Ted Sod: Your father, Moss Hart, was a distinguished playwright/screenwriter/director/producer who died when you were 12. You are a director and a producer as well. What have you learned about working in the theatre from him or his legacy?
Christopher Hart: As a young man with celebrity parents I yearned to ignore my heritage (or, more precisely, have other people ignore my famous parents) and “make it” in my chosen career entirely on my own merit (which of course never happens, you’re always found out). After I got over that delusion, I had the good fortune to direct my first professional production with one of my Dad’s masterpieces, The Man Who Came To Dinner. What it taught me was how beautifully the Kaufman and Hart plays are constructed: with economy, and wit, and warmth, and a sensibility, and heart/Hart that appeals to every stripe of theatregoers. It was a gift that can’t be underestimated.
TS: You Can’t Take It with You, which he co-wrote with frequent collaborator George S. Kaufman, had a run of over 800 performances on Broadway in 1936-38. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A film version was directed by Frank Capra in 1938. It is constantly produced by theatres all over the world. Why do you think the play has been so successful?
CH: There have been two previous Broadway revivals: one in 1962, when Ellis Rabb directed the Association of Producing Artist’s production with Rosemary Harris playing Alice, and then again in 1982-83, when Rabb directed Jason Robards playing Grandpa. That revival ran almost two years. The Capra movie, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1938, was a completely different animal from the Kaufman and Hart play. Capra, using the same characters, turned it into one of his populist political potboilers about the corporate evil-doers trying to take advantage of the little guy. His movie was really more about Mr. Kirby and his relationship with his son than about Grandpa Vanderhof and his family of eccentrics, who’ve found the secret of enjoying the simple pleasures in life. You Can’t Take It With You, the play, was written in the Depression and has a lot to say about our current travails left by our “Great Recession.” The success of the play rests with the universality of the themes of familial love and the idea that riches don’t buy happiness.
TS: Is the portrait of the working relationship between your father and Mr. Kaufman accurate in your father’s best-selling autobiography, Act One?
CH: If you missed the play—adapted and directed by James Lapine—of my Dad’s autobiography, go see the movie, which will be in theatres soon. It stars Tony Shalhoub (as both Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman), Santino Fontana, and Andrea Martin. It’s part of the Live from Lincoln Center series and will be on PBS television soon. After watching the play, you’ll want to read the book, the best theatre autobiography ever written.
TS: What are the challenges of producing and directing You Can’t Take It With You? How difficult a play is it to cast?
CH: Not difficult at all. What makes You Can’t Take It With You so popular and a perennial favorite with student and amateur productions (it continues to be one of the top 10 best-selling plays year after year) is the breadth of characters and personalities on display: in age, race, gender, social status, a true cross section of society when the play was written and also true today in terms of the reality of the humanity on display.
TS: Were any of the characters in You Can’t Take It With You based on real life prototypes?
CH: As far as I know, no one in the Kaufman or Hart clan was the basis for anyone in the play. I think we all wish we had a Grandpa, Penny, and Mr. De Pinna in our families.
TS: The current Broadway revival will be directed by Scott Ellis with James Earl Jones starring as Martin Vanderhof/Grandpa. Where did the idea of color-blind casting come from?
CH: A couple of years ago my friend and business partner Jeffrey Richards was doing the Gore Vidal play, The Best Man, starring James Earl Jones. I asked Jeffrey out to lunch and asked him what he thought of James playing Grandpa in You Can’t Take It With You. Jeffrey thought it was a fabulous idea and so did James.
TS: Do you personally relate to any of the characters in the play and, if so, which ones and why?
CH:As a younger person I think I thought of myself as a Tony, struggling with the legacy of my famous parents. As a grown younger person (I’m 66), I think I identify with Alice, who sees both sides of the play’s problem and struggles the hardest to deal with both her love of Tony and her love of her family.
TS: How do contemporary audiences relate to your father’s play? What do you feel resonates for people when they see a modern production?
CH: Even though the play was written a long time ago, the characters seem modern and their struggles to make ends meet and to “have a little fun along the way” have a very contemporary feel. The similarity between the The Great Depression and The Great Recession—as well as the gulf between the super-rich and the ordinary Joe—still rings a bell. One of the things this production accentuates is how beautifully Grandpa and his family accept all kinds of people—rich or poor, black or white—and the best thing that can happen to you is to be part of a loving family.
You Can't Take It With You is a Roundabout co-production. Previews begin August 26 and tickets are available through the official website.
2014-2015 Season, You Can't Take It With You