With every interview I do, I keep waiting for the one that will not live up to my
expectations or leave me uninspired. It is certainly not the one that you are about to read. In
the middle of her busy schedule, Nan Knighton took the time to speak with me. I thank her for
her time, her wisdom and the gift of talent. She is witty and speaks frankly about her struggle
to success in the theater and as a woman.
KS: Are you happy?
NK: Yes. When I go to the theatre, I'm euphoric. It's amazing to see your work come to life,
and to stand there, hearing the audience laugh.
KS: Was the experience a positive one?
NK: Mostly positive, yes. Always fascinating. And educational. I certainly am not as naive
about this process as I was in the beginning. But even at the low points, there were still those
stretches of euphoria.
KS: Even after the reviews?
NK: Well, the reviews did not make me happy. I guess that was the juncture at which I lost
most of my naivete. I was totally unprepared for viciousness. I truly expected we'd get good
write-ups. And we did get some great ones, particularly from people like Jeffrey Lyons, Larry
King, Liz Smith, Art Buchwald, Kathy Lee and Regis- you know, people seem to love this show,
even if some critics had problems.
KS: Do you think that negative reviews impact a play?
NK: Yes and no. I don't mean my answer to be vague, but both are true. Negative reviews
influence the initial public impression, and that can hurt a lot, but if the audience comes
despite the reviews and enjoys the show and spreads the world, then gradually the impact of bad
reviews fade away.
KS: Recently Larry King addressed the issue of critics. He feels that besides reporting
their own experience, the critics should also present the audience's reaction. Do you agree?
NK: Absolutely. For example, I admire what New York Magazine has done. Their regular reviewer
didn't like us, but their blurb describing us in the theatrical listings is unbiased- it just
says we're a fun, swashbuckling romance and adventure. To me that's fair - it steers people
toward a genre they might like. I do think this industry often shoots itself in the foot,
letting critics chase potential audiences away from a show that has popular appeal. I agree
with Larry - there should be a way to let people know, "Hey, audiences adore this thing." People
have a right to know that.
KS: The Scarlet Pimpernel audience has seemed to defy the negative critiques.
NK: From the beginning, we've been described as "audience-friendly." It's wonderful to see
all these people leaping to their feet in the curtain calls.
KS: Do you believe people will avoid a production based on reviews?
NK: Sure. I've done it, especially with movies. It's too bad. Unless you know for a fact
that your taste and sensibilities are identical to those of a certain reviewer, it's nuts to
avoid or support a show based solely on his or her write-up. Art can't thrive unless audiences
are willing to experiment as much as artists.
KS: How much impact did the producers of The Scarlet Pimpernel have on the
NK: We've been blessed in that area. Our producers are phenomenal-gusty, inventive,
committed and great human beings. When the reviews came in, most producers would have thrown up
their hands and closed the show. After all, the Minskoff is a big house and that makes it
harder to recover from negative notices.
KS: And did they?
NK: Just the opposite. They believe in the show. Bill Haber comes to the theatre 3-4 times a
week and sits in the back of the house and sees audiences loving it, and his commitment just
seems to strengthen. He'd like it to run for years. He's terrific. Our producers are largely
responsible for my first Broadway experience being so positive.
KS: Do you read your reviews?
NK: I used to think people who said, "Oh, I never read my reviews" were lying. Now I
understand. After opening night, I started to read a few and my heart was torn out. You just
physically can't keep reading. Now I've asked them to only send me copies of good reviews.
KS: Do reviews scare off potential talent from the business?
NK: I guess the really brave artists (or the blind ones) just plunge in, no matter what. But
there are a lot of artists out there who aren't quite so thick-skinned, and many of them may be
scared to throw their hats in the ring. It's like politics today. How many talented people are
being driven away because of fear? You know, it's not a lot of fun to get your heart torn out.
And when we drive talent away, we're all losers.
KS: Let's talk about the Tonys.
NK: Oh, the Tonys! Okay. Naturally, if you get a nomination or win an award, it's great and
it's going to help. But it's all fairly quirky. After a few years, the average film or
theatre-goer won't remember who won or lost, but rather they'll remember the big shows, the ones
they killed. And look at Titanic. They had a critical response similar to ours- your
basic tear-the-heart-out reviews, Then they won the Tony for best musical and the rest is
history. Huge hit. It's certainly true that national exposure on the Tonys is extremely
valuable to a show.
KS: I guess it works the other way, too. Jekyll & Hyde had no exposure and yet is
also a success.
NK: The theatre is a bizarre world of shifting perspectives. People who were comforting me in
November are now congratulating me.
KS: Is the future of the New York Theatre solid?
NK: You know, for so many years everybody talked about how the theatre was dying, how it was
going to become a rarefied art form like the Opera. That's just not going to happen. Theatre's
been with us since the ancient Greeks. It's not going anywhere, and it's stronger than ever.
