GILBERT KAPLAN: Welcome back to “Mad About Music” with my guest, the award-winning playwright John Guare.
Today he is regarded as one of our foremost dramatists; but he wrote his first play when he was only eleven. By 30, he won an Obie, the theater’s equivalent of an Oscar for film. His best known – and most award-winning play is Six Degrees of Separation. Other works include Rich and Famous, Bosoms and Neglect, The House of Blue Leaves, and his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Louis Malle’s film Atlantic City. His plays have been described as highly theatrical – “He finds the bizarre and the comic in the human condition and magnifies it to massive proportions.” Well, what’s left to discover then is the music such a person would love. John Guare, welcome to “Mad About Music”.
JOHN GUARE: Well it’s wonderful to be here – “Mad About Music” – a very apt title.
KAPLAN: Well, you would know about titles, and I want to connect music with your work at the beginning of the show, to the extent it does connect, and I was just wondering, when you are writing, do you keep music on?
GUARE: I don’t. I’m not one of those people who can write when there’s music on. But I need music when I’m thinking about it. A play works as a piece of music - so we’re getting into symphonic work, the way that you bring all your themes together.
KAPLAN: Do you really think the way a, say a symphonic composer might be thinking when you’re structuring a play?
GUARE: I think you have to. I don’t think you do it consciously, but I think that when a play is working, a play can function as a score for actors to play; and the role of the director is to find the proper tempos, the modulations. When you cast a play, you’re casting an orchestra. You know “She’s great”, and you will talk to a casting director or a director like this, you say, you know, “She’s a trumpet, but I really need a clarinet for this”.
KAPLAN: What would you mean if you said that, as an example?
GUARE: Well, I said, if you said you’re casting Cherry Orchard, and you said for Ranevskaya, the woman who’s coming back - the casting director said “Let’s - what about Ethel Merman”, and you would say, “No, that’s a trumpet, Ranevskaya must be a cello.” I think it’s a wonderful way, when you talk to a casting director, when you’re trying to cast a play yourself, putting all the actors together, you are assembling an orchestra.
KAPLAN: That’s fascinating, thinking of trumpets. Well let’s come then, away from brass and to strings, and the first work on your list tonight which is only for strings, and it’s Arnold Schoenberg.
GUARE: Well, why I picked it, it’s because I remember I was kid, and I’ve never forgotten it. It is one of those things, you wonder, what is life going to be, and you’re there agonizing over where you are and one’s impossibility of a future, and the impossibility of love, and the impossibility of writing and the impossibility of everything, and you’re at one of those “hours of the wolf,” and you know it’s like 4:00 o’clock in the morning when life is at its most hopeless. And I used to not be able to sleep in silence, I used to have to have the radio on to fall asleep and out of the blue, I remember this, it was so vivid, that I was at a point of despair, and suddenly this piece came on. A piece I had never heard, the Sextet by Schoenberg, and I was sure it was going to be something discordant and – something that would show me the truth of myself that had no harmony at all and it was just - and suddenly this piece came on, and I remember without – it’s embarrassing to say – bursting – did I burst into tears? Well, part of me did. It’s what I wanted life to be. It showed me somehow life had the possibility of transformation. And that to me has always been what the basis of art is, is transformation. But I’ll never forget how that rescue, of suddenly, a piece I had never heard before, that “Transfigured Night,” and the possibility of transfiguration in life was an astonishing concept to me in my post-adolescent despair. And I’ve always been grateful to this piece. There’s an orchestral version of the piece, which I thought had to be better, because it was an orchestra, rather than six pieces. But I’ve never liked the orchestral version. It’s an exercise, but it seems that the Sextet has a purity to it, and a yearning, I’ve always been grateful to. When you were asking me, “what would you pick to be “Mad About Music”? this popped up at memory -- popped of something that must be – I don’t know – forty years ago that I heard it, but I’ve never got over – there are a few pieces like that, the first time you hear them, you know it’s like being hit by a fire engine -- its wakeup is so great. And so that’s what I wanted to open my talk with you tonight was Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” so I can have that memory again.
KAPLAN: The moving conclusion of Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, “Transfigured Night”, here in the original setting for string sextet and performed by The Hollywood String Quartet with an additional viola and cello, the first selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music”, playwright John Guare. Now you mentioned that you first heard this work as a kid. Did you grow up in a musical home? Were your parents passionate about music?
