by Michael J. Roberts
Michael J. Roberts is theatre editor for the ChicagoPride.com covering Chicago's diverse arts and entertainment scene.
Porchlight Music Theatre is presenting the Chicago premiere of "A Catered Affair", based on the beloved 1950's Bette Davis movie. "A Catered Affair" features a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by John Bucchino.
I had the privilege to talk with John about adapting ‘A Catered Affair' from film to stage and the process of working together with Mr. Fierstein. John also discusses his incredible career and his friendship with Stephen Schwartz who convinced him to write for the theatre. Mr. Bucchino will be in Chicago February 25th presenting a Master Class at Porchlight Music Theatre with a concert of his music following the evening performance of ‘A Catered Affair'.
Mr. Bucchino will also conduct a Q & A following the Sunday February 26th matinee. On February 27th at 8 p.m., he will perform his cabaret concert at Davenport's Piano Bar.
MJR: (Michael J. Roberts) Hi John. I have always been a great fan of your work and I am so glad to be talking with you. Tell me about how the musical of ‘A Catered Affair' came about?
JB: (John Bucchino) Well, before this project, I wasn't familiar with the film or the story at all. Harvey Fierstein loved the film and thought the story would make a wonderful musical. He had the rights to ‘A Catered Affair' for ten or twelve years and had not found the right person to write the score. So a mutual friend gave him my "Grateful" c.d. and he really liked it and he wrote me a fan letter. Imagine getting a fan letter from Harvey, with whom I have the upmost respect not only as an artist but as an activist. He suggested that we have dinner and talk to me about this project. My first response was to say no because at that point I had not written a book musical and the prospect of doing that was daunting. Harvey was very patient and persistent. We decided to have dinner with my best friend Stephen Schwartz, creator of ‘Wicked' and ‘Godspell'. Stephen is such a wonderful person and great with structure of a show and I he said it was a great story and perfect for both my style and Harvey's style of writing. So I decided to do it!
MJR: What was the jumping off point as far as the music and lyrics?
JB: Well, Harvey had a copy of the original teleplay and he also had script of the movie to draw from. So while Harvey was in-between finishing ‘Hairspray' and going into ‘Fiddler on the Roof' on Broadway, he wrote a straight play of ‘A Catered Affair'. He emailed me a copy of it and asked me to make a list of where I would think these characters would sing and then we would get together and compare lists. It ended up our lists were virtually identical. I then took chunk of his pros out and morphed it into a song that completed the same part of the dramatic arch that the pros did, and then slipped the song right into that slot and told the story that way, which was pretty methodical.
MJR: I wanted to ask you about how you and Harvey both approach a story. I saw an interview in which Harvey said that when he writes a show, he wants to make sure that the audience is not alone in how they view their life. Then in a master class you gave, you stated that the deeper you go inside yourself, the more universal it gets.
JB: Absolutely! The approach is what we were saying is that really we are all the same and share the same feelings. Harvey and I hope we can tap into that universality. I certainly think Harvey always manages to do that with his shows, and I hope I did as well with ‘A Catered Affair'. It is going to resonate really deeply with the audience. I've seen the show many times pre-Broadway, Broadway and amateur productions, but the reaction has always been the same, and audience members where moved in the same way.
MJR: What evolution did the ‘A Catered Affair' go through on its way to Broadway?
JB: One of the most visible changes or progressions in the show was in the subtleties of the acting and the actors' willingness to be real and truthful. Faith Prince, prior to ‘A Catered Affair', was primarily known for musical comedy, and director John Doyle really worked with her. Actors over the years develop tricks to win over an audience. They want to be liked. Sometimes that can get in the way of developing a character. John Doyle has a great way of stripping those past behaviors and allowing an actor to find the truth in a character, and Faith's journey in finding hers was incredible to watch. She let go of past characters and mannerisms that she had used to communicate with an audience. Aggie is not immediately likeable. She is a hard woman who has had a hard life. There is not room for mugging or commenting with the audience. That was the real interesting learning curve to watch.
MJR: What was the most difficult part to write musically in ‘A Catered Affair'?
JB: I would definitely say the opening number ‘Partners'. Not really difficulty in writing it, but re-writing it. Since the story takes place in the 1950's I didn't know originally when I started to write it, if I should stick to a pastiche 50's score. Pretty quickly I abandoned that. Originally I wrote ‘Partners' as more of a Charleston, which made it a catchy tune. But when John Doyle came on board he said that I didn't write anything that sounded like it fit in a particular period except "Partners" which is in the wrong time period. He wanted me to change the music but it was hard because the lyrics are exactly what I wanted them to say and was pretty complicated as a quartet. So to re-write the music over the existing lyrics was the hardest thing I had to do.
MJR: What was your biggest musical influence growing up?
JB: Well I always wanted to be a pop writer. So mostly The Beatles, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder and Carol King influenced how I write more than anyone. I tried for years to get a record deal as a singer/songwriter. But what I write seemed more complex then was playing on the radio. But it was 25 years ago when I met Stephen Schwartz that he convinced me that my writing is more suited for theatre. About 4 years after meeting Stephen Schwartz and I got call from Stephen Sondheim and he wanted to meet, so I went over and had a long afternoon with him and he reiterated what Stephen Schwartz had said. So when both Stephen Schwartz and Stephen Sondheim are telling you to write for the theatre, it was best to take their advice.
MJR: How did the DreamWorks project come to be?
JB: I friend send a tape to the studio for what was a prequel to the Prince of Egypt and was about Joseph and his coat. It made me feel good that Stephen had nothing to do with me getting the job! I almost said no to that because I didn't think I was capable of doing it, but I forced myself to say ‘yes', mainly because I needed money! It was a difficult but wonderful experience. I am so proud of it.
MJR: Tell me about your upcoming visit to Chicago.
JB: I am coming to Chicago and will doing a Master-Class at Porchlight on Saturday, February 25th at 3pm. Then after the evening's performance of ‘A Catered Affair' we are going to do a cabaret show right there in the theatre with the Master Class participants performing all of my songs with me at the piano. Then Sunday, February 26th, after the matinee, I will be doing a Q & A with the audience members. Then there is more. On Monday, February 27th, I will be doing a solo concert at Davenport's. I am so excited so please help me get the word out.
Porchlight Music Theatre, American Musicals. Chicago Style, presents the Chicago premiere of John Bucchino and Harvey Fierstein's A Catered Affair, directed by Nick Bowling with music direction by Doug Peck, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Preview performances begin Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 8 p.m. with opening/press night Tuesday, February 21, 2012 at 7:30 p.m. The regular performance schedule is Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Single tickets are $38 with group and student discounts available. All tickets are available at stage773.com, porchlightmusictheatre.org or by phone at 773-327-5252.