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From the Archives: A Conversation with Neil Simon

Neil Simon on the cover of The Dramatist

From the Archives: A Conversation with Neil Simon

by Joel Hirschhorn (Originally published in The Dramatist, January/February 2003)

Neil Simon’s new play, Rose and Walsh, is set for a January 2003 opening at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse. The Geffen Playhouse holds happy associations for Simon, since it presented his highly successful Oscar and Felix (a sequel to The Odd Couple) in June 2002.

“With Rose and Walsh I had the same feeling I’ve had so often,” says Simon, “particularly with Lost in Yonkers—a feeling that the words came from someone else. When I finished it, I wondered, ‘Where did this come from?’ Ideas spring to mind that you have to eliminate because you know very soon they’re not going to get past five pages. Others, as with Rose and Walsh, you think, ‘This has the possibilities of a good play,’ so you move ahead. I don’t try to work the whole play out in advance. I never think it out until I write it.”

Unlike many playwrights, who prefer to have an ending in mind and work backward, Simon feels exactly the opposite. “Sometimes there’s a natural ending—with The Sunshine Boys, you do know they’ll end up in the old actors’ home—but most of the time when I write a play, I just do eight pages or so and say, ‘If this is flowing well, then I have the confidence to go all the way with it.’”

I asked him if he was always sure that good ideas would come. “At this stage of my life, yes, because they’ve come already,” says the soft­spoken recipient of four Tony Awards, two Emmys, a Writers Guild award, and the Pulitzer Prize. “I tried other jobs when I was a kid—in the garment center, advertising agencies—just menial jobs, and I said, ‘I don’t want to be doing this. Writing is so much fun.’”

Recalling his literary beginnings, he credits his mother with giving him a sense of confidence. “My mother would have given me confidence if I said I wanted to open a candy store. She was very much for me. My father wasn’t so easy about it. He thought my brother Danny and I were crazy for wanting to be writers, that we’d never make a living. He felt writers came from another planet and I’d be better off working at the post office. As a matter of fact, I did work there.”

His brother Danny, nine years older, was his mentor. “I saw him watching plays and TV, and he wrote a lot. It influenced me strongly, and then I found other mentors, people I worked with.” The Simon brothers first broke through on radio, writing material for Tallulah Bankhead, then hit their stride on TV, providing material for Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Jackie Gleason, Red Buttons, Garry Moore, and Phil Silvers.

“Danny wrote one play, but he didn’t follow through with others,” recalls Simon. The younger brother stepped out on his own, resulting in a solo Broadway hit in 1961, Come Blow Your Horn, which later evolved into a Frank Sinatra film. “I was so nervous standing in the back of the theater and having them judge what my career would be. I was petrified. What the success of Come Blow Your Horn did was to give me a sense of security that I could write plays, that I could hold an audience…but nervous? Yes! I get even more nervous today.”

Directors can do a great deal to alleviate panic. According to Simon, many of them can tell you where to fix a play—but rarely how. Mike Nichols is an exception to this rule. “He saved me so much time and aggravation,” Simon remembers. “We’d be in the midst of a show and during rehearsal he’d say, ‘That’s not going to work.’ I’d say, ‘Really? I’m surprised. We’ll know tomorrow night, when the audiences come.’ Mike would say to me, ‘Audience? Why wait ‘til then? Fix it now.’ He had me writing at two o’clock in the morning, and it was fixed. He just knew, and he helped me enormously.”

Despite all the pre-thought involved, playwrights can’t always anticipate audience reactions. “More often than not, I won’t know how they’ll react. They surprise me. You watch with the director, hear a big laugh, and say, ‘I had no idea that would happen.’ When I wrote The Odd Couple, I actually didn’t think I was writing a comedy. Maybe I was naive enough to think I was writing a semi-serious play. The man in the beginning [Felix] is about to commit suicide; his wife has left him. Oscar is down and out; he has nothing in his life except that poker game.” The first person that Simon showed The Odd Couple to was director Bob Fosse, who said, “Very sad play.” “So, it surprised me the way it went.”

Another unexpected, delightful twist of fate occurred with the casting of The Odd Couple. “I was invited to a party,” says Simon, “and met Walter Matthau for the first time. I’d finished the first act and was in the middle of doing the second. Something clicked. I said, ‘This is the guy for Oscar!’ He didn’t know me, but I told him I was sending him a play. He stared at me as though I was crazy. That was that.”

Sometimes humor is so ingrained in a script that—as directors like to say—you can’t kill the baby. “You’re told that the great, hilarious lines that have nothing to do with the play should be taken out. In Plaza Suite, the first scene of the three stories was serious, but the audience, used to me writing comedies, laughed all the way through it, so we cut out a chunk, all the things that were funny, and left in just the serious stuff. They laughed anyway, because they wanted to.”

