Playwright Tony Kushner is immersed in a dizzying amount of work, including crafting a new screenplay about Lincoln that’s still unfinished but is slated to begin filming in the fall with director Steven Speilberg. He’s also contributing new material to the season-long retrospective of his work at New York’s Signature Theatre.
Kushner has a penchant for taking on big projects and important themes, starting with his most famous work, “Angels in America,” a six-hour, two-part play about AIDS that received the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. For further evidence of his ambition, as well as a somewhat outrageous sense of humor, consider the title of his most recent major play: “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.”
Yet for all Kushner’s big involvements, he recently took time to come up with just the right new three-syllable word to replace another word that he decided was a little too mundane. It was while in the midst of final rehearsals in Cooperstown, where the Glimmerglass Festival is producing the world premiere of “A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck.” The new one-act opera by composer Jeanine Tesori, to an original libretto by Kushner, debuts tonight (7/21) and runs for five more performances through Aug. 22.
“When writing in verse forms, there are various strictures that you have to obey and a somewhat mathematical precision in searching for a word that will fit,” explains Kushner. “Writing lyrics, instead of writing language that’s supposed to approximate how people speak spontaneously, forces you in a slightly different relationship to language. It knocks the dust off the machinery a little bit.”
Creating “Blizzard” is certainly not Kushner’s first time immersed in music. His parents were professional musicians, and he has already collaborated extensively with composer Tesori. Their through-composed musical “Caroline, or Change” played on Broadway for 136 performances in 2004 and received six Tony Award nominations. The team also has an outstanding commission from the Metropolitan Opera.
“I can’t write or read music, but I love it, and go the opera all the time, though I’m sort of up and down about musical theatre,” says Kushner. “I love the chance at having this intimate connection to singing and to music.”
Asked if there’s a difference between writing for an opera versus a musical, Kushner turns to the diverging nature of the genres and their practitioners.
”I’m not entirely sure of the difference between a musical or opera, but when you go into an opera company with people trained to sing operatically, the expectation is different,” he says. ” ‘Caroline, or Change’ was commissioned for the San Francisco Opera with Bobby McFerrin, but he decided he didn’t want to write an opera. Director George Wolfe was happy about that, because he wanted to work with musical theater performers, not opera singers. There are certain things that musical theatre people know how to do that opera people don’t and vice versa.”
Similar to slotting in words to fit a musical line, Kushner and Tesori were given a very specific task when commissioned last year by Glimmerglass and Francesca Zambello, the company head who is staging the new work. Zambello already had in mind to produce “Later The Same Evening,” by John Musto and Mark Campell, a one-act that deals with the life of painter Edward Hopper. As a companion piece, Zambello requested another one-act about the life of an American artist. Kushner immediately thought of playwright Eugene O’Neill.
“I’m an O’Neill fanatic and have been working on a screenplay about his life for the past 13 years,” says Kushner. “If you’re a playwright, you go to O’Neill as the source. There’s really not much in the way of serious American theatre before he came along. He proved it could exist. He’s the father of us all, the first to stake a claim nationally and internationally for American dramatic literature.”
“A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck” depicts a rather infamous incident that occurred late in O’Neill’s life. It’s February 1951 and O’Neill, 63, gets into a heated argument with his wife, Carlotta. Although in failing health, he walks out of their cabin into a snowstorm and is rescued an hour later.
“The fight that he and Carlotta had almost ended their marriage, but in a sense he never recovered from it,” explains Kushner. “After an hour in the snow, he went into the hospital and stayed fairly seriously infirmed for the rest of his life.”
“Their relationship is a tortured love story. Most great ones are,” adds Kushner.
Besides the husband and wife roles, the opera includes three singers who portray famous drama critics of the era. They’re evoked through some insults the wife hurls at her husband, the sensitive artist. Dealing with tough reviews is a sore spot Kushner can identify with.
“The relationship between critics and playwrights is infinitely tormented,” says Kushner. “If you know of any artist who has no ax to grind, I’d love to meet them and find their secret.”
Kushner says the new opera is one of the shortest things he’s ever written. Just 20 pages of text, it spills out over some 40 minutes of music. Though the work is completed and ready to debut, Kushner’s enterprise starts to show through again during the final rehearsals in Cooperstown.
“When I was watching it, I had a vision of expanding it,” he says. “I’m very pleased with it and think I’ll try to give it further life. I’d like to write more, add one or two other sections, maybe make it a complete evening.”