Keep in mind, also, that New York in general is booming. One of the main reasons tourists come
to New York is to see a show. This is the most exciting theatrical community in the world.
KS: Are there more attempts to reach the younger population?
NK: Yes, and I think it's working, and that's wonderful. When I go on the internet, the
Playbill On-Line message board, most of the messages are written by teenagers, high school
students who have fallen in love with our show or some other show, and they're so wildly
enthusiastic. The Theatre Development Fund also sponsors great school programs, and every
Tuesday in February, kids under 18 can attend Broadway shows free, if accompanied by a paying
KS: Has The Scarlet Pimpernel done anything special for youth?
NK: During previews, we had groups of school kids come to Wednesday matinees. After the show,
they'd stay to ask the actors questions, and that's fun all around. Sometimes it's the first
show they've ever seen, and oh, the look in their eyes-like their lives have just turned around
KS: Let's discuss your cast.
NK: Fabulous, the best.
KS: I know your search was long. What were you looking for?
NK: Talent, obviously, but it was also vital to us to cast good human beings, people we
wanted to be around for a long time. We've been truly blessed with this cast.
KS: Have any of them fallen short?
NK: Quite the opposite. They constantly amaze me.
KS: Could you educate our readers on the difference between a book and a book script in
NK: In the musical theatre, the script (all the dialogue) is referred to as "the book."
Baroness Orczy wrote the original novel of The Scarlet Pimpernel. If I'd adapted if for
the stage without music, we'd call it a play. Having adapted it with music, a script is called
KS: Is it easier to take an already written piece and adapt it to a musical or to write an
NK: For me, adaptation is easier, if not quite as exciting. It's like a gigantic jigsaw
puzzle, where your already have all the pieces and you've just got to figure out how to piece
them together. When you write an original show, you're sitting there in open space with a
million different choices. It's much more daunting.
KS: How much license do you have in changing a piece?
NK: If you own the rights, then you have quite a lot of license, and I did make a lot of
changes. For example, in Orczy's novel, Percy is the Pimpernel from the beginning. I thought it
would be more theatrical to show how and why he became the Pimpernel. I also wanted to really
capitalize on the fact that Marguerite is an actress, and to emotionally flesh out Chauvelin,
our villain. But no matter how many changes you make, your basic parameters are there in an
adaptation. With an original, you have to create from scratch your own jigsaw pieces and your
own boundaries. I'm just now getting ready to do a second draft of the original musical Open
House, and I've narrowed it down to 20 different ways of approaching it.
KS: Is writing something that can be taught or do you have to have a natural ability?
NK: Well, I do think you're either born with a natural ability to write, or you're not.
Having said that, I think you can truly enhance that ability by studying with great writers. I
studied with John Barth, the novelist, in graduate school, and really grew as a writer. I also
studied with the poet Anne Sexton. Craig Lucas, the playwright, was in my class. Anne was an
amazing influence. I really found my 'voice' as a writer while studying with her, and my writing
also sharpened so much via exposure to other writers in the class. So, yes, studying can improve
your talent, but something must already be within.
KS: Is there an age limit on creativity?
NK: Oh no! My own mother is 82 and still paints and teaches. And there are innumerable
instances of artists whose talents didn't even spring up till very late in life. Grandma Moses
is the prime example there. So much depends on where you are in life. Many people, because of
family obligations, jobs, financial constrictions, or even fear or lack of confidence, have been
unable to test the waters and explore their talents. Suddenly a door opens. Something happens to
change their path in life and BOOM- they start harvesting that inner potential that's always
KS: What inspires you to write? Do you pull from personal experiences?
NK: The times in my life that have been difficult, sad or frustrating, have a strange way of
paying off later in my writing. It's like sense memory, if I'm sitting down to write an
emotional song or a scene, I try always to pull from something I've genuinely felt. It's a
mistake for me to try to write something without feeling the emotion. If you do that, it's just
empty, pretty words, and the end result does not ring true to the audience or reader. People
know instinctively whether you're writing from honest gut emotion, or from glib, synthetic
greeting card sentiment. I think that makes all the difference in the world as to whether or not
a song touches someone.
KS: What is your favorite subject matter in writing?
NK: I love it all, but I have the most fun writing comedy. I guess I'm just predisposed to
have fun, and, hopefully, to make people laugh.
KS: What about "Falcon in the Dive" from The Scarlet Pimpernel?
NK: Well, that one's certainly not a "fun" song-it's a pretty wild one, and one that does
draw from my own emotions, particularly feelings of pushing forward against the odds. I didn't
want Chauvelin to be a typical villain. I wanted him to be psychologically complex, and I
decided one of the things I wanted to use was his age. He's getting older but he's fighting it.
