I recently had the good fortune of attending “My Fair Lady” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center. Though I don’t want to hand out spoiler alerts, this new and beautifully lush production has garnered some fascinating comments concerning its bravery at reimagining the actual ending of a well-known play while remaining faithful to the original written words. Performances are currently scheduled to continue through the end of August this year; should anyone be visiting New York City before then, I highly recommend checking out this reconfigured classic for yourselves.
Day-of-show half-priced tickets are usually available, for those of you unaware of how many under-financed New Yorkers get to see these things. Get in touch with me for more info if interested…
Well, I was asked if, as a writer, I’ve ever experienced occasions where people have taken my words differently than intended. And, alas, the answer is a resounding yes. A line written in jest can often be thought of as an unfortunate error in judgement. The first story I ever was lucky enough to have published was almost comically misinterpreted. A reader actually wrote a letter of complaint to the publisher, believing I was truly the narrator/lawyer with the gall to imagine country music jokes at the expense of an imposing would-be mugger, who threatens great bodily harm should the three recently-purchased CDs transferred to his possession not indicate sufficient musical taste. I’ve learned that once a story is finished enough to be sent out into the world, writers are powerless to reign in false conclusions. I don’t necessarily feel bad about this truism, though. I mean, via translations, over-analysis and flat-out idiocy, how many passages in the Bible have been subject to the same fate?
I’ve seen first-hand how an actor or actress can greatly improve the written line by the sheer force of their own personality and performance. But of course, the most jaw-dropping and embarrassing experience I’ve yet to experience in having my own words taken completely wrong is etched much more indelibly in my memory…
I was working at Dylan Prime, a steakhouse in Tribeca. Brimming with actors and musicians, there was never a shortage of subjects to discuss and stories to share. A young waitress taking an acting class was telling me how she hoped to one day branch out into comedy, an area she knew I was interested in. She asked if perhaps I’d be able to come up with a five-minute comical scene she could perform in front of her class. I was flattered she thought I might be up to the task. Sure, I replied. It would be no problem at all.
I wrote a monologue, long-since erased, where a woman is berating a former boyfriend over having the temerity to initiate a break-up before she had the chance to do so herself. The comedy, theoretically - and I thought obviously - was in the asides. The little comments she’d make in-between her major points made clear why the partner had the good sense to head for the hills in the first place. She would accuse him of being self-absorbed and quick to judgement, yet a few random, spur-of-the-moment sentences would reveal how she might actually be describing herself. My friend, the actress, thought the scene was lively and funny, and I happily accepted her accolades, pleased to have come through in the clutch. She said they’d be videotaping her performance. I assured her she was certain to come off great.
In the following week or two, I restrained myself from inquiring how things had gone. Seeking praise, after all, was one of the questionable traits I had bequeathed to the main character in that brief, one-woman scene. But finally, I did. My friend shrugged her shoulder and initially turned away, as if reluctant to unload some bad news.
“Well,” she whispered, sighing deeply. “For one, they told me the scene could have certainly benefited from a major rewrite…”
“Oh…” I tried not to appear overly hurt, the classic proud writer who cannot accept or even acknowledge a scathing review. But I was surprised. I’d read that scene myself, in my own voice, to others before handing the script to her, and the laughs appeared right where I’d expected them to be. False humility aside, I thought the damn five-minute piece was fairly funny…
“Would you mind if I watched the video?” I asked.
I was alone in my studio apartment after she generously allowed me to borrow the video for a day or two. It was late at night and I didn’t want anyone else to witness my impending torture. For if the whole affair was as underwhelming as she had suggested, my own self-definition as a writer of comedy was about to be seriously challenged.
I already mentioned the term “jaw-dropping”, but there I was, late at night, my mouth wide-open in abject dismay. And my incredulousness wasn’t due to the writing… No, I was still standing by the words, but for the several agonizing moments passing before me, it was as if I’d just been imported into some bizarre theater of the absurd. Because every line - every line! - of my five-minute dialogue was read COMPLETELY WRONG!
It was excruciating. All those petty asides were recited as if they were major points of high magnitude, with the delivery slow and menacing. The entire piece was performed as if the character had previously deliberated every single word, and the fun was supposed to be when the truth was spontaneously revealed by accident. The humor was… trampled upon! And if this was the way she imagined the words were being said, how was it possible my friend ever found this scene funny in the first place?
I actually watched the performance twice, rolled up in a ball of embarrassment even though I was safely alone. And then I returned the video to my friend the following afternoon. We never talked about it again. For all I know, she’s since become a respected and successful actress - but I have sincere doubts. And let me be clear; none of this factored into why we grew out-of-touch, as I have with so many other close co-workers in my long and fun restaurant career. I still remember her as a lovely woman and gracious colleague. I’d love to be Facebook friends with her someday. But not every actress is suited to become a comedienne.
I did, however, learn my lesson. When another waiter from that same restaurant suggested we pool our money to record one of my true-life stories as a short film, with him in the lead, I agreed to do so on one condition: he had to practice the main soliloquy I’d written in front of me before facing the cameras. At first he was insulted; he was an experienced actor and could be counted on to perform like a professional. But I insisted, and there is no doubt in my mind how these rehearsals, with my directorial assistance, greatly improved the final version. I believe my friend Jim hits this important scene in “Lori and the Landlord’s Grill” out of the park. (Of course, ahem, some editing in the film room by yours truly might have been beneficial as well…) You can judge the results for yourselves on this website.
So how would I feel about someone taking that script and finding a way, while using the same words, to change the ending? Well, it would all depend on the quality of the finished product. If something turns out better than originally conceived, I’m all for happily accepting corresponding praise for the superior version. I’ve read that George Bernard Shaw did not originally envision Higgins and Eliza ending up together and refused to have his original “Pygmalion” turned into a musical. I think history has shown that, on rare occasions, finished works of art can sometimes be improved.
Oh, and incidentally, I just learned that “My Fair Lady” has been named the best Broadway musical of 2018 by The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and Time Magazine. So don’t simply take my recommendation - come to NYC and see the show!