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Biography on Stage: Interpretation or Imitation?

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Shortly before No"l Coward died in 1973, he asked his biographer Sheridan Morley-a British theatre critic and journalist-to write a second biography of him, one that would touch on certain facts that were discreetly missing from Morley's first, "A Talent to Amuse."

These facts included Coward's homosexuality and, maybe even more central, his lifelong love affair-admittedly platonic-with actress Gertrude Lawrence. Twenty years after her death, she continued to haunt him. She was a close friend, a comrade in self-invention (perhaps that's where the real intimacy lay), and the star of his plays-albeit only two of them. Still, the specter of her standing on the balcony in "Private Lives" was the image that most lingered, he told his biographer, a sentiment also voiced in the play. (Coward's poignant memory of Lawrence had elements of self-congratulation.)

Theirs was a symbiotic relationship and it had all the earmarks of a musical revue, recalls Morley, whose "If Love Were All" bowed Off-Broadway, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, June 10. The two-character piece-set in a slightly arch art deco universe and suffused in witty quips that bring to mind a No"l Coward play-utilizes Coward's writings and songs and stars Harry Groener and Twiggy.

But "If Love Were All" is only one of many biographical shows in New York City. Indeed, there's a spate of dramatized-in some instances, musicalized-biographies around town. Among these: "The Windsor Follies" (West Bank Caf ), "Gertrude and Alice," (Signature Theatre), "Nellie" (Lambs Theatre), "Julia De Burgos, Child of the Water" (The Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre), and "Starr's on Broadway," (staged readings at the Producers Club). On July 6 at the Directors Company, Tony Award-winner Priscilla Lopez will star as tormented artist Frida Kahlo in a new Off-Broadway play, "Goodbye My Friduchita."

Historical figures as theatrical fodder present some curious challenges for both creative teams and performers. The latter have to negotiate the thin line between impersonation and interpretation. The former shape the material on the basis of their vision-theatrical genres allow liberties to be taken-while maintaining some semblance of factual accuracy.

A Deeper Look

A common denominator among all the writers we talked with was their conviction that they had a story to tell about legendary figures-and that story represented, in varying degrees, a new spin.

Says Sheridan Morely, "I saw a great story here that not everyone knows, although many people wondered what their [No"l and Gertie's] relationship was all about. There was an extraordinary chemistry between the two stars, very similar to Fred and Ginger's on screen relationship, only No"l and Gertie were real. They came from the same poor south London background and created themselves.

"No"l invented the concept of celebrity, making himself into his own character-with his cigarette-holder and dressing gown-and then played the starring role. Gertrude did the same, becoming one of the most beautiful and glamorous women. In fact, she was a fantasist. No"l always told the truth in interviews, but she'd literally invent herself anew for each interview, frequently playing in life the character she was doing onstage. She patented her own stardom. Both No"l and Gertie sold the public versions of what they [No"l and Gertie] wanted to be."

Writer-director Morna Murphy notes that Britain's King Edward VIII and his wife-American divorc e Wallis Simpson, for whom he abdicated his crown-also emerge as a kind of Fred and Ginger. Check out "The Windsor Follies," a light-hearted musical romp that self-consciously evokes a comic strip.

"A lot of people in England continue to hate them, see them as devious and evil," says Murphy. "Before I did the research I didn't like them much either. In fact, initially I was influenced by [the high camp performance of] Charles Ludlam playing Wallis Simpson. But in the end I saw them as simply shallow, the ultimate Hollywood pair, the king and queen of caf society. I was more influenced by J. M. Barry's "High Society' and the screwball comedies of the '30s."

The biggest challenge, Murphy says, was forging a rounded Wallis Simpson who was, according to all accounts, a social-climber, moving up the ladder with each of her three marriages. "Did she love King Edward? My interpretation is that when she finally realized that her fantasy of their life together would never happen [as a divorced woman she could never be England's queen], then she was willing to love him as a man. She always treated him as a person, as opposed to a king. And that's what drew him to her. In one of my readings I came across her comment, "I just happened to be the woman in his life at the time,' and then it hit me. He was madly in love with her, but she had so little trust in her own loveability."

