Marsha Norman & Theater For Humans | InDepth InterView

by Pat Cerasaro

7 August 2011

Today we are talking to a singular literary talent who has written for Broadway, Hollywood, television and film, but, besides her Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway debut, ‘NIGHT MOTHER, which opened on Broadway in 1982, she is perhaps best known as the Tony-winning book-writer for two particularly beloved musicals of the last few decades: THE SECRET GARDEN and THE COLOR PURPLE. Generously covering her varied career writing for stage and screen, Ms. Norman and I discuss her process, her passions, her many projects old and new, and, most importantly, the two premieres she has looming large on the horizon in the next year, both coming after her highly successful collaboration with Jason Robert Brown on THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN symphonic suite (available now on PS Classics) and the recent world premiere of her new play, THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, at the Guthrie Theater: in addition to writing the book for Jason Robert Brown‘s musical adaptation of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, we also discuss her newest project for Theater For Humans which is focused on international women’s and children’s issues and the manner in which she will tackle the hot button topics of human trafficking and enslavement in it. Additionally, we touch on the bumpy Broadway road of THE RED SHOES and working with Jule Styne, NY versus LA, musicals versus plays, GLEE, WEST SIDE STORY at the Hollywood Bowl, playwrighting pal Theresa Rebeck, as well as much, much more!

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman has worked successfully in seemingly every form of media – winning accolades and awards for ‘NIGHT MOTHER in the 80s to penning the books for the Broadway musicals THE SECRET GARDEN (winning a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for her efforts) and THE RED SHOES in the 90s all the way up to writing for HBO’s IN TREATMENT in the 00s and performing book-writing duties on THE COLOR PURPLE. In addition to her musical theatre work, Ms. Norman has also composed nearly twenty plays besides ‘NIGHT MOTHER, the first being GETTING OUT and CIRCUS VALENTINE in the late 1970s continuing to THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB premiering later this year. Warm, kind and open, Ms. Norman illuminates the life of a playwright and how her new dramatic Theater For Humans piece about women’s issues has the potential to address issues of human trafficking and enslavement in much the same ways that the edgy and frank ‘NIGHT MOTHER tackled suicide – that is: on a very public stage and in an unprecedented, progressive manner – nearly thirty years ago. Ms. Norman holds fast to her convictions and all of her work speaks to her passionate, individual dramatic voice.

PC: THE SECRET GARDEN was such an important musical for so many people of my generation. Thank you so much for it.

MN: Well, thank you! You know, Heidi Ettinger really deserves a lot of credit – when all the other producers were ready to give up on it she was right there and she did not quit.

PC: Oh, really? She was that influential?

MN: Yeah, we had some pretty dark days before that big final workshop. I think she personally just turned her pockets inside out so we could have another chance at the material.

PC: How wonderful.

MN: She probably doesn’t get mentioned enough – so that’s why I’m doing it now!

PC: And her set design was incredible.

MN: Right! Right.

PC: It was so perfect for that show.

MN: Yes. Right.

PC: Also, THE COLOR PURPLE tour is in fantastic shape.

MN: Well, that’s the non-Equity tour and I have not seen it. Gary Griffin has been out working on it. Actually, a lot of the people we had working on THE COLOR PURPLE had just got their Equity cards because they had been cast in COLOR PURPLE!

PC: That’s so funny.

MN: Yeah, it’s the kind of cast we were really excited to see. I can’t wait to see the tour – believe me, the only reason I haven’t been there is because I have been, like, locked in a room [working on BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY]. (Laughs.)

PC: I’ve heard that THE RED SHOES demos are going to be released finally, related to Steve Barton‘s collection.

MN: Oh, I didn’t know that! That sounds great. I am so happy to know that. I haven’t had to sign any piece of paper about it that I know of, though.

PC: I believe it is just like an internet release thing.

