A Letter to the New York Times Drama Critic
Preface, Part One
Jun 1, 2022
... and the day that I picked him up at the airport disguised as a taxi driver.
August 1, 2015
I am going to be Dreadful.
I am going to be That Playwright.
I am going to do - whatever I can to promote Authentic Theater and alas it means that I must clutter your inbox.
Word has reached me that you are flying to Medford airport - be sure to have a shuttle arranged to get to Ashland! - in order to see Head Over Heels, as well as whatever else is on your play-going plate at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival next month.
Head Over Heels is the show that was targeted for a traditional commercial development process, in the midst of which your weary believer of a playwright said: “STOP! Can we do it another way?”
I grew up in Oregon. The stage on which you’ll see Head Over Heels is the very stage where I saw my first ever professional theater production: Angus Bowmer’s Outdoor Elizabethan Stage, now in its 80th Year of theatrical life.
Had High School Jeff Whitty known that he’d be writing for the very Trap on which he watched Macbeth’s witches appear in the 1980’s, for his very own musical featuring the music of The Go-Go’s (who he at the same time watched on MTV) his pubescent mind would have experienced a Total Disassociation! (See: Pamela, Page 38, Head Over Heels.)
And the road that brought me back to that stage had nothing to do with the fact that I was born three hours away.
It was my connection with Bill Rauch, who directed my first production of my play The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler at South Coast Repertory in 2005; the play no New York theaters would touch because gay white men were not supposed to be writing Mammy-“I’s gwynne”-speak, plus unapologetic horridlywonderful gay stereotypes; and the play that Bill then bravely and triumphantly brought to Ashland in 2009 with the Production to End All Productions.
(Perhaps until *I* played the titular role with Billy Porter as Mammy, but that’s another story.)
After having worked at many regional theaters all around the country, and having been through the Broadway commercial blender, I discovered that the Authentic world of theater that I longed for was right here where I started.
(“Now click three times ...” – Glinda.)
I delivered my first draft of Head Over Heels on January First, 2014, to fulfil my contract with the producers who had purchased the catalog. Hot off of the presses. I’d kept Bill and OSF apprised all along the way as I had a hunch it might be a good fit. So I slipped the draft to Bill, too, on that day.
In the space of four days, Bill called and offered me the slot on the Elizabethan.
This rash rash rash decision was the most meaningful artistic achievement of my life: the most flagrant act of faith in me as an artist that I’ve ever received. I barely know where I keep my Tony Award; I keep this statement of Bill’s in the very kernel of my heart.
The problem was that the producers had to make a decision immediately because OSF had to decide its season. Usually with musicals, you work for YEARS (and pretty much for free, I add) before these opportunities come up. She’d only been birthed and Head Over Heels was moving at a rollicking pace.
So the producers on the commercial end replied with a “No.”
It broke my heart because I knew what lay ahead. I’d experienced it: the out-of town tryouts where you essentially buy out a regional theater; where you pass the Artistic Director in the hall and wave apologetically; where the Audience is half-full with elderly subscribers and during the scant precious precious previews you can’t get a feel of the Pulse Of The Crowd –
I’d experienced an organic, Authentic development process with Tales of the City at ACT. The heartbreaker of Tales was the limited previews. The first preview went down at 11:20 PM; the Union orchestra went into double-overtime at 11 and ACT begged us to pare it down – my musical with seven delicately interwoven storylines. So all of my previews went to cutting instead of crafting.
This is no apology; I am proud of what we achieved. It’s simple Practicality. But it also meant a lot of ends left loose. The arithmetic of humor could often not be solved for lack of time; the comic release too often almost landed but didn’t get the revision time to fully detonate.
And then you came in, Charles, and your review was kind; but you said the stories could not be told this way. And that was the coffin nail on which Tales died, for the journey was Fixed. You may not want that power; alas, others give it to you.
