RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When you talk with artists about their career paths, many of them will tell you they could not possibly imagine doing anything else. But it does help to get some public reinforcement every once in a while. Tonight, in the world of theater, the ultimate pat on the back, the 69th annual Tony Awards. As NPR's Jeff Lunden reports, the night could make winners of longtime theater veterans and Broadway newcomers, including one playwright who may not have wanted to do anything else in his life but is still hanging on to his day job.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Can I get a glass of water when you get a second?
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: It's a quiet afternoon at the Tex-Mex restaurant in Brooklyn where playwright Robert Askins works the day shift twice a week, even though his play, "Hand To God," is on Broadway, and he's got a Tony nomination.
ROBERT ASKINS: When you day-bar, during the weekdays you're the only one in the restaurant. So you run the food and make the drinks and wait on the tables. And it's good.
LUNDEN: Askins says he enjoys interacting with the regulars, most of whom know about his other job. His play, "Hand To God," takes place in a church basement in suburban Texas, where a recently widowed mother and her troubled son are involved in a Christian puppet ministry. The shy boy has created a sock puppet that seems to have a life of its own.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "HAND TO GOD")
STEVEN BOYER: (As puppet, Tyrone) You try so much as to take me off your hand, next time you wake up, it'll be with me stapled to your arm.
(As Jason) You wouldn't do that.
(As puppet, Tyrone) Oh, yeah? Yeah, you look me in the eye. See if you believe that.
LUNDEN: Playwright Robert Askins grew up in Texas and says it took him a long time to write about home. He finally realized it didn't have to be the stereotypical West.
ASKINS: 'Cause now Texas is less cowboys and more Wal-Mart, right? It's no longer about selling farm. It's about the weird things that we're doing at the end of the cul-de-sac. And that's what's fascinating. You don't have to be beholden to the past, but you have to acknowledge the tradition that you exist in.
LUNDEN: Now that Askins has tasted Broadway success, you might think he'd give up his day job. But having lived in New York for 10 years and barely made a penny from his plays until very recently, he says he's still going to tend bar.
ASKINS: They're not all going to be out-of-the-park home runs. Some are going to be singles (laughter). Do you know what I mean? It's a marathon, not a sprint. It's the arch of a career.
LUNDEN: Askins speaks from experience. He's had numerous plays done at smaller theaters. But the writers of the Tony-nominated musical "Something Rotten" are making their professional theatrical debuts. Louisiana-born brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick have had successful careers in other fields. Karey's written screenplays for Disney, and Wayne has composed song hits for Amy Grant and Garth Brooks. Wayne says they've had their eyes on Broadway ever since they did musicals in high school.
WAYNE KIRKPATRICK: Even back then we always talked about wanting to write a musical. And we always say just our other careers got in the way.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LUNDEN: What the Kirkpatrick brothers, along with English screenwriter John O'Farrell, have come up with is a comic meta-musical set in Shakespeare's time.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SOMETHING ROTTEN")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Welcome to the Renaissance, with poets, painters and bon vivants.
LUNDEN: Two struggling playwrights who are brothers are looking for that one good idea which will make them as popular as the Bard. Karey Kirkpatrick says he and his brother thought it would be funny to play with theater history.
KAREY KIRKPATRICK: We always had this idea that someone went to a soothsayer to predict the future of theater, and the soothsayers said, musicals.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SOMETHING ROTTEN")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What the hell are musicals?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) It appears to be a play where the dialogue stops, and the plot is conveyed through song.
LUNDEN: "Something Rotten's" third collaborator, John O'Farrell, is also a veteran writer outside Broadway. He co-authored the film "Chicken Run" with Karey Kirkpatrick. But he says it's a thrill to be on Broadway.
JOHN O'FARRELL: Even though we are debutantes, we're gray-haired, balding debutantes.
LUNDEN: This is not the first Tony nomination for 88-year-old composer John Kander.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE VISIT SCORE")
LUNDEN: The score for "The Visit" is his 12th nomination with his late writing partner, Fred Ebb. They wrote the Tony-winning shows "Cabaret" and "Chicago." But their first was a flop. And Kander says anyone writing for Broadway needs to take the long view.
JOHN KANDER: I really love the theater. I truly do, everything about it. I love writing. I love the rehearsal room. I love working with audiences until you make sure they understand. This part I hate, the idea that suddenly, we're all put in a little sandbox where we're supposed to be very competitive with each other. And these are your friends. The awful part of it is that it doesn't make you not want it, if there's going to be an award up there. Anyway, it affects us in terms of our business. It doesn't affect the piece. So I guess I'm an outsider when it comes to giving advice on this, except to try as hard as you can not to think about it and to really write what you want to write.
LUNDEN: And each of the Tony-nominated writers, including John Kander, have future projects already in the works. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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