By Gary Wien
NJ Repertory Theatre in Long Branch presents another world premiere play this month. This time around it's a musical called BOOKENDS written by the playwright/actress Katharine Houghton.
Katharine Houghton is best known for her role as Joanna "Joey" Drayton, the Caucasian ingenue with an African-American fiancé, whom she brings home to meet her parents, in the 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
Her list of other films include Ethan Frome, Mr. North, The Night We Never Met, Billy Bathgate, The Gardener and Let it Be You. Katharine has appeared on Broadway in Our Town, The Front Page and A Very Rich Woman. Her regional theatre credits include roles in over fifty productions. Her play Buddha, was published in Best Short Plays of 1988. Other plays that have been produced include Merlin, The Merry Month of May, Mortal Friends, On the Shadyside, The Right Number and Phone Play. Her newest play, Only Angels, is in development in New York.
Houghton was named after her maternal grandmother Katharine Hepburn.
Tell me a little about BOOKENDS, What is the play about?
BOOKENDS is a musical for anyone of any age who has ever had a raging dream to do something or be someone unusual and who has been told it is impossible. The songs derive from the passions of all the warring hearts and competing agendas - each one sure of what it means to live life fully. No one is right, no one is wrong, but the secret of life is to find your own unique path and travel it with joyful perseverance.
The story, which is true but not about me, revolves around two women, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. Two plots intertwine. One concerns the women in old age, the other concerns their youth. The problem of the seniors - one wants to quit their almost 60 year business in antiquarian books, the other doesn't. Their argument invokes scenes from their past that are relevant to their present situation, and by reliving those scenes of their salad days, it sets the stage for their ultimate solution. This is not a play concerned with nostalgia.
BOOKENDS seems pretty ambitious - it has a relatively large cast for a musical that revolves around two girls. Do the other actors have significant roles or are they more for the soundtrack?
The musical is madly ambitious and we are all insane to try it, especially with only 3 weeks of rehearsal and 1 week of tech, but we felt it was worth a go. It has a cast of 14, all wonderful singers and actors. Except for the older and younger Madys & Leonas, everyone plays a variety of important roles and everyone has at least one terrific song, as well as being part of several wonderful ensemble numbers.
What led you decide to make this a musical?
I decided to make this story a musical because I've known Madeleine and Leona well for over 20 years and I've always felt that their story was a story for our time. Women are still trying to find their way in a man's world and these two women did it with glory. They came of age in the 30s in my beloved Manhattan, but the challenges and put-downs they experienced are still felt by women today. An example: well respected director Emily Mann, currently based in Princeton, NJ, I believe, was told by her professors at Harvard in 1974 that she could never direct for professional theatre or film because she was a woman, that she would have to confine her efforts to children's theatre. Fortunately she was not deterred.
By making BOOKENDS a musical instead of a play it allows me to use the songs to reveal secret thoughts and feelings in a way that I hope will be entertaining as well as affecting.
I am hoping that a musical about charming, humorous, conquering women will have an audience - an audience of both women and the men who love them.
Have you written a musical before?
In the 80s when I was doing a lot of writing for the fabulous Downstairs Theatre Bar at the Westbank Café on 42nd St. I wrote a one act musical based on an O'Henry short story called The Merry Month Of May. Other than that I've written only plays and screenplays.
Finally, it's always wonderful when you have a film like Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? on your resume but I was wondering if it ever bothered you that your best known film was your first?
I suppose if I'd done nothing after Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, it would be a sort of thorn in my side that it is for most people my best known work. But after that film I spent 15 years in the wonderful regional theatres of America playing over 50 leading roles in classical drama.
Also, with Ken Jenkins, who is directing BOOKENDS and who is currently best known for his six seasons on NBC's cult hit comedy, "Scrubs", playing Dr. Kelso, I ran a theatre company for 13 years called Pilgrim Repertory Co. We toured several works all around, especially to places that didn't have the opportunity to see live theatre. We called it our "Arts Missionary Work." Ken wrote a pastiche called Shakespeare For Lovers And Others, which was one of our most popular productions. We made all our own sets, costumes, props etc. as well as acting all the parts. It was colossal good fun.
I guess that was just my destiny. And hanging out with all those brilliant writers, from Shakespeare and Shaw to Williams and O'Neill, no doubt had some small effect on my playwrighting.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.