It’s a simple fact. I live with the artistic frustration of that, and there is the Practical making-a-living aspect. I’m not wealthy whatsoever from Avenue Q; I do fine; I’d trade my Tony in a second to have the audience the witches bring! And all of that time, that effort - with nothing to show. And I believe in Tales still, I do. I think it will come about again, somehow.
And then Bring It On rang all of the bells of commercial theater development; so deadening in so many ways, the work was endlessly meticulous and excruciating. But my joyful, diligent creative team made it fulfilling despite all.
Alas for ill-considered marketing and opening at a terrible time, despite your kind review it did not find a life. Our Audiences loved Bring It On but our potential Audiences had to way to find it. So I had to surrender my royalties every week she ran in order to keep her running as long as she did. This is also true; you can ask my agent, who I finally begged to stop calling me, week upon week, so I wouldn’t have to keep saying “Of course, of course, keep the show running ...” The writers made not a cent on a Broadway musical that ran twenty weeks.
I fled New York for Los Angeles to bury myself in film and TV. For the former Go-Go Boy knew what it was to get Paid For What You Do. Bitch needed to get paid.
I said to alla the world: No More Musicals, ever!
DAMMIT. MUSICALS. Their siren call! And theater itself: I want it to be my life.
In what is most Commercial, Authenticity can live serenely. Lin-Manuel is doing it now, but he is our remarkable Lin; our younger artists so rarely get the opportunity to protect their Personal creative fires from the chilly Practicalities of the commercial world. But I know from my own experience how the two can live together.
For commercial theater to be exciting - and how many more tepid shows can you endure? - the Personal and Practical MUST include each other. For down that road lies Authenticity.
It’s the lesson I learned from Burning Man. I feel that Head Over Heels is where Broadway Meets Burning Man: the ephemeral instinct that leads people to spend thousands of hours to create beautiful art projects to then be burned is the same impulse of theater artists. We have the Present moment, the Authentic moment, and that is all that matters. Dedicated artisans, handcraftedness, community. It’s made from love first: Judy and Mickey’s do-it-in-the-barn aesthetic.
So when the commercial producers said No to Bill, after what I’d endured, I replied back with the double-negative that led to YES.
“No. We must do it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.”
Then they said Yes.
And that is where I leave you, Charles. I write because I want to include you in this process. I feel critics can be our allies as artists; your out-of-town review of Bring It On was helpful, I Will Have You Know, and I took your suggestions seriously. Putting the two big competition numbers close together was a smart idea. I rewrote half of the script based on your input and what I learned from our Audiences.
As for Head Over Heels, I can fill you in on what happened after the big “Yes” if you like. Here’s a scene: Playwright at first preview perched in front of busloads of Fifth Graders, my best and most ruthless preview Audience ever --
FIFTH GRADERS (at intermission): Squeal!! This is the best thing I’ve ever seen!!
FIFTH GRADERS (at 11:05 PM): Oh my GOD it’s after ELEVEN.
PLAYWRIGHT (scribbling, to himself): I know, my dears, I’m on it. (Followed by 30 straight hours of sweaty work, surgically lifting 20 minutes from the show, in iambic pentameter to boot, well aware of Union demands down the road; after the cuts that’s when She Clicked.)
I beg not for your good opinion whatsoever on what you will see. But I am open to communicate however you like, and if you do not respond I am serene. I suggest that you experience it all blind without reading it first, as Audiences do.
I’ve revealed little of the show itself or what I was up to. Head Over Heels is full of surprises and I’d love for you to experience them in the open air.
All I request is that you consider where we are in this process. When I heard you were coming, I joked that I’d have to preview my next musical behind the Marshfield High School Girls’ Gym in my hometown of Coos Bay. You’re seeing me three previews in; Avenue Q thank God had THIRTY-odd at the Vineyard.
