! I thought, "That's fair enough - I don't have much need for PORGY & BESS here anyway!" [Laughs.]

PC: Definitely not.

JD: So, then, I basically listened to every Gershwin song - Robert Kimball put out the complete collected lyrics and that became basically my bible during this process. First, I read the lyrics and tried to figure out what songs would fit in it and then I listened to every verse and saw what fit. What I found very helpful were the Ella Fitzgerald recordings because she sings the whole songs with all the verses and they are all just pitch-perfect.

PC: So brilliant.

JD: Brilliant. And, she never over-emotes them, so it always gives you the song with not a lot of performance on top of it, so that makes it easier to hear it and say, "Oh, this song could go here! Maybe this character can sing this - or, maybe this character can sing this!"

PC: Endless possibilities.

JD: Then, since when you are writing a jukebox musical you are writing backwards, you realize that you have to write characters and situations that support the characters and that will flow from them naturally; that was my goal - to make this a full-integrated new musical and also to reintroduce these songs in a delightful new way. So, for instance, "Someone To Watch Over Me" was not just a pretty girl singing the song center stage, but we twisted the song in a way that would give it a fresh interpretation and still honor the song.

PC: "Blah, Blah, Blah" is a lesser-known Gershwin song you utilize to great effect. How did you arrive upon using obscurities such as that in your development of the book?

JD: Well, I didn't really worry about whether the songs were famous or not because I was more worried with choosing songs that felt like they were integrated - songs that felt right for the characters in these situations. So, a song such as "Demon Rum" was very helpful because it originally was cut from a Betty Grable movie and never heard from again, so, in that place in our show I needed a song that musicalized the main protagonist - which is Prohibition - and, certainly, this is the one song they really wrote about the evils of Prohibition, so I gave that song to the Prohibitionist character. So, songs like that were very, very helpful in the development of NICE WORK.

PC: Did you write Michael McGrath's role explicitly for him, given your past MEMPHIS association?

JD: [Laughs.] Well, Michael actually walked in and auditioned for this many years ago when we were up at Goodspeed - before MEMPHIS. It was one of those situations where the right actor walked in the room and the role fit him like a glove - the notes and words came out of his mouth at that audition and it was like, "This is Cookie McGee!"

PC: So, he has been with the show through the whole process, then?

JD: Yeah, he has been with us since Goodspeed, which was after the first developmental lab.

PC: He certainly embodies the role - with a Tony nomination to prove it.

JD: Yeah, yeah - exactly. When he came in to audition for MEMPHIS, it was for a much more sort of dramatic role - sort of the opposite of Cookie McGee - and he blew that audition out of the water, too! So, essentially, my last two Broadway shows have had Michael a part of them in very important roles - and it is nothing but a testament to his great skills.

PC: Harry Connick, Jr. was attached to NICE WORK early in its development, as well, correct?

JD: Yes - he was.

PC: Kelli O'Hara is quite new to the project though, true?

JD: Yes. We offered the part to Kelli once Matthew signed on and we knew we were going to Broadway sort of just based on her previous brilliant work - I don't think she ever actually was involved with a reading for NICE WORK at any point, we just knew she would be great. She said that she always plays these pretty ingénues and she was excited about playing more of a tomboy and she told me she feels like she is more like this character in real life - she is much more like this in real, day-to-day life and she really gets excited about breaking people's expectations of what she can do onstage.

PC: She always plays sweet roles - until now. Why do you think that is?

JD: I think it's just something about her! She is just so sweet and so gorgeous and her voice is so beautiful that it's like, of course she is going to play pretty, nice girls! But, I am happy I get to give her the opportunity to sing "Someone To Watch Over Me" as a tomboy - with a gun! [Laughs.]

PC: And what a memorable moment it is! Was that your decision to set it up in the way that you have or perhaps Kathleen's choice?

JD: It was just something that came into the script over the years. You know, it was one of those things where I wanted to make sure that while she was singing the song we were reminded that she was not just this pretty girl singing a ballad, but that she wanted out of this life for a very specific reason - and I think this is a fun, comic way to dramatize that.