"Edward VIII, on the other hand, was less of a puzzle. He was a devastatingly lonely, depressed man. There was also some suggestion that he was homosexual, although I don't touch on that."

Still, in the end Murphy draws King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson as two-dimensional frolickers who shouldn't be taken too seriously. "My commentary is that there were more important things going on in the world-from breadlines, to the Irish throwing bombs, to the rise of Hitler."

By contrast, "Gertrude and Alice: A Likeness to Loving" is an amused valentine to two women-Gertrude Stein and her lover Alice B. Toklas-who were harbingers of revolutionary esthetics and radical lifestyle choices that are now not uncommon. A literary icon, Stein has been regarded in some quarters as "the mother of modernism." At the same time, these women were products of their scene and era. To wit: the Paris of the teens and twenties, whose denizens included Hemingway, Picasso, and Fitzgerald. Stein and Toklas' lesbian relationship was patterned after the model of a heterosexual marriage. Stein referred to herself as "husband," and Toklas played "wife."

Employing Steinesque (deconstructed?) language and a fractured storytelling mode-by turns recounting their story and then playing the characters in it-the play's writers-actresses (Linda Chapman and Lola Pashalinksi) want to celebrate Stein's contribution to experimentalism. In fact, it's embodied in "A Likeness to Loving" 's structure, style, and set-a backdrop of cubistic squares. Chapman and Pashalinski also want to reassess Stein's relationship with Toklas-in their interpreters' view, misunderstood.

"Alice is usually seen in the shadows," says Linda Chapman. "We wanted to bring her forward. Although she didn't promote that image, she had a strong influence on Gertrude's work." Indeed, the entire piece, directed by Anne Bogart and produced by the Foundry Theatre, attempts to show how profoundly affected Stein's writing was by her relationship with Toklas, a quintessential textbook "enabler." Their lives individually and collectively were set up to serve Stein's work. Writing and sexuality are intertwined. "Sweet pinky," Toklas says, "You made lots of literature last night, didn't you?"

Using the research of Stein scholar Ulla Dydo, in addition to Stein's own writings, Chapman and Pashalinski repeatedly dramatize how literally and metaphorically informing Toklas' presence was. "Because Gertrude had had an affair with a woman named May, Alice insisted she take out every "may' in one of her writings, to be replaced by "can,' " notes Chapman.

Adds Pashalinski: "They presented themselves to the world as writer and secretary, but ironically it was Alice's voice that brought Gertrude success. It was a Pyrrhic victory for Gertrude that "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,' written by Stein, was the work that brought her commercial success." In the play, Stein quips, "My wife is my life is my life is my wife."

Grasping-not to mention enjoying-these biographical plays largely depends on familiarity with the subject. Without it, many of these pieces are virtually meaningless. In some instances, the behind-the-scenes creators had to deal with the fact that audiences may never even have heard of their real-life protagonists.

Indeed, one of Bernice Lee's purposes in writing the book for "Nellie"-her new musical inspired by the life of social crusader-journalist Nellie Bly-was to introduce audiences to a "visionary seeker of truth who was deterred by nothing and close to a century ahead of her time. She was an original, a maverick, and an adventuress in the best sense of that word. This is a woman in the late 1800s who attained, through her reporting, justice for many people." Among other undercover assignments, Nellie Bly got herself committed to an insane asylum to reveal in a series of articles its appalling brutality. She was also one of the first-if not the first-female reporter to be hired by a major New York newspaper.

Bi-Cultural Challenges

Playwright Carmen Rivera ("Jula De Burgos, Child of The Water") faced a similar task-introducing audiences to her subject: political activist-feminist poet Julia De Burgos (1914-1953). The controversial Puerto Rican-born poet enjoys a major reputation in Latin American literary circles, but is not known by the theatregoing public at large, especially those who are not of Latino descent. Even those of Latino heritage may not be familiar with her, Rivera concedes. Her dual aim: introduce De Burgos to those audiences who don't know her, on the one hand, and to debunk the cruel myths about her for those who are familiar with her reputation, on the other hand.

