An American (Back) in LondonDate: 4 November 2002
Though American, playwright Michael Weller - whose What the Night Is For, starring Gillian Anderson, starts previews this week - began his career in Manchester. His old classmate, Whatsonstage.com's Ian Watson, catches up with him.
The class of 1966 on Stephen Joseph's post-graduate playwriting course at Manchester University produced two professors of drama, a regional arts director, probably the best touring theatre officer the Arts Council ever had - and two playwrights. One of these, Mike Stott, went on to enjoy great West End success with Funny Peculiar and is mainly active nowadays writing for television and radio.
The other playwright was Michael Weller, an American whose presence in Manchester was at least in part motivated by the deeply ingrained need to stay at least two steps ahead of the Vietnam draft board. Long returned to his native land, Weller's career seems now to have come - triumphantly - almost full circle, with his new play, What the Night Is For - starring Hollywood's Gillian Anderson and multiple Olivier Award winner Roger Allam (coincidentally another alumnus of the Drama Department at Manchester University) - about to premiere in London's West End.
Catching Up with Weller
Following his year in Manchester, and still keen to stay clear of the US, Weller did the grand tour of European theatre. He eventually settled down back in New York, although his first major theatre exposure was in 1970 at the Royal Court in London with Cancer, his play about the 1960s college generation that went on to play off-Broadway for some years under the title Moonchildren. Since then, he's written some 37 stage plays, only two of which have played in the UK, neither in major London theatres.
"I had one in Hampstead about 20 years ago, and then I had one in Nottingham or somewhere about ten years ago, and that was it: in fact every ten years there's one!" In the States, the plays do get performed, he says, "but it's things that are not easy to find necessarily" - off-off-Broadway or out of town. "I've always known sooner or later it would catch up with me and I don't put a lot of time into worrying about that or marketing myself, because I have a lot of other interests and I have a really nice home life."
It was while he was working on that play at Hampstead's New End Theatre - Fishing, the follow-up to Moonchildren in a proposed trilogy on growing up in America - that a new avenue opened up.
Say Hello to Hollywood
"I can't remember who the director was at the New End Theatre, but it was a wonderful production," he says. "I've been trying to get hold of the programme, because I think people who subsequently became famous were in it - but I can't remember their names! I came over to see it, and then they wanted me to go back and meet Milos Forman about Hair. They flew me back in Concorde, and I was so much more impressed by that than by anything about the theatre: I just remember that it was a great show."
It is as the screenwriter of Hair, and of another Milos Forman movie, Ragtime, that Weller is best known, and indeed he has gone on to write many more screenplays. "I do screenplays because I love the medium. I don't do a lot, it's no more than one a year or one every year and a half. Sometimes, if it's not a good assignment, it's for the money - you know, if they come to me with a dopey idea, I think of it as 'OK, I need the money and it's a grant!'"
While in rehearsals in London for What the Night Is For, he emailed the final re-writes of a new screenplay to Miramax. "I sold one just before to Miramax and they hired me to write this other one." Do they get made? "No, no! No, no, no: by definition, screenplays don't get made! But I think this one will, because the director's an up-and-coming phenomenon, an Italian wonderboy, Gabriele Muccino."
All Hail Gillian Anderson
Back in the theatre, it was Gillian Anderson who leapt upon What the Night Is For. "The play was written at the end of 1999 and we had a reading here," Weller recalls. "Brigid Larmour (of Act Productions) was there and she said: 'I want the play.' We'd had one reading in New York, which was amazingly good except that the producers just didn't get it. So Brigid took the rights to it and kept renewing them and we kept on giving it to people and taking offers.
"Then I think what happened was that my agent at CAA in California - he's a very literary guy and he likes my work very much - said to Gillian's agent: 'Would she please read this play?' Gillian just joined the agency and was about to do another play - she was all but signed to do it. And apparently she read it and said: 'I have to get out of that other play - I want to do this.' And that's how it all started: from there it snowballed. It was one of those bizarre accidents."
Unsurprisingly, this playwright does not endorse Alan Ayckbourn's recent diatribe (See News, 25 Oct 2002) against the importation of overseas stars from film and television: Weller likes Anderson's acting a lot.
"I think she's amazing," he enthuses. "And she started on stage. She grew up partly in England, and I think her last New York credit was in an Ayckbourn play, Absent Friends. So, you know, she's a stage creature who had the good luck to have a TV series that'll make her comfortable and give her freedom for the rest of her career. So now she has to catch up with all that stuff she was daydreaming about! She's a very interesting lady, a very deep and surprising lady who comes out with very unusual observations about things. Very interesting."
Backstage Sexual & Textual Analysis
In fact, the entire team on What the Night Is For has been a delight for Weller, central to which, he says, is the chemistry between Anderson and Allam, which was immediately apparent. "It seems that they adore each other. It's really a hoot in rehearsals. We had five days of table work, but even there, you could just see the way they get anything even slightly double entendre and they just look at each other and crack up! It's very funny.
"And (director) John Caird is wonderful. He's like a little intellectual minister: his sermon is the text of the play. He's very methodical and very interesting, complex and insightful in the way he goes through the play. It's very unusual in America to do this kind of table work, so it's great. I like it because the textual analysis is so sophisticated and subtle, very good groundwork for a production."
What the Night Is For is a 'Friends Reunited'-style story which brings back together former lovers who've gone on to marry other people. It asks whether the people we end up with are really the right ones.
Weller sat in for the first two weeks of rehearsals in London, then returned to New York to continue working on the Broadway musical of Dr Zhivago, for which he's supplying the book and which, he says, is due to "roll out on to the runway for a test flight in late 2003."
Some days after our conversation, he emails me. "It's early to say this with absolute confidence, but Ms Anderson is showing signs of having been born for the stage. I think she may open some eyes very wide indeed. Even Roger Allam has a happy glow about him seeing what she's cooking up."
What the Night Is For opens at the West End's Comedy Theatre on 27 November 2002, following previews from 7 November.