Thursday, September 21, 2006


The St. Ignatius Showbiz Players performing "My Favorite Year."

I wrote the libretto for a musical based on the movie My Favorite Year, collaborating with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens who wrote the music and lyrics respectively. The three of us worked on the show for more than four years, and in 1992 it opened at Lincoln Center. We were gone in thirty days, critically drubbed.

The show closed and we all went off to deal with our individual soups of disappointment, loss and the infuriating human need to make sense of an experience. Eventually you get perspective and start to become philosophical about this sort of adventure. But that’s all higher cortex stuff; the pain and fear come from an older part of the brain that’s not as easily conned.

Lynne and Stephen and I occasionally meet for lunch to talk and complain and to be seen publicly together in order to frighten people with the possibility of our doing another show. At one of these meetings, Lynn gave me a copy of a letter addressed to the three of us and forwarded by the company handling the stock and amateur rights to our show which had begun its life after Broadway.

The letter was from the director of a community production of My Favorite Year in Cincinnati. She was writing to let us know how much the play had meant to her, the cast and their audiences.

I sent a reply, thanking the director for letting us know the show had worked for her group. I wrote that her letter was like getting a note from a son or daughter away at college and finding out they’re doing will and making new friends.

She answered my letter and sent me some snapshots from her production, informing me that they were extra prints and I could throw them away if I wanted to. I have not thrown them away. They’re on the mantel now, just left of the Emmy.

Looking at the pictures I see what appears to be the stage of a high school auditorium; neutral beige curtains at the back, a proscenium of pale cinder block. There are some rented costumes, but it’s mostly invention and approximation. The same thing goes for the handful of props and set pieces. One of the shots is from the finale with the whole cast playing out to the audience. There they are, the good people of “The St. Ignatius Showbiz Players” singing out for all they’re worth.

For a while I carried the pictures in my jacket pocket, taking them out to show unsuspecting friends the way parents take out the genuine leather and Indian bead wallet their kid made at camp. I kept them with me as I tried to work out why they seemed so important, so valuable. Eventually I realized what about the pictures makes them so precious.

Writers spend their lives at the edge of the sea, putting messages in bottles, throwing them into the ocean and hoping they’ll reach someone somewhere. The messages aren’t for critics. Critics are those pasty-faced people watching you from under their big beach umbrellas and loudly discussing you bottle throwing technique and how the tide and wind are against you and your messages don’t stand a chance.

Those snapshots of people performing for their families and friends…singing Lynn and Stephen’s songs, telling my jokes…are vital evidence; solid, irrefutable proof that at least one bottle got through. And if one bottle got through, then who’s to say more haven’t made it past the breakers?

The pictures remind me of the gawky medal the crew gave Mr. Roberts after he threw the Captain’s palm tree overboard. I plan to keep them close by, the way Mr. Roberts kept his Order of the Palm on proud display. Like the medal, they are lovingly handcrafted things, forged in recognition of victories over petty tyrants.


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