"She was viewed as an eclectic genius, a Bohemian, and an intellectual who studied Russian, Greek, and Latin," says Rivera." De Burgos was a Puerto Rican nationalist, a pantheist, and had feminist ideas before many women did. In addition, she saw racial diversity, including her own-her mother was a mulatta-as a source of empowerment, not victimization.

"But she was also viewed as an alcoholic who had a promiscuous lifestyle; she was seen as a weak follower of men and in the end was destroyed by an unhappy love affair. [She ended up an impoverished, unpublished drunk on the streets of Manhattan.] She was a passionate woman and what broke her were many things, especially her own inner struggle between her creative desires and her need to be a conventional respectable woman. Her alcoholism and promiscuity were overstated."

Drawing the kind of complex portrait Rivera wanted was hampered, she admits, by the fact that her play was mounted alternately in Spanish and English. She worried about appealing to Latino stereotypes especially before an American audience: "It took me four drafts before I put a bottle of liquor in Julia's hand."

History and Recent Pop-Cult

Characters based on historical figures are hardly a recent trend. Indeed, as far back as the ancient Greeks, gods and goddesses, who were considered real, were prominently represented on stage. Kings and queens, in various guises, have always been ripe topics for playwrights. Consider Shakespeare's histories.

But until fairly recently-within the last 20 years-powerful real-life characters were mostly presented in a heroic light, no matter how evil they were. Shakespeare's Richard III is a classic case in point. He's malign, but it's malignancy on a grand scale. Compare that portrayal of royalty with the fairly recent (1993) production of "The Madness of George III," at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (and the later film version, "The Madness of King George"). In these tongue-in-cheek works a king is clearly depicted as a victim-surrounded by the malicious and indifferent-in the throes of a progressively degenerative mental illness brought on by a genetic disorder. Our very own Jackie O. came in for her share of criticism, as did the entire Kennedy dynasty, in "Jackie." That Broadway show, two seasons back, reduced the American Camelot to a grotesque cartoon.

It should be noted that during the English Restoration period (1660-c. 1700), in what has been dubbed restoration comedy, nobility was held up to ridicule onstage, although no specific individuals were named.

Scaling down high-powered figures-then and now-is an attempt to balance their overblown images, assert several experts we talked with. These characters may be drawn as absurd or comic or kinky. They have vulnerabilities and failings.

Consider two recent stage productions about Oscar Wilde-"The Judas Kiss" and "Gross Indecencies"-each emphasizing the famed writer's defining flaw, his hubris. Even more striking is "Nixon's Nixon," by Russell Lees, produced by the Manhattan Class Company several seasons back (1995).

In the White House Lincoln Room, on Aug. 7, 1974, the eve of Nixon's resignation, Nixon and Kissinger conferred. They prayed, it has been reported. Beyond that, little is known about what transpired.

In this surreal work-little touches of Ionesco here and there-the politicians emerge as two absurdist figures fueled by alcohol and awash in ambition, self-delusion, and paranoia, confronting themselves and each other on the comic precipice of hell. As the evening wears on and Nixon grows increasingly desperate, he engages in flights of fancy, insisting that Kissinger play a range of historical figures, including Mao Tse Tung and Brezhnev. "Be him for me, Henry." In the end, the title character evokes an almost endearing dementia, bordering on infantilism.

Musicals started featuring biographical figures, of all stripes, as early as 1921 with "Blossom Time," based on the life of Franz Schubert. Over the decades these presentations have also become increasingly human-guilt-ridden, fatuous, and/or downright dumb. Even a musical that exudes pride, like "1776," shows our founding fathers as fallible. They curse, swear, drink, and discuss bodily functions. Indeed, at one point Ben Franklin says something to the effect that "We're human, not demi-Gods." Paradoxically, in "1776" our founding fathers emerge as truly miraculous figures precisely because they are so human.

All those we interviewed point to today's news with its journalistic nothing-is-sacred sensibility, the tell-all biographies, and the confessional talk shows as the common culture that has paved the way for the less-than-complementary-and/or more complex-view of public figures depicted on film, TV, and onstage. And audiences have come to expect multi-leveled presentations of the high blown.