GUARE: They loved – they would have horrible fights, the radio would always be on, and they could be having a horrible fight, and if some dance band came on they would stop their fight and dance. They loved to dance.
KAPLAN: Did they get to Beethoven?
GUARE: Not for a second. Not for a second.
KAPLAN: But were you already listening at that age, you’re talking about, to classical music, even though your parents didn’t have –
GUARE: Not an idea of it.
KAPLAN: Well how did you first come to it, then?
GUARE: Well, I’ll tell you, it was all self-education – I went to Georgetown in Washington, and we had to take a class in music appreciation. And our teacher was this guy Paul Hume who was the music critic for the Washington Post. And he was the one who wrote a rotten review of Margaret Truman, and Harry Truman wrote him a letter, calling him an S-O-B and Paul Hume sold the letter and bought a house in Chevy Chase with it. And he opened up a lot of doors, listening – but I can remember vividly that it was through celebrity that Maria Callas, I was a freshman in college and I had read about Maria Callas. She was a celebrity - you know I had never heard her sing. And she was performing at Constitution Hall, and so my roommate, Bill Costigan, who is still my friend, we went down and we sneaked into Constitution Hall, and we got in! And we heard Maria Callas sing. And it was sort of a staggering event. It was sort of stupefying to hear her and it was extraordinary.
KAPLAN: Now, I recall you’re telling me when we were preparing for the show that around age thirty-five, you took a little detour from normal life, and pursued a year studying the piano.
GUARE: Well thirty-five was a great year. I was sort of at sixes and sevens, as they say. I mean I had written a lot, and I had used up my pile of stuff. And I was trying to figure out new stuff to write and I had a little bit of success, a had a little bit of failure, I had a little bit of money from this musical I had written. I was just - I didn’t know what my next step was going to be. And I was at a party one night, and I was sort of playing the piano. I had taught myself to play the piano, with guitar chords, playing the piano much like a large ukulele, and I would accompany myself, and I could trick something out, and I still love to sing. And you know, pop tunes. And Tony Perkins was there, and he walked by, and he said, “Oh, is that as well as you play?” And I felt pretty smug and I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “It must be very boring”. I was furious. He said, “No, no, no”, he said “I used to play like that; you’re just playing from chords, right? And you don’t know anything about music?” I said “Well that’s right.” He wrote out this address and he said, “Go to this guy.” It was a man named Tony Aless whose studio is right nearby here. And he had been, I believe, played piano for Woody Herman, but was a staff piano player for CBS and gave piano lessons. And I spent a year, I went about three times a week, it was great and I was in analysis. I would go three times a week for piano lessons, I had my Czerny, I had Clemente, and did Mozart, and Bill Evans. And it was a thrilling year. That year I also ran into my old friend Bill Costigan, whom I mentioned, my freshman year roommate whom I hadn’t seen in a while, and he said, “How are you”, and I said, “Oh, rotten -- I can’t sleep. I can’t work. I just feel like I’m turning to stone.” He gave me an address and said “Go to this place. It will change your life.” So I went to this place on Lexington Avenue and it was filled with people on trapezes. And I was so out of shape, and I spent a year taking trapeze – it all happened at the same time. I took trapeze lessons, I played the piano, and I went to my analyst. And it was a year in heaven!
KAPLAN: Well, trapeze, I suppose, has helped you with timing, if nothing else.
