Playwright Joe DiPietro is a very busy man these days, but one could say he’s been running at this breakneck pace for a long time. He spent time in April running back and forth between previews for his Broadway world premiere Living on Love, starring Renee Fleming and Douglas Sills, to rehearsals for the world premiere of The Second Mrs. Wilson, running through the end of May at Long Wharf Theatre.
DiPietro has consistently balanced his work for the Broadway stage with smaller plays dealing with subjects like creationism, family, and the quest for love. Now, at Long Wharf, DiPietro is making his first foray into historical drama.
Born in New Jersey, DiPietro grew up a theatre junkie, but after a successful collegiate career he took a job he liked in the advertising department of CBS Sports, writing plays in the evening and during spare moments at work. “I’ve never been the flavor of the month,” DiPietro told NorthJersey.com in 2010. “The movies have never pursued me. Theater companies don’t ask me to write plays for them. I’ve always felt that I’ve constantly had to prove myself.”
When in doubt DiPietro writes – when success comes, the ideas flow. When he runs into difficulties, he hunkers down at his computer and commits himself further to the work. “I’ve always felt like I’ve had to get my work out there. Sometimes I think I write too much and don’t live enough,” he told NorthJersey.com.
He began his career with a pair of remarkable successes. The musical review I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, which started at Long Wharf Theatre, ran for over 5,000 performances at the Westside Theatre. In 1998, he followed up with the semi-autobiographical comedy Over The River and Through the Woods, which ran for 800 performances over two years.
By 2005 DiPietro debuted on Broadway with the book for the Elvis Presley jukebox musical All Shook Up, which flopped at the box office. His career not only survived this hiccup, but thrived, winning an Outer Critics Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical for The Toxic Avenger in 2005. He reached the pinnacle of his career to date in 2010, winning Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score for the musical Memphis.
The Second Mrs. Wilson is a departure from DiPietro’s previous work. DiPietro, a self-avowed political junkie, was reading a story about Hillary Clinton’s possible presidential run in which the reporter dropped a tiny off-handed remark – Clinton would be the first female president of the United States, if you didn’t count Edith Wilson. “I read that and thought ‘Wait, what?” he said.
In 1919, upon returning from the Paris Peace Conference, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed. According to a White House official history, Edith “took over many routine duties and details of government.” The history is a bit more complex than the White House record would indicate. Wilson’s stroke was more severe than officials were led to believe. Vice President Thomas Marshall, ambivalent at best about assuming the duties of the presidency, couldn’t even get an audience with the Wilsons, DiPietro said.
“I didn’t know the full story of Woodrow Wilson’s second wife’s participation … I’d never seen an exploration of that and I thought that this was a great piece of untold American history,” DiPietro said. “It is a shocking story in this day and age,” he said.
Inspired by the English tradition of history plays, DiPietro decided Edith Wilson’s story was worthy of dramatization. “I just love working on history plays. I love bringing a dramatist’s sharpness and wit to it. I like making history lively and relevant, and show the humanity of the participants. I just love it,” he said. “I’ll learn a lot from this experience.”
He immersed himself in the time period, reading biographies of Wilson and her husband, President Woodrow Wilson, and histories of the tumultuous period following World War I. He viewed documentaries. DiPietro knew the process would be a lengthy one. “My belief is research, research, research, then put it away and start writing the play,” DiPietro said.
DiPietro took some creative license with the material, conflating some historical figures, for example. He believes that some history plays can get so dense that the humanity at the center of the work can be lost. “It is not a documentary. It is my dramatic interpretation, but it sticks very closely to the facts. I wanted to show what it was like to be a strong, shrewd woman at a time when women couldn’t yet vote in every state,” he said.
But, the personal informs the political, DiPietro said. Edith was motivated by her fierce love for Woodrow and her need to protect him and his legacy at all costs. She was also extraordinarily intelligent, capable, and driven – a formidable opponent to the men seeking to usurp her husband’s power. “It’s a rollicking story,” he said.
– Steve Scarpa