Genre, Dramatic License and Creating a Theatrical Narrative

Interestingly, there's no sentimentality in any of the biographical shows in town right now. Talking about his revue "If Love Were All," Sheridan Morely could easily be describing any of the others as well, when he says it's a "critical celebration."

Within that framework, fashioning a narrative that is at once dramatically interesting and authentic is the major undertaking. "I had to fill in the blanks, explain certain things [through their dialogue] that clearly No"l and Gertie would know and not be discussing. I used as much of No"l Coward's writing as I could. Gertrude Lawrence left nothing behind, except an autobiography that wasn't very good. So I had to invent and short-cut and hope it's seamless."

Harry Groener, who plays Coward, adds, given the fact that "If Love Were All" is a memory piece, there are certain freedoms. Nothing should be taken quite literally. Time and nostalgia alter perceptions.

Carmen Rivera ("Julia de Burgos") echoes the sentiment, pointing out that the nonlinear, nightmarish stream-of-consciousness structure of her play gave her latitude while remaining fundamentally true to the "epic quality of Julia de Burgos' life." Pinpointing the significant encounters in de Burgos' life, the play moves backwards and forwards in time and place. But Rivera says it does, in fact, occur the moment before Julia's death, and is fashioned to evoke "her life flashing before her eyes."

The writers we interviewed created narratives on the basis of research from a variety of sources. Morna Murphy, however, only used the diaries and autobiographies of the Windsors, steering clear of biographies that could not truly capture the characters' voices.

Still, she took certain liberties with the story for purposes of good theatre, i.e., dramatizing-parodying might be a more exact term-an imagined encounter between Edward and one of Wallis' ex-husbands, two fools who probably deserve each other. There is evidence that they met-but not, admittedly, in this verbally dueling, slightly homoerotic context.

The tone is satiric, Murphy says, suggesting that the "recognizable humanity of her characters and the romantic Oscar Hammerstein music [composed by Ralph Martell] serves as a balance," a counterpoint.

Bernice Lee insists that "Nellie" is largely factual, short of a romance between Nellie Bly and her editor that serve as a focal point in the musical. That relationship, Lee concedes, was imagined, but she is convinced "it could have happened." Lee also takes license with the language, using phrases like "check out," and "been there, done that," two late-20th century phrases. Lee is comfortable with the choices because "Bly was a visionary and could have said those things."

Choosing the appropriate biographical moments to dramatize was a major task for all the writers, but perhaps, most pointedly, for Chapman and Pashalinski. They wanted to look at the day-to-day life of Stein and Toklas, precisely because the couple is usually not seen in that context.

Says Chapman, "We did not want this to be a history lesson, so we deliberately skipped over their World War II experiences. We started by annotating pieces of Gertrude's writings that we loved, and by the end we had found a love story with by-play and tension that evoked a strong emotional life. The play is a sampling of Gertrude's writings-some of it in context, some not-that we pulled together through trial and error. Alice destroyed her own writings about their private lives." In this production, Gertrude and Alice are kooky eccentrics, self-important, but not without charm.

Softening the character's edges for onstage palatability and/or plausibility-without violating the truth-was a potential issue, although not every team chose to address it. Consider Carmen Rivera's "Julia de Borgos." Rivera toned down Julia's over-the-top sexuality and boozing, but was not concerned with whether a contemporary audience could put an emotional handle on Julia's agonizing passion, especially for politics and/or writing poetry.

"I think there's a resurgence of serious political dialogue, although that may be more among Latinos because our lives are more precarious. There's also, I believe, a resurgence of an interest in poetry, a passion for ideas, and literature. Actually, I'm not sure it ever went away. Perhaps it suffered through commercialization."

Similarly, a zealous character like Nellie Bly might be a little difficult to grasp. Even in her day there was the debate: Is she a social crusader or an adventuress? And today, she can easily be seen as a nut case, an exhibitionist consumed by the joys of notoriety. "There was an account of her jumping off a ferry into the water to see how long it would take for the crew to rescue her," says actress Becky Lillie. "We emphasized the positive-the fact that she had tremendous drive and did great things. There was also the problem of her appearing too gung-ho. As it happened she had a charming and winning smile, so we were able to use that to offset her aggressiveness."