GUARE: Well, I’ll tell you something. The value of that was it taught me patience. It took me one year to learn one trick. But it was a good trick. I could pull myself up on the bar, and then pull myself up and lock my heels above my head against the ropes, and swing back and forth, and then do a backbend. It was so complicated, but it was great – while swinging back and forth, and I felt, I became strong at the end of a year. And that taught me patience, which is something in my writing at the time; I was getting very, very, very impatient, because if it didn’t come first draft, I’d throw it away. Maybe that might have been the right idea, but there was a trapeze and the music and the piano lessons, really taught me about patience. Anyway, at the end of that year I met Adele, who had become my wife, and my life changed. I mean, I was ready, thanks to the music and the trapeze and the analyst, I was ready for Adele. That was thirty-four years ago, and she’s made my life in so many ways, and one of the great things is, about nineteen or twenty years ago, twenty years ago now she was chosen to be president of an institution called the American Academy in Rome, which is a place, eleven acres on the highest part of Rome, where writers and painters and composers and scholars and sculptors, and archeologists, go for a year of independent study. Well, I like to go there a lot. I like to spend as much time there as I can, and we have a little apartment there. And in the next, in the villino next to our apartment, the woman Cristina Puglisi, who was in charge of the properties and all, she’s married to a concert pianist named John Kamitsuka who practices eight hours a day. And so you ask if I play music while I’m working. The only time I do is when I am in Rome, because I love to hear John Kamitsuka practice all day, because he gets into projects and you just live through them with him. A few years ago it was the Goldberg Variations, and just to hear him grow and grow and grow his approach to that. And so, this past year, he’s been working on the Diabelli Variations. You know, Diabelli had this contest and he wrote a theme, and he approached all these composers, and there were forty-nine entries, and on the last day of the contest – I mean, it was really the last-minute, under the wire – Beethoven supplied his thirty-three variations on the theme. The ones that I picked are the Schnabel which is an old recording and it is not considered the finest, that Schnabel is criticized for being too rough, and maybe too personal. But you really feel that Schnabel is climbing some kind of mountain, and doing battle, and having a great time with it and so that’s why I love this.
KAPLAN: A selection from Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations performed by Artur Schnabel – music chosen by playwright John Guare, my guest today on “Mad About Music”. When we return, we’ll talk about the new opera for which John Guare has been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on today’s edition of “Mad About Music” playwright John Guare. You know, earlier you said that writing a play was similar to composing a symphony. I suppose an opera might be a closer comparison. In any case, you will soon find out as the Metropolitan Opera has invited you hasn’t it to collaborate with Wynton Marsalis - he’s best known for playing the trumpet, to create a new opera. You’ll write the libretto, he’ll write the score. So a chicken and egg type question: what comes first – the words or the music?
GUARE: Well, at this point, they went to Wynton and asked him to do an opera, and I don’t know Wynton – and he said that he wanted to work with me, which was great. So then Peter Gelb called me and asked me if I would be interested and I said, “Absolutely!” So you asked which would - the chicken or the egg? I guess Wynton was the chicken. But we met for a meeting, and then we said let’s have another meeting and the next meeting was a year later, so I don’t know if the egg is going to come out of the same chicken.
KAPLAN: In general, when you have a librettist and a composer, I mean, is the collaboration that the composer’s trying to put music to a librettist’s words, or does the librettist hear some music and think of words, or -
GUARE: Well, not ever having done an opera, I worked on a musical, “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” in 1971, where I never met the composer until rehearsals. I would call up and I would leave lyrics on his answering machine. I’ve never done an opera, and I have the terrible feeling that I don’t collaborate well. And, so, I don’t know, because Wynton’s schedule is insane.
KAPLAN: All right, then let’s leave insanity and turn to something calm because I see that the sacred music of Poulenc is next on your list.
GUARE: You know, it’s I think it probably goes back in a sense to the Schoenberg. Again, we talk about self-education, educating myself in music. When I was, like, a sophomore, it must have been 1957, ‘58 or something at Georgetown, NBC, on a Sunday afternoon at the opera, did the world premiere of a new opera with Leontyne Price called Dialogues of the Carmelites. And I watched that, and I’d only seen a few operas before, and I was astonished by this music, which did not sound like traditional opera music that I knew. And I always loved Poulenc for that. But my wife, Adele, who loves to sing, joined a church choir down in the twenties, with friends of ours, just said, “This is a great choir if you like to sing, just join us”. Adele joined it, and I sort of pooh-poohed it, “Oh, a church choir! What are you doing?” And I went to the first time that people at this, a bunch of people, a lot of whom I knew, performed, it was right before Easter. They performed Poulenc’s religious music and the Stabat Mater again, like the Schoenberg, was such an ecstatic piece of music, it reached such an ecstatic state. It was extraordinary, that people I knew, my wife, my friends, these guys, these girls were just singing, and somehow with this orchestra, on the altar of Calvary Church on 22nd and Park, it became truly a sacred place. I’m not very religious, but it became truly a sacred place. It’s about the ecstatic state that music can get you to, and I think that’s probably the theme of what the music that I have chosen: that state of ecstasy.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival Chorus and soprano Kathleen Battle – all under the baton of Seiji Ozawa. Music chosen by my guest today on “Mad About Music”, playwright John Guare. All right, now we come to that part of the show we call the “wildcard” because here you can pick music outside of the classical or opera. It can be anything you want, rock, jazz - so what did you bring us today?