PC: How did Kathleen Marshall become involved with NICE WORK originally? George C. Wolfe was involved as the director of the project along the way, was he not?

JD: No. George C. Wolfe had met with Harry about something, but it didn't work out I don't think. I believe they were developing their own Gershwin show independent of ours at one point, but I don't know if that went anywhere because, of course, it didn't involve me at all.

PC: Of course.

JD: I had seen Kathleen's PAJAMA GAME with Kelli and Harry and I thought, "Oh, wouldn't Kathleen just be perfect for NICE WORK?" And, so, then, the producer who came onboard - Scott Landis - was engaged to Kathleen and he said, you know, "Just because I am involved with this show now does not mean I am bringing Kathleen with me." I think at that time they were very aware of keeping their professional and their personal lives as separate as possible...

PC: Which makes a lot of sense - but, good luck with that in this business!

JD: Yeah - "good luck," right?! [Laughs.] So, then, Kathleen came to see a reading and she just loved it. After that, we sat down and had a great conversation and I think she felt a real deep connection to the material and, now, here we are.

PC: She is so ideal for this material - as her currently-running huge hit revival of an actual 1930s musical comedy, ANYTHING GOES, attests.

JD: And, you know, the thing about Kathleen that many people may not know is that she is really funny! This is a real, full-out musical comedy and she really knows comedy and really makes the jokes land like an old pro. I have to say that, also to her credit, she lets you care about the characters, too - it's not all about just the rat-a-tat pace where it is just joke, joke, joke, joke; she actually slows it down to let you feel for these people, which is so generous in a show like this.

PC: Have you lost or added some songs along the way?

JD: Yeah - we have added a couple of songs and things.

PC: Such as?

JD: Well, there is the song Kelli sings in the second act - "Hangin' Around With You"; which we make a British musical hall song. At some point we realized that we really didn't have any fun numbers in the second act, so, we thought, "Yeah, yeah - what if we use this song and she sings it as a British musical hall ditty?" And, then, we thought, "And, she can sing it three times through and each time she finishes it she dumps soup on his lap."

PC: A great moment for some physical comedy.

JD: Exactly.

PC: An essential element in any screwball comedy, too.

JD: Yeah, yeah, yeah - and the audience becomes more and more aware what will happen each time she comes in, which makes it so fun. And, Kelli is just delightful in it.

PC: What else was added or cut along the way to Broadway?

JD: Well, at the first preview on Broadway we actually had a full, four-minute overture. It was so gorgeously arranged by David Chase and it sounded just beautiful.

PC: Why was it cut?

JD: Well, we played it and then it was like, "Eh, you know what?" and we realized that we are doing a comedy with a big star in it and we wanted this to be a totally modern take on this kind of musical and the overture just made it seem a bit more old fashioned than we wanted it to.

PC: Antique.

JD: Yeah - and, it was setting the wrong pace for the show. So, after the first preview, we cut it.

PC: NICE WORK works so well launching right into "Sweet And Lowdown", anyway.

JD: Yeah, yeah - it works best just starting the music in the show with that.

PC: Did you always want to include "S'Wonderful", "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Someone To Watch Over Me" - the big three songs everyone expects and anticipates in a Gershwin revue?

JD: Well, my point of view always was that - and it became Kathleen's point of view when she became involved with the show and we began working on the show together - half the songs would be songs that most people would know and then half the songs would probably be discoveries for most people; that was, going into it, how we felt about the song choices. We also tried to stay away from too many songs that were in CRAZY FOR YOU, but, at a certain point, we stopped keeping track - I think that there are only one or two songs that overlap with that.

PC: NICE WORK is totally its own show, in any event.

JD: It is. Also, there are only two songs left from OH, KAY!

PC: So much for that as the rough source material, then!

JD: [Laughs.] You know, it's like, at a certain point you are really aware of all of it, but, then, at a certain point, the writing process takes over and doing what's best for the show takes over and I think that's what happened here. It's its own thing now.

