DRAMA NOTES: An Interview with Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik, The Most Beautiful Room in New York
Adam Gopnik, the writer of book and lyrics for The Most Beautiful Room in New York, is perhaps best known as a staff writer for The New Yorker, where he’s contributed fiction, non-fiction, criticism, satire, and memoir since 1986. He’s written numerous books during his tenure there, including Paris to the Moon, inspired by the five years he spent as the magazine’s Paris correspondent, Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York, which he wrote upon returning to and raising children in a post-9/11 New York City, and more recently, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, which examines the true meaning of food in our lives. It is the latter two that Gopnik drew from thematically in writing The Most Beautiful Room in New York, which he’s developed in collaboration with composer David Shire (Starting Here, Starting Now; Baby). Long Wharf Theatre’s Literary Manager Christine Scarfuto sat down with Gopnik to ask him about musical theatre writing and the play itself.

Q: Beautiful Room is one of the first musical theatre projects you’ve taken on. What observations have you made about the process of writing a musical and how it differs from the other types of writing you’ve done over the course of your career?

A: Well, I have previously written a lengthy oratorio, on the life of Alan Turing, with Nico Muhly. But what was interesting in that effort for the concert hall, against this effort for the stage, was that Nico accepted in the text a certain amount of poetic ambiguity, of indirect narration, even laconic compression, all of which are verboten – or at least highly dubious – in the musical theatre. I used to joke that the difference between art (the oratorio) and entertainment (which Beautiful Room aspires to be) is that in art you expect the audience to do all the work for you, and in entertainment you are expected to do all the work for the audience. The ‘pop’ form, in other words, is much harder. More broadly, the difference is that in prose writing the effect of the whole, or at least of my kind of whole, depends almost entirely on the shape of the sentences and how they sit together. Forward movement and linear acceleration matter, of course, but a certain amount of beautiful meander is acceptable, even useful. You can dip into any of my books without the whole entirely eluding you. With a stage play, particularly a musical play, forward movement and propulsive story telling are nearly the whole of the enterprise. The great risk in a new musical is having songs that, however charming, comment on the action rather than advancing it. (One of the best actors in the show kept sweetly warning me to be sure that “the song’s not in the scene”, i.e. that the ‘book scene’ preceding each song doesn’t already contain the emotional information the song is about to deliver.) All Gordon and David and I have done – sometimes contentiously, not to say hysterically – is to monitor the linear inevitability of the storytelling in the show. Is this the next necessary thing? In prose, a certain amount of bagginess at the knee is not deadly, and can even be likable, more human, a kind of prose equivalent of Chaplin’s pants. On stage, I’ve learned, all bagginess at the joints, whether knee or elbow or intermission, is fatal.

Q: Did you have favorite musicals growing up? And, what particular musicals have you thought of while creating Beautiful Room?

A: The musical theatre has been a passion of mine since I was a little kid – but the funny, and predictably human thing, is that both my parents were (and still are) allergic to Broadway, associating it with the taste of their own parents. It was my grandparents who kept the collection of original cast recordings in their basement, and I would listen over and over to My Fair Lady and Camelot and The Music Man there, with the joy of the music having the added thrill of the illicit. Then, when I was in my teens, I became obsessed with the earlier generations of the musical theatre, particularly with Rodgers & Hart who seemed to me then – still seem to me now – much the greatest of all musical theatre teams. I would scour Montreal for scratched and barely listenable copies of old recordings of revivals of The Boys from Syracuse and Pal Joey, and would painfully pick out the melody lines and piano intended harmony of “My Romance” and “I Wish I Were in Love Again” on my folk guitar. But with a certain kind of cosmic kismet, the ur-text of Beautiful Room remains that of the first show I ever saw live, thanks to those grandparents: Fiddler on the Roof. For our show, like Fiddler, at however much lower a level, is about a hero who is trying to keep a world that he’s made (or, with Tevye, inherited) from the ravages of destruction, rather than trying to make a new world of his own, as so many musical heroes and heroines do. David Kaplan, our hero, like Tevye has a dream to keep, and he must adjust his vision to changing reality. “Sometimes you have to give up the things you love in order to keep the things you live for,” he concludes at the musical’s end, in a revelation not unlike Tevye’s as Tevye leaves his own little village. David, too, learns that he can keep what really matters to him intact even if he has to, so to speak, emigrate to do it. (Ironically, both Tevye, if a typical Jewish immigrant of his time, and our David probably end up in exactly the same place: the outer boroughs of New York City!).

Q: In the play, the central character, David Kaplan, is fighting for both his restaurant and for his family—and the two feel so intimately tied to each other, almost as if each is intrinsic to the other’s survival. In a broader sense, what is it about food that joins families together?

A: Food is family. That was the rule in my house growing up – where my six brothers and sisters and I would dine invariably every night with my cooking and talking mother and talking (and wine drinking) father – so much that the rhythm of setting eight places is almost attuned into my hand. I try to continue that tradition with my own two children. Certainly, the idea that tables are the places where everything essential in family life takes place is central both to my writing and to this play – but then it seems to me an obvious truth. “In every home I’ve ever known, the living room’s a tomb/ In every home I’ve ever known/ the dining room’s the room,” ran a lyric now discarded from the show, but still true. The kitchen table’s the place where big news (“I’m gay”; “I’m getting married”; “I’m leaving school”) is far more likely to land than it is on any sofa. And where does the real transmission of meaning in modern life take place save in recipes and remembered meals? The ambivalent role of the restaurant in this transmission – as a place at once commercial, out to make a profit, and in its way communal, there to provide a chapel – is also vital, and very much the subject of our show.

Q: New York itself is almost a character in the play, and the city’s raising rents make it nearly impossible for family-run restaurants (and really, middle-class families in general) to survive. As New York continues to evolve economically, what is gained? What is lost?

A: I have written a series of agonized essays over the past decade, and maybe even longer, about the ambivalence we all feel about the transformation of New York. On the one hand, we recognize a city safer and saner than the one many of us grew up in – when I first arrived in New York, the subway at 3 a.m. was out of Dante; now my teenage kids take it as unexcitedly as if it were a school bus – and on the other we see something duller and more monocultural than we can quitebear, or recognize as New York. “The middle is dropping out of the city,” our antagonist, Sergio, says at one point – he says it as a taunt to our hero, but it’s true. We need to recognize that changing is what cities do, and at the same time want to save our city from the wrong kind of change. This agonized and never-ending struggle is also a key subject of our play.

-Christine Scarfuto

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