Doug Wright, the playwright who won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony for I Am My Own Wife, is not—as you might well imagine—an easily-stunned individual. Still, when his producers seriously informed him who they wanted to put on Broadway as Oscar Levant, the drug-driven, witheringly witty, piano-playing genius of the concert world, his jaw dropped.
“Sean Hayes!” he gulped. “Well, Sean Hayes is certainly a brilliant comedian, and he became kind of a national treasure on Will & Grace—but Oscar Levant! Really? I just don’t see it.”
So a lunch was arranged in Los Angeles to give him a chance to see it. He sat with Hayes, who talked passionately about his obsession with Levant, the George Gershwin disciple who wrote for both the Hit Parade and the concert hall in the ’30s and ’40s, then became known as a television personality on game shows and talk shows in the ’50s and ’60s. Hayes assured Wright that he could get Levant’s posture and voice just right, then proved it. “Over this lunch, he actually turned into Levant,” remembers Wright. “I came to lunch thinking he’s the wrong actor, and I left thinking he’s the only actor.”
Starting April 24, Hayes will be making this amazing transformation nightly at the Belasco Theater in Good Night, Oscar. But Wright figures Hayes’ transformation started taking root long before the play, a decade or so ago. That’s when Wright was working on a screenplay about George Gershwin and his historic 1935 production of Porgy and Bess.
“Oscar was a small supporting character in it, and Sean heard about it,” says Wright. “Being an Oscar fanatic himself, he did a makeup test and filmed his own screen test and sent it to Steven Spielberg, who was the intended director. The whole thing came fairly close to moving forward, and then—like so many film scripts—it didn’t, but it was a really rich, wonderful experience.” (As it turns out, Spielberg and wife Kate Capshaw are among the moneybags backing the current Broadway venture.)
It wasn’t until a year into the process of putting Good Night, Oscar together that Hayes told Wright about auditioning for the film role of Levant. “I said, ‘Do you know I wrote that script?’” says Wright. “He couldn’t believe it. It felt like kismet.”
The play that Wright subsequently wrote is loosely based on an incident that occurred when Oscar was on the West Coast, doing his own television show called Words About Music. “He fell ill, and his wife had him institutionalized—yet the studio car still came to pick him up and take him to the studio to shoot his program,” Wright says. “I thought that was an extraordinary set of events, so I took the liberty of turning Words About Music into Jack Paar’s Tonight Show because Oscar made so many celebrated appearances on the Paar show and because people’s awareness of that show as a cultural force was much greater than Words About Music. Thus, this is definitely an imagined night in the life of Oscar Levant, but the fundamental bones of the play are true.”
The broadcast portion of the play is likewise invented—of necessity. “They didn’t realize the historical and cultural value of all those Jack Paar shows, so, in order to save money on tape, they would tape over them every night. There’s very little archival footage of Oscar on that show. The Paley Center has two full episodes, which I more or less memorized. The climax of the talk-show scene is an impression of many of Oscar’s appearances, with many of his raucous witticisms intact, and a few—dare I confess it?—of mine, just to keep the shape of the scene.”
It took Wright a while before he realized how personally motivated he was to tell Levant’s story. His own father, he remembers, “was very entertaining, a quite brilliant attorney who had educated himself at Harvard and at Oxford—which, in itself, was very unusual because he came from the Dust Bowls of Oklahoma. His life was a remarkable journey, but he was afflicted by a bipolar disorder and refused medication because, of course, his generation thought of it as a weakness or a failing—not the illness that it is. So, my childhood was very much influenced by his elaborate and rather destabilizing mood swings. It fell to my mother to try to normalize the environment for her three children and create some kind of stability that my father couldn’t.
“One of the reasons that I got excited about writing this play was, through the veil of Oscar and June Levant, I felt like I could bring the experimental knowledge of my parents’ marriage to the play and use it to better understand characters I obviously never met and didn’t know. But, for me, in a really personal way, I think of the play as almost a portrait of their marriage.”
Levant’s much-put-upon wife, actress June Gale—who’s played with profound patience, strength and compassion by Emily Bergl—passed before Wright could speak to her, so he relied on the input and counsel of pianist Michael Feinstein, a Levant authority and a close friend of June’s. “Michael has been extravagantly supportive of the play. He came to see the Chicago tryouts, gave me notes when appropriate, and has been a real muse sitting on my shoulder.”
A native of Dallas, Wright says he “started writing plays at the ripe old age of 11 and, for better or worse, haven’t stopped.” Mostly, it’s been for better. His specialty is turning documentaries into musicals: Grey Gardens, about Jackie Onassis’s kin, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Mary Louise Wilson) and Edith Bouvier Beale (Christine Ebersole); War Paint about Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Ebersole again); Hands on a Hardbody about a pickup-truck giveaway in Longview, TX. Keith Carradine and Keala Settle got Tony-nominated for it, but the show laid an egg on Broadway. (Though that’s not stopping a 10th anniversary cast reunion concert at 54 Below on June 6.) Wilson and Ebersole both won Tonys in 2007 for Grey Gardens, and LuPone and Ebersole were nominated for War Paint in 2017. Wright’s non-musicals fare well, too: Jefferson Mays received a Tony for playing the German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in 2003’s I Am My Own Wife, and Geoffrey Rush picked up a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the dying Marquis De Sade in the 2000 movie Quills.
“I’ve been lucky with actors,” Wright modestly dirt-kicks. “I don’t know about my skills as a playwright, but one thing I would arrogantly offer is that I do think I write good parts for actors. I’ve had brilliant ones favoring me with their talent—Patti, Christine, Jefferson and, now, Sean.”
Right now, he’s studying what he has given his Good Night, Oscar cast to do. “I’m learning when the text is really supporting the actors and taking care of them and graduating them from one psychological moment to the next in a way that feels seamless—and I’m learning where there are holes, where they are having to force a moment because I haven’t built it well enough.
“That’s what previews are largely about—nailing down that. As of yesterday, I promised to put my pen down. There’s a point where the actors need to say everything with confidence, and, if you’re changing a word here or there or finessing a line, you can undermine a performance.”
What’s the next Wright turn? “I have several things on the burner,” he admits. First is a musical that he and his songwriting hubby, David Clement, are writing and workshopping this summer, How to Build a Bomb. (Yes, he knows the title will be catnip for critics.) “It’s an unusual subject for a musical—about a ‘70s anti-war group that goes underground. I think it’s a provocative piece about the nature of political response—how far is too far and how far is not enough.”