PC: So there are really only two songs left from that score, then?

JD: Yes. You know, what we have with NICE WORK is a totally new take on the story, so you want to make sure that every song we have really illuminates the story every step along the way.

PC: It goes right back to the principle we were talking about with you and David and MEMPHIS - except your collaborators unfortunately couldn't come up with replacement numbers, of course.

JD: [Laughs.] Right. Right. Definitely not - but, what songs to choose from! The very best.

PC: Sutton Foster played Billie in a workshop of NICE WORK. Would you like to see her in that role in the Broadway show someday, perhaps?

JD: Oh, are you kidding me? I'd love to see Sutton in anything I ever write!

PC: Since we have already spoken about Kelli and Michael, tell me about working with Judy Kaye on this - she really can do it all; THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA to SWEENEY TODD to NICE WORK and beyond.

JD: You know, Judy does really, really well whenever there is a chandelier in the show! [Laughs.]

PC: Too true! Hanging from one, in this case - while singing!

JD: Right! I've just gotta say, this cast is a dream; Judy and Michael and Matthew - Matthew Broderick's comic skills just leave me breathless. What he can do with a joke and what he can do with the timing of it is just masterful to watch - you can sort of see why he is the star he is just from those things. He's amazing.

PC: It would be fabulous to see Sarah Jessica Parker join him in it for a spell someday, too - or maybe for a future film adaptation.

JD: [Big Laugh.] That would be great! Oh, I would love that! She would be a great replacement - I'd be all for that.

PC: Are you looking forward to the many opportunities for replacements in this show - there are some fantastic opportunities for stars and character actors of all sorts.

JD: Oh, absolutely - and, that's one of the things I am really proud of about this show; I wrote a lot of roles in it specifically for character actors. I just love people like that - you know, Estelle Parsons; I mean, how can you top her in this? I don't know, I just love actors who have been around a long time - the old theatre pros.

PC: The great stalwarts.

JD: Yeah - they just know how to do their stuff onstage and they know how to do everything right. But, we are just getting started with NICE WORK and we just love the cast we have now. Hopefully, we will be able to continue having great actors in these roles for the length of the run. I can't wait to see who we get.

PC: Moving from your current show to your next show, can you trace the journey of THE TOXIC AVENGER from Off-Broadway to its big recent bow at the Alley Theatre in Houston? What's the next step for the show, especially since it was received so well by audiences and critics alike?

JD: Well, when we first heard the news that there was interest in moving TOXIE from Off-Broadway to Broadway, the first thing I thought was, "I've seen a lot of great Off-Broadway shows go to Broadway, but they don't quite make it Broadway enough," whatever that really means.

PC: The scope needs to be expanded and it all needs to be opened up and certain elements accentuated more to work best.

JD: Exactly. So, I thought, "If we are going to Broadway, we really need to take it out of town again." And, so, that's what we did - we went to the Alley Theatre in Houston.

PC: What changed?

JD: What we did specifically was that we took out all of the frat-boy/juvenile humor. We also added an intermission - which was very helpful for the show because it is now an hourlong first act and a forty-five minute second act, which actually feels just right for the show. And, besides that, we added a couple of songs and took out a couple of songs and punched up some of the humor, too. If this show comes to Broadway - and it looks like there is a good chance that it will - it needs to be able to compete with big musicals and it also needs to be able to find it owns quirky niche.

PC: It's tough out there these days on Broadway for new musicals.

JD: The only way we are going to find the right audience for TOXIE is to make the show as good as it possibly can be and to appeal to the widest audience that we possibly can without losing its inherent edginess and heart - that's the goal at this point.

PC: And you have big shoes to fill given the huge success of MEMPHIS and NICE WORK so very recently. All eyes are on you - it's a lot of pressure to produce something good.

JD: Yes - that's exactly right. David and I have actually talked about this aspect of collaboration - you know, once you have a hit like MEMPHIS that wins awards, suddenly, everyone is watching you; you have to remember, MEMPHIS kind of just snuck into town...