GUARE: Well, I’ll tell you, there’s a song I like, because, again we’re talking of what my themes are all about, transfigured nights and Poulenc and ecstasy. There is this little-known Cole Porter song I love called “Dream Dancing.” I mean being sort of a little – I like things that are not known - and this was a song that was written for a Fred Astaire-Rita Hayworth movie called You’ll Never Get Rich. And it doesn’t appear in the movie, it was cut out of the movie, but it plays through the movie. And I always wondered what the song was and then one day I was in some bar somewhere and I heard somebody singing it, maybe Bobby Short and I recognized that was the song that I had been looking for, wondering what it was. And when I studied with Tony Aless, he introduced me to Bill Evans, who, Waltz for Debby -- is a great jazz pianist, an astonishing jazz pianist. And the addition of Tony Bennett, who is just a perfect singer, my idea just of a great - everything a pop singer should be. And just playing with Bill Evans in this song “Dream Dancing” is my idea, again, of a transfigured night, of Stabat Mater. It’s all in - I mean they’re all in that state of ecstasy.
KAPLAN: “Dream Dancing” by Cole Porter sung by Tony Bennett with Bill Evans on the piano. The “wildcard” selection of playwright John Guare, my guest today on “Mad About Music” as we continue to hear music reflecting John Guare’s theme of ecstasy - right?
GUARE: And a dream-like state, that’s why “Dream Dancing”, the quality of the dream.
KAPLAN: And I think that we’re going to find that very much in your next selection. It’s the final trio from Rosenkavalier - Strauss. So tell us how this entered your life, this remarkable ending.
GUARE: Well, how it entered my life is, that there was a girl I wanted to impress, who was studying to be a singer, and I saw that the Met was having a benefit, this is still when I was in my early days of opera, and they were having a benefit where they were doing the first act of La Traviata, full production. The third act was going to be Rosenkavalier with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Lisa Della Casa. And so I got the tickets, and she got stuck in traffic and never came. So I saw these, and I thought it would be great, because it would be like a smorgasbord, I could pick what operas I would want to go further into. Well, I was bowled over by Rosenkavalier, by the beauty of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and the music. And I must say when I heard that trio at the end I thought, my mind had, went all over the wall. It was, again, a discovery – I guess it was a discovery of how much more there is in life than I ever knew. I’m somebody who had, always had big, big, big, big dreams and what reality had to supply was so much bigger than anything than the size of my paltry dreams. And that trio in Rosenkavalier again showed me what life had to offer. What art could do. And I think that it’s one of the purposes - I’d love in my plays when they’re working, I’d love to drive an audience crazy to a point. It doesn’t happen hardly ever, but I mean, I think that state of utter ecstasy and surrender to the moment that happens on stage in that last trio is a high-water mark that we have to – like O’Neill, or Ibsen, or Chekhov - that you have to say, I’ll never hit it, but I have to aim there. This artist has put a bar that I have to at least attempt to climb, or at least to be aware of and try to scale it. And I love it for the seduction - I love it for its moral imperative of what art and life should be.
KAPLAN: The stunning trio from the conclusion of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, and Teresa Stich-Randall, with Herbert von Karajan on the podium. A selection by playwright John Guare, my guest today on “Mad About Music”. This opera – in fact, this trio – has become one of the most popular selections of my guests. Both director Mike Nichols and the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan chose it. When we return we’ll hear John Guare’s final selection.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on “Mad About Music” playwright John Guare. All right, well out of the dreamy music of Rosenkavalier we heard just before the break let’s now turn to contemporary music for your final selection – a work by Lukas Foss – one of those very rare musicians who have distinguished themselves as composers, performers – in his case the piano, and conductor. Sadly he recently passed away. But you knew him, didn’t you?
GUARE: I knew him, but we were very, very – he and his wife and family, Adele and I were very, very close friends with him. And yes, how I met Lukas was, again, I was at a party – I mean I seem to go out a lot. And there was this great-looking – this was the early ‘70’s – ‘73 or so – and there was this woman there at the party, and she said she was being evicted, they had just lost their lease, and they just moved back to New York, and their apartment wasn’t ready, and they had no place to live. And I said, “I’m going away for three months. You can take my apartment on Bank Street.” And she said, “Well you don’t know me.” I said, “Well, I don’t know - you’re here, so…” and it was Cornelia Foss, and so that’s how I met -
KAPLAN: A very fine painter.