MN: Oh, I see. You know, there is actually some really beautiful music that Jule wrote for that show. You know, once Jule began rewriting the songs for a person who really didn’t have a big vocal range who was the person originally cast in the show…

PC: Roger Rees.

MN: Yeah. Jule changed so much – there were extraordinary songs. Jule and I wrote, literally, a whole score together. Then, I got replaced as lyricist. Then, Roger got replaced in the lead and so the score became an entirely different thing. The one song that I would really be interested in hearing again is “Do Svedanaya”.

PC: Your books tend to be very innovative structurally. Is structure really the essence of making a musical work?

MN: It absolutely is. It’s like, you have to lay the floor and then you can build all the walls and do all the rest.

PC: It’s the floor – and the floor plan.

MN: I don’t know if you’ve heard this new CD that Jason Robert Brown and I just released, but it’s called THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN.

PC: Tell me about it.

MN: Well, it is a symphonic adaptation of the E.B. White novel, which we wrote as a commission for the Kennedy Center, but it is now available on PS Classics as a cast album. It’s got John Lithgow and Martin Short and Jimmy Naughton and Kathy Bates and MAndy Moore – it’s an extraordinary cast.

PC: Wow.

MN: Yeah – and, it’s also selling like crazy! It’s sort of like a great, big, new PETER & THE WOLF. We knew when we wrote it we would have an audience of kids so it is short and fun. Now, we just need to get some symphony orchestras to do it! We’d love it if all the orchestras across the country started doing it.

PC: The songs I’ve heard from THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY are fantastic. Is Jason Robert Brown the new Sondheim?

MN: I believe so. I mean, I just spent a week working with him in California and every day I was just blown away. We have so much fun. I think we are such a good combination.

PC: Why do you think that is?

MN: I think it’s probably because we can both take care of our parts so well. You know, I know absolutely what to do with my part and he knows absolutely what to do with his. I mean, this story is so romantic and sad and fabulous – we are writing it for a cast of eight. I mean, we don’t need a whole stage filled up with farmers! (Laughs.)

PC: That’s hilarious. Kelli O’Hara has done this column and told me all that she could – one thing was that she said the score has some Italian influence.

MN: Yeah, there is Italian dialogue in song. Who the character is is she is a person who is not from there. She is a real outsider – in the same way that he is to the cowboys. That’s what attracts her to him, the fact that he is a stranger here, too. All these things cause her to feel a connection to him. How did it happen so quickly when the risks are so high? In a musical, you have to really write it all out.

PC: How many bridges are shown in the movie?

MN: Exactly! And I don’t think Bart [Sher] is going to let us have a single one! He wants a very clear, abstract look – no kitchen, no bedrooms; none of that. All I know is what he doesn’t want as of right now! (Laughs.)

PC: With you, Bart, Jason and Kelli it should be absolutely fantastic. Are you aiming to finish it by the end of this year?

MN: I think we are going to have a big workshop by the end of the year.

PC: So we’ll finally know who the Cowboy is going to be!

MN: Do you have any ideas? (Laughs.)

PC: Matthew Morrison? Cheyenne Jackson? I have no idea.

MN: I have no idea either! People send us names all the time. One of my favorite ideas right now is to use a country music star.

PC: If you find the right one!

MN: We’re just asking everybody! We have to just nail it – who he is when he gets out of the truck. The audience needs to go, “Oh, man!”

PC: Have you considered Harry Connick, Jr.? He’s hard to get, of course – and, doing another show this season.

MN: Yeah, but, you see, there is this mysterious quality he has to have, too – the unknown stranger; SHANE. You know?

PC: Yes. It’s going to be tough! Moving to your straight plays: Tell me about MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB.

MN: We just did MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB at the Guthrie. It is an adaptation of Louise Erdrich.

PC: This is your big new play premiere – you haven’t had a new play in a while.

MN: No, I kind of swerve off – I feel like teaching at Juilliard feeds my urges for straight drama. I sort of talk myself out of writing plays now. Musicals, to me, have so much more impact and you have so many more tools in your kit. Music can get around any defense that anybody can put up.

