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Joe DiPietro
Living on Love

Interview by Beth Herstein

Also see Beth's interview with Marc Kudisch of Hand to God

Joe DiPietro
Tony winner Joe DiPietro (Memphis) is one of the busier people in theater these days—so busy, in fact, that I interviewed him by speaker phone as he drove from one of his shows to another. The east coast debut of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse. The Second Mrs. Wilson in in rehearsals at the Long Wharf Theater in preparation for a May opening. Chasing the Song, which he describes as "a sort of the follow up to Memphis ... about the first female songwriter in the Brill Building," had a successful tryout at La Jolla, and producers are looking to put together a team that will mount a full production.

He's also represented on the Broadway stage, in Living on Love, adapted from Garson Kanin's 1985 play Pecadillo. The show marks the Broadway debut of opera star Renée Fleming, and features a fine ensemble including Douglas Sills and Jerry O'Connell. We discussed the show in advance of its April 20 opening.

BH:  Can you talk about the process of adapting this from the older show?

JD:  I was commissioned to write it. Usually when you're commissioned it's for a musical. Renée Fleming was attached to it, as well as Kathleen Marshall, whom I worked with and I love. Kathleen asked me to read it. I told her it was a really interesting plot, and some of it I really liked, about the opera diva and her maestro husband, but it was a very melodramatic very old-fashioned play. I wanted to turn it into something which honors its origins as a boulevard comedy but still is modern.

Douglas Sills and Renée Fleming in Living on Love
Photo by Joan Marcus
BH:  What exactly is a boulevard comedy?

JD:  Boulevard comedy is a classic term for a play that used to be—like a Noël Coward show. Generally they're one-set, designed to appeal to a wide audience. Sometimes they're about average people but more often they're about glamorous people in comedic situations. In that way it's a throwback to the kind of plays that in the '40s and '50s were the bread-and-butter of Broadway.

BH:  So you wanted to keep those qualities. I read you had to do a lot of updating. Originally Raquel, the character Renée Fleming plays, was retired and more of a homemaker. You also pumped up some of the gender issues that aging performers face.

JD:  Absolutely. In the original, she had retired years ago and was a housewife. As soon as I read it, I thought, she needs to be as flamboyant and successful and ambitious and neurotic as [her husband] is. I didn't want it to be—especially as I was writing it for Renée, I wanted to make sure the woman's role was as whole and developed.

BH:  Have you written any other shows with a particular performer in mind?

JD:  The only other time I've done it was for Marion Ross, who had done my play Over the River and Through the Woods, and a couple of other plays with her companion [the late Paul Michaels]. She called me out of the blue and asked me to write a play for the two of them. I wrote a play called The Last Romance and it was very much written for her. The good thing about writing a play for someone is that you have their voice in your head. The challenge is that it's nerve wracking because you want it to be good for them. So, with this show, I wanted Renée to really like it, but ultimately I want everyone to like it.

BH:  It seems as if she's relishing the opportunity and enjoying the humor and grandiosity of her character.

JD:  She is, I think. It's interesting, because she's the opposite of the character in real life. It's almost disappointing. [laughs]. She's funny, and down-to-earth, and self-effacing. She's not larger than life in person. She comes across as a funny, gracious, smart woman. So I think in this role she gets to explore her inner diva. She's told me that she has seen diva behavior from several opera singers, so I think she knows from those experiences how to bring the character to life.

BH:  What was it like for you, writing such larger than life characters?

JD:  It's rare that you get permission to do that—you don't want it to be too broad. But in the original, Vito De Angelis, which I believe Garson Kanin wrote for Christopher Plummer [who starred in the show in 1985], was very much larger than life. Also I love the opera metaphor. Opera characters are larger than life, the stage is large, the stories are large, the music is large. So to write about the people who have that ego and the ability to take a bite out of life so deliciously—that was really great fun.

BH:  You also have to keep them human enough and relatable enough that audiences can connect with them.

Jerry O'Connell and Anna Chlumsky in Living on Love
Photo by Joan Marcus
JD:  You can give all the credit for that to Kathleen, because I can be a laugh whore, just go for the laughs. She kept saying, "They're a married couple, and they've been together for a long time. Let's explore what that is." She made sure they weren't cartoon characters. They might have their idiosyncrasies, but they're six real people. There's this marriage in the middle, at the center of the play, and we examine what that means.

