New York Times: Eavesdropping on Warhol and Capote

Publication date: 
August 30, 2017
Author: 
Blake Gopnick

When the playwright Rob Roth answers the door of his high-rise condo, he’s in a T-shirt bearing Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn.” His front hall is covered in Warhol’s “Electric Chair” prints. The living room is literally carpeted in Warhols: a rug woven with his “Dollar Signs,” a runner bearing his “Flowers.”

 

If Mr. Roth were not such a Warholian, he would hardly have spent the last 10 years inside the dead artist’s head. On Sept. 7 at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard, Mr. Roth unveils “WARHOLCAPOTE,” a two-man show a decade in the writing. Its words were culled from 80 hours of taped conversation between Warhol and the writer Truman Capote, buddies late in life.

 

“I thought I could turn these tapes into plays and they’d be my little fortune,” Warhol said in his diary in 1985, but Capote had died the year before and the project never got realized. In 2007, when Mr. Roth noticed the diary entry and learned that the tapes had survived, he was determined to bring the concept to life: “I had to uncover the idea, but it’s Andy’s idea.”

 

For decades, the Andy Warhol Foundation has denied almost all access to the 3,000 cassettes that Warhol recorded of his daily talk: His gossip could sometimes veer into slander, bringing a risk of lawsuits. To get his hands on Warhol’s Capote tapes, Mr. Roth said he had to agree to indemnify the foundation, to give it full script approval and also a joint author’s share of the profits. And then he had to reach the same kind of arrangement with the Capote estate.

 

In the end, there was no need to worry about slander in recordings that were mostly, Mr. Roth said, “two guys gossiping about stuff.” (Although the play does include a tall tale from Capote about going to bed with Humphrey Bogart.)

 

In fact, the first dozen tapes that Mr. Roth listened to left him doubting that there was gold to be mined there. Then one day, on a 1978 recording, Mr. Roth, 54, heard Warhol say this to Capote: “Let’s write a new play. Gee, Truman, can’t I just tape you?” Mr. Roth realized his own play would be all about letting us watch Warhol and Capote collaborate on a first, live draft of theirs.

 

With 8,000 pages of transcripts, it took Mr. Roth a year to extract the 600-or-so snippets of talk that held promise, and then years more to assemble them into a compelling picture. “I’m excited for people to know more about these two people,” he said. “I grew to love them even more in doing this.”

 

On the first day of rehearsals in August, the actor Leslie Jordan said he already has a deep connection to Capote. As a little boy who was taunted as a “fairy,” he said, seeing the flamboyant author on TV triggered such a shock of recognition that Mr. Jordan ran to the bathroom to vomit. He could hardly be more perfectly cast for the role, he said: “I’m Southern, I’m gay, I’m little – I get Ma’am’d a lot on the phone.”

 

Opposite him onstage (Michael Mayer is directing) will be a Warhol played by Stephen Spinella, a two-time Tony winner for “Angels in America.” As Mr. Jordan told his bathroom story — hamming it up, Capote-style — the lanky Mr. Spinella listened in silent, Warhol-ish observation.

 

He said he didn’t have such a personal connection to his character, partly because of his admiration for him: “I’m playing somebody who has a way of seeing the world that is so much more interesting and revelatory than the way I see the world.” His challenge, said Mr. Spinella, would be to reveal a “real” Warhol inside a creator so controlled and self-conscious that he was always playing some kind of part.

 

Mr. Roth’s own crush on Warhol blossomed when he first saw the artist assuming a role. In 1985 Warhol appeared, as some version of himself, on “The Love Boat,” a favorite TV program of Mr. Roth’s throughout his youth in New Jersey. “I related to him — an outsider, a geek,” he explained.

 

Capote held a similar place in Mr. Roth’s heart. The writer’s star turn in the movie “Murder by Death,” a 1976 comedy, got Mr. Roth going back to the theater 15 times, he said, braving the neighborhood bullies each time he went. Mr. Roth already sensed he was gay — so, it seemed, did those bullies — and Warhol and Capote showed him that this didn’t have to limit his options.

 

Mr. Roth’s career in theater began with a degree in drama and then writing and directing live shows for Disney theme parks. It exploded in 1992, when Disney agreed to let him concoct a musical based on its animated movie “Beauty and the Beast.”

 

The result was a vast hit, and Mr. Roth (then known as Robert Jess Roth) spent the next several decades staging the show around the world. That reliable, profitable gig eventually gave him the luxury of spending almost every non-“Beauty” minute digging into the Warhol tapes.

 

Early on, he discovered that the recordings might work as the bones of his play, “but it needed a bit more meat on it.” He imported a fresh supply of Capotean eloquence from published interviews; he mined new, more extended Warholisms out of the artist’s books, some of whose words come from the pens of ghostwriters.

 

“You can’t play the tapes and hear the play, at all,” Mr. Roth admitted. For all the genius of his heroes’ conversation, “they needed help making it into a Broadway play,” he said. (Capote himself has been center stage there before, with Robert Morse winning a Tony in the one-man “Tru.”)

 

Mr. Roth’s years at Disney had taught him that a show needed drama and emotion to speak to an audience, so he arranged his material to supply both.

 

That may turn out to be his riskiest move. Warhol once published a novel based on taped conversations, and, like so much of his art, it was radical: Readers were left to drown in verbatim “ums” and “uhhs.”

 

To channel Warhol’s true notion of a tape-recorded play, “WARHOLCAPOTE” will need to baffle its viewers as well as please them. If it appears with a full quotient of Mr. Roth’s “drama and emotion,” it may attract the Broadway audience he is hoping for after the A.R.T. run. But also the ire of two colorful critics looking down from on high.

 

On that first day of the rehearsal, however, Mr. Mayer was already feeling an urge to nudge Mr. Roth’s script away from naturalism and toward something more “abstract,” as he put it, using one of Warhol’s favorite words. It was almost as if the artist had put it in his mouth.

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