PC: It took everyone by surprise.

JD: It really did - so, now, with TOXIE, the eyes are kind of out for us in a way they weren't before.

PC: And knives, too.

JD: And knives, too. But, what's so good about TOXIE being our follow-up is that its such a different show.

PC: You can say that again.

JD: It's really something else! And, we wrote it in the midst of the MEMPHIS process, really. David and I are actually already doing a reading our of next show this week - which is about writers in the Brill Building in the 1960s. That will really be the follow-up to MEMPHIS, I think - and we are really making sure we are on the top of our game with both projects because we know people are going to be holding us to a higher standard than they did before.

PC: What is the new musical you wrote with David about specifically? Is it an entirely original score?

JD: Yes - it's all original. It's a musical with an original score about what it is like to be a songwriter writing the pop hits of the day in the early 60s before the Beatles came along and changed everything.

PC: So, a little Carol King, a little Burt Bacharach, a little Laura Nyro… the Brill greats.

JD: Yeah. It's sort of a composite of many people - it's basically what it was like to work in this legendary building; what a 9-to-5 job was like where basically your job was to write songs and everyone else is there is writing songs, too, competing with you. It's also about what it was like to be a woman in those days writing songs and how the whole process worked - and, just generally, what it is like to be in the entertainment industry where suddenly the taste can change overnight and suddenly you are not hip anymore.

PC: So, in a way, it is a pseudo-sequel to MEMPHIS, then, would you say - thematically?

JD: Yes. It picks up where MEMPHIS left off - whereas MEMPHIS was mid-to-late 50s, this is really the very early 60s before the counterculture really came in and changed everything.

PC: The time is right for a 1960s musical, certainly - the 60s are hot. Andrew Lloyd Webber's new show is set in the 60s, as well - about the Profumo Affair.

JD: Yeah - that will be really cool; that's a great idea for a musical, actually.

PC: This show is set in the early 60s, though - before it got really swingin'.

JD: Yeah - we are early 60s with this, but it is very much like MEMPHIS in that it is funneled through a modern sound. It's a really, really interesting take on creativity, I think - about the process of writing songs and what it is like for a writer when it is flowing and when it doesn't flow; it's just all about writers and what they do. It's been a lot of fun to write - and a challenge.

PC: Do you have any actors attached to the project yet?

JD: No, not yet. We are just doing a reading amongst ourselves - meaning: it's me, David, Chris Ashley and Sergio Trujillo. It's the same team as MEMPHIS and most of the same producers.

PC: What's next in the development of the show?

JD: Well, we are doing this work session and in the Fall we are going to do an actual full workshop of it if all goes well this week.

PC: What is the title?

JD: Well, at the moment, it is called CHASING THE SONG - that might change, but that's the title we are going with for now.

PC: Sergio just did this column, but he wouldn't tell me what his new show was - now I know!

JD: Yes, this is what it is! I guess because I am the writer I am allowed to say. [Laughs.]

PC: He's such a talented and expressive guy.

JD: Oh, I love Sergio. That man is so, so talented - he really just knows it all; he can do modern and old fashioned stuff and everything in between. I just love working with him and I hope I can on every show.

PC: He had four shows running simultaneously recently, you know.

JD: I know! Isn't that unbelievable?

PC: You could have three on Broadway if TOXIE comes in next season, though! You are truly a theatrical MVP at this point. Will TOXIE be the show you want to come in next, before CHASING THE DREAM?

JD: Yes. TOXIE is the show we would like to come in next - if it happens. I think at this point the producers are waiting on theatre availability - which is always tricky. So, right now, we are seeing what we are going to do, but it seems like it has a good shot at coming in next season.

PC: Would you like to see Constantine Maroulis continue with the show to Broadway? He is committed to the new JEKYLL & HYDE tour, as well, coming up, which could preclude his involvement.

JD: Well, I would love Constantine to do it, but, as far as I know, he will be on the road with JEKYLL, so we'll see what happens - you never know how these things will work out.

