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Fall 2007 | Doug Wright

Fall 2007 | Doug Wright

A Tony Winner's Heart-to-Heart on Mermaids, Cross-dressers, and His Major Hotel Fetish.

Doug Wright's book for Grey Gardens claimed one of the Broadway musical's 11 Tony nominations in May. It's an adaptation of the 1975 documentary about octogenarian Edith Bouvier Beale and her middle-aged daughter, "Little Edie," uproariously eccentric relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.

Opening in December is the stage adaptation of Disney's The Little Mermaid, for which Wright also wrote the book. Both musicals follow his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning I Am My Own Wife, which was inspired by transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf's life stories and was the most-produced play of 2006 in the United States.

It's also been performed worldwide in Buenos Aires, Caracas, Dublin, London, Oslo, Stockholm, Budapest, Bucharest, Sydney, Melbourne, and Harare, Zimbabwe. Even in places where homosexuality still is not discussed openly, overt backlash against the play has not been as strong as Wright anticipated.

In fact, the Romanian press gave the play an award for bringing to light issues that had been unmentionable and bringing heightened sensitivity to forbidden topics. "Frankly," Wright quips, "I was less surprised to see it was being performed in Budapest than I was to see it was being performed in Salt Lake City." Randy B. Hecht chatted with the out playwright about his travels around the globe, which began with his confession that he has "a major hotel fetish":

Well, we've got to know more about that!
For a long time, as a starving author, I was living in a grim little garret on West 15th Street in Manhattan. So any time I got called away on business, particularly by a film studio, I was always put in a hotel room that far exceeded the creature comforts of my own home. So I kind of fell in love with hotel living. Sometimes I'll even travel to a city just because a hotel there is rumored to be fantastic.

Is it all about hotel hedonism?
Traveling to some cities like Bucharest or Prague, it's not just my fatal affection for high-class hotels that makes me book upscale. I have found in cities like that, that are perhaps less progressive, the more expensive the hotel, the less they are inclined to ask questions about why I want a king-size bed with my partner. In fact, my play got performed in Bucharest, Romania, fairly often. There was one hotel there that was sometimes less than understanding, and when I came back most recently, the theater proudly notified me that they'd booked the wedding suite, no questions asked.

Has it been difficult to navigate the leap in scriptwriting from Charlotte [the transvestite] to Ariel [the mermaid]?
I've always had an interest in the fantastic and in alternative worlds, and Ursula the sea witch fits right in with my gallery of characters. In fact, when the animators were developing the character Ursula, they used the wonderful alternative performer Divine as a model for some of the animation. The film has real theatrical pedigree, so I feel like I fit right in, believe it or not. And my mother said, "Thank God you're finally writing something your nephews can come and see."

Rumors abound that Hans Christian Andersen, author of the story on which The Little Mermaid is based, was gay. What do you think?
It wouldn't surprise me at all. He writes with great sensitivity and empathy -- hallmarks of gay writers. That said, I don't know the biographical facts. And I'd hate to invite the same cultural critics who label the Teletubbies gay and decry Happy Feet. to work their paranoid interpretive magic on The Little Mermaid. Certainly, it's the story of a fish out of water. Ariel longs to live in a different world than the one in which she's born. I can relate to that. After all, I was a furtive kid in Texas with grand dreams of one day moving to New York City!"

Now that you're traveling widely, what differences in other cultures have especially impressed you?
My partner, David, and I are newly back from Tokyo. One thing that I absolutely loved about going to Japan was, [except] for any superficial similarities like skyscrapers and neon lights, there was a profound cultural difference, and that was the complete absence of Judeo-Christian tradition, and we were both very moved by that. One night we went into this little funky gay bar that had about eight seats, and all of the occupants were staring rapt at this little video monitor. And on it I could see Japanese actors dressed like poker players around a card table, and a tattered little curtain, and on the other side of the curtain, this Japanese actress in an auburn wig with her hands fluttering wildly about her face. And I said, 'Oh, my God. That is a Japanese movie of A Streetcar Named Desire.' And sure enough it was, and all the gay men at the counter were imitating Blanche, doing their best Southern accents and saying, "We've always depended on the kindness of strangers." And I thought, My God -- Judeo-Christian culture is not universal, but gay culture somehow is. We all speak the same language, and we all know our Tennessee Williams. To travel to a place that distant, where the culture is that unfamiliar and where the underlying precepts and theologies are so different from our own, and to see that Tennessee Williams was a constant, something we shared, was viscerally thrilling.

Did that make you more aware of the potential you have to do the same thing with your work in cultures far from your own?
He was an absolute giant, so I don't know that I can ever even entertain fantasies at that level. But it certainly made me think with renewed pride about the journey that I Am My Own Wife has taken. We think of the theater as a rarified medium. It doesn't have the cultural impact of television or film. And yet in its own quiet way, I think it can precipitate remarkable change and increased tolerance.

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