New Jersey Stage
New Jersey Stage on social media


This article is from our magazine. To view it in its original format, click here

An Interview With Joe DiPietro

By Gary Wien

originally published: 11/21/2015

An Interview With Joe DiPietroAward-winning playwright, Joe DiPietro, may live in New York City, but his Jersey roots have been apparent in many of his plays from the hit musical The Toxic Avenger to his latest work, The Second Mrs. Wilson.  This play examines a look at a rather unique — and terrifying — period in the history of the United States when President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke and was essentially replaced by his second wife, Edith.  This took place during a period in which America was debating about entering World War I and Wilson was trying to create the League of Nations.  The play is currently running at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick until November 29.

New Jersey Stage spoke with the Bergen County native about the play, how he began writing musicals with David Bryan of Bon Jovi, and if he ever imagined winning Tony Awards and having the success he’s had so far in his career.

I’ve heard you’re a bit of a political junkie; did you know about the story of Edith before writing this play? 

I’m a definitely a political junkie — more of a modern one than a historical one.  I was reading an article about female politicians a few years back and it said ‘many people believe that Hillary Clinton may be our first female president’ and then in parenthesis it said, ‘of course, many people believe that Edith Wilson was already the first female president.’  And I thought, ‘that’s interesting.’

I knew a little about Woodrow Wilson, but not a whole lot, so I immediately went back and did a little research.  I became fascinated by the story of Edith and Woodrow.



The article continues after this ad

 


The story has a little of everything — romance, danger, even fraud at the highest level.  Were you surprised at their story?

It is stunningly dramatic and it’s still a shocking incident in American history.  Amazingly, it is not widely known.  The average person is very surprised when I start telling them about the history of it.

One of the reasons I was so intrigued is my dramatist antenna went up and said, ‘oh my God, this is an unbelievable story about a woman that is essentially running the country at a time when women couldn’t even vote!  Her story was interesting over a scope of many years, so I had to whittle it down and find the center throughout these vast historical experiences and important events.  The challenge was trying to make it dramatically coherent in two hours.

To do that, the play moves swiftly from one point in time to weeks or months later.  In a way, the staging shows just how crazy that period of time was.

Absolutely.  I worked hard in terms of making sure it was all historically accurate to an extent.  You have to include huge events like getting into World War I and getting out of the war, but they weren’t necessarily huge events that I wanted to dramatize with Edith’s point of view on them.

It was a period of American history which is 100 years old now and some people know and a lot of people don’t.  The Great War, as it was called, is vitally important as is Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.  We were an isolationist country and Wilson took us into the modern power we are now.  I was trying to tell as much of that history, while making sure it was understandable and not glib against the backdrop of his great romance.

What also fascinated me about the story was how the personal affects the political.  How Woodrow Wilson may have been the most powerful person in the world, but he was still a human being.  He was grieving the loss of his first wife and fell in love with a strong-willed woman, and those two personalities controlled world events.

Can you imagine the fallout today if a President had a stroke and the administration tried hiding it?

I just think you couldn’t.  If Obama was gone for three days, the media scrutiny would be intense.  You could never get away with saying he’s suffering exhaustion.  You wouldn’t last more than a week if something like this happened.

 

Most, if not all, of the conversations are from your imagination, right?

Yes, for a couple of reasons.  One is because those conversations do not exist in recorded form.  A couple of them are written down, but we didn’t transcribe or record everything like we do today.  Another reason is because this is my dramatic retelling of these events.   

Ever wonder if there might be a line or two that winds up in the public’s memory the way Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin did? 

I do.  I actually wonder…. I’ve thought about it and I’ve researched and researched and tried to figure out what these people would be feeling going into the scenes.  And I wonder if I actually, just through happenstance, wrote something that was actually said just because I was in their minds.  Part of me would be very happy if a few lines coincided with what they said verbatim.

This is your fifth play to be presented at George Street Playhouse.  How did this relationship come about?

I went to Rutgers and graduated in 1984.  I wasn’t writing plays then, but I knew about and went to George Street.  When I started getting produced in the mid to late ‘90s, George Street was the theatre I knew about, but I didn’t know David Saint (George Street’s Artistic Director).  I always thought it would be great to work there because it was the theatre I went to in college.