He's revving himself up to survive, to be just as strong as he once was. Even the "tremulous
stars" are still glittering, and so will he. Before I wrote it, I knew I wanted a great title
for this song. Usually I don't come up with a title until after the song's written. In this case
I wanted a terrific image to soar into the song. I write a lot of poetry, and sometimes I go
back to scan it over for any good images I could use. I found a poem I'd written which had the
image of one person swooping down over another "like a falcon in the dive." Immediately that
felt right to me- that was Chauvelin. Then I found an old piece of music of Frank's [Frank
Wildhorn], which he'd forgotten about, but he was happy to use, and so the song developed.
KS: Was it easy for you to write words to the music of Frank Wildhorn?
NK: Other composers I work with, such as Howard Marren, will take my lyrics and write music
to them. But Frank only works music-first. Thankfully, he and I are emotionally simpatico,
particularly with ballads. When I listen to his music, it immediately hits a nerve, and I start
jotting down images, phrases, feelings.
KS: Well, we talked about where you are now, but where did it all start?
NK: I was born and raised in Baltimore. My father was a doctor and my mother an artist.
They're both still thriving and I have one older brother, all of them living in Baltimore. I
always felt like I belonged in New York, so I chose a fabulous college a half hour from
Manhattan- Sarah Lawrence. That's where I wrote and directed my first two plays. I got married
to my first husband, a Harvard medical student, after my junior year in college, and spent my
senior year at Harvard. My first husband and I had one daughter, Eliza, and John [Breglio] and I
have another daughter, Nola.
KS: At what age did you realize that writing was your path in life?
NK: Very early. There was never really a choice. It was just always what I did. I remember
being five years old, sitting at my kitchen table with paper and pencil in hand and a children's
picture dictionary, teaching myself how to read and write. I had such a hunger for it. My mother
saved all those poems and stories I wrote at five, six, and seven, and I still have them now. I
guess I really can't conceive of life without writing, or without my family.
KS: When did writing become financially rewarding?
NK: When I was about 26, I landed a job with PBS for a nationally broadcast show called
"Consumer Survival Kit." There were four staff writers, each of us assigned one show per month.
We covered consumer topics via skits, songs, dramatic sketches, film segments, and so forth. It
was wonderful to be 26 and on national TV and making money at the same time. Not good money, but
KS: Is money the most important reward in the creative world?
NK: You do not choose to go into the arts if money is what's important to you. The John
Grishams of the world are few. If money comes, it's just icing.
KS: As a woman, was it difficult to break into this business?
NK: As a woman, I think it's difficult to break into any business. I'm old enough and have
been through enough to feel that is a pretty valid statement. Having said that however, I can
not bear the thought of people feeling sorry for women, and I'm not really what people think of
as "a feminist." I just think that, realistically, it is harder for a woman, and not simply
because they're the ones who also bear and raise the children. By nature, we simply are the less
aggressive sex. We're gentler, and though we may look at the jugular, it's rare that we actually
attack it. These are things that put you at a deficit when you're in the middle of a tough
business meeting. It takes a long time to find the proper balance between holding back too
gently and forcing yourself into coming on too strong.
KS: Do you think art changes peoples' lives?
NK: I know it does. When I was about 24 years old, I used to stay up late at night, listening
to Stephen Sondheim's song from Follies, "The Road You Didn't Take." I would listen to
that song over and over again, tears coming down my face. I'd think about the road I didn't take
until finally I said "Well, why don't you take that road?" So I did. The arts do change lives.
They touch people, inspire and help them. What makes me happiest with Pimpernel is seeing
people's faces as they leave the show, seeing them happy and smiling. It's incredible to think
you may have touched someone else.
KS: Do you took forward to your next project?
NK: Very much so. I'm adapting the book for the musical of Saturday Night Fever, which
will open in London's West End in May. And after that I will go back to my original musical
Open House, with composer Howard Marren. But I guess I'll always think of The Scarlet
Pimpernel as my rite of passage at this stage of my life. I learned so much.
KS: We like to end our interview with an inspirational thought.
NK: Well, for all those people who want to be artists but are daunted by obstacles- and
believe me, there are tons of obstacles- I'd say: Keep plugging along. One of the things I love
about this country is what we call "the American Dream," the idea (and reality) that, despite
the givens in your life, it's possible to get where you want. But-and this is a crucial but- it
takes a lot more than talent. It takes an enormous amount of discipline and self-motivation.
Some people do get lucky breaks, but most people get there through sweat and sheer persistence.
When it's not happening for you, it's easy to make excuses, or sit back and decide the cards are
stacked against you, to just fall into that failure and self-pity litany. Or sometimes, I think,
talented people really do try, but they just can't fight the battle. The fact is there is no way
around the battle. If you want to get anywhere, you have to fight your way through. You have to
be utterly determined. Finally, if you're not an optimist by nature, try to find a way to
engender optimism within yourself. You'll need it.
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