At the outset of a production, Simon clearly visualizes all the specifics onstage. “I draw the set, not literally, but I do draw it in my head. I need to know where there’s a door, where there’s a window, or a chair. I know they’re going to move to these places, and sometimes I’ll put it in the directions. The director will probably never use it, but it’s like a blueprint of where they should be. I saw somebody recently who wrote a play with no directions at all, but I don’t go along with that. I don’t want to do the director’s work, but I need to give them clues.” Pre-work, however, rarely includes writing bios for his characters. “Once in a while I’ll sketch out who they are, what they are, but if I have to do that, then I figure I don’t know them well enough. I see all these books that say, ‘Outline your play.’ I read a book [Playwright at Work] by John Van Druten, the only book I ever read on playwriting. Van Druten wrote Voice of the Turtle, I Am a Camera, and I Remember Mama. His advice was, ‘Never write your play all the way through to the end. Never think out your play to the end, because you’ll know what’s coming, and then the audience is going to know what’s coming, too.’ So, if you don’t know what’s coming—just keep your characters going, deal with the problems they’re facing—at some point, you’ll discover the finish of the play.”

The wisdom of Van Druten ‘s approach was brought home when Simon recently attended an uninspired, predictable show. “I said to myself, right away, ‘I know where this is going,’ so there were no surprises for me, and it took some joy out of the experience. I like when you get to the end and something new happens.”

When he first began writing, during the era of three-act plays, a producer gave Simon another valuable nugget of advice to sustain the climactic sense of surprise: “When you write the end of the third act, have the fourth act in mind. That way, there’s a feeling that the story goes on, and the audience can talk about it when they leave.”

Surprise always creates drama. In the words of Joan Crawford, so does “Confrontation, baby, confrontation.” Simon laughs at the definition. “Yes, but I don’t put the word ‘baby’ in. A play without confrontation wouldn’t work. What would the characters talk about? Would you say, ‘Sunday, I visited my mother?’ You’ve got to have confrontations.”

Many of Simon’s plays and movies stem from his memories, because he doesn’t keep journals, diaries, or date books. “I used to. I’d write a page and then get bored with it, because I was so busy writing my plays, which were diaries for me—but I was glad I wrote the two autobiographies [Rewrites: A Memoir and The Play Goes On]. They became my diaries, and I remembered all the incidents I wanted to talk about.”

One particular theme that has surfaced repeatedly in Simon’s work is abandonment—from Broadway Bound and Chapter Two to Jake’s Women. I wondered if he planned to continue exploring this emotional problem in his work. “No, I’ve worked it out in my life. Actually, because I’m getting older, it’s more likely I’ll be doing the abandoning. What creeps into my mind when I think of abandonment is Lost in Yonkers. I set that up as a Charles Dickens story: two kids, father leaving, mother dead, and a tyrannical old grandmother. I used Dickens in my mind constantly.”

A misconception exists that the remarkably prolific Simon churns out plays by the dozens, and via some magical instantaneous process, they leap fully formed onto the stage. Simon is quick to correct that impression. “With my new play, Rose and Walsh, I wrote the first twenty pages in London, liked what I did, then forgot about it. Just this year, I thought of it again and still felt it was good, so I completed it, but it took time.”

In the case of the 1983 Brighton Beach Memoirs, Simon completed 30 pages and initially didn’t know where to go with it. “I gave it to a few people to read,” he says, “first to Gordon Davidson, who told me, ‘This is wonderful, finish it,’ then to Manny Azenberg, but I still put it in a drawer and didn’t take it out for nine years. One day, I was in my office saying, ‘What am I going to do now?’ and started searching through ideas I’d written. I found it, read it again, and that was the test. If you read those twenty or 30 pages years later and they still sound good to you, you know you’re in terrific shape.”

Brighton Beach Memoirs is one of Simon’s most personal works, and the naked honesty of its plot and characters resonated powerfully with audiences. “I wrote it as a familial play about my brother and myself and the breakup of our parents, but I didn’t know what the reactions would be. We sent the script to well-known theater owners, and they said it was too episodic and turned it down, so we brought it over to the Nederlanders, and they loved it. Of course, what Matthew Broderick contributed was pure magic. He helped to make the play. An amazing thing: the actors asked if we would change the bows and make Matthew the last one at the end, because they didn’t want to come onstage after him, knowing the applause would diminish.”

