Skip to content

AUTHOR, AUTHOR

Bright Leight, Big City

A playwright is jazzed about his Broadway debut.

Photo: Mitsu Yatsukara

CLOSE TO HOME: Leight says the dysfunctional family in Side Man echoes some of his own past.

By Jesse Oxfeld

Monday is not a big night on Broadway. Except for a few tourist traps, nearly all shows are dark, leaving New York's theater district oddly empty. It's almost surreal, strolling through Times Square, taking in the billboards and the marquees without navigating through crowds.

But on this particular Monday in June, Side Man -- winner of the 1999 Tony Award for best play -- is nearly filling the house. This, eight months into its run at the John Golden Theatre and nearly 18 months after its New York premiere. Granted, the Tony helps. True, the decision to perform on Mondays was intended to exploit the lack of competition. And yes, Scott Wolf, from the TV series Party of Five, is now in the cast. Nevertheless, a serious drama by a living playwright, on a summer weeknight, with a nearly full house -- that's an accomplishment.

Playwright Warren Leight, '77, worked hard for it. Leight graduated from Stanford with a degree in communication, wanting to be a journalist, but he entered the job market just after Watergate -- a time when just about everyone wanted to be a journalist. Over the next two decades, he wound up doing "hundreds of different kinds of writing": a musical about Ed Koch, movies, TV pilots, one-liners for comedians, The I Hate New York Guidebook, cabaret acts, the "His" column in Mademoiselle and a lot of serious playwriting. "It took me 20 years," says Leight, "to have an award that allows people to say, 'You did the right thing.'"

Not that Leight's a braggart. He's just proud of Side Man, the only new American drama on Broadway last season and now the second-longest-running drama there. The show has been grossing more and more each week since the Tony ceremony in early June, and that's not its only award. Leight won Newsday's Oppenheimer Award for playwriting, lead actor Frank Wood won a Tony, and a half-dozen other major awards have gone to cast and crew members. Leight also was a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Not bad for his Broadway debut.

Side Man is a memory play -- wrenchingly sad, yet often hilarious -- about a family destroyed by a jazz trumpeter's obsession with his music as the Big Band world dies around him in the '50s and '60s. We watch as Gene, the musician-father and side man of the play's title, drives his wife to alcoholism with inattention. And we watch him force his son, Clifford, the narrator, to parent his parents, eventually throwing Gene out of the house.

Leight, whose father was a jazz trumpeter, says the story is more than a touch autobiographical. In fact, he thinks the personal aspect of the play accounts for some of its popularity: "People connect to it more viscerally."

A lot of the popularity comes from its dark humor. From the first scene, the audience is frequently howling with laughter. "I thought it was amazing and funny and really interesting," says Luke Haseloff, '95, who organized a group of young alumni to see the show and hear a talk by Leight last spring. The professional critics have loved it, too. Peter Marks of the New York Times, for example, gave the play three separate rave reviews: when it first opened off-Broadway in March 1998, when it was picked up by the nonprofit, highly regarded Roundabout Theater Company for a summer run on Broadway and when it moved to the commercial Golden Theatre last November. Side Man, said Marks, is "heartbreaking and touching, a play of true feeling" that is "enormously moving."

The show has had its detours: it took Leight three years of readings and workshops to get Side Man produced, and even then, it closed twice before being resuscitated in different venues. But the path is likely to be infinitely smoother for his next work, Glimmer Brothers. That play, about two aging jazz-musician brothers, premiered over the summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, currently the nation's hot summer theater company. Williamstown ran Glimmer Brothers, starring David Schwimmer of Friends fame, alongside new works by John Guare and Kenneth Lonergan. The show sold out for its 12-week run.

Undoubtedly, some Broadway producer will pick up Glimmer Brothers in the fall. By then, Side Man will be playing in traveling productions already arranged around the country. And who knows? Maybe it'll still be drawing those crowds in New York.

The itinerant writer in Leight can't fathom such things. "I can't imagine having two shows on Broadway at the same time," he says. It sure beats that Ed Koch musical.

Read a May 2010 update on this story.


Jesse Oxfeld, '98, lives in New York and is an assistant editor at Brill's Content.

Comments (0)


  • Be the first one to add a comment. You must log in to comment.

Rating

Your Rating
Average Rating

Actions

Tags

Be the first one to tag this!