Previews are the only time I get to revise in the thick of the objective Crowd. All work before is a considered guess. Head Over Heels is the show where I stack two iambic pentameter monologs atop one another, a sequence written in Microsoft Excel because no other program I could find could accommodate it; you’ll see its first draft because I couldn’t ask our valiant actresses for a second spin and plus I had no Time ...
And I dare not say how I feel about the entire final product despite this and many many many hurdles I’ll not type on about. But I’ll reveal that I watch Head Over Heels and experience pleasure in the watching of it, on a cellular organic Audience level.
I was going to force Bill to be my date and sit right next to you, welcoming you to engage in the process. He’s so dear and such a believer I might have been able to strong-arm him into it! But I dare not ask him; he’s in Vietnam for some reason anyway.
Instead: this letter.
I can’t imagine you’ve received many such letters. I wonder if we artists are the ones leading with Affront these days. Iwant a healthy to-and-fro; if nothing else, Head Over Heels is all about the preposterous necessariness of Status. I’m not currying favor, I promise; but if the Times comes to review us when we’re still birthing, I fear that what is still in-process will become Fixed and later on The Ones Who Hold The Keys will say, “YOU say it can be done but in the Times ‘tis writ [mutter mutter].”
For I have work left on this baby yet; I want room to grow and learn and play.
Mr. Whitty would happily kidnap you for a drink at Martino’s in Ashland if you’d like; I won’t ask your opinion about nuthin’. If all we do is cackle I’d be fine; I’ll introduce you as My Friend Charles; Martino’s is where the theater folk hangout and what is said there remains at Martino’s. My lips are sealed, certainly.
Amy’s the waitress; she knows everything. But I understand, whatever you decide.
I want to Include you, show ya a Night On The Town. And then you can write whatever the Hell you want!
Just don’t rely on the taxis to get you from MFR airport to your hotel.
The first sentence of Charles's reply was: "Hi Jeff, Thanks for your delightful note. Now if you could cut a few graphs and re-send it would be perfect. (Haha.)" which was the best "touchè" ever.
There was a method to my madness. In my letter's opening graph I wrote, "[B]e sure to have a shuttle arranged to get to Ashland!" And at the end I reiterated, "Just don’t rely on the taxis to get you from MFR airport to your hotel!"
I was devising a plan, you see ...
... in which I would drive eleven hours to Ashland, put on a bad taxi driver outfit assembled from my Burning Man costumes, with a deliberately fake moustache, and pick up the New York Times drama critic at baggage claim.
As for what happened when he arrived in Ashland, well, the stunt went over great and my cheeky, sincere message was received with good-humored bemusement.
My efforts were purely to reiterate, as I wrote in my letter, "I have work left on this baby yet."
The letter is heartbreaking for me to read now. What happened next perfectly undid of all of my efforts. For the drama critic was not the issue; I had no idea that my work was already in the process of being undone by my own lawyer and agent, who saw the show, recognized the audience response ("this show is gonna run forever!") and got busy working in concert behind my back to steal my ownership, claiming my hard work as their property to do with as they pleased.
My hired representatives justified their actions by portraying me as so in love with my first production that I refused to change anything. "I am saving you from yourself!" my agent came to shrieking with the newbie producers on the line before slamming down the phone - as if my sensible desire to continue work on the show that existed was an outrageous diva-like demand.
It all had to be destroyed to then be rebuilt with his clients in the key creative slots.
To cover their tracks, the men I paid to be my voice spread poison across the industry that I was precious, stubborn, uncollaborative, all in order to justify grabbing ownership of my work in order to line their own pockets, spreading the wealth around to their other clients against my fervent opposition as revenue and power flowed to them.
They were too ignorant to realize that they destroyed all that I built, but they took gleeful pleasure in destroying the artist who so naively trusted in them.
I'll say it again and again as I tell my story:
A hit on Broadway can be worth a billion dollars nowadays.
So if the story that unfolds sounds sociopathically cruel, well, we know what people get up to in order to seize much less.