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Doing the Job Time and Again

Jack Viertel could write the book on theater careers, he's had so many. Instead, he wrote the book for Broadway-bound 'Time and Again.'

May 05, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Jack Viertel is the unsung king of theater hyphenates. As a former Los Angeles theater critic and dramaturge turned Broadway producer, he's certainly played more roles in the theater than most.

And now he's adding another persona to the list: Meet Jack Viertel, librettist.

Viertel's official debut comes Thursday when the musical "Time and Again"--based on the Jack Finney novel, with book by Viertel and music and lyrics by Walter Edgar Kennon--opens at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. The show, directed by Old Globe artistic director Jack O'Brien, is slated to open on Broadway in October.

The 47-year-old Viertel, who lives in New York with his wife and two teenage children, has been creative director at Jujamcyn Theatres since 1987. He spends most of his time finding and helping create new plays to fill the five Broadway houses that his company controls.

He was, in fact, the producer of "Time and Again" before he became one of the show's creators. "On this show, I'm a librettist and a producer," Viertel says. "That's put me in a psychologically uncomfortable but relatively powerful position."

Not only is Viertel wearing multiple hats, he's in the odd circumstance of having to heed his own (or at least his fellow producers') comments and criticism.

"I'm in the position for the first time in my life of receiving notes rather than giving them," he says. "I'm very sympathetic to the note-giving side of this. I have to listen to them now because I spent all those years giving them."

Fortunately, Viertel knows which of his guises is Jekyll and which is Hyde. "I don't really see myself as a writer first and foremost," he says. "Fundamentally I'm a producer."

Raised in Connecticut, Viertel studied English at Harvard, from where he graduated in 1971. He then went to London for a year "for the fun of it," where his roommates included Frank Rich, a future New York Times theater critic.

"Ostensibly," Viertel says of his London days, "I was writing a novel."

After six months, Viertel returned--along with the soon-to-be Linda Viertel to Cambridge. But you can't go home again, nor back to your old college town.

"I didn't want to be one of those people who didn't leave Harvard Square after they graduated," Viertel says. "So we went to L.A., putatively for nine months."

The lure of Los Angeles was in large part that neither Viertel nor his wife had immediate family there. "I got interested in writing for the movies and she got a job teaching high school," Viertel says. "We stayed 15 years by mistake."

While writing screenplays, Viertel also began to work as a theater critic, initially for the Los Angeles Reader in 1978. He went on to become chief critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1980, serving also as president of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle in 1983-84.

After four years at the Herald, Viertel was promoted to arts editor, but the job didn't suit him. "I realized with great horror that I was in the wrong business," he says.

So, when Viertel got wind that the Mark Taper Forum's dramaturge was leaving, he put in a call to Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson. "I had really slammed that theater around fairly regularly, and I thought [Davidson] would be wary," Viertel says. "But quite the contrary . . . he offered me a job."

"I liked his writing and hated his reviews because he used to beat us up," Davidson says. "He did it with too much intelligence [though]. I thought, one less critic and one good dramaturge."

Writing about the theater, however, hadn't really prepared Viertel for this next phase of his career. "I came in with little knowledge of practical production work," he says. "It was a scary situation."

The next two years proved to be an education. Says Viertel: "I learned an awful lot about what I know about the theater from Gordon."

During that time, Viertel was approached with yet another offer, this time by New York producer Rocco Landesman. "He called me basically because I had written this bad review of 'Big River' [when it was at the La Jolla Playhouse] that he thought had some useful things in it," Viertel says.

Shortly thereafter, when Landesman took over as head of Jujamcyn, he hired Viertel. Since joining Jujamcyn in 1987, Viertel has been involved with such shows as "The Who's Tommy," "Angels in America," "Guys and Dolls," "Jelly's Last Jam," "Two Trains Running," "The Secret Garden," "I Hate Hamlet," "The Piano Lesson," "Gypsy" and "M. Butterfly."

His most recent project is August Wilson's "Seven Guitars," which was seen in L.A. at the Ahmanson Theatre before its current Broadway run. And his position with Jujamcyn continues to develop as the company grows.

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