PC: Cuts to the core.

MN: Musicals are about joy – you know, it’s hard to write a play about joy. (Laughs.)

PC: Indeed.

MN: Musicals can go so much farther – you can go so much farther in song than you can in dialogue. And, I think that that is why I am there – and, the form is so flexible. That’s exactly where I want to be – writing musicals.

PC: Are musicals the theatre of emotion and drama is the theatre of thought?

MN: There you go! I’d quote yourself if I were you! (Laughs.)

PC: I’m serious! (Laughs.)

MN: I do think that musicals can show you the inside of a person – the heart side; the largeness that we contain inside of us. Love songs are good examples – in a play, you say “I love you,” and then, you know, it’s the other person’s turn. (Laughs.)

PC: It’s day and night the way you attack it, too.

MN: Yeah, exactly. In a musical you can say, “If I loved you, time and again I would try to say….” The audience just gets filled up with the feeling of emotion of being in love with somebody. I think that, clearly, plays can deal with the subjects of the heart and soul and all that, but musicals get the audience in that joy-moment of, “I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it! I’m bursting into song!” You know, it’s something that rarely happens in life – bursting into a monologue! (Laughs.)

PC: You could say the same about a song.

MN: I don’t know about that: when I leave Juilliard with Christopher he starts to hum. I think that music is a part of us and that it’s so powerful.

PC: Music is the text of emotion.

MN: Write that down, too! (Laughs.) While I was in Los Angeles, one of our producers took us to see WEST SIDE STORY on the huge screen at the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Phil playing the score onstage!

PC: That must have been amazing.

MN: Oh, my God! It was just insane – insanely beautiful. Gorgeous – beautiful, beautiful.

PC: Do you think that is the greatest American musical score?

MN: I think it is – there’s absolutely no doubt. I mean, in terms of overall shows, GUYS & DOLLS is up there, too, but in terms of scores? There’s nothing like WEST SIDE STORY.

PC: And it’s Shakespeare, too!

MN: Yeah! Exactly. Someone once told me that all great musicals are about the conflict of two worlds. Hello? You don’t see it any more clearly than you do in that show!

PC: You can say that again!

MN: Even my daughter, who is a crabby teenager, asked if she could fly out and see it with me!

PC: That’s the surefire seal of approval – and a sign that it will surely stand the test of time.

MN: Definitely! Definitely.

PC: Sondheim is doing a commentary on the new Blu-ray.

MN: Oh, that’s great! That’s so good. Jason and I got in a big discussion about it and he really cares about the piece a lot. We talked about how they switch “Krupke” with “Cool”.

PC: Sondheim prefers the way they do it in the movie.

MN: I’d believe it.

PC: What can we look forward to from you onscreen coming up?

MN: I am writing one of the new HBO films based on THE NUMBER ONE LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY.

PC: Is it a continuation of the Anthony Minghella series?

MN: No, not really. It’s hotter and more gorgeous and it takes her into territory that she hasn’t gone in before. It’s much more dangerous and exciting.

PC: Anika Noni Rose did this column and said that there was a plan to do more even back when Minghella was helming them.

MN: Yeah, they just didn’t know when they would be made for a while [after his death]. But, it is happening now. HBO will say more soon, I’m sure.

PC: Speaking of HBO: Will you be writing for IN TREATMENT again?

MN: Well, you know, I am not on it again. When they changed show-runners, I lost my job.

PC: When they changed show-runners they lost their audience – me included.

MN: Well, thank you for that. I really loved writing on it and I was really unhappy to not be writing on it any more.

PC: Was it a writer’s dream job?

MN: Oh, yeah – I get to write for two people; I get to write for Gabriel Byrne.

PC: Did you write all of Dianne Wiest‘s material?

MN: Yeah, I wrote her. I wrote the scene with the blue dress and all that stuff.

