An L.A. Playwright's Struggle to Go East | Theater | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

An L.A. Playwright's Struggle to Go East 

Can Michael Elias make it there?

Wednesday, Apr 2 2008

Two years ago, one of The New York Times’ “Los Angeles Journal” columns began, “The palm tree, like so much here, rose to fame largely because of vanity and image control, then met its downfall when the money ran out.” Sometimes concerned with hard news, the journal more often than not offers readers safari-bus glimpses into the aboriginal frivolity of Southern California life, its correspondents’ prose trembling with colonial condescension. Last month, when the same paper announced the death of film composer Leonard Rosenman, it noted, “Mr. Rosenman often expressed regret that his Hollywood work appeared to have cost him greater recognition in the concert hall.” That’s putting it mildly — Rosenman, one of American music’s most promising postwar modernists, couldn’t get arrested in New York after he worked on East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, thanks to the kind of Times-sanctioned East Coast snobbery that regarded him as a leprous apostate.

(Click to enlarge)

click to enlarge Michael Elias decided it's up to him to produce his play in New York.
  • Michael Elias decided it's up to him to produce his play in New York.

Michael Elias decided it's up to him to produce his play in New York.

“There’s this thing we all grew up on,” says Los Angeles writer Michael Elias, “that all the people who sold out in life went to Hollywood. They still consider moving here the Mark of Cain.”

Elias knows all about Eastern prejudice. A veteran television and film writer (credits include The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Jerk), Elias, 67, has been trying to move his locally premiered play, The Catskill Sonata, to New York, without success.

“Someone told me the word ‘Catskill’ in the title is a killer,” he says. “[Like] it’s going to be about Jackie Mason.”

The Catskill Sonata is no homage to borscht-belt tummlers like Mason or Freddy Roman. Instead, it deals with a completely unexplored corner of the 1950s — upstate New York’s Jewish-owned resorts that catered to politically progressive vacationers and provided free room and board for blacklisted artists if they agreed to teach writing or painting classes, or perform recitals, in exchange. Elias knew this world from bellhopping and waiting tables there as a teen in the 1950s.

“The Concords and Grossinger’s would have Broadway stars and comedians like Buddy Hackett,” Elias recalls. “But there were six or seven hotels that had a different clientele — more of a New York City schoolteacher/left-wing/folk-dancing clientele. These hotels tended to have folk singers, opera singers, and blacklisted comedians like Jack Guilford, Phil Leeds and Zero Mostel. The Weavers with Pete Seeger played there, and Paul Draper, the famous tap dancer and brother of the great monologist Ruth Draper, performed too.”

The Catskill Sonata received a staged reading with Adam Arkin and Marcia Gay Harden at the Odyssey Theatre; then, with different actors, it opened last year at the Hayworth Theatre. Directed by film auteur Paul Mazursky, the show became a critical hit, rekindling an old passion of Elias’ to have it produced in New York. Years before, Elias had tried to premiere it on Broadway, with no luck. He sent out manuscripts and queries to many New York theaters without hearing a word back or, at best, getting a perfunctory note of rejection. Only Harold Prince, who read and enjoyed the script, responded immediately — and that was to say he couldn’t stage it, because most of his commitment was to musicals.

“I was entirely naïve about New York theater, I had no idea,” Elias says. “Everyone told me, ‘No play originates on Broadway, it all comes from somewhere else. You have to workshop it in Anchorage.’ ”

After the Hayworth success, Elias felt he had learned from his earlier experience and had momentum on his side. He soon found out he needed much more.

“I always thought this play should
be produced in New York,” Elias says one day over a pastrami sandwich at Factor’s Deli on Pico Boulevard. “It’s about the Catskills. I don’t know anything about workshopping in Seattle — I want to take it to a place where there are New York Jews.”

There was more to it than that, though. Elias belongs to a time when New York was considered the capital of America when it came to the arts, fashion and finance. In many ways, it still is, of course, but for people of Elias’ generation, a New York stage production embodies the will to power for any playwright, and is the logical next step for all worthy theater works. Elias himself grew up in the rural shadows of the resorts on which he modeled The Catskill Sonata, and the great city down the Hudson was the goal to which any creative person like himself or his high school friend Murray Mednick would aspire.

Related Content