Los Angeles Times / Calendar

Sunday January 3, 1999

In His Book, Broadway is Tops
Peter stone gave up the lucrative but lowly life of a screenwriter for the more satisfying world of stage.

By Patrick Pacheco

New York- Half lounging on a divan in the library of his Manhattan townhouse, writer Peter Stone imagines a scenario in which some old studio hacks sit around a commissary table at lunchtime, wondering what the hell ver happened to the guy who wrote dozens of films, won a Emmy for “the defenders” and an Oscar nomination for “charade” and the award itself for “Father Goose.” And then disappeared.

“Has anybody heard from Stone” He was a figure and suddenly he’s not around. He doesn’t work anymore.”

“They say he’s in the theater.”
“The what?”
“ In Hollywood they have no idea where I went,” says the 68-year-old Los Angeles-born renegade son of a writer and producer (Tom Mix serials, Shirley Temple movies) with a wry smile. “My own agents out there don’t know what I’m doing. They don’t get what the theater is. It’s small potatoes.”

Small potatoes to Hollywood, perhaps, but not to Stone, who grew up steeped in Movies (he attended Shirley Temple’s sixth birthday party), but who also recalls taking a bus down to the old Biltmore Theatre to see the “second or third” road company of some musical from New York with few people in the audience.

Since 1961, the writer has become one of Broadway’s premiere musical book writers, carving out a lifestyle for himself that includes an East Side brownstone and an estate in Amagansett where he spends most of his time with Mary, his wife of 38 years.

Dressed in khakis and a sweater, a cheap watch strapped to his wrist, he is an avuncular presence, with the weary sophistication of someone with more than two dozed Broadway shows under his belt and the magisterial patter of a man who, as president of the Dramatists Guild, the national organization of playwrights, lyricists and composers, is a leading spokesman for the theater.

Though he occasionally returns to screenwriting (1995’s “Just Cause,” starring Sean Conery), Stone is in hot demand for his theater craft, having won four Tony Awards- for “1776”, which enjoyed a successful revival last year; “Woman of the Year”(1983); “The Will Rogers Follies” (1991); and “Titanic, the Musical,” the 1997 Tony Award winner for best musical, the national tour of which opens in L.A. next Sunday at the Ahmanson theater.

Indeed, Stone is so successful at what he does that Tommy Tune’s musical adaptation of “Easter Parade” was put off for a year until Stone could find time to work on it. While overseeing rehearsals on the national tour of “Titanic,” Stone is also currently in rehearsals for the revival of Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun”, whose book he has revised. That show, starring Bernadette Peters and Tom Wopat, opens on Broadway in February, after which he completes his revision of the book of “Finian’s Rainbow,” set for a revival next season.

Then too, there are his projects with John Kander and Fred Ebb (a musical mystery called “Curtains”) and Jimmy Webb (“Love Me, Love My Dog”).

Musical book writing is a difficult and often thankless task because, as Stone, is wont to say-with only a slight hint of exasperation- “nobody knows what a book is”. Forget the Hollywood philistines. Even Broadway aficionados are confused by exactly what he and his ilk contribute to a show. Ever hear of Hugh Wheeler’s “A Little Night Music”? Arthur Laurents’ “Gypsy”? Michael Stewart’s “Hello Dolly!”? Chances are these book writers weren’t even mentioned in the reviews for these classic shows. The Theater Hall of Fame, a wall of names in the Gershwin Theatre voted in annually by the drama desks of newspapers around the country, does not include one artist who is solely a book writer.

“People think it’s the jokes, the dialogue, but that’s the smallest part,” Stone ways, “It’s really concept and structure. And without that, there’s no musical. You can have the best score in the world, but if the book is weak, it won’t work.” The structure for “Titanic” came comparatively easy, given that the story of the greatest maritime disaster in history is “perfectly ordered” for drama in Stone’s opinion. Confined not only by rime and space, it has a class structure of Edwardian society reflected in the first, second and third classes of the passenger roster, and the historical characters-from the owner of Macys’ and his wife, who chose to die together, down to the bellboys, all under 15, who all went down with the ship- were rich and colorful, redolent of the values of a vanished era.

“Can you imagine today’s group of billionaires, standing there, putting on their evening clothes, taking out a silver flask of brandy and going down with the ship because that was the code?” asks Stone of the courage and cowardice that are now part of Titanic lore.