BH:  I particularly like the way you explore that in the end. In fact, there are several relationships in the show, not all of them conventional. You take a look at the challenges relationships face in other shows as well.

JD:  There are challenges in every period. We've made so much progress over the years, in terms of women's rights, and gay rights, women having careers, and so on. It's fun to set this play in the 1950s, where all of those couples and types of persons deal with their particular challenges. Look at the Iris character. Women who didn't get married at 18, 19, 20—a large percentage of them were expected to meet executives and marry them. The women who didn't do that were looked down upon as not feminine enough. It's interesting to explore that through a period piece, looking at women who break through that.

BH:  A lot of the media focus has been on Renée Fleming coming to Broadway, and she does a great job. But this is a very strong ensemble in general.

JD:  Yes, and I think Renée really relishes being part of an ensemble. Obviously she's the female lead, but everyone has to keep the ball in the air. If someone has an off night or stumbles, it affects everyone. She loves being a part of that and having to uphold her end and work with five other really talented people.

BH:  In a recent interview you talked about Six Degrees of Separation and its influence on you.

JD:  Coincidentally, John Guare came to see the play the other day, the day before or the day after that article came out. But, yes, I think Six Degrees is a perfect play, actually. It's economical, and it's really witty and funny, but it also says something about the state of our times. It talks about what it's like to be a long-term married couple. It's a really good play and I love what it talks about, how we're all connected in a certain way. When I saw it, it changed my life and my perspective about what theater can be.

BH:  So that's something you strive for you in your work.

JD:  Absolutely. I would love to write a play as great as that. I consider myself a comic writer first and foremost, but I've been writing some more dramatic things recently. Even in my comedies, I have some drama in them, so hopefully they're not just silliness. Not that there's anything wrong with silliness, but that's not what I'm aiming for. I think the human experience is a common one. We're all the same underneath, and we want the same things. We want to love, we want to be loved. We want to have a purpose, we want to have a mark. Everything else—gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity—that's all exterior. That's what I've learned from writing. I'll never be an older woman, but I can write an older woman because I can try to write her internally and get under her skin.

BH:  You talked about being disappointed when All Shook Up wasn't as successful as you'd hoped, and how you dived right back into writing. That's such a great attitude. As a writer, I wish I could do that more.

JD:  Thank you. I think the secret is that every writer, no matter how successful, is insecure in a certain way. Writing is a terribly lonely thing to do, and we constantly question ourselves. Every word I write, I question, and I have to get away from myself to write.

I learned a lot from All Shook Up. I loved that show, and everyone thought it was going to be a hit. It was my first Broadway show. When it wasn't a hit, it was really disappointing. You question what you're doing, and who you are. All that stuff. But I just had to get back to writing. I did go through a couple months where I didn't write because I was depressed. But in the end I really learned from it. The only really bad thing would have been if I didn't take those writing lessons and life lessons from that show and go on. If I had closed up shop. Somehow I found the fortitude to pull myself back up and keep going.

Writing is a gutsy thing to do, and it's so personal and so public. I really think that to write well you have to strip bare in a way—really get down to the heart of who you are. When people don't like it, it feels personal. So, I had to learn that if people don't like it, that's ok. How the world judges your work—you have no control over. All you have control over is what you put on the page and what you decide. How hard you work on it, how deep you go with it. You have to have a thick skin. You have to believe in what you're doing, and love the act of writing, and keep challenging yourself, and you'll get better and better.

BH:  My parents saw All Shook Up when they evacuated here after Hurricane Katrina, and they really enjoyed it. It gave them respite when they really needed it.

JD:  That's fantastic to hear. That's also what you forget. If the work is good, it resonates with people and it makes them happy. Hopefully you can reach a lot of people. If you don't reach as many as you'd like, well, that's a luxury problem.

BH:  You enjoy trying new things, new genres.

JD:  It's the best reason to do something. Especially when you get older, you don't want to repeat yourself or get stale. The only way to keep growing is to try something new. People who resist change and keep doing the same things, get frustrated I think. Life is about change. The one constant in life is change.

Living on Love at the Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. For performance and ticket information, visit

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