Moss Hart’s life is coming to the stage thanks to James Lapine
- Last Updated: 11:13 AM, July 19, 2012
- Posted: 10:23 PM, July 17, 2012
Ask anybody who works in show business to name his favorite book about the theater, and I’ll lay you 10-to-1 the answer will be Moss Hart’s autobiography, “Act One.”
Woody Allen, NEA chairman Rocco Landesman, producer Scott Rudin, Stephen Sondheim and the late writer Arthur Laurents — all have said at one time or another how influential the book was on their lives.
It was, in some ways, the inspiration for Frank Rich’s fine memoir, “Ghost Light.”
Published in 1959, “Act One” landed on the New York Times best-seller list, where it remained for nearly two years. It hasn’t been out of print since.
And now it’s being adapted for the stage by James Lapine, the Tony Award-winning writer and director whose shows include “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Into the Woods.”
Lapine, who will also direct the production, is putting on a workshop this weekend up in Martha’s Vineyard, where he has a summer house.
The adaptation was commissioned by Andre Bishop, the head of Lincoln Center Theater — and a die-hard “Act One” fan.
“The impact of that book on my life — as it is on the lives of everyone we know in our world — is beyond telling,” Bishop says. “My favorite author is Dickens, and ‘Act One’ is a Dickensian book about the theater.”
For those of you who haven’t read it (order it right now from Amazon!), the memoir paints a vivid picture of the grinding poverty Hart endured as a child. His father was a lazy cigar-maker, his mother cold, angry, unloving and, perhaps, unlovable.
The most important person in Hart’s life was his Aunt Kate, who functioned as a sort of impoverished version of Auntie Mame. She introduced him to the theater, which he called “the inevitable refuge of the unhappy child.”
The domestic scenes remind me a bit of Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing!” and Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound.” They’re full of vivid characters and family squabbles that Lapine should have a fine old time dramatizing.
As Hart gets a toehold in the theater — as an office boy for the producer Augustus Pitou Jr., “king of the one-night stands” (shows that is, not assignations) — some delightful theatrical characters take center stage: the gentle producer Sam Harris, the psychotic producer Jed Harris and playwright Dore Schary, who would go on to be head of production at MGM.
Most crucial of all, of course, is George S. Kaufman. It was Sam Harris, who on reading Hart’s first play, a satire of the movie business called “Once in a Lifetime,” suggested that Hart collaborate with Kaufman.
Kaufman was already an established force in the theater, known for his lightning quips.
My favorite: When Irving Berlin played Kaufman the song “Always” for the Marx Brothers musical “The Cocoanuts,” Kaufman said, “Nobody will believe a lyric that says, ‘I’ll be loving you, always.’ How about changing it to, ‘I’ll be loving you, Thursdays.’ ”
Kaufman and Hart would go on to write several of Broadway’s most enduring comedies, including “You Can’t Take It With You” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”
But in “Act One,” Hart concentrates on the behind-the-scenes story of their first hit, “Once in a Lifetime.”
I read “Act One” in college and still remember the scene where, the day the play opens to rave reviews, Hart, penniless for so long, goes to the treasurer of the Music Box Theatre and withdraws $500 because “I’m moving into town.”
(One of the perks of having a hit play back in those days was that you could use the box office as your own personal bank.)
When Hart was leaving the theater, a woman said, “That is not George Kaufman. It must be the other one.”
As Bishop says, “Act One” has influenced just about everyone who has anything to do with the theater.
After I read it, in one night, I did a sort of “Act One” tour of New York, making pilgrimages to all the places Hart mentions in the book — 74 E. 105th St., the tenement in which he was brought up; the New Amsterdam Theatre, where he worked as an office boy; the Music Box; and, mecca of meccas, 158 E. 63rd St., Kaufman’s townhouse.
All these years later, whenever I’m in that part of town, I stop in front of the house and gaze up at the fourth floor, where Kaufman and Hart hammered out “Once in a Lifetime,” in a study that had all the warmth of “the workroom of a certified public accountant,” Hart wrote.
Kaufman’s evisceration of Hart’s first draft is one of the best set pieces in the book. With a razor-sharp pencil, he races through the manuscript, crossing out speeches and condensing scenes.
“Just cutting away the underbrush,” he says, dryly.
A fine scene, indeed, and I can’t wait to see what Lapine does with it.
Now — who should play Kaufman and Hart?
I’m taking suggestions.