RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This morning we're looking back at a Brooklyn boy who grew up in poverty in a Yiddish speaking household. He never went to college, but he went on to bring the finest writer in the English language to the masses. Joseph Papp discovered Shakespeare as a teenager, and after years of working in small theaters in the 1950s, he managed to bring free Shakespeare to Central Park. By the �60s, Papp was able to buy a building, home to what he called the Public Theater. The Public's first hit, the musical �Hair� and then a few years later, this:
(Soundbite of song from �A Chorus Line�)
Unidentified Group #1: (Singing) One, singular sensation, every little step she takes. One, thrilling combination, every move that she makes.
MONTAGNE: The story behind �A Chorus Line� is one of many in an oral history told my actors and playwrights who worked with Joe Papp and compiled by our own Kenneth Turan.
Turan took on the project more than 20 years ago, just before Papp died. The book is out now, with the help of Papp's widow and collaborator Gail Merrifield Papp. They joined us for a look back.
KENNETH TURAN: Joe really believed that Shakespeare would kind of almost save everybody. You know, it had kind of saved him as a boy and he really believed that everyone, if they had the opportunity to be exposed to Shakespeare, would love it. And in fact Shakespeare in the Park, which we have now, really came out of something called the mobile theater where Joe would put props on a truck and drive it around the city to different parks in different neighborhoods, set up bleachers, and invite the neighborhood people to come and watch the plays. And they loved the plays.
Ms. GAIL MERRIFIELD PAPP: And the driving idea behind the Shakespeare that Joe produced was that it should be free. That was considered rather radical and somewhat socialistic in the '50s, but that gave him a tremendous connection with a city-wide audience.
MONTAGNE: Let me ask you, how did Joseph Papp get from the New York Shakespeare Festival, more or less in the park, to founding what would become a permanent home for contemporary works as well, the Public Theater?
TURAN: Well, I mean, he wanted to do contemporary plays. He started to feel that as much as he loved Shakespeare that he wanted to do contemporary plays as well and he really felt that they would feed each other, that, you know, the contemporary plays would reflect on Shakespeare and Shakespeare would reflect on the contemporary plays. So he started to feel, well, if I want to do this, I have to have a place, I have to have a theater. And he started looking for a building and that's how the ball got rolling.
MONTAGNE: And he started out with a play that would become a huge success and that was the musical �Hair.� And why don't we play a little bit of it to get in the mood?
(Soundbite of �Age of Aquarius� performed in �Hair�)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars. Then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars. This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius�
TURAN: Well, you know, the story of �Hair� is such a classic story because all his people thought he was nuts. A tribal love musical, what is this? But he saw something. I mean that was his great vision as a producer. He just saw things that were going to work.
MONTAGNE: And he was in his - he was grabbing a hold of the moment.
MONTAGNE: 'Cause this was what year?
Ms. PAPP: '67 when�
Ms. PAPP: �the original production has some professional actors in it, but a lot of it was cast right off the street in the village which was then the center of hippie life. So a lot of the people in it originally were very authentic characters in their own right.
MONTAGNE: Ken, you write that Joseph Papp had towering disputes, that's your language, with pretty much everyone he worked with and then, as you write, almost everyone ended up doing their best work for him. What was the dynamic there?
TURAN: Yeah, I mean it's fascinating. I mean, one of the anecdotes that I like best in the book is a playwright was at a party and Joe came up to talk to him. And the last time they had spoken they had had a huge fight. And the playwright says, you know, Joe, why are you talking to me? We had this huge fight. And Joe basically says, well, if I wasn't talking to people I'd had fights with, I wouldn't have anyone to talk to. This was kind of the nature of his passion. Joe believed so deeply in his ideas of theater that he both inspired people and made people crazy if you weren't on his wavelength.
MONTAGNE: One common thread that you've suggested, Gail Merrifield Papp, throughout his career was his desire to search out and nurture new talent. You know, I mean some of the names that he helped get started are quite stunning: David Mamet, Sam Shepard, George C. Scott, Meryl Streep, Raul Julia, I mean, the list goes on.
Ms. PAPP: Yes, yes, he was connected with many people early on in their careers. He had an uncanny gift for recognizing talent when it was still raw. He saw things in people and tried to create these opportunities for them to realize their talent.
TURAN: Yeah, no, I mean one of the stories I remember is Martin Sheen, who�
Ms. PAPP: Yeah.
TURAN: �you know, Joe really not only recognized his talent, he kept after him. And there's this wonderful story that Marty Sheen tells in the book, where he's working at a gas station under his real name, which is not Martin Sheen, and you know, the boss comes up to him one day and says, do you sometimes go by Martin Sheen? And he says, yes. He said, oh, you got a call from a man named Joe Papp. And, you know, this was the start of his career.
MONTAGNE: When the theater got into the '70s the next big - and I think it must really big the biggest play that ever came out of the Public -was �A Chorus Line.� How did that start?
TURAN: Well, I mean one of the key things about �A Chorus Line� was again, Joe's connection to a person whose talent that he connected to, which was Michael Bennett, who was the director and who had this idea, you know - it was kind of unformed and he needed time and space and money to workshop it. And Joe met with him and said, okay, you know, you can come to our theater and you can work on this for as long as it takes �til there's a play.
MONTAGNE: When you say unformed, I mean, so here's this idea and what is it? Is it we want to get together a bunch of people in the chorus�
MONTAGNE: �not famous people, but in the chorus, and they're - each one is going to have a story.
TURAN: Well, I mean it started famously with dancers sitting around in Michael Bennett's apartment all night, with, you know, bottles of wine, and just telling their stories. You know, just talking into a tape recorder. But I mean, the play didn't write itself, even though that's kind of the common mythology. It had to be worked on and all this took time and people had to be paid while this was done. And Joe said, you know, just do it. I mean they didn't know that it'd be this huge thing. I mean this could have been a flop.
MONTAGNE: It was anything but. �A Chorus Line� was so successful it moved to Broadway and went on to break the record for the longest running show in Broadway history.
(Soundbite of song from �A Chorus Line�)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) �and a voice from down at the bottom of my soul came up to the top of my head. And a voice from down at the bottom of my soul, here is what it said.
MONTAGNE: Kenneth Turan is joined by Gail Merrifield Papp. The newly published oral history is �Free for All: Joe Papp, the Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told.�
Unidentified Woman (Singing)�and when you find one, you'll be a�
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.