Next week promises to be a heavy-duty one for playwright John Guare. One day (Feb. 5) he turns 85, and the next day he is being celebrated at the 92nd Street Y with a birthday bash in which he will see many of his past work flash before his eyes, performed by a very starry cast.
The guest list for the Feb. 6 “Celebration of John Guare” runs a glittery gamut, from the recently Oscared Ariana DeBose to the repeatedly Oscared Meryl Streep. In between are such worthies as Dylan and Becky Ann Baker, Bill Camp, Elizabeth Marvel, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Linda Lavin, Ato Blankson-Wood, Edie Falco, Corey Hawkins, Camryn Manheim, Ben Stiller, Linda Emond, Mike Faist and Billy Eichner. Also getting their say will be fellow playwrights like Samuel D. Hunter, Kenneth Lonergan, Amy Herzog, and Pulitzer Prize winners like Suzan-Lori Parks, Stephen Adly Guirgis and Tony Kushner.
Kushner came up with this idea and is producing the event himself. He called Guare and asked if he would mind if the Y had an evening about him. Guare’s response: “Huh?” Which was quickly followed by “Well, what do I have to do?” He says he was told: “Nothing, except to sit there, and, at the end, we bring you on stage and put a horseshoe of roses around you like you’re a racehorse. Then, it’s off to the glue factory.” (Self-depreciation is a Guare form of dirt-kicking.)
“I’m just going to go, and I’ll be patient,” vows the honoree. “I’m so astonished by it, so bowled over about who’s coming. I hope they record it so I can watch to make sure it really happened.”
Guare declared himself a playwright 73 years ago, when he was 11 years old and had two plays under his belt. (Their titles escape him—“otherwise, I would write them down.”) “I called up Newsday and, in its July 31, 1949, issue was a Long Beach insert about an 11-year-old playwright, and there I was. I couldn’t believe that you could call up the papers like that.”
For his 12th birthday, his parents gave the budding playwright the best gift possible—a typewriter, and he continued to do all of his writing on it well into the computer age.
Guare doesn’t consider those first 11 years—before he began writing plays— wasted. “I hadn’t learned how to write yet,” he says. “I was learning to think.” He was home-taught because his father felt the school system in Ellenville, New York — where the family had moved from Jackson Heights, Queens — was out of sync with the Catholic Church and listing toward Communism. Young Guare took advantage of being an only child and spent his time going to movies, movies, movies and reading, reading, reading. “I was doing my groundwork, assembling my material, getting ready.”
By 1971, Guare could indeed call himself a playwright, with two—count ‘em, two—hits going on all cylinders: The House of Blue Leaves Off-Broadway and Two Gentlemen of Verona on Broadway. Along with Mel Shapiro and Galt MacDermot he turned Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona into a rock musical. No need to shutter. The result won a Tony Award for Best Book for Guare and Shapiro—and, famously, another Tony for Best Musical, over Stephen Sondheim’s Follies.
Then, in 1986, director Jerry Zaks’ hugely successful revival of Blue Leaves seconded that motion, spending six weeks in the Mitzi Newhouse before moving upstairs to more spacious accommodations in the Vivian Beaumont, qualifying for the Tony and winning four of them.
“That was the show that proved the Beaumont would work as a theater,” says Guare. “Lincoln Center gave it a year to prove itself, and, thanks to John Mahoney and Swoosie Kurtz and Stockard Channing and Ben Stiller, nobody talked again of turning Lincoln Center into a garage or a film theater.”
Heart-swelling raves for Two Gentlemen of Verona made the papers Dec. 1, 1971, Guare remembers. “I had a musical on Broadway, and Blue Leaves had been running since February. I thought, ‘This is what my life is going to be like forever. I’m going to have a musical on Broadway and a successful play Off-Broadway.’ This will be my life. This is it.”
That bubble burst two days later. “At six in the morning, I got a call that the Truck and Warehouse Theater, home of Blue Leaves, was in flames. Someone had broken into the theater, set fire to it and slashed the costumes and sets. This is a story I’m going to write one day. I found out about it 25 years later. An actress in the play happened to be in the theater that day, and she said, ‘I know who did it.’ She told me the story of who destroyed the theater and why. I’ve never written about it, but maybe I will. Now that I told you, maybe I’ll find a way to do it.”
Being a Tony-winning book-writer of a musical opened doors for Guare—mostly, the wrong ones. “In 1968, Jerry Robbins called me about a way I’d found to adapt a Brecht play, The Exception and the Rule, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Steve Sondheim,” he remembers. “It was a nightmare for eight months of my life. In 1986, Jerry Robbins wanted to go back to it, and we had another six months of nightmares.” The show was called The Race to Urga, later renamed A Pray by Blecht. “We did three performances of it at Lincoln Center, and it finally went away. Still, it was a wonderful experience because Steve and I became great friends.”
Another wrong door led to the office of the mighty David Merrick, which, according to Guare, “was done up in evil red—with matching walls and furniture. It looked like a bordello in hell.”
Merrick’s brainstorm was to turn Arsenic and Old Lace into a Richard Rodgers musical for Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. Guare winced but asked for time to think about it. When he returned, he sprawled out on Merrick’s sofa as if it were a psychiatrist’s couch and said, “Doctor, I’ve this delusion that David Merrick wants me to do a musical.” Merrick wanted to know what he’d say if the delusion were true, and Guare said, “I’d say, ‘Thank you for the invitation, but I don’t want to write musicals. I want to write plays.” Merrick replied, “Well, son, I would say you are cured. Goodbye.” They shook hands and Guare left. “And I always loved David Merrick for that,” Guare says.
Guare learned the rudiments of playwriting at Georgetown University, then moved into Technicolor (as he prefers to call Yale School of Drama). But he also picked up some very real, and valuable experience in the summer months as handyman at the Salmough Playhouse up at Cape Cod. Stars in the sunset years of their careers would line up to take these old plays out.
Two cases-in-point stand out. One was Herbert Marshall, who played the Japanese gentleman opposite an old Jewish lady in A Majority of One. He had lost a leg in World War I, and it was his wife’s chore to strap on his wooden leg. When she was delayed in traffic one Saturday matinee, Guare answered the call, and the show went on. Then there was Gloria Swanson who arrived in a Rolls-Royce with her mother and a trailer of Poland
“Both Gloria and her mother took laxatives all day long and broke the plumbing in their house,” Guare remembers. “I had to go down four times a day with a plunger, plunging away with Gloria Swanson yelling at me in her bathrobe. I kept telling myself, ‘Ah, this is show business! This is where I want to be!’”