William Goldman
Illustration of William Goldman
Illustration of William Goldman by Joey Stocks for The Dramatist

Ifirst met Bill in 1983 when he attended an off-Broadway musical I co-wrote in the Village. By then, I had devoured The Season and Adventures in the Screen Trade. Two years later, I stumbled upon a movie called No Way to Treat A Lady, based on a novel by William Goldman. And so, my adventure began.

It’s a lengthy tale (and not unlike The Princess Bride in its twists and turns), but one moment stands out from all the rest. In 1987, we were in previews for No Way to Treat A Lady at the Hudson Guild Theatre. Bill wanted to see the musical while there was still time to offer advice. He was waiting for me near the lobby shortly after the show. “It’s good, except for your opening number and your ending.” My heart sank a little, as we had only a week before critics were coming. “Let’s go back to my apartment and work.”

I had seen Bill’s apartment a couple months earlier...or at least his study/library, which was bigger than my entire apartment. Definitely enough room to get some work done (with his two Academy Awards safely looking on from a bookshelf).

But instead he ushered me into his screening room. This was in 1987, long before streaming and flat screen TVs. And Bill had an actual screening room! I remember drinking a lot of ginger ale (I think he drank Coke or Diet Coke.) We discussed the opening number, “Five More Minutes,” a song Frank Rich had liked while on the ASCAP panel two years earlier, which led to my securing the theatrical rights.

“Cut it,” Bill said.

“But it’s Moe Brummell’s ‘I want’ song.”

“I don’t know if it’s the staging or the fact you’re trying to do too much incorporating the strangler, but the story is getting muddled.”

That’s when I first learned to “drown your babies” for the sake of storytelling.

Detective Moe Brummell now didn’t appear till he was standing over the body of Kit Gill’s first victim. Very theatrical and film noir. Years later, I was to write a song, “I Need A Life,” which incorporated both men’s journeys. But Bill knew we didn’t have the luxury of time and, like a deft film editor, suggested a cut and splice. Maybe it wasn’t coincidental we were in his screening room.

“Your ending isn’t working.” In an effort to be theatrical and because his novel’s ending was too sadistic, I decided to have the disarmed cop and deranged actor duel with rapiers, Kit Gill’s “weapon of choice.”

Moe slays Kit, straining credulity. How does a “Jewish, Blue-ish Knight” also excel at swordplay?

Bill started animatedly walking around the room, trying to come up with a solution, assuming the roles of both cop and killer. He liked to think on his feet. Maybe that explained why he needed a large study.

“Okay, so Morris is cornered, about to meet his maker,” Bill began to improvise. “But at the last second he lunges at Kit, delivering a fatal blow and declaring, “Meet the ex-captain of the Brooklyn College fencing team, schmuck!”

It was one A.M., and hearing Bill Goldman come up with this line—punctuated with the word “schmuck!”—was pretty damn funny. We both howled. Could we get away with it?

The next day, the changes were implemented. We opened to mostly favorable reviews. In time, I had a chance to rewrite both the opening and ending for the York Theatre revival in 1996, and Bill approved.

But I have one other vivid and cherished memory from 1987. Bill returned to the Hudson Guild a week later to examine our handiwork.

“I never thought I’d say this, but it’s a fucking musical,” he proudly exclaimed.

William Goldman (1931-2018) was an Oscar winner for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and All the President’s Men. Among others, he is remembered for his books The Season and The Princess Bride (also screenplay). On Broadway, he wrote the play BloodSweat and Stanley Poole, the musical A Family Affair, and the stage adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery. He joined the Guild in 1960 and was voted onto Council in 1966.

Photo of Douglas Cohen
Douglas Cohen

received the 2010 Fred Ebb Award for Musical Theatre Songwriting and won two Richard Rodgers Awards for writing book, music, and lyrics for No Way to Treat a Lady (produced twice off-Broadway resulting in over 100 productions worldwide.