Impersonations or Interpretations?

With the exception of Keith Benedict (King Edward VIII in "Windsor Follies"), who maintains there is a thin line between impersonation and interpretation, the other performers we interviewed insist they are "interpreting" the historical figures. Impersonation plays a small-indeed negligible-role. Still, they all watched video clips, listened to recordings, and/or studied photographs (where available) in order to help guide their facial expressions, mannerisms, posture, and gait, along with vocal cadences, rhythms, tone, and speech patterns.

"I played the [world-famous] tape of Edward abdicating the crown," recalls Benedict. "My own speech is somewhat deeper than his. So I placed my voice at a lighter register. I thought it was very important to suggest his vocal tone. I'm at an advantage, however, because I am British and, in fact, I look a little bit like Edward. Yet I studied newsreels of the prince to capture his body movements and the way he'd bite his lip. There was tightness around his mouth. I never practiced these gestures and I certainly don't incorporate them into my performance too consciously. But I try to eliminate my own facial expressions when I'm in character."

In several instances, many of the historical figures' physical attributes had to be largely imagined because source material was limited, if not nonexistent.

Becky Lillie (Nellie Bly) used Bly's own writings and a couple of now-fading black-and-white photographs to help inform her interpretation of Bly's physical and vocal style. "Clearly I had no way of knowing what Nellie sounded like, but on the basis of what she wrote I assume her speaking style was determined, direct, cut-and-dried. In her photographs she looked perfect; she always wore a corset, as all the women did in that era, and she had a small waist that she was proud of. It is known that she used her attractiveness to get what she wanted. And so I incorporated that [her aggressiveness, her sexuality, and the fact that she was wearing a restricting corset] into the way I walk onstage."

Vicki Shaghoian ("Windsor Follies") chose one physical detail-culled from photos-to shape Wallis Simpson's look and evoke her personality. "Her wedding pictures to the prince showed a woman who had a sad expression. That made me think about her in a whole new way. I generally like to work from the inside out, although initially I felt that since I was playing a real person I should know her voice and mannerisms. But there are very few pictures [and tapes] of her during that period."

Actress Sol Miranda ("Julia de Burgos") found de Burgos' makeup transforming, specifically "the thin rounded eyebrows made with a smooth eyebrow pencil," which she applies each night. But more important than the look were, as noted, de Burgos' inner contradictions that Miranda garnered mostly through reading Burgos' poetry. She also gets in touch with "Julia's Catholicism mixed with indigenous African cultures through a private nightly ritual. Backstage, we have a picture of Julia, surrounded by a kind of shrine, candles, and flowers. We all greet her and talk to her."

Chapman and Pashalinski studied photos of Stein and Toklas for the women's stance-the composition made by the two of them posing together. And the actresses listened to tapes to "assimilate" their voices. But these technicalities were only vehicles to help conjure up two individuals who first created their own personas, and then played them (in some ways, not unlike Coward and Lawrence). The title of the play, says Pashalinksi, hints at the element of make believe in their (Alice and Gertrude's) relationship. "After all, it's a likeness to loving."

Among all our actors, the goal was to "suggest" the character's "essence"-a word used repeatedly-as opposed to rendering strictly accurate imitations, a feat viewed as artistically restricting. Says Harry Groener: "Because so many in the audience are familiar with what No"l Coward looked and sounded like, when you attempt to do an imitation, you're opening yourself to an audience concentrating on the imitation. "How accurate is it?' And then perhaps saying, "No, that's not exactly right.' "

Groener adds that playing a public figure is oddly freeing, precisely because facts are known about him-however open to interpretation-that the actor and director can use as a reference point. "Unlike playing a fictional character, when you play a real person you have something concrete to base your discussion on."

