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THEATER

A Veteran Returns to the Ring

Joe Masteroff isn't resting on his 'Cabaret' and 'She Loves Me' laurels, as the playwright-librettist's latest musical adaptation, 'Paramour,' attests.

September 27, 1998|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Masteroff attended Temple University, where he studied journalism, in part because it seemed one of the few practical ways for a writer to make a living. "I've always known, from childhood, that I wanted to be a writer, and in the theater," he says. "I'm one of those lucky people who always knew exactly what he wanted to do."

Following graduation, he spent two years working as an assistant editor at a magazine for movie theater owners. "I was a real movie nut," he says. "I would see a movie maybe five to 10 times. And without knowing it, I was learning my trade."

Then there was what Masteroff jokingly calls "a little disruption," meaning World War II. Drafted, he spent four years in the Army, during which time he was stationed in London and Paris.

After his military stint and a brief period living in Miami, Masteroff made his way, inevitably, to New York, where he studied playwriting at the American Theatre Wing.

His breakthrough came in 1958 with a play called "The Warm Peninsula," which Julie Harris took on tour and brought to New York. Suddenly, Masteroff was a made man. "I went from a $35 apartment to a $235 apartment," he says.

After that, things got easier. "So much of success in life is based on being in the right place at the right time," Masteroff says. "[Lyricist] Sheldon Harnick and [composer] Jerry Bock were doing a musical, and Sheldon had seen 'The Warm Peninsula' and thought whoever wrote that would be a good guy to write the book for the new musical."

The result, "She Loves Me," was based on the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film "The Shop Around the Corner" and told the story of two clerks who conduct an epistolary romance, only to discover each other working side by side in the same store. The piece opened in 1963, produced by, among others, a man named Hal Prince. While the reviews were good, the show was not considered a success.

But the silver lining was the Prince connection, which led to "Cabaret." About a year after "She Loves Me," Prince approached Masteroff about writing the book for a piece based on "I Am a Camera," Christopher Isherwood's tale of Weimar Berlin. The project began with another composer but wound up in the hands of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb.

While a hit in its original version, the musical has changed over the years. "Sometimes people say to me now, 'How come the leading man wasn't gay (or at least bisexual) the way he is now?' " says Masteroff.

"Well, when we did 'Cabaret' in 1966, we figured there had to be a love story in those days, so [Cliff] became completely straight," he says. "Then, when we did the revival, we realized that Cliff and Sally couldn't just be a routine love story. We finally did what we should have done from the beginning--we made Cliff more bisexual. Of course, the movie had led the way to that too."

More recently, the current Roundabout Theatre Co. revival on Broadway has cast the show in an even more confrontational light, which Masteroff applauds. "It's very exciting, a whole new approach, and a much tougher approach," he says. "In a sense, it's what I had always envisioned."

*

"PARAMOUR," Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Dates: Plays Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 31. Prices: $23-$39. Phone: (619) 239-2255.

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