Something greater

Tonight marks the Broadway debut of director Marc Bruni. I thought I’d seize the opportunity to say a few things about him. So this little billet-doux might go unnoticed, given the number of reviews there will be to read (of Beautiful, the Carole King bio). Which is just as well, because it’s going to be embarrassing.

For there is no one in my career I’m gladder I met, gladder I worked with, who was better for me in the sense that he made me a better writer. And also his grace under pressure made me a better person, just having that example around. I’m thrilled my wife got to work with him some years after I did.  And I revel in his subsequent successes, such as his stunning Encores stagings of Fanny and Pipe Dream and the two funniest off-Broadway shows (non-musical) of recent years, Old Jews Telling Jokes and The Explorer’s Club.

perspiration bespangled his brow

But let’s go back to the year 2007, BM (before Marc). BM, well, those were crappy times. I had an unwieldy musical heading towards production, and was blindly interviewing possible directors, unsure of how to pick. An agent I know insisted I meet Marc Bruni, who read my script, listened to my barely listenable demo, and arrived at some uncomfortable coffee bar with notes. The other candidates sold themselves; Marc was only interested in talking about how my show might be improved. At the end of our first meeting, he said “Well, I didn’t finish giving these notes, and I know you’ll want to pick someone soon. But, whomever you choose, I’d love to meet again to finish my thoughts.” I put off choosing so we could have our second meeting, which was in Riverside Park. It was a sunny day, and we found ourselves sitting under tall trees that provided much-needed shade. Except where they didn’t: there was a space between the leaves that left a pinpoint of sunlight hitting Marc’s forehead. Now, I didn’t take this as a sign from the heavens I should choose Marc: rather, I focused on a more practical matter. He was starting to sweat, and could have easily suggested we move to a shadier spot, but he didn’t. That’s because he was so intent on talking about the show, he didn’t notice his own discomfort. If a 95-degree beam of sun didn’t deter him from making brilliant suggestions about how my show could be better, imagine how he’d be in air conditioning! I couldn’t afford to imagine; I had to have Marc Bruni direct Such Good Friends. And yes, the brilliance kept flowing.

Marc is wicked smart, not authoritarian. There are some people who get into directing because they like ordering people around. I have the feeling Marc became a director because of the satisfaction that comes from making a show demonstrably better every day. And so those few months of preparing and rehearsing Such Good Friends were the time of my life. I had hitched myself to a genius who asked questions, and who told me what the audience might be thinking at any given second. At his urging, I threw out heaps of unnecessary pages and characters, cut songs I always thought I’d keep but clearly weren’t working, and wrote new and better songs for the new moments in the show that overflowed with truly justified emotion. Our actors included seasoned veterans with Tony nominations, and they instantly stepped into a similar mutual admiration society with this baby-faced kid. (He turned 30 during rehearsals, but looked far younger.) One had a degree from Yale. I went to Columbia and Marc went to Dartmouth: the Ivy League was putting on an original musical comedy, and nobody had any question who the smartest guy in the room was.

Working with someone as bright as Marc emboldens you. During late rewrites, we hit upon the idea that we’d need a silent montage showing nine performers doing various tasks. I didn’t know what to write in the scene description. Marc told me not to worry about that, just to come up with the music that would play during this. In a way, we both got to express something without words. I came up with a peppy Gershwin-esque little tune; he came up with a set of stage pictures that were amusing, understandable and engaging. Never experienced anything quite like that. After Marc staged it, I typed up a description to go into the finished script. So I look like the genius.

producer, author, star, director

Another thing we collaborated on was the tag-line we needed to put on the poster. What could be said about Such Good Friends in one short sentence? We had to convey that it was both a comedy and a drama, that it portrays the fraught fun of doing a live television variety show, and also the soul-defeating ravages of blacklisting. We tossed around ideas for a long time, before it occurred to us that colors link the show’s themes: “When comedy came in black and white, some saw red.

Such Good Friends won all sorts of awards, including one as Best Musical of the year, one for Marc’s direction, one for my lyrics, and two for leading lady Liz Larsen. I’m thrilled to note that Marc’s working with Liz again, on Beautiful. The performance they built together on my show was just stunning, a star turn of the highest magnitude. We all leaned on each other during rehearsal: Liz knew my jokes, songs and dramatic bits would work because Marc conveyed such confidence they would. I’d provide changes practically every night, based on new brainstorms Marc came up with based on how things looked in rehearsal. And, as our opening drew near, I began to dread the day Marc would say “Noel, put down your pen. I can’t ask the actors to learn anything else new. We have to freeze the show.” That would end the supreme fun of working with him.

Except it didn’t. After the production, I wrote three more drafts of Such Good Friends and brought them to Marc, who pored over every word offering sage reactions and suggestions, never aware of that laser beam from the sky, boring into his forehead.

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