Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with playwright Joe Masteroff about our latest musical, She Loves Me.
Ted Sod: You were born in Philadelphia in 1919 and went to Temple University, correct?
Joe Masteroff: Correct. I am 96.
TS: And you studied at the American Theatre Wing?
JM: I was in the Army during WWII, and when I got out, I eventually came to New York to become a playwright, which is what I always wanted to do since I was a child. The American Theatre Wing had a special course in playwriting for guys who had been in the war. That was the beginning.
JM: Yes, and Farley Granger. My agent called me one day and said, “You won't believe this but Julie Harris read your play The Warm Peninsula and she wants to do it for a full year on the road before bringing it to Broadway.” It ran for six weeks or so in New York. I got to do the musical She Loves Me with Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick because somebody had seen The Warm Peninsula and said that I was the right person to write the libretto (or the book) for their next musical.
We had almost finished writing She Loves Me when we found out the producer didn’t have the rights; he thought he did, but he didn’t. So Bock and Harnick suggested we ask Hal Prince. He was brought in as producer and director for She Loves Me, and it worked out very well.
JM: I’m sure it was the movie because it’s the movie I had loved. I still do. In my opinion, the movie is much superior to the play. All in all, the movie is the work of Lubitsch, and he’s a really fine director…you feel his genius all over it. There’s a humanizing touch that the play doesn’t have. It’s a lovely movie.
TS: Lubitsch made so many movies at that time that are funny, make a point, and have heart. He was really very clever.
JM: And the people in his films all seem real somehow. I thought Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan were just about perfect in The Shop Around the Corner.
TS: Will you tell our readers about working with Bock and Harnick? What was that like?
JM: The interesting thing about working with Hal Prince is that he kept the writers and the musical people separate. He met with them separately. I was always aware of the fact that he and the musical people were having meeting after meeting. So I hardly knew the composer and the lyricist, and it was very much the same thing on Cabaret. Hal felt that he needed to be in control of the whole thing. And that the writers were going to get together and argue.
TS: Did you basically hand over the libretto and let them decide where the songs were, or were you pretty clear about where you thought the songs should be?
JM: I think it was a combination of both. If I wrote something and thought something should be made into a song, then I would certainly mention it to them. And I would always mention it to Hal.
TS: In She Loves Me, a man and a woman are more or less at odds as co-workers but are secretly in love with each other as pen pals. The story has been told in three different movie versions and, of course, your musical. Do you have a sense of why that story is so popular?
JM: I have no idea, except when I watch the movie, there’s something charming about the story – it pulls you in. It’s like It’s A Wonderful Life -- it seems simple, but there is a deeper meaning. It’s meaningful when Amalia and Georg finally get together -- the audience is ahead of them and is very happy about it when they finally realize what is going on.
TS: Do you like The Shop Around the Corner better than In the Good Old Summertime, the Judy Garland version, where they added songs? Have you ever watched that version?
JM: I have. That is the version that they set in a music shop, and I don’t like that very much. I don’t like the next version at all.
TS: So for you, the further away it got from the source material, the less effective it was?
JM: In my opinion, yes.
TS: When you wrote characters like Amalia and Georg, did you relate to them emotionally? Do you put yourself inside their hearts, in order to write them?
JM: I think no matter the importance of the characters in a show, it’s important that you can feel something for all of them. Even the evil ones. You have to ask yourself, “What would they say at this point?” -- and then you’ve got to turn yourself into them.
TS: Do you have a favorite character?
JM: Yes, my favorite character is the one that Felix Bressart plays in the film -- Pirovitch. In the musical he’s called Sipos. He’s one of the co-workers at the shop. He’s Georg’s friend and confidant. Pirovitch is the one in the movie who, the first time you see him, he’s worried because his wife is sick, and in time she calls and she’s feeling better and he runs to tell the doctor not to come!
TS: Was it very daring to do a small-scale musical in 1963? Everything had big choruses at that time on Broadway, and this was intimate. Was that something you all talked about, or was that not important to you?
JM: I don’t remember talking about the scale of the show at the time – we were just trying to tell the story in the best way possible. I didn’t hear too many questions about the intimacy of the piece.
TS: Can you talk to me a little bit about the revival of She Loves Me that Scott Ellis directed in 1993? You were around for that, I would imagine.
JM: It was a very good production. Historically, She Loves Me gets fabulous reviews whenever it plays. It does well, but it is never a smash. It’s never been a huge success, even at Roundabout.
TS: Do you have a theory about why that is?
JM: It just never is – it is a quiet love story – it doesn’t have a lot of spectacle -- maybe that’s the reason.
TS: When I watched Scott’s 1993 revival at the New York Public Library, I realized the audience was rooting for the two leads to get together. I think that’s part of the journey for the audience. If you don’t know the story, you’re hoping that they’ll connect. And even if you do know the story, you want them to get together.
JM: That’s true. It’s a lovely story, and it should be a big hit. I can’t tell you how many reviews I’ve read from productions all over the states and from Europe in which the reviewer called She Loves Me, “One of the finest musicals ever written.” They’re wild about it, but the audience doesn’t see it that way. They will say something like, “Oh, that’s cute” or “That’s sweet.”
TS: Do you have a sense of what attributes the performers need in order to excel in this piece?
JM: It’s a cast of people who have to look the part. It has parts for a lot of different types of performers. Very good-looking people and not-so-good-looking people. Old people, young people. It requires quite an interesting mix of talent and types.
TS: Have you ever been to Budapest, where the musical is set?
TS: Was that part of your research, or was that after you wrote the show?
JM: It was after. At that point, Julie Andrews was supposed to make a movie version of She Loves Me.
TS: I read about that. Andrews was busy doing something else at the time, I think.
JM: She did a movie that bombed and, unfortunately, the movie version of She Loves Me collapsed. But meanwhile they offered to send me to Budapest for a week to look around. I went with a friend, and I loved it. We were there in the summertime. It’s a lovely city, and people were very nice. The trip turned out to be pointless because the whole project ended.
TS: In closing, I just wanted to thank you for allowing Roundabout to produce your two musicals - they have been very successful for us! It’s really appreciated.
JM: It’s interesting because I had no connection to Roundabout, but then everything took off with the revival of Cabaret. I’m so glad Todd was interested in doing it -- it always seemed like a great project for Roundabout to me.
I was sent to London to see the production because Fred Ebb had already been there and hadn’t liked it. I remember when I got to the Donmar, I didn’t see Sam Mendes -- his secretary told me that he was busy that night and that he would call me the next day. The next morning Sam called and said, “What did you think of it?” and I said, “I loved it.” He said, “You did? Let’s have lunch!”
The Donmar was waiting for somebody to move the show to a larger theatre. Nobody ever did. Very strange. But, yes, both my successful musicals, Cabaret and She Loves Me, have found new life at Roundabout. It’s been a terrific opportunity for new audiences to experience these two stories I wrote a long time ago.
She Loves Me begins performances on February 19 at Studio 54. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2015-2016 Season, A Conversation with, Education @ Roundabout, She Loves Me, Upstage