By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Joe DiPietro has become a sneakily serious playwright. Granted, his shows are still comedies, but now there are weighty issues lurking inside the jokes.
Take Falling For Eve, which opens tonight at the York Theatre Company. With a book by DiPietro and a score by David Howard and Bret Simmons, the musical imagines a Garden of Eden where Eve eats the apple and Adam doesn’t. There’s plenty of banter and peppy music, but when he’s left alone in Paradise, Adam wrestles with loneliness and dissatisfaction. Even God, whose part is split between a male and female actor, has doubts.
Memphis, which just won the Tony Award for Best Musical, has a similar heft. Yes, DiPietro and composer David Bryan deliver a zippy show whose toe-tapping anthems tell the story of a black singer and a white DJ battling racism in the segregated South. But for all its hope and humor, the musical also depicts violence and bigotry. The ending is happy but not “happily ever after,” and many of the characters are left with emotional scars.
That’s a far cry from I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, the frothy relationship musical that ran for twelve years Off Broadway and made DiPietro, who wrote the book and lyrics, a standard bearer for contemporary musical comedy. “That slightly deeper place, that’s where my writing is going,” he says. “Hopefully, audiences will appreciate that.”
He’s tried to develop his serious side without alienating ticket buyers. “Theatre has to work for a living and first and foremost has to entertain,” he says. “Memphis could have told its story in a darker way. It wouldn’t be running, but it could have done that. And that’s just not my voice. I’m an eternal optimist, and I like to bring my optimism and my humor to more serious subjects. As I get older, I’ve tried to make the work deeper without making it less entertaining.”
Ironically enough, DiPietro’s more serious work is at least partially indebted to one of his most lighthearted shows. Back in 2005, he debuted on Broadway with the book to All Shook Up, a jukebox musical built around Elvis tunes. Though it has thrived on the road, it was not a success on the Rialto, where it closed after six months and failed to recoup its investment.
DiPietro was bruised, but his frustration directly informed Memphis, which he and Bryan began writing in 2002.
“I was disappointed that All Shook Up didn’t run longer and that it wasn’t a more enjoyable experience to put on,” he says. “My reaction to the disappointment was that I wanted to return to Broadway on my own terms. And Memphis: My partnership with David Bryan has always been ideal, and Randy Adams and Sue Frost, the two lead producers, and the people they surrounded themselves with, are very different. They’re much more supportive, and they’re a much shrewder producing force than the various folks who collided on All Shook Up."
But DiPietro’s response to All Shook Up wasn’t just about Broadway. After it closed, he began writing smaller pieces that aren’t meant to be commercial, like Falling For Eve and Creating Claire, a play about a museum docent whose faith conflicts with the science she teaches.
“I know a lot of writers who have a big disappointment on a show they think is going to be ‘it’ for them,” he says. “When it doesn’t work out, they stop writing, and I thought, ‘I could easily just lick my wounds for two years and see where my life goes.’ But I decided to do the opposite. I decided to write twice as much and really spend time taking what I’ve learned and applying it to new work.”
With Falling For Eve running through August, Creating Claire only recently closed at New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse, and F***ing Men, an all-male adaptation of Schnitzler’s La Ronde, currently playing at the Bailiwick Theatre in Chicago, DiPietro’s new work is getting plenty of exposure. At this rate, his serious side may not be a secret much longer.
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
Photo credit: Cast members from "Falling For Eve." Photo by Carol Rosegg