|Great Performances: The Merry Widow: Q & A with Wendy Wasserstein|
SAVE ME THE WALTZ
(Wendy Wasserstein's wise and witty insights into the challenges and crises confronting modern women have delighted theatergoers and critics since 1977. It was then her Uncommon Women and Others was presented at New York's Phoenix Theater -- telecast the following year on Great Performances. In 1989, with The Heidi Chronicles, she won a Pulitzer Prize and became the first woman to receive the Tony Award for Best Play. Other works, in addition to her San Francisco Opera adaptation of The Merry Widow, include Isn't It Romantic (1983), The Sisters Rosensweig (1992) and An American Daughter (1997). Her recent collection of essays, Shiksa Goddess, or, How I Spent My Forties (Knopf) has delighted critics and fans, alike. She is currently adapting An American in Paris for Broadway.)
Wendy, why The Merry Widow?
Lotfi Mansouri, the director of San Francisco Opera, asked me if I'd be interested in writing a new libretto for The Merry Widow. I had just completed my first libretto, The Festival of Regrets, with composer Deborah Drattel, which was also seen on Great Performances. I did not grow up in a family of opera lovers, but my mother, Lola, who was born in Poland, would hum the waltz from The Merry Widow and tell us stories about a distant, elegant European life.
How did you approach the libretto? Did you work from a translation?
I approached the libretto as a short play about middle-aged love. As with all my work, I was mostly interested in character. The key for me was the romance between Danilo and Madame Glawari. Lotfi told me to think about the style of a Noel Coward play. I thought I'd try to temper that with a Chekovian sense of the impossibility of recapturing time. Interestingly, Lotfi sent me a French translation of the operetta which he wanted to use as the blueprint for his production.
The Paris of 1905 seems a long way from today's Upper West Side New York. Do you see the Widow as another Uncommon Woman or Shiksa Goddess, or is her world strictly the fantasy of musical comedy?
The Merry Widow seems to me to be the standard-bearer for so many books and musicals. She's got everything. "Poor girl makes good!" "Middle-aged powerful woman finds true love!" "You can't go home again!" I don't think she is strictly a fantasy. She is every single law partner, career woman, and banker's widow looking for some meaningful relationship. Perhaps the fantasy is she finds it in her debauched but available, and ultimately amenable, old flame.
Let's talk movies. Who was your favorite Widow? Mae Murray (1925), Jeanette McDonald (1936), Lana Turner (1952)?
Jeanette McDonald. She is so charming. But, of course, I always have a fondness for Lana Turner. But maybe that's because I want to be discovered at Schwab's Drug Store in a sweater.
Your American in Paris libretto for Broadway sounds really exciting. Which libretto did you write first, it or The Merry Widow? Both set in the City of Light, do they comment on each other in any way?
I began writing The Merry Widow after I had finished the first draft of An American in Paris. In some ways they do compliment each other and not only because they are both set in Paris. In both cases, I've had the pleasure of sitting alone in my studio listening for hours to classic, in fact, perfect creations of musical form. What could be more of a pleasure or an honor then working with artists George and Ira Gershwin or Franz Lehár. They are all craftsmen at the top of their form.
Great Performances regards you as one of its own. Is that because of executive producer Jac Venza?
My entree in the theater and television has, I think, been made possible by Jac Venza coming to a production of Uncommon Women in 1977 and deciding to film it for Great Performances. I think of Jac as a mentor, a guide and a great friend. Nicholas Hytner, the British director, once told me if Jac was English, he'd be knighted. So I like to think of Jac Venza as Sir Jac.
One last question. How's your waltz?
Pretty good. But my mother Lola's is better.