Once in a while, as in the case of Broadway Bound, extra and unnecessary characters interfere with the overall impact of a production, and Simon reluctantly has to do what he calls ‘firing a character.’ “It usually isn’t about the actor or actress,” he points out. “When we were reading Broadway Bound, I had a character—a girl—coming into the second act to do one scene. The director, producer, and I walked into a restaurant, and they said, ‘This scene has to be fixed up.’ I told them, ‘No, it doesn’t. It has to be cut, taken out of the play, because we don’t need it.’ You can’t introduce a character that late in the play who doesn’t bring some major news.”

Situations like these can have bittersweet repercussions. Simon was walking down the street a year ago, and he ran into a girl he didn’t recognize. “‘I was so and so,’ she explained, ‘who never appeared in the play again.’ That’s the way it is sometimes. If you look to save somebody, you get in trouble with the play itself.”

Trouble can take the form of personal discord during rehearsal, although Simon discounts Bette Davis’ statement, “If people love each other while doing a play or movie, it won’t be good. You need tension.” Shaking his head, he states, “You can love each other and still have tension. Some of the best plays have starred actors who loved each other. When they’re acting, they bring tension to their roles.”

Along with tension that stems from the play, rather than offstage conflict, reality remains a number one priority for Simon, and he refused to compromise this reality during Plaza Suite. “The general manager of the show said to me, ‘You can’t do this play.’ It was about a married man who comes to New York and has a fling with a woman but tries to hide it. He told me, ‘There are a lot of out-of-town men in the audience, men who have come here to pick up a girl and take a girl to the theater.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to protect these men and not do a good piece of work.’ I didn’t change anything.”

To protect the integrity of his work, a playwright must be a fighter. Simon learned about fighting, in general, from his mother, who always reminded him, “Don’t worry. I’m a fighter,” as she aged and grew ill. “She would recover—then recover—and keep telling me, ‘I told you, I’m a fighter.’ She fought tirelessly until her 80th birthday. When I drove her home from my house, she started toward her door and said, ‘I think I’ve had enough,’ and I knew she wasn’t going to fight anymore. She died that week.” He adds, “My father was also a fighter.” Simon’s artistic fight for quality has extended beyond plays into a series of superb musicals, including Sweet Charity, They’re Playing Our Song, and Promises, Promises. “Musicals are tough,” Simon acknowledges. “You get to write what leads up to a song, but you don’t get to write the song itself—which is the explosion of what the sentence is about, what the subject is about. It doesn’t bother me, though, since I work closely with composers.”

This closeness was strikingly evident when he wrote the libretto for They’re Playing Our Song, a show that dealt with the turbulent real-life romance of songwriters Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager. “Marvin and Carole wanted to write a musical based on a play of mine, The Gingerbread Lady. Marvin would always tell me about his relationship with Carole and how they worked with each other. I finally said to both of them, ‘This musical should be about you.’ Carole said, ‘What do you mean?’ I told her, ‘The two of you, how you write,’ and she laughed. I came back with 30 pages about the battles between composer and lyricist, and they said, ‘This is good!’ Even in the best of relationships, like Rodgers and Hammerstein, you’ll find conflict. It’s hard but wonderful when it comes out right.”

An example of a musical that worked in every respect was Promises, Promises, Simon’s 1968 collaboration with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, which was based on the 1960 Oscar-­winning film The Apartment. “I also wrote a few songs with Burt Bacharach, just to try my hand in it. This was after Promises. The process is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, because you have to find the rhymes that also tell the story—and it was so restraining. I had fun doing it, though I wouldn’t want to do it again. I also don’t like doing anything where I think people can do it better than I can. I know there are lyricists out there who are better than I. I did a couple of songs for The Good Doctor, and we lost two of them only because the actor had a difficult time. I liked the songs, but they weren’t blockbusters.”

Jule Styne, composer of Gypsy, once protested that the line ‘I’m a woman with children’ from “Small World” killed the tune commercially. Collaborator Stephen Sondheim argued that it was right for the character, whatever it might cost in terms of a chart hit, and Simon sees the validity of that viewpoint. Simon is well aware of the mistake some songwriters make, composing numbers for the pop charts rather than tailoring them to the character needs of the show. He also has an instinctive knack for knowing when a song should be removed. “I’ve been critical, working on shows, when I hear a song and say, ‘I don’t think that makes it.’ The melody could be good, the lyrics could be fine, but as a song it doesn’t tell the story. The show shouldn’t stop, everything should be pushing it forward.”

