I try to be like her

Unaccustomed am I to public speaking. But today’s a rare day. I’m stepping in front of a crowd of strangers to introduce a long-ago collaborator of mine, Alexa Junge, as she receives an award named for I. A. L. Diamond. Diamond’s fame is based on his collaboration with screenwriter/director Billy Wilder on some wonderful movies, such as The Apartment and One Two Three. My current collaborator, Mike Bencivenga, had a very fine play produced at the Vineyard, Billy & Ray, showing what it was like to collaborate with Billy Wilder. One of Alexa’s earliest collaborators, Jeanine Tesori, is the most-praised composer of the Broadway season (Fun Home). And that, folks, is a new record for the most times “collaborator” has been used in one paragraph.

Writing a page for me to speak – an unusual task. It’s far more common, when I come up with prose, for me to be sharing it on this blog. And here, nobody’s imposing a word limit on me, so I thought I’d put a less-edited version of the speech here.

My audience will be aware of two things you might not know about. At Columbia University, there’s a 121-year-old tradition of students writing and producing an original musical about campus life. It’s where Rodgers first met Hammerstein (who soon introduced him to Hart). But, when school spirit tanked in the tumultuous 60s, they stopped doing shows. Reviving the Varsity Show tradition, and ensuring that, as before, one would be done every year, was the accomplishment of Adam Belanoff and Steven Gee. They’re owed gratitude from everyone involved ever since. The first year of the current consecutive string, they got a little help with the script and score from Alexa and me. The second year had Alexa as chief writer, with music by Jeanine Tesori.

I don’t think I need to detail Alexa’s career to the crowd. But I could be wrong. For a quarter century, she’s written some of the best television episodes and that happens to be a career a number of my friends have gone into. It’s said that sitcom-land is a bastion of sexism and ageism. Informally, but with some regularity, a group of female working writers got together to socialize, trade war stories, and support each other. While I lost touch with Alexa for a while, I kept hearing about her from other funny scribes at those get-togethers. (My imagining what these were like inspired, in part, my musical, The Company of Women.)

And now, the speech:

I imagine most of us in this room have some memory of seeing a Varsity Show. And that might be a basis, or a template for creating a new Varsity Show.

Now imagine it’s been six years since the last Varsity Show and 18 years since the one before that. Nobody you know has ever seen one of these things before. You face a blank page without any model of what to do.

Completely undaunted, Alexa Junge created a world where campus statues come to life, where a trip to the Bursar’s office resembles Dante’s Inferno and an infomercial presents the twisted lovechild of Cliff Notes and MTV.

Perhaps I should explain that MTV used to be a channel that showed nothing but music videos, a notion that seems as quaint today as CNN airing news.

But I’m not here to talk about TV – we’ve all seen Friends, The West Wing, Sex and the City and enjoyed the hell out of Alexa Junge-written episodes. I met her when she was 18 and enjoyed the hell out of her right away. Adam Belanoff and Steven Gee, had the quixotic notion that the cast could write the show, improvising scenes over and over again. Alexa and I, kindred spirits, grew impatient and put pen to paper. The bits she came up with drew on a reservoir of knowledge: stuff like The Group Theatre, Laurie Anderson, Wittgenstein and, yes, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. The honorees share a trait: their writing is so smart, it’s amazing Hollywood bought it.

All these years later, I still think of Alexa as my favorite person I’ve ever known. It’s apt, I think it that the title of my song that she  sang in our show sums up my feelings about her, I Try To Be Like Her.


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