Well played

Posted on 05 Sep 2014 at 8:10am

Out Tony-winner Joe DiPietro reinvents an old musical with ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’

SCOTT HUFFMAN  | Contributing Writer

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APPLAUSE APPLAUSE APPLAUSE | Although he has made a living in theater for decades, out playwright Joe DiPietro says it wasn’t until he won two Tony Awards for the musical ‘Memphis’ that people took notice … and his career soared.

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NICE WORK IF YOU CAN…
Fair Park Music Hall, 909 First Ave. Through Sept. 21.
DallasSummerMusicals.org.
Bass Performance Hall,
535 Commerce St., Fort Worth.
Sept. 23–28. BassHall.com.
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Though its 20 classic Gershwin tunes would likely make any Broadway musical an instant hit, Joe DiPietro feels the secret to success for the Broadway sensation Nice Work If You Can Get It is that the show’s comedic content keeps pace with its score.

“It’s a screwball musical comedy,” says DiPietro, the Tony winner who wrote the show’s book. “I think that people come in expecting it will be cute and sweet. And it is sweet — there is a love story in the middle of it — but it makes people laugh out loud. It’s actually funny. It also has a lot of archetypes of the time like gangsters, chorus girls, bootleggers and playboys.”

The musical kicks off its national tour here in North Texas — first with a two-week run as part of the Dallas Summer Musicals series, then moving over to Bass Hall as part of the Performing Arts Fort Worth series.

DiPietro — the openly gay playwright best known for the 1950s-set Tony favorite Memphis and the off-Broadway revue I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change — adapted the 1926 musical Oh, Kay to come up with Nice Work if You Can Get It. Shows of that era, he says, typically were produced for limited runs: Plots were flimsy and the pieces were written with certain actors in mind.

DiPietro’s task — one he happily accepted — was to update the show to make it relevant today.

“When you read those shows, they were of their time,” DiPietro says. “They are things we would find creaky today with specific humor and a lot of puns. They are very quaint. The challenge was to write in that style of a 1920s show using those archetypes, but make it funny and delightful for a modern audience.”

DiPietro succeeded. In April 2012, Nice Work premiered on Broadway with stars Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara. It ran for more than a year and was nominated for Tony Awards in 10 categories, including best musical and one for DiPietro’s script. Although DiPietro himself did not win, he was grateful for the nominations.

“Honestly it is such a thrill to get your work produced,” DiPietro says. “And then to get Tony nominations? It’s such a thrill when that happens. What I do remember being very happy about was that our two supporting actors had won, Michael McGraw and Judy Kay. Michael had been around for 30 years doing great work and had never won anything and suddenly he was a Tony winner, so that was the highlight of the night for me.”

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NATIONAL BOW | The national tour of ‘Nice Work’ kicks off in North Texas.

And it is not as though DiPietro had never won the coveted trophy. In 2010, he was awarded two Tonys for the musical Memphis (best book and, along with David Bryan, best original score).

Di-Pietro, who has been around theater for decades, considers that a turning point in his career.

“The morning after the Tony Awards, I wasn’t a better writer, but everyone thought I was,” DiPietro says. “When someone has a spotlight on you for a minute, it’s very career defining. I had had some success [prior to the win], so I wasn’t a kid easily influenced by whatever came my way. But I wasn’t at the tail end of my career so that I could enjoy it and sort of capitalize on it. It really came at the right time and it was an amazing, amazing moment for me.”

Still, the New Jersey native feels that his greatest accomplishment is that he is able to earn a living by writing for the theater full-time.

“I spend all my time in the theater,” DiPietro says. “I feel like I’m a man of the theater, and I am really proud of that. I write small things and big things and quirky things. I think that is my greatest accomplishment.”

Some of the best career advice that DiPietro recalls ever receiving was from Lloyd Richards, the legendary stage director responsible for such classics as A Raisin in the Sun. Richards’ words were simple and few, but had a profound impact on the young playwright.

“He said, ‘Writing is rewriting.’” DiPietro recalls. “I think that is so true, and I have stuck with that as a writer. I am a huge rewriter. I think that is part of the reason for whatever success I have had. I keep trying to make it better. I don’t always make it better, but I keep trying.”

While actors are far more likely to be recognized by theatergoers than writers are, DiPietro enjoys the infrequent occasion when someone expresses appreciation for his work. He recalls one such moment around six months into the run of his show Memphis.

“I was standing in the back of the theater as people were leaving, and a young college guy comes up to me,” DiPietro recalls. “He says ‘I just want to thank you for the show. I’ve been 32 times.’

I’m thinking that is like five or six times a month and that is a lot. Something like that is really the most moving and most unexpected. It helps get you through the bad days of writing.”

Though writing remains his first passion, Di-Pietro is also enthusiastic about his participation in Only Make Believe, a charitable organization that brings interactive theater to children in hospitals. The charity was created by Dena Hammerstein in memory of her late husband James (son of Oscar Hammerstein). What began as a project in one hospital has now grown to include around 65 hospitals.

“Dena had worked with kids in hospitals and tried to take them to shows,” DiPietro explains, “but oftentimes they were either too sick or there were too many issues with getting them to a show.

So she came up with the idea of bringing shows to them. It is unbelievable what theater — even really simple theater — can do for people, especially sick kids.”

As for the future, DiPietro intends to continue writing and venturing into new territory. He is currently working on a historical drama (in which he says “no one sings a note”) called The Second Mrs. Wilson for the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn.

“My goal is to keep challenging myself as a writer and to keep getting better,” he says. “I’m very fortunate that I’ve lived out what I’ve wanted to do in terms of getting a show on Broadway. Now

I have certain goals about theaters I’d like to play. But it’s really about me becoming a better writer. I’m also a writer who never writes the same thing twice.”

Sounds like nice work … if you can get it.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 5, 2014.

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