PC: I'd love to know a little bit more about one of your lesser-known shows - a play called F*CKING MEN? What can you tell me about it?

JD: F*CKING MEN is an all-male version - a modern adaptation - of LA RONDE. To be honest, I really wrote it as a writing exercise and thought, "Well, no one is ever going to produce this, so let me give it an unproducable title." And, subsequently, it's been produced three times, of course. [Laughs.]

PC: That's always the way that it goes, it seems.

JD: It happens - LA; Chicago. Hopefully, it will be produced Off-Off-Broadway next season, as well.

PC: Bill Wilmot directed it originally, correct?

JD: Yeah - he is a really good director and he did a great job in London of it.

PC: Is another musical revue of yours - ALL SHOOK UP; based on the music of Elvis - produced often regionally?

JD: All the time - it's done all the time! It's really popular and I'm so happy about that.

PC: Broadway success is not necessary for shows to be regional hits anymore - as SEUSSICAL proves every year. Community groups do a lot of the new shows now, it seems - it's a whole new age of community theatre.

JD: It really is a new age - a whole new age.

PC: I LOVE YOU, YOU'RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE was one of the only contemporary scores in the 90s and it was a really special piece, I thought.

JD: Well, I think that, really, the only reason I LOVE YOU, YOU'RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE worked so well was that, first, it was in the days when you could still do a show and be successful and make money Off-Broadway, and, also, we were a musical comedy - the rest of the shows were mostly those British dramatic musicals in those days; they really dominated the landscape.

PC: To say the least.

JD: I think that the people who went to our show laughed a lot and saw themselves in it and just had a good time, and, oddly enough, there weren't a lot of other shows like that at the time.

PC: It was anomalous.

JD: But, then, what happened was that a few years later, THE PRODUCERS came along and comedy was back to Broadway in a big way and that show was really the right show at the right time - as many big successes usually are.

PC: Is there any future for your recent adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's innovative ALLEGRO?

JD: You know, when you write and adapt a show like that, you are really in the hands of the estate - in that case, the Rodgers & Hammerstein Estate - and, so, we had a great success with it and even won the Helen Hayes Award for Best Musical for the production, but I don't know about going further with it. You know, it just doesn't seem like anyone is crying out to produce it again, but it was a lovely show and a lovely Eric Schaeffer production that I was very proud of being involved with.

PC: What is on your iPod right now?

JD: What am I listening to right now? I think my favorite song right now is "F*ck You" by Cee-Lo.

PC: An especially superb Bruno Mars collaboration! Bruno is an amazing songwriter.

JD: Oh, I love Bruno Mars - I actually have his whole album, too; DOO-WOPS AND HOOLIGANS. I love "F*ck You", too, though - Cee-Lo is so cool.

PC: Both would write an awesome musical someday.

JD: Yeah, they really would - Bruno's DOO-WOP album is so good.

PC: So, will you be attending the Tony Awards?

JD: Oh, yes, of course - I can't wait. I already have my suit ready! [Laughs.]

PC: NICE WORK would translate well overseas, I think, don't you? Is that the next step for the show after the Tony Awards?

JD: Yes, I agree - and, of course, one of our producers is Sonia Friedman, who is a really big British producer, so the possibility is definitely open for that to happen and I hope we explore that possibility after the Tony Awards.

PC: And you would be open to the possibility of a NICE WORK film, as well, down the line?

JD: Oh, absolutely! I am definitely open to everything like that! [Laughs.]

PC: Will MEMPHIS be going to the West End soon, too?

JD: Yes, I believe so. The producers were just there this week and I was told that now they are just waiting for the right theatre. So, I would imagine in about a year it will be over there.

PC: Thank you so much for this comprehensive conversation today, Joe! We all can't wait to see what you do next and all my best luck to you at the Tony Awards with NICE WORK.

JD: Thank you so much, Pat - this was so, so great. I really appreciate it. Have a great night. Bye.

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