He’s got a Tony, an Oscar, and even a Pulitzer, but for me, playwright-screenwriter-director John Patrick Shanley’s defining moment will always be letting Abe Vigoda shine as chief of the Waponis in his underrated gem Joe Versus the Volcano. Okay, that statement isn’t entirely true. His script for Moonstruck was classic and is must see every holiday season, and his stage and film incarnations of Doubt were superb. I could go on about his list of films and plays, but Shanley lately wants to talk about other people’s work. Late last year, as part of the American Theater Wing’s book The Play That Changed My Life, Shanley spoke out on those that inspired him throughout his career. I spoke with him in December.
You wrote about your inspirations in the book The Play That Changed My Life, and picked The Miracle Worker and Cyrano. Why did you choose those?
Many people just won’t make that statement–there was no play that changed their life. When you get into the realm of playwrights they can’t choose. I chose. [The Miracle Worker] picked me…as well as Cyrano. I was a kid in the Bronx–a tough neighborhood–and I saw it when I was thirteen years old at Cardinal Spellman. The main character was a freak…and to me, one of the toughest guys in the room – a poet. It hit me like a ton of bricks. This play completely redefined what a poet is for me. That’s me. That’s who I am.
The Miracle Worker is just such an incredibly powerful play on stage, and is so kinetic, and athletic. The combination of the two made an impression on me. It gave me a sense of the difficulties of what I went through and am still going through today.
Is directing more difficult than writing?
If you put someone in a room with no script to direct, they’re just going to sit there. Writing scripts is the execution for a show. Then the director takes that, and hires people. It’s like trying to build a house without any bricks. You need the script. I could build the house, but I have to know how.
The hardest thing about [directing] is they lock you in a room with actors for four weeks, so it’s really only you, the actors and the stage manager. It’s really intense.
So is, I’d imagine, anticipation of a show’s success or failure – which I’m sure can never be measured until it happens. I imagine how Neil Simon must feel. I saw the revival of Brighton Beach and was waiting for the next show, and then, “bam,” three days later it closed.
Neil is perceived as very successful, he’s been a lifelong writer. Many, many failures. I’m sure he’d be the first one to tell how this process is battle-scarred. He’d be the first person to tell you.
Back to you, people conceive of Moonstruck as a modern classic today.
Yes, they do. You know I had the inspiration that weren’t heavily tied to the time they were written in, so that they would last. You know, Puccini never feels dated. By in large, the film revolves around things that are never changing.
Aren’t the characters in Moonstruck, such as Ronny and Loretta, similar to the characters in Cyrano and Miracle Worker in that they’re flawed individuals seeking the truth?
Certainly Cyrano, with people speaking powerful feelings. Plays about people who hide what they really feel (I don’t agree with).
And with Miracle Worker, it’s sort of a stretch but it’s similar in that Moonstruck‘s characters all sort of belong… to their mortality–like Cosmo–to the infidelities of life–like Rose–isn’t that true? Then the moon strikes them, and they see reality.
In their heart, Ronny had his hand cut off…a poet…
I heard that there was talk of bringing Moonstruck to Broadway…
Me and Henry Krieger were working on a musical version a couple of years ago, and we ran into logistical problems. We stopped three, four years ago, but now we’re talking again.
You’ve had one play on Broadway thus far. What was that experience like?
[Doubt] was an amazing ride. I go to many plays, and this was unique. It started out Off-Broadway, and then moved. People say often that when a play moves, when it gets there it wasn’t quite as good. It moved from Manhattan Theatre Club–a 300-seat house–to Broadway, where it took off. It was even better.
Did you ever have any doubt about Doubt?
Shanley: I tried to figure out the right way to handle this, and then it took off in a way I couldn’t possibly imagine.
Lastly, you have experience in all forms of entertainment, what’s your take on your career?
Working in the theatre, working in movies, it’s up and down. I just read Angelica Huston’s memoir of her father. You know he lived in splendor in Ireland, and next thing you know they’re selling all the furniture. People can’t understand that. His career–he was the most popular director, and then nothing. You have to live with those ups and downs.