‘Memphis’ belle

Posted on 10 May 2012 at 4:50pm

Joe DiPietro is the straightest gay guy in musical theater. And he’s fine with it

AVERAGE JOE | Gay playwright Joe DiPietro, inset, didn’t put any queer content in his Tony-winning musical ‘Memphis,’ above — he saved it for the provocatively named ‘Fucking Men.’ (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

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MEMPHIS
Fair Park Music Hall,
901 First Ave. May 15–27.
DallasSummerMusicals.org.

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Joe DiPietro is the man behind I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, which can fairly be called the straightest musical ever written … well, that and Memphis, another of his shows, which opens at Fair Park on Tuesday. So it might surprise fans of his musicals to know that DiPietro is an openly gay man.

It probably won’t be news to those who know him through his plays, however: His mystery The Art of Murder (currently in revival at Theatre 3) is pretty gay, as is his all-male take on

La Ronde, which has the most provocative name of any play ever written: Fucking Men.

In short, anyone trying to find a common thread among his work might end up confused.

“I get that all the time, but I like that,” he shrugs. “For whatever reason, I’m a writer who never likes to write the same show twice. I really like to explore. If I consider myself anything, I think I write dramas that are generally a comedy at heart.”

It’s not like DiPietro is in the closet, or one of those “I don’t like labels” gays. Fucking Men is as queer as theater gets — and “it has played very well,” he insists, at least in the few places that have dared to produce it.

“With that aggressive a title, you don’t expect it to play subscription theaters, but it’s something I wanted to express,” he says. “I write so many commercial things, I did Fucking Men just to have 10 guys talking about sex. I thought it’ll never get performed. And then some producers said they’d produce it if I changed the title, but I said no. Women really like the show because it’s about men talking about intimacy without any heterosexual barriers. La Ronde is about people trying to connect. That’s the same subject matter if not style of [ILYYPNC].”

There might be a theme after all. And it’s not like he hasn’t tried to incorporate gay themes into his other works.
“In an out-of-town tryout for ILYYPNC, we had a gay couple,” he says. “But I remember thinking ‘this is not the world for our play — even as the gay guy, I’m confused about what this is.’”

That’s true as well for Memphis. While the plot is basically Hairspray — a Southern DJ breaks the “race music” barrier putting black musicians on the air, then falls for one of the artists he discovers — there’s no room for drag or gay jokes. It just wouldn’t fit.

“The plot is loosely based on a DJ who used to exist, but I developed his persona and the whole thread of his life,” says DiPietro. That character is among the quirkiest to lead a Broadway musical; that was always in the plan, too.

“I thought about the first people to actually play the stuff on the air, and it was dangerous what they did, so they had to be a little crazy,” he reasons. “You have to take whatever energy that made them different and convey it onstage. And that’s what this guy is — all nerve endings. He does what he does because he can’t help it. Oftentimes, the people who do stuff at first and what makes them huge risk-takers going out on a limb. The first two or three years, [rock ‘n’ roll] was considered a fad. Once it was hip and other people could make money from it, the pioneers were seen as too reckless.”

The concept has worked: Memphis recently became to 100th longest running show in Broadway history, and DiPietro has the awards to prove why — though even he agrees Memphis’ stunning success at the Tonys two years ago owed much to it being one of the few new musicals on Broadway its season with a totally original score.

“That’s absolutely true,” he says. “Stuff goes in waves. When I look at the Broadway season we came in, it was after the market crash. A lot of the new musicals being developed lost their financing. We came in very early and then all the big musicals that came in didn’t live up to their hype. We weren’t based on a movie, we didn’t have Hugh Jackman — though I would have rewritten the role with him, and added a shower scene — and we had lasted the whole season.”

Not that DiPietro has anything against jukebox musicals. When we talk, he’s knee-deep working on his own, employing the music of the Gershwins: Nice Work If You Can It, starring

Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara. Just last week, DiPietro was again nominated for a Tony Award for his writing.

“I’ve been around long enough to enjoy this no matter what happens,” he says of awards, though he has fond memories of his wins in 2010.

“They did the pre-show stuff and we literally sit down and they announce David [Bryan] won for orchestrations. Then they announced best score [for which he was nominated for his lyrics] and I remember sitting and thinking, ‘Oh my God! I just won a Tony Award, too! How interesting.’ I walked off stage and the stage manager said ‘Wait.’ And then they presented me with best book of a musical. In the first five minutes, David and I had won two Tony Awards each.” They eventually went on to win best musical, too, but not even that was the icing on the cake.

“The best part about the Tonys was, my ex-boyfriend was in the theater that night — his boyfriend was a producer on another show we beat.”

Ah, yes: Revenge. Every gay man appreciates it. Even one famous for writing I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 11, 2012.

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