Alfred Uhry: Do the arts, if you must

by Simon de Carvalho '14

Only a handful of writers in history have the honor of winning an Academy Award, a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. One of those writers is Alfred Uhry, who won the Pulitzer for his 1987 play Driving Miss Daisy, an Oscar for penning its 1989 film adaptation and two Tony Awards for The Last Night of Ballyhoo in 1996 and Parade in 1998, the latter of which was performed at Harvard in 2011.Uhry will be visiting Harvard this week, stopping by a seminar on American musicals taught by Professor Carol Oja (joined in class by his Parade writing partner and long-term friend Jason Robert Brown), and will be featured in a Learning From Performers discussion moderated by English professor Derek Miller, 4 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12 at Farkas Hall Studio. Admission is free. I spoke with Uhry about his career and some of the lessons he has learned in his long life of writing.

How did you get your start with writing plays?

It was just always with me, going back to high school—maybe even grammar school. I don’t know; I just always wanted to do it, so I always did it! I would read books and things and turn them into plays, all the way back in grammar school. And I don’t know why I picked plays specifically—I think just because I could do it! There’s not much to it.

How did the collaboration with Jason Robert Brown for Parade come about?

I knew Hal Prince for a long time, and we had been talking about my play The Last Night of Ballyhoo, which is about Jews in Atlanta, and he said, "Why do you think the Jews in Atlanta were so desperate to assimilate the way that you have them written?" And I said that’s probably because of the Leo Frank case. And he said, "I sort of know about it, but tell me the rough of it." And I did. And I remember he said, that’s a musical. And I thought, "Oh my god, he’s right." And it was always something I had cared deeply about because my mother’s uncle owned the factory where the murder happened. Hal said I think Steve Sondheim should do it, but he had just come off of writing Passion and didn’t want to do another show that heavy. So Hal’s daughter had been working with this young guy, and she said we ought to see him. I met Jason, and we talked for a long time – months – about the South and Atlanta and what it all meant to me, and he didn’t write anything, didn’t write anything, and then one day he called me and played me Old Red Hills of Home, and I was just knocked out. He was that good. And we went from there.

As someone who is primarily a playwright, what are the challenges of writing a book to a musical?

Before I was a playwright I was a lyricist. I think lyricist is sort of a silly word. But anyway I wrote lyrics, and I would write the books along with them, but I came to realize I was more interested in writing the dialogue. So my first experience was really with writing the books to musicals. I always liked musicals. I was a big student of the musicals of my youth: Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe. And I enjoy being around musicals. I think the difference is you don’t have to do as much work in a musical. It’s only a third of the work. But you do get to lay out the architecture, which I enjoy. And I just like the world of musicals. I also like the world of plays, obviously, but musicals are a little more fun, really. Even something as heavy as Parade was just an enormous amount of fun to work with.

How did you deal with going from great successes with Driving Miss Daisy and Last Night of Ballyhoo to the more muted success of Parade?

Well, hey, Parade also won a couple of Tony’s. But I’ve just learned to tune the critics out. I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve written than Parade. So I don’t put a lot of store by critics, personally. I think for writers, that’s a real danger zone. I mean, Miss Daisy didn’t get a very good review in the times either. But the more I work, the more I realize that’s not what I’m here for.

Do you have a writing routine that you follow when you’re writing?

I have an office in my home, and I get in here in the morning and I usually don’t get anything done, but I try every day. I had horrible working habits when I was in college, and I would save everything until the night before and stay up all night and turn the paper in at the last minute. I’m afraid I still do that. If I have a month before something gets handed in I just can’t get it up until two days before. It’s ridiculous, the hoops that you put yourself through. But it seems like it’s just part of the deal. I guess I work best under pressure. Athletes work best under pressure. Maybe the adrenaline does something.

What do you hope people take away from your talk on Wednesday?

If they’re writers or in the arts in some way, I just want them to know that my story is, basically, dig into your self and write things that mean something to you, if you can. When you’re starting out sometimes, particularly in theater or film or television, you have to do the jobs that you’re handed, but the more you can really dig into it the better it is. The other thing that’s really important is: If you don’t have to do this, for heaven’s sake, don’t do it. If you can make yourself really happy doing something else, do something else. But if you need to do this, find a way to do it. There’s this quote from King Lear that keeps coming back to me, especially with the death of Phil Hoffman. It’s: "The art of our necessities is strange." You kind of find a way to do what you have to do. I found a way. You can, too.

[Caption: Alfred Uhry]

[Caption: Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy were in the Oscar-winning film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Driving Miss Daisy."]