My first show there was The Toxic Avenger.  I had written that show with David Bryan, who I wrote Memphis with.  We’re two Jersey boys.  We wrote the play very quickly and the producer said what should we do with this?   I said I’ve always wanted to work at George Street Playhouse and I’m from Jersey.  The show is full of Jersey jokes.  If anyone is going to like it it’s going to be them.  I know these people; I lived there for many years; this is their cup of tea.  Then David Saint read it and we did a reading and he immediately said he wanted to produce this in the next season.  So that began my relationship with George Street Playhouse.  David Saint and I have become collaborators and friends.  And I think just because I grew up here and went to college in New Brunswick, these are my people.  When I write, I speak to them.

How did you and David Bryan first start working together? I know you’re about the same age; you didn’t meet at Rutgers did you?

No, we are the same age and we went to Rutgers at the same time, but he only went for maybe a half a year and then went on to Juilliard.  He was pre-med at Rutgers, but was always a piano prodigy too.

I had written the first draft of Memphis and it was about the birth of rock and roll. I knew some great theatre composers, but I thought I would love a real rocker on this.  I knew zero rock stars, so I gave it to my agent who said he knew a couple of rock and roll managers.  He said he’d see if anyone was looking for something.  He sent it out to the ether and a couple of months later I got a call out of the blue saying, ‘Hi Joe, my name is David Bryan.  I’m the keyboardist for Bon Jovi.  I just read your script for Memphis and I heard every song and I want to know how I can write this work.’  And that literally was my first conversation with David.  Then he sent me a demo of a song in the script and I thought this is the guy.

David and I are the same age and we both grew up in Jersey.  He’s got a Jewish mother; I have an Italian mother. He comes from a very specific world of rock and roll and I come from a world of theatre, but we’re of the same DNA from our Jersey upbringing during the ‘70s.

Together, you two won Tony Awards for Memphis.  It’s cool that your big break came with another Jersey guy. 

It’s very cool.

Did you ever imagine having the success you’ve had? 

No.  I mean, I dreamed about it I suppose.  I just always loved theatre.  I grew up watching it and reading it.  I read a lot of plays when I was growing up and I still do.  I always thought of theatre as literature.  And so, I think it was my dream to be a playwright, but it seemed very unattainable.  I remember thinking early on that I was sure I’d have to go to Los Angeles at some point and write sitcoms or tv shows.  But I loved theatre and focused on that.  I was fortunate in the sense that people liked my work early on and encouraged me.

I was never the person who was celebrated as the flavor of the month, so I just kept working.  I know people who have been celebrated and it freezes them up, but I always viewed theatre as what I did.  I did different kinds of shows and always liked to challenge myself.  So, did I dream of this? Yeah, I dreamt of it.  Did I ever imagine it? Who knows? But I do appreciate it and I think one of the reasons I’m still so prolific and fortunate to have a lot of plays and musicals done recently is because I appreciate it and I don’t want to throw it away, so I continue to work as hard as I can and try to get as good as I can.

Do people in your theatre circle in the City ever give you a hard time for growing up in the suburbs? 

No, everyone in New York is from somewhere else!  I think when I see people make fun of Jersey, it’s generally when I’m with relatives in Jersey.  They make fun of Jersey themselves.  Between me and David Bryan, we probably know every Jersey joke there is!

