An L.A. Playwright's Struggle to Go East
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.
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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.
In the early 1960s, Elias left college to become an off-off-Broadway actor and found work at La Mama, Judson Poets’ Theater, and Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater, where he appeared in its landmark production of The Brig. Meanwhile, Mednick joined Theater Genesis in the East Village. Elias also worked up a nightclub comedy act with a partner, which, after some performances in the Catskills, eventually brought them to Hollywood to write for TV.
So how to return to New York with a play that was a hit in — where? — Los Angeles? The auguries weren’t good, even when The Catskill Sonata was running at the Hayworth. Agents from William Morris and elsewhere never showed up, as had been expected, Elias says.
“One theater owner did come out from New York,” he remembers. “He was a fey version of Max Bialystock — with the scarf and jewelry, and very elegantly layered black clothes. He pronounced my play ‘not right,’ not acceptable for New York.”
Elias and Mazursky began sending out copies of the script to New York theaters, pinning their hopes on the Manhattan Theatre Club, which they thought a good fit for the story’s mixture of politics and Chekhovian comedy. They were wrong.
At one point, Elias called an agent at Creative Artists Agency, telling the man that he and Mazursky were going to produce the play in New York and were interested in casting one of the agent’s clients in a role. Elias recalls how the Abbott and Costello–like exchange went nowhere fast:
“He said, ‘Who’s producing it?’ I said, ‘I am.’ He said, ‘No, no, no — who’s producing it?’ I said, ‘Me.’ He said, ‘Well, when you get a producer, call me back.’ ”
In another phone encounter, Elias heard back from one company’s artistic director after he left a message at her theater.
“What do you want?” were her first brittle words to him.
Elias later connected with another agent, an International Creative Management representative specializing in theater. He says the man read and liked his script and assured Elias it would do well. Then, after a time, the ICM agent called to report that he hadn’t heard back from anyone.
“He said he didn’t understand it,” Elias says. “He was really embarrassed.”
At this point, a playwright like Elias is faced with three choices: Stay the course and pray for rain, produce the play yourself, or write a second play based on trying to get the first one produced. Elias chose the second option.
“This is New York,” he reasoned, “this is the way they do things, and I’m just going to do what I know how to do and raise the money and put on a play — like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.”
Elias paid a theater general manager to fly out from New York to look at his show when it was still running at the Hayworth, to gauge its potential and estimate costs for a Manhattan production.
“He thought it would do well and gave me a budget for $450,000 at a 199-seat theater — production costs of $200,000 with a reserve of $100,000. Another $100,000 to $150,000 for advertising.”
The next question focused on how to raise all that money.
“I called all my relatives and some friends,” Elias says. “ ‘Would you put in 10, 15 or 20 thousand dollars?’ Right now, my lawyer’s writing up a public offering that’s going to go to all these people. In the meantime, if I hear of a public angel who’ll write a check for $100,000 — it’s hard to find those people, but it’s easier than to find five people with $20,000.”
In addition to this last detail, Elias has learned other things about the funding game.
“ ‘Enhancement money’ — you’ve heard of that?” he asks. “You go to a nonprofit and say, very diplomatically, that you can bribe them with $100,000 or $150,000 to ‘enhance’ their budget. They’re all operating on shoestrings, and if you can bring them something of quality and at the same time say, ‘You don’t have to spend half a million, you only have to spend $350,000, because I’m going kick in 150,’ you immediately go to the top of the pile.”
While awaiting word from prospective theaters, Elias pondered why he was running into a brick wall. It could’ve been any one thing or a collection of things: his age, his career working in television, or, most likely, his newly minted reputation as a Los Angeles playwright. The culprit is what Elias calls New York’s “snob system,” and he cites the case of another TV writer who turned his hand to theater.
“Bernie Slade,” he notes, “wrote Same Time Next Year. He put in his Playbill biography, ‘Bernard Slade is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.’ Did not say, ‘Bernard Slade created The Flying Nun.’ He was very smart about that, because, who knows — another sitcom writer daring to put on a play on Broadway?”
Some New Yorkers flat-out deny there’s any glass wall keeping out L.A. plays. One person, who works on the business end of New York theater and who requested anonymity, admitted that attempts to interest theaters there in Catskill Sonata have been met “with deafening silence.” Still, he believes the problem is the extreme difficulty of getting backing in New York for any new nonmusical, especially one like Elias’, which has nine cast members.
“I read it,” this man says, “and it’s a really wonderful piece. [Elias doesn''t] understand how hard it is to make a deal for a stage play here, even with a name like Paul Mazursky atached.”
Mazursky himself doubts that a hate-L.A. bias is keeping Catskill Sonata off the New York stage — just the difficulty of financing. Still, he is puzzled by its reception there. “I just don’t get it,” Mazursky says. “I’m from New York, the play takes place in New York — everything about it is New York.”
Others claim too many inferior Los Angeles productions have been dumped on Broadway following a lot of hype. Richard Kornberg, the venerable New York theater publicist, blames attitudes on a reaction against Los Angeles’ soft-touch critics.
“The nature of Los Angeles criticism,” Kornberg says, “is that it’s so salutary that reviews there seem to be written by Captain Kangaroo. You get [an L.A.] show coming here with this warm-and-fuzzy review, and New York critics will slam it.”
Elias candidly admits he is fighting the DNA-deep attitudes of the city he reveres, yet whose cultural snobbery he cannot understand — especially when he encounters it in L.A.
“I love Los Angeles,” Elias says. “I remember how excited I was when I first came out here to write variety shows and when the Negro Ensemble Company came here or when I’d see something at Jack Jackson’s place, the Inner City Cultural Center. What gets me are these people who say, ‘I can’t stand it out here, I really miss New York.’ They miss Broadway musicals, because I never see them in the theater here. They’re just talking about fucking Broadway musicals!”
On the other hand, his adoration of New York as the arbiter of taste is total, and its roots reach far back into his personal past.
“I worshiped the idea of New York,” Elias says. “My whole cultural heritage — everything — is from New York. When I saw those entertainers come up [to the Catskills], all I wanted to do was go to New York and become part of the theater, the art world — everything. Murray and I were kids who went to New York and saw Broadway, art galleries — we’d hang out at the Museum of Modern Art. That’s where we learned sophistication when we were in high school and college.”
“If you can make it there,” the song says about New York, “you can make it anywhere.” But how can plays from hated Los Angeles even get onto New York stages? Not all L.A. plays, of course, are blocked at the Mississippi, nor are the ones that perform in New York necessarily masterpieces, as the mass graves of L.A. shows buried by New York critics attest. Still, New York’s hostility toward L.A. theater is palpable.
In the meantime, Michael Elias battles on.
“I’m just saying the hell with them all,” he says, “and am moving ahead and doing it on my own.”
Click here to read Continental Divisiveness: New York and L.A. Theater.
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