Unlike James Cameron’s wildly popular movie, Stone’s version of the Titanic story focuses primarily on the real characters involved in disaster-the builder of the ship, the owner of the White Star cruise line and the captain. As the ship steams toward its destiny, there are snapshot scenes involving real and imagined passengers and crew, including a social-climbing matron, a mysterious and sardonic widow and a romantic stoker. Indeed, some reviewers have been critical that too much time is devoted to documentary data and not enough to story line.

“It’s astonishing to me that the film didn’t use any of the characters, invented them instead. Obviously, if you do that, you’re going to fail, right? Well, anyway…”

Stone’s concept for the musical version of the Titanic story was prompted by the idea that the ship’s sinking was the most dramatic failure of the Industrial Revolution. Man forgot that there would always by icebergs.
“To have thought the ship was unsinkable, as the builder, owner and captain felt, was its doom,” the writer says of the characters on whom the musical focuses. “So we constructed this thing: ‘Is progress always progress?’ Because it’s very much part of our time now. The Challenger disaster and the end of the millennium, when the fear is that every computer is going to crash. In “Titanic,’ there is this sense of nature as a force that humbles man, puts him in his proper perspective.”

Another thing that tends to humble man, particularly theater artists, is the hypercritical New York preview audience. Despite the present hit status of the musical, “Titanic” endured on of the most troubled pre-opening periods in recent memory, which daily headlines (“All singing, all dancing, all drowning”) predicting its failure and sour word of mouth spreading on the street. After the show opened to mixed reviews, its commercial future seemed doubtful until the theatrical community, in a weak your for musicals, bestowed the imprimatur of best musical Tony on the show.

Stone dismissed the turbulent period, noting that “all musicals are in trouble” during previews (the classic “1776” opened to 60 people on a snowy night in Boston) because only then can audiences collectively cue the creative team to what is right- or more important, what is wrong- with what they’ve only thus far seen in the rehearsal room. The pressure is usually on the book writer, because it is far easier and faster to change scenes than it is to compose and implement new songs or dances. Besides, adds Stone, his collaborators –the composer, the choreographer, the director – usually have their won department of personnel to share the burden. The book writer is a “department of one.”

“I love it when a show I’m working on is in trouble, “Stone says. “I’m an ardent puzzle doer, and I love solving the puzzle of it. I like the process. I don’t like being in trouble in New York; nothing pleases the theatrical community more than knowing that a show is in trouble. And maybe had they succeeded – and the show was very nearly destroyed by it – it might have been discouraging. But they lost and we won.”

Asked if he misses writing for the screen, Stone recalled that he had once compared the craft “in dignity as only second to picking cigarette butts out of urinals.” His experience on “Just Cause,” for which Connery insisted on changing his script so that he could wrestle with alligators in the film’s climactic scene, did nothing to change his mind.

“ I miss writing them, but I don’t miss what happens to them after you write them,” he says. “Stars are now the producers, because they are the motivating force to what gets done – half Jim Carry’s salary is the entire budget for ‘Titanic” – and stars don’t have the slightest clue of how to rewrite anything. It hurts the pictures terribly. Minutes after the script leaves my computer, it’s best I be put to sleep.”

For now, at least, Stone is comfortable with the autonomy and protection that the theater provides for his work. He does worry, however, that the incursion of corporate money on Broadway, along with the economic pressure on a show to run six or seven years just to recoup its investment, will lead to “user-friendly” entertainment at the expense of more adventurous of difficult work. He has little admiration for what he calls “the four British musicals from hell” – “Miss Saigon,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats” and “Les Miserables” – which in his opinion have “no book,” but he is nonetheless optimistic about the theater’s future. He loved the energy and boldness of “Rent,” and he’s bullish about the “brilliant, very talented” composers coming along, like Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”), Adam Guettel (“Floyd Collins”), and Paul Scott Goodman (“Bright Lights, Big City”).

Stone figures he has three or four more shows in him before he passes the mantle on to the new generation, and he’s looking forward to the puzzles in all of them.

“ ‘The Peter Principle’ – this notion that as soon as you get food at something, you’re promoted to something you’re not good at – isn’t going to work here. I’m food at writing book musicals and I’m going to keep writing them. I know I’m not going to sit down and write the Great American Play, but I hope to do the Great American Musical. Maybe I’ve already done it.”

Oh? “Of it’s kind, ‘1776’ will always be done, ” he answers, referring to his musical about the terrible risks and odds faced by the founding fathers in declaring independence form the British crown, Then he adds, with a laugh, “I think it’s the best book that’s ever been done for a musical, because there’s so much of it!”