John Weidman

Published April 17, 2008

With director Susan Stroman, writer John Weidman created Contact (currently previewing at the Queen's ), one of the most successful Broadway musicals of recent years. He's had a partnership with Stephen Sondheim lasting a quarter of a century and with three shows in the West End over the next year and the premiere of his new Sondheim collaboration in Chicago, his modesty doesn't fool Richard Embray.

"Musicals are never finished, they're just abandoned," says John Weidman, recalling the words of Jerome Robbins. "You've just run out of time and it's opening night, and that's when you know that you're done."

Even so, for the new musical Contact, Weidman, with over 25 years as a book writer for musicals, has resisted the urge to tamper and the show at the Queen's Theatre will be almost identical to the one that ran in New York (albeit with a change of cast). Hardly surprising, given its success – it was the longest running show that New York's Lincoln Centre has ever had, with 1,174 performances. Contact's success may have come as a surprise, given the show's unusual form, with no songs and the emphasis instead on dance. With its use of just dance and dialogue – not to mention the use of taped music rather than a live band – does Contact even qualify as a musical, or does it need a new genre all of its own?

"I think it is a musical," says Weidman, it's just that different shows have different emphases. "Some musicals, like Fosse, have music, lyrics, dance, but no book. And there have certainly been a number of musicals, starting with the [Harold] Prince-[Stephen] Sondheim musicals which had music, lyrics, book and no dance.

"When the show first opened, nobody knew what it was"

"At the same time, when the show first opened, nobody knew what it was, so it was interesting to watch audiences react to it when they came in expecting something more like a conventional musical and you could see them adjusting their expectations about what the evening was going to be like."

The show is built around three separate but thematically linked stories, with the title piece taking up the second act, based on an event that director and choreographer Susan Stroman witnessed: one evening at a New York club, she watched a woman in a yellow dress selecting the men she wanted to dance with. "She would take a half step out onto the dance floor and wait for men to approach her and if a guy approached her that she didn't want to dance with, she'd give them a shake of the head and they'd just disappear. If someone approached her that she did want to dance with, she would nod, dance one dance, but only one dance: that was her limit. And this felt like very rich information about the state of certain kinds of relationships in a city like New York. I mean, here was someone who was interested in making a certain kind of contact with another person but she had established certain rules about the amount she was willing to have."

"Many of those shows are virtually unproduceable…"

Weidman will have another show in the West End by mid-November: Anything Goes, written by Cole Porter in 1934, is being produced by the National Theatre. It uses the revised book that Weidman and Timothy Crouse co-wrote for the revival at the Lincoln Centre in 1987. While the songs from the original show remain standards, why did the book need updating?

< "In '34, you know, there would be 14 or 15 pages of dialogue and then a song and I think people will not tolerate that in a musical today. Many of those shows [from the 1930s] are virtually unproduceable and the reason you don't see more of them is because the books, although they worked great for audiences in those days, are no longer what audiences expect today. Between films and television there's a certain kind of pace and movement that people expect from storytelling that people did not expect then."

Although writing books for Broadway musicals was a possible career option in the 1920s and 30s, the relatively few new musicals staged means that now, "there's a very small group of people who still write musical books for a living: it's like barrel makers or something at this point!" Weidman has had a few parallel careers, including editing National Lampoon, and writing several episodes of Sesame Street. But his work for the theatre has been limited to musicals. "I guess if I was going to write a straight play, I probably would have done it already. That doesn't mean I won't, but the impulse to do it is not as strong as to go to work on the next musical. And I'm not musical myself, so it pleases me to be associated with people who are. I've been lucky to be associated with really the best people in musical theatre, whether it's Susan Stroman or Stephen Sondheim."

"I'm not musical myself, so it pleases me to be associated with people who are."

Weidman's association with Sondheim dates back to 1976's Pacific Overtures, due for a revival at the Donmar Warehouse next summer, while their new musical, Gold!, will have its premiere at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago next spring. Any new Sondheim musical is eagerly anticipated, but Gold! is one show where the oft-used epithet 'long-awaited' can be used without any hyperbole: it's Sondheim's first collaboration with his long-term director Harold Prince since 1981's Merrily We Roll Along and his first musical since Passion in 1994. The composer first mooted the idea of a show based on the subject (the Mizner brothers who made their way to Alaska during the gold rush of the 1890s) over 40 years ago, and he has been working on the show with Weidman for many years. Haven't they been frustrated by the length of the process?

"In the 50s and early 60s, people were accustomed to doing a show every two years and so you'd do it and if it didn't work, you'd do another one. But now, it's a commitment to do a show and you really have to believe that you're doing something that you're willing to devote five or six years of your life to. And because it's so much more expensive, the stakes are higher: if we don't get it right, it's difficult simply to move onto the next one. It has taken a long time to bring this to completion," Weidman admits, "but I think we both feel that we've finally got it right, we've figured out what the show is about. But then, musicals are never done!"