Lanford Wilson loved his words. He wrote in a way that showed us who we are, why we are, and where we’re headed whether we like it or not. He let no one off the hook; not his actors, not his audience, not his critics, not the American Theatre, not the country nor himself. Especially, himself. He demanded excellence, hated hypocrisy, despised mediocrity, and loved life.
Along with Marshall W. Mason and the rest of New York’s Circle Repertory Company, Lanford was an artistic mentor and a life long source of inspiration. A devout playwright, Lanford was incapable of selling out. No matter how broke he was, he refused to write anything other than his plays his way. I’d tell him, “Get your agent to get you a gig doctoring a film script.” He looked at me and all but spit, “Movies are bupkus!” And yet, when I did a film he liked – and thankfully, there were a few – he went out of his way to tell me. He adored work that mattered, that meant something, that counted. In his world, that was not too much to ask.
His wit was legendary. In the late ‘70s, Danton Stone, John Hogan, and I wrote a play about a down and out talent agent and a young lounge singer interested in making the career transition from Queens to Manhattan. Beyond desperate, they hit the road and toured the country, hoping to become successful enough to be asked to dine with Wayne Newton. The title of our maiden epic was 42 CITIES IN 40 NIGHTS. Through dogged persistence and a unearned belief in ourselves, Circle Rep finally allowed us a reading in front of the rest of the company. Blinded by our brilliance, our dirge of a comedy lasted three hours. After the reading, everyone scattered for a much needed break. Dreaming of Broadway, I found my way to the rest room. Standing at the urinals was Lanford. I slid in beside him. “What’d you think?” I said. Without looking at me, he said, “I’ll give you a hundred bucks for the jokes.” Then he hit the flusher and walked out.
I met him in 1976 in the Greenwich Village offices of Circle Rep. Disheveled, he looked as if he had fallen into the chair, his arms and legs splayed out in four directions. There was a quick introduction. “Jeff, you know Lanford, don’t you?” I responded by staring. I’d never seen a living, breathing playwright before. “Hey, doll, how are ya?” Somewhere, someone said he was working on a new play. Somehow, I asked him how it was going. “I have no idea,” he sighed.
For the rest of my time at Circle Rep, I made it my mission to study how he did it; the endless rewrites, the painful First Draft readings with his last minute scribbled cuts and additions in the margins, the misspellings, the scenes that didn’t end so much as simply stopped. He even used the actors’ own names instead of naming his characters. He wrote from the ground up, searching without direction, chasing his words. Typically, we would finish an early reading and, like actors do, whisper to each other, “Where’s the play? Is this a play? Is it me or is this…nothing?” Marshall would go off with Lanford. Weeks later, the Second Draft came in. Somehow, sort of, there seemed to be a beginning, middle, and an end. More concern. Marshall would go off with Lanford again. Another month. Circle Rep would announce with great fanfare “A New Play By Lanford Wilson! Coming This Spring!” What?!! Everyone in the company knew he didn’t have a Second Act! Rehearsals began. In we came, our scripts handed to us at the last possible minute. In front of an audience of finger-crossing Circle Rep staffers, we turned to the title page and read: “A New Play By Lanford Wilson”. Somehow, he had done it. And not just done it, but done something that mattered. That meant something. That counted.
In 1978, Circle Rep premiered FIFTH OF JULY. Danton Stone, Bill Hurt, John Hogan, and I shared an Off Broadway dressing room which was closer to a closet. Hogan and I fancied ourselves as budding songwriters. After the play was up and running, Hogan and I would bring our guitars. In between shows, we would play our newest creations. They weren’t bad. They weren’t necessarily good, but we made up for it with youthful passion and a determination to mine the music in our souls, wherever that was. One day, we looked up and there was Lanford, leaning in the doorway. “You write songs?” “Yeah,” we chirped. He nodded. “Let me help.” From behind his back, he handed each of us a piece of paper. Lyrics. Poems, really. “I don’t know if these are songs,” he said, “but see what you can do with them.” Hogan went to work on LIKE STARDUST, a song about another late night in a bar and those with nowhere else to go. Through his words and his imagery, Lanford put you in that bar. He gave me an anthem about a bus ride from Missouri to Chicago. Lanford hated to fly – “There aren’t enough drugs in the world to get me on a plane” – preferring to travel via Amtrack and Greyhound. In ROADSIGNS, he painted an America only he could see.
Two days before he died, John Hogan, Stephanie Gordon, and I traveled out to New Jersey to visit him. Tanya Berezin brought us into the room. He was near the end. We stood around his bed. Surrounding him. And then, thirty three years after he handed us those two pieces of paper, we played LIKE STARDUST and ROADSIGNS. His head never moved. His eyes never opened. We could only hope he heard us. After the songs were over, we talked to each other about his incredible career, about working with him in this play or that play, as if we were all back in the Village winding down after a show at the Lion’s Head Tavern. Before we left, Hogan and I played him one more song: Steve Goodman’s famous train song, THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS. One of Lanford’s favorites, it was the tune that inspired him to write HOT L BALTMORE. We reprised the Final Chorus over and over and over, quite possibly turning it into the longest version of the song ever sung, not wanting it to end, not wanting it to ever end. Finally, we finished. Tanya leaned in close to Lanford’s ear and whispered, “Did you like that Lanford?”
When FIFTH OF JULY was published, I asked him to sign my copy. Like any actor, I hoped for some glowing words regarding my definitive characterization. Instead, Lanford wrote: “Make it all count.” And then he signed his name.
That’s what he did his whole life. He made it all count and then he signed his name.
March 25, 2011. New York City
(LIKE STARDUST and ROADSIGNS available on iTunes. All proceeds to the Purple Rose Theatre Company)