GUARE: A wonderful painter. And so they moved into my apartment on Bank Street while I was away.
KAPLAN: Are you always such a soft touch?
GUARE: Well, she was a beautiful blond! I mean - yes - how could you not? How could you -anyway, it was just high spirits and we became friends at that point. And have remained friends ever since. And also, then, when Adele became involved, her life in the American Academy began, that added another layer to our friendship because Lukas and Cornelia had met at the American Academy in Rome more than sixty years ago. Her parents were fellows as was Lukas and she was virtually underage, and Lukas fell in love and they ran away and got married. It was a scandal - a joyous scandal. The American Academy was always a key part of their life. And there were wonderful stories about Lukas. There was a pianist, Leon Smith – I forget who it was – I don’t know the name, but I mean there are - there are stories that are not apocryphal – but was giving a concert, a very challenging modern piece. I don’t know the name of the piece either, but in the course of it, it became so difficult, that he became paralyzed and just stopped in the middle. I mean, he was just flummoxed by the piece. As Lukas was walking past the open window, past it, and as the man, they said, people said, the musician fell off the piano stool, and Lukas heard that something had happened, that the music was interrupted, and he jumped through the window, and ran to the piano and picked up at exactly the point. And that’s a true story because there were a lot of witnesses to that. But what I love about this piece, Time Cycle and now that Lukas’ time is over, which I am so sad about, what I think is remarkable about this is that Leonard Bernstein, his great friend and champion, did the premiere of this at the Philharmonic. And he did something at the premiere that I don’t think is - I can’t imagine ever having been done before or since. Lenny conducted this piece, and I believe played it too, and when it was over, and the audience applauded, Lenny said, “I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. It’s a new piece of music that I think bears a second hearing and so I’m going to repeat it. We’ll have a few minutes pause while those who want to leave and not hear it again can go.” And whoever left Carnegie Hall, and Lenny played, so the premiere got two performances. I love this piece. It’s the best of what modern music can be. Lukas’ roots in classical music - and to him, there was no such thing as modern music, atonal music, serial music - it was just music that had been written at different times. And he was open to it all. And I have learned, again, much about – when Lukas would conduct at Brooklyn Philharmonic the new pieces that he would champion, that he would let you hear them in ways that you hadn’t expected to hear them. So, I mean music and modern music, have lost a great champion in Lukas, and he’s just been deeply on my mind, and so I just wanted to end this little talk, “Mad About Music,” that I was Mad about Lukas, and I just wanted to have his music, put it out into the air on this chilly March night.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Lukas Foss’ Time Cycle, the Columbia Symphony Orchestra with Lukas Foss on the piano -- and Leonard Bernstein on the podium -- the final selection of my guest today, playwright John Guare. All right, as we wind our way to the end of the show, all that’s left is an exploration of your fantasies – and I’m talking about your musical fantasies. This is a compulsory topic for all guests on “Mad About Music” – so here is the question: if you were not to be a playwright and you could be a star in the field of music, what would you want to be? A conductor, a composer, play the violin – what would it be?
GUARE: If it weren’t for the practicing, when you see the ecstasy between a pianist and his or her instrument, when you see that union of that human being against that mammoth piece of wood and ivory and strings, that to me would be extraordinary -- to be a great pianist, who never had to practice, who just played the piano, who just became one with the piano. It’s what a play does – I mean. What a play is about is about how you write something that is going to make that audience behave, do what you want them to, respond in the way you want to, or get them to that state of glee or ecstasy or introspection. And that’s where all the words you know for theatrical performances, “we killed them tonight,” or you know “we knocked them in the aisles,” or the reviews, “they slaughtered us” - it’s a blood-bath. But if I could not be a playwright, I would like to engage in that blood-bath, with that duel with the piano.
KAPLAN: You know I’m sure I speak for our guests as well as for myself when I say that one of the wonderful things about having you, a playwright, on this show is that the way you’ve described music, described your own life, practically it could be a narrative in one of your plays. John Guare, thank you for joining us today and providing this wonderful window into the power of music in your own life. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music”.
“Mad About Music”
Gilbert Kaplan, Executive Producer
Heidi Bryson, Producer
Marcela Silva, Associate Producer
Leszek Wojcik, Recording Engineer