PC: Exquisite.

MN: Thank you!

PC: How about Dianne Wiest in ‘NIGHT MOTHER someday?

MN: You just never know what’s gonna happen with old ‘NIGHT MOTHER, do you? Honestly, most of the time, ‘NIGHT MOTHER gets done because somebody in particular wants to do it.

PC: It has something new to say to this generation thanks to Lindsay Lohan and her ilk.

MN: I think that’s right.

PC: How will ‘NIGHT MOTHER influence the new Theater For Humans piece you are writing, which is ostensibly about women’s issues?

MN: You know, the simple answer is this: at Juilliard we talk about this thing we do called writing from “your stuff”. When you are writing out of your stuff, whatever it is, that’s when you are at your very best and you can be great – as opposed to taking assignments or trying to write away from your stuff. All of my pieces are about trapped girls – GETTING OUT, ‘NIGHT MOTHER, COLOR PURPLE, SECRET GARDEN – that’s what I write about.

PC: I never realized that. What an insight. Wow.

MN: Yeah, that’s like what I write about! That’s why this new piece about trafficking and violence toward women and children is so right for me. I thought, “Finally, somebody asked me to do something about this issue that I can actually do!” You know, I can’t give millions of dollars or have the idea that solves the problem and brings it all to a halt, but I can write this thing that makes it very clear to people that this has to do with us. Here are the atrocities and here’s what it has to do with us and, then, what do we do? How do we begin to devise some sort of approach to solving the problem?

PC: What a rife topic for dramatization! What are you planning on writing?

MN: Well, the documentary team just left to go to Cambodia, Laos, India, Africa; gone for three months collecting interviews and data and pictures and documents. I have someone being my eyes on the ground and conducting the interviews – I knew I couldn’t write the play if I did the journey

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PC: Why is that?

MN: Well, first of all, I’m just not so portable – and, I knew the better thing for me to do would be to read and talk to people here. It has been really amazing to see what work has already been done in this area and the conversation that is going on.

PC: How will you strengthen it or make it bigger?

MN: The voice of the woman is definitely going to be heard in the land about this – whether you are talking population statistics or violence statistics or death of women or infanticide; it is really a problem of global proportion and it is as big a problem as global warming. It really is. I mean, if we don’t solve this problem about our global treatment of women, it won’t matter whether or not the earth is too hot because there won’t be any people here.

PC: Many African cultures, in particular, have so many violent female traditions.

MN: Right. But, an issue equally huge is the absence of women because of sex selection and abortion. Since 1979, when sex selection of infants became possible, and abortion became an approved method of population control, because of that there are now 169 million missing girls.

PC: So sad.

MN: Missing. It is causing such incredible problems – what happens when a society becomes overly male? Even a town? A village? In some places in China it is off the charts – 100 boys born for every girl. You know that that is where the trafficking begins. I am dealing with all of this onstage. It is a real issue: somewhere along the line it was decided that we didn’t need to keep all the women alive anymore.

PC: It’s disgusting.

MN: And the trafficking situation is such that we, in America, are the primary buyer of trafficked humans on the planet!

PC: Unbelievable.

MN: It’s not Thailand – it’s us. We need to take that all in and understand what it means and decide what we are going to do about it. It’s global. One trafficked girl is worth $200,000 a year to the person who is controlling her. I think that this is a big, big issue.

PC: What can we expect from the finished play?

MN: I think the play will have stories of trafficked people and the violence they have endured. Every day I get letters from the UN from people who have gone through this. The UN is very involved and fully cooperative. I mean, I hear so many stories: there are women who have escaped and set up places for other women like them. It’s going to be the whole picture in this play. There will be people onstage representing us and people representing the women in the story.

PC: It sounds daunting for one playwright to encompass all that in one play!

MN: Well, it’s because these two women, Terri and Susan, set up this organization, Theater For Humans, that is ready to respond in a really visceral and compassionate way to what has happened to women and children in America and around the world.