Photo by Andrea Zucker Photography





For more by this author, click here






Princeton Chinese Theatre in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater present Teahouse by Lao She
(PRINCETON, NJ) --Princeton Chinese Theatre in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater at Princeton University will present Teahouse by Lao She on November 16, 17 and 18 at 8:00pm and November 17 at 2:00pm in the Donald G. Drapkin Studio at the Lewis Arts complex on the Princeton campus. Teahouse is considered a masterpiece of contemporary Chinese theater, spanning 50 years in modern Chinese history from the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the Republican Revolution to the birth of the People’s Republic, bringing together over sixty characters who represent all walks of life. The production is directed by senior Changshuo Liu.
Axelrod's Rising Stars Youth Performing Arts Program Presents "Peter Pan"
(OCEAN TOWNSHIP, NJ) --  A family musical that’s perfect for the holiday season, “Peter Pan” is flying onto the Axelrod stage December 8-16. Axelrod’s award-winning Rising Stars Youth Performing Arts program presents one of Broadway’s timeless classics in a fully staged production directed by Lisa Goldfarb with musical direction by Randy Hurst and choreography by Wendy Roman.  
Mile Square Theatre Presents It’s a Wonderful Life: a live radio play
(HOBOKEN, NJ) --  Mile Square Theatre, Hudson County’s leading professional theatre, revives its beloved production of It’s a Wonderful Life: a live radio play by Joe Landry. Mile Square Theatre becomes a live recording studio in the golden age of radio, and MST theatre goers become the studio audience as WMST “goes on air” to broadcast Frank Capra’s popular holiday story. The production begins performances on Thursday, November 29 and runs till Sunday, December 23.  
East Lynne Theater Company presents "O. Henry's Christmas Tales"
(CAPE MAY, NJ) -- "One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That's all I have, and tomorrow is Christmas," sighed Della in "The Gift of the Magi," just one of the O. Henry stories adapted and performed by Gayle Stahlhuth, who brings to life thirty-plus characters in her memorized, unique tour-de-force storytelling style. For seven times only, the award-winning Equity professional East Lynne Theater Company will present "O. Henry's Christmas Tales."  With the exception of "Gift of the Magi," these stories have never been performed before by Stahlhuth.  Performances take place on Friday and Saturday, November 23 and 24, Sunday, December 2, Thursday through Saturday, December 6 – 8, all at 8:00 p.m. with a 2:00 p.m. matinee on Saturday, December 8.
Broadway Stars To Perform At Paper Mill For 2nd Annual Broadway Beats Hunger Event
(MILLBURN, NJ) -- Broadway’s best will come together for the holidays to support the second annual Broadway Beats Hungerp erformance at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey on December 10 at 7:00pm. All proceeds raised will go directly to Summit Medical Group Foundation and Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s joint initiative, Food, Health and Hope: An Answer to Diabetes,which is committed to reducing the impact of New Jersey’s deadly diabetes epidemic.


Broadway’s Next H!T Musical LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center
It’s Friday, October 26, 2018, and the Broadway’s Next H!T Musical cast is just about ready to take the stage at the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts, located on the campus of Ocean County College in Toms River, NJ.
The Last Apple Pie: "Apples In Winter" Opens At Centenary Stage
Jennifer Fawcett’s new play centers around a mother in a kitchen, doing something countless people across America will take part in over the upcoming holiday season: making an apple pie.
See Andrea McArdle LIVE! in Annie at Deal Park’s Axelrod PAC!
Leapin’ Lizards! Annie’s finally made it to the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal Park, NJ, and it stars Broadway’s original Annie, Andrea McArdle, as Miss Hannigan!
"It's a Blast!" Go See Rock of Ages 10th Anniversary Tour NOW! at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino!
The five-time Tony award-nominated Broadway musical, Rock of Ages, returns to the stage with a 10th Anniversary Tour at Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino! Performed in the venue’s ultra-modern Sound Waves theater, Rock of Ages runs from now until November 4, 2018.
There's One In Every Family: "Charley's Aunt" at The Shakespeare Theatre
On stage now through November 18 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, “Charley’s Aunt” is described as “part Oscar Wilde, part ‘Fawlty Towers,’ with a dash of South American spice!” This side-splitting British farce from 1892 has drag, mistaken identity, romance and plenty of physical comedy. Join Jesse and Dave at rehearsals in Florham Park to hear from the cast and director what makes this such a hilarious and enduring show.






Event calendar
Monday, Nov 12, 2018


MUSIC

DAVID SANCIOUS & WILL CALHOUN @ The Saint, Asbury Park - 7:00pm

WHEN BROADWAY GOES DARK, VAN DYK GOES LIVE @ Bergen Performing Arts Center (bergenPAC), Englewood - 7:00pm

Bickford Benefit All-Stars @ Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, Morristown - 7:30pm

In Dreams: Roy Orbison in Concert – The Hologram Tour @ Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC), Morristown - 7:30pm

MUDDFEST 2019 @ Mainstage @ Union County Performing Arts Center (UCPAC), Rahway - 7:00pm


THEATRE

Elf The Musical @ Count Basie Center For The Arts, Red Bank - 7:30pm

Auditions: Cinderella or the Story of Bigfoot @ Studio Playhouse Upper Montclair, Upper Montclair - 6:30pm







FILM

Free Solo @ The Newton Theatre, Newton - 7:00pm


LITERATURE


View all events










 






















For more on our awards, click here








New Jersey Stage © 2018 by Wine Time Media, LLC | PO Box 140, Spring Lake, NJ 07762 (732) 280-7625 | info@newjerseystage.com

Images used on this site have been sent to us from publicists, artists, and PR firms.
If there is a problem with the rights to any image, please contact us and we will look into the matter.