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At Ease on New Ground

Write an all-dancing musical? No problem. 'Contact's' John Weidman prefers challenges.

July 08, 2001|PATRICK PACHECO | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar

In "Contact," protagonist Michael Wiley is a guy with two left feet. But the suicidal advertising executive finally makes the right move: He steps into a dance hall and trips all over himself. In this dreamscape--the last in the triptych of short stories that make up the show--emotional fulfillment comes only when one is prepared to assay uncertain territory.

While that may be a new impulse for Wiley, it doesn't appear to be one for his progenitor, the musical's book writer, John Weidman, who co-conceived (with director-choreographer Susan Stroman) and wrote "Contact." The Broadway musical would go on to win four 2000 Tony Awards, including best musical. The Lincoln Center Theater production, still playing at the Vivian Beaumont in New York, is on its first national tour, opening today at the Ahmanson Theatre.

When the dance-musical theater hybrid opened early last year, critics hailed its groundbreaking originality. Stroman, who won a Tony for her choreography, was given much of the credit. But Weidman's Tony-nominated book earned praise as well.

Treading new ground has been a constant in the career of the 54-year-old writer, beginning in 1976 with "Pacific Overtures," the Stephen Sondheim-Harold Prince musical about Commodore Perry's opening of Japan to the West, and continuing through such eclectic choices as revising (with Timothy Crouse) the book for the Tony-winning 1988 revival of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," adapting the film "Big" into a musical in 1996 and two more collaborations with Sondheim: the 1991 off-Broadway musical "Assassins," about presidential assassinations, and "Wise Guys," about a sibling pair of iconoclastic entrepreneurs, which had a Sam Mendes-directed workshop at New York Theatre Workshop in fall 1999.

The track record for his shows has been wildly mixed--hits with "Anything Goes" and "Contact," flops with "Pacific Overtures" and "Big." "Assassins" will get a Broadway production next season, and "Wise Guys" has gone back to the drawing board with a new director, Prince.

"My ears prick up when I hear about something that seems unusual or simply catches my interest in an odd way," Weidman says over an early supper at a Lincoln Center restaurant. He displays a restless intelligence that early on saw his ambitions segue from foreign service to law to National Lampoon editor and would-be screenwriter before settling on his present occupation.

Given his eclectic bent, he says that writing musical books based on unusual subject matter "never seems like a challenge to me. On the contrary, it seems natural to follow that impulse. If I get excited, I figure other people will too."

That's what Weidman thought when, a few years ago, his friend Stroman called him to say that Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten, the heads of Lincoln Center, had given her carte blanche for a workshop. Stroman wanted to pursue an idea inspired by a visit to a pool hall that late at night converted into a swing dance club. There she'd seen a stunning young woman in a yellow dress who, approached by various would-be partners, would silently signal her assent or refusal. "I knew that by the end of the evening, she was going to change somebody's life," she told Weidman.

"John has a very contemporary wit, is very aware of contemporary issues and relationships, and I wanted 'Contact' to be accessible to a contemporary audience," says Stroman, who had earlier worked with Weidman and her late husband, Mike Ockrent, on "Big." "I also knew how much John loved dance. A lot of writers don't because it means an evening without the spoken word. I happen to love it when dance does incorporate the spoken word."

Together Stroman and Weidman developed the story and structure for "Contact," the first of the trio of individual pieces to be created. What evolved is the contemporary fable of Wiley, an extremely successful ad executive who forlornly discovers, as he says to another character, "I've been on this earth for 43 years and I just realized I don't know anybody." His absurd attempt to hang himself shifts to a surreal excursion into a swing club, where an encounter with the Woman in the Yellow Dress changes his life.

Once "Contact" was judged viable in an enthusiastically received workshop, Stroman and Weidman went to work on companion pieces that could provide an emotional ramp up to the final hourlong dance play. With the notion of interpersonal connection as a theme and playing on the word "swing," both in its dance and sexual connotations, the team came up with "Swinging," an 18th century erotic romp based on the Jean-Honore Fragonard painting "The Swing," and "Did You Move?," the liberating dance fantasy of a meek housewife dining with her abusive husband in an Italian restaurant.

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