PC: How did you get involved?

MN: My good, good friend Theresa Rebeck actually was asked, but she said, “Listen, there is nobody that can do this but Marsha,” and, they said, “You mean, you know Marsha Norman?” And, Teresa said, “Yeah, I talk to her every single day!” So, they called me and I listened to what they wanted to do. I really felt the calling in the same way that they did – I said, “OK. I will take this on.” Who’s going to do this if not me? I am ready to take this on in my life now. You bet!

PC: Has ‘NIGHT MOTHER and everything else led up to this – to be an advocate for women’s rights through your plays?

MN: I think that is exactly right. You get the talent along with the subject – you have to speak for the people for no voice. Playwriting is not for the audience to hear you speak! It’s so you can speak for the vast group out there hoping you will speak on their behalf.

PC: Do you feel you need to give back in a way?

MN: I am just doing it because it needs to be done! With this, human trafficking has such an impact on us all. It has to be fixed and we have to figure out how to stop this. We have to start thinking about it and really taking on the problem.

PC: It has to be addressed.

MN: I feel that this has come to us as a kind of calling. The two women who began the project couldn’t sit anymore and just read these stories. It’s the same for everyone involved. The UN was like, “Are you kidding? Of course we’ll help you!” I learned so much when we went there- everyone has a horror story. (Pause.) If we are talking about women and children who don’t have a shot, it is my job to give them a voice.

PC: And it will hopefully premiere in 2013, then? Is that the plan?

MN: They are going to put all the collected materials on my desk in September. I am going to be finishing up BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY then, hopefully, so we’ll see if I’m still alive! (Laughs.)

PC: I wish you the best with it! By the way, I had to mention: I loved A COOLER CLIMATE with Sally Field and Judy Davis.

MN: Wasn’t that a good movie? I loved that movie, too.

PC: I didn’t know you wrote it at first! Judy Davis is amazing in it.

MN: Yeah, she is. I am so glad you saw that! Really glad.

PC: What was your involvement with the ‘NIGHT MOTHER movie?

MN: Sissy [Spacek] wanted to do it, which is why it was made. We didn’t know then that it was going to have a big life and be done all around the world, so I think maybe someone else should have adapted it besides me. It wasn’t adapted, it was filmed – that’s what I ended up feeling about that movie. I took the responsibility on myself. If I got to do it today, I would do it much differently.

PC: What do you think of GLEE?

MN: I really like GLEE. Completely honestly, I remember telling my agent like four years ago, “Somebody ought to do a chorus kid show,” and my agent was like, “Are you kidding me? Who would watch that?” And, I was like, “Oh, God,” when I saw it.

PC: No way!

MN: I love it, though. I think Theresa’s show, SMASH, is going to be a big hit.

PC: The pilot is absolutely phenomenal – one of the best things I’ve ever seen on TV. It’s even better than GLEE.

MN: That’s great! I think that people wonder, “How in the world do musicals all come together?” And, sometimes – yikes – you really do come close to not making it! (Laughs.)

PC: You’ve certainly seen the highs and lows.

MN: I think TV is a fabulous form and I’m happy people are finally figuring out how to do music on television.

PC: Most influential show growing up?

MN: I remember seeing THE GLASS MENAGERIE – and, strangely enough, THE LADY & THE TRAMP, at the drive-in with my dad. I also remember all the theatre in Atlanta when I was there – it was an extraordinary time. Atlanta is filled with wonderful folk – just wonderful.

PC: Define collaboration.

MN: I think it’s basically everyone bringing their best game – and, with that, there is this notion of respect for what the other person does, and understanding all of you, and developing a common language in which to work on the project and getting a single sentence that describes what you are doing. I’ve made mistakes in all three of those categories! (Laughs.)

PC: Thank you so much, Marsha. This was magnificent.

MN: I am so glad I got to talk to you, Pat! Talk soon. Bye.