“We had something in Little Me that was terrible. The producer approached the actors and said, ‘We’re cutting the song,’ and they said ‘Why?’ He explained, ‘If you listen carefully at the end of the number, there’s no one applauding. No one!’ So, the song was cut, but the actors continued to say, ‘Why?’ From their point of view, being onstage singing, they certainly couldn’t see that the song was rotten. They couldn’t see the overall show.”

On a practical level, Simon has mixed feelings about the tendency to hold musicals in theaters for fifteen years, tying up theaters and making it impossible for new plays to open. “It’s difficult—not unfair but difficult—when a show runs as long as let’s say Cats or Les Miz. It stops people from working, because those theaters aren’t available.” This is in sharp contrast to former hit musicals, which traditionally ran in the neighborhood of two years. “Gypsy—the most brilliant of them all—ran even less than two years,” Simon comments with shock. “I couldn’t believe it, because the show was so brilliant.”

Whether musical, comedy or drama, Simon has generally been happy with the casting of his work. “It gets harder, though. You always find a couple of people that you love—and they hold up the play. Sometimes, you have to make compromises, because actors are working more than ever. There’s more work in TV and movies and you can’t get the performers you want, so you move to the second people—who may, after all, turn out to be better casting. That depends a lot on the director.”

Simon’s reactions about film adaptations of his work are less positive than his viewpoints about casting. “Occasionally, they’ve captured the original spirit of what was intended. First of all, when you’re writing for the stage, invariably you’re writing one-set pieces. The minute you take them out of those sets and put them in other places, they become arbitrary. They’re playing a scene that ought to be playing there, but because the director needs to open it up to make a film, they shoot it someplace else. The Odd Couple was very successful, because we didn’t go out that much—there were a couple of sequences outside but basically it was in the apartment. That’s what it was about: two guys living together in an apartment.”

Since film and theater are generally based on different coasts, Simon has shuttled back and forth from New York to Los Angeles. “I’ve been living in L.A. for the past 25 years, but I keep my place in New York and return constantly. I find both places tough, though. New York can be overbearing, and Los Angeles can be monotonous—neither is the ideal place, but if I had to choose, it would be New York.”

No matter what the environment, though, Simon claims in The Play Goes On that “Discipline is a game I play with myself, and I almost always win.” He says firmly, “I have that discipline. I did from the very beginning. I wrote that statement to help other writers, to emphasize that if they don’t sit down and put in the time and effort and do the rewrites, they’re in trouble. I meet kids in school who say, ‘I wrote a play. Could you tell me where I can send it—which producer or director?’ I answer, ‘If you wrote one version and didn’t do another version, I don’t think it’s ready yet.’”

The playwright practices what he preaches. There were 22 versions of Come Blow Your Horn before it was produced, and John Larroquette, who starred in the Geffen Playhouse production of Oscar and Felix, joked that “With Neil, you don’t get a finished script until a couple of days after you close.”

Simon has a history of being reluctant to discuss plays publicly before they’re produced, but of Rose and Walsh,he comments: “I always hate to say what the critics are going to speculate about. They may not agree with me, and it changes their opinion of the play. Rose and Walsh is a love story, but it’s a love story with such major problems between people that it becomes a drama. The relationships between characters are serious.”

I asked if he felt that critics, m general, offered useful observations to a playwright. “The only useful ones are out-of-town; critics on opening night aren’t. I like showing a play to my wife [Elaine Joyce]. Wives are generally very helpful. They want it to be good—but they can be honest. They say, ‘It’s okay,’ and then you redo it again. That part is fun, and if you don’t have fun, what’s the point?”

“However, the last play I did—which was not taken to Broadway—was an unhappy experience, because we went into rehearsal on September 10, 2001. I had to take a lot of things out of the play that reminded people of the Holocaust, but when I removed them, what I had was this bare, funny play, which wasn’t enough. I needed the drama, and I had to remove it.”

In Simon’s view, though, the wonderful upside of creativity is not always a professional production of his work but regional presentations that underline how meaningful his plays are to the great majority. “I was doing a book tour,” he reminisces, “where they took me to a high school in Chicago and said, ‘A dramatic class is going to present a scene from Lost in Yonkers. I thought, ‘How will I get through this?’ –because they had a fifteen-year-old girl playing the grandmother. But I watched her and was deeply touched. She believed in what she was doing—what the whole cast was doing—and that’s a tribute to the director. Throughout the production, there were tears in my eyes.”

That emotional response demonstrates the intensity of Simon’s love for playwriting, a commitment so total that it has guided him through many a voyage in his career. “Once I was writing this movie on a boat. The water was so rough that my wife, who loves sailing, got sea­ sick and stayed in bed. But I stayed on deck and wrote. I kept looking at the page, only the page, and not at the horizon.”

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