Truthfulness Within Stylized Genres

Calling into question assumptions about these larger-than-life figures is the common ground, inspired by the writers' visions and filtered through the actors' lenses, respectively. At the same time, the actors are constrained because they're working within the stylistic parameters of a particular genre, a problem evident, as an example, in "The Windsor Follies," a satiric revue.

"Other productions about the Windsor family are sugary, and over-romanticized. This is the antidote," says Benedict. "But I still wanted to bring out King Edward's many human qualities-his weaknesses, strengths, and vulnerabilities. He fell in love with an exciting woman-she was sexually liberated. And she was a means to an end. He really didn't want to be king. He wanted a new kind of monarchy. He wanted to bring it into the 20th century. He has been unfairly maligned. Given the limitations of a cabaret format, I wanted to present him in as wide an angle as possible."

Shaghoian faced an equally, or perhaps more, daunting task, in light of her spin on Wallis Simpson as a multi-leveled figure-also misunderstood-set in a cartoony musical parody. "She was seen as a cold and calculating woman. In her later years she was more formal in her presentation. But through my research I found that she was in fact, at least when she was a younger woman, spontaneous and gregarious.

"I believe she was raised with an inferiority complex. She had the Warfield name [of blue-blood Baltimore lineage] but, in fact, grew up in poverty. She didn't have much for a person of privilege, and had lifelong conflict over that. It's true, she felt she was owed more and as a result was seen as self-centered. And as an American who was proud of her heritage, she viewed the monarchy as dated. People misinterpreted that as an attitude of superiority. My challenge was to make her more sympathetic"-a task made that much more difficult by the comically operatic (campy, albeit on a small scale) production design and costumes by actor Keith Benedict.

In contrast, the polished urbanity of "If Love Were All"-both Coward's songs and the play-with-music format-serves as the perfect backdrop for a musical piece about No"l Coward and Gertrude Lawrence who, according to all accounts, were themselves characters right out of a No"l Coward play.

Indeed, Groener stresses that his purpose is not to cast Coward in a new light, but rather to reveal the depth that was truly there, but perhaps not widely known, i.e., Coward's powerful feelings for Gertrude Lawrence. "He was devastated by her death. There wasn't a day that went by when he didn't think about her. And another source of pain: the critics. He was deeply hurt when they put him down.

"We also wanted to touch on his homosexuality that was not openly acknowledged during his lifetime. We suggest it in the title, and in several lines, and also in the song he sings, "Mad About the Boy,' which was always sung by a woman in his day. Given the era, he had to be in the closet. But he was also a very private man. I was concerned about playing him too gay. I didn't want that to be the focus. There was so much more to the man."

Chapman talks about the challenge of acting Stein's language, first "learning how to read it on the page and then out loud. Actually, she's more understandable, less abstract, when read out loud. There's a musicality in her language. But we had to come to terms with her writing."

Notes Pashalinski, "Gertrude broke language apart in order to reinvigorate it. She treated words like little people. Each word had its own integrity. She tried to put words next to each other that didn't make sense. We didn't want to change her language and we wanted to honor her idea of a "continuous present,' meaning the audience is either slightly ahead or behind the action in a semi-dream state. But we wanted it and Gertrude and Alice-their relationship-to be truthful and accessible within the form."

The acting is highly stylized, or "presentational" as Chapman-Pashalinski prefer to call it, describing their performance as a kind of "cubistic dance." The subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle change in their movements evokes shifts in their relationship.

How Genre Will Evolve and What Else is Happening

The experts we talked with speculate that the onstage treatment of major real-life figures will become increasingly less reverential and predictable. In "Goodbye My Friduchita," a new play about the much-disputed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (The Directors Company, opening July 6), drama, dance, music, and projections and puppetry will merge to bring to life her marriage, bisexual affairs, political passions, and demons.

And check out "Starr's on Broadway," a staged reading we attended at the Producers' Club. The creators are in the process of attempting to draw commercial backers. In this ditty, Ken Starr, Monica Lewinsky, and Hilary and Bill Clinton interact with each other and dead presidents-from Nixon to Johnson to Truman-to assess current and past events. Lenny Bruce is the moderator.

Enough said.

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