Tony Award winning comedy writer Robert Horn reveals the road to Tootsie’s Broadway success!
Keep ‘Em Laugh, Inc. Anyone who names their business entity so is worth knowing. Meet Robert Horn, screenwriter, playwright and producer; Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, New York Drama Critics’ Circle and Tony award-winning writer of Broadway’s Tootsie, the musical. I first met Horn at a lunch arranged over twenty years ago by my then boyfriend, his ex. Over the years I’ve watched Horn dive head-first into countless new projects, marry his long-time partner John Leverett and recently mourn the loss of his twin sister Nancy. Through it all, this gritty New York soul has exemplified a gentle grace and perseverance of matching each day with a joke, a laugh and a pun. Fresh on the heels of his first Tony win - Best Book of a Musical - we sit to discuss the creative process, his gift of working with actors and that endless desire to keep us all laughing.
Ryan Young: So I’m here with Robert Horn at Bossa Nova.
Robert Horn: Looking slim.
Young: Looking tan and slim. Eating a chicken salad.
Horn: Just turned 40.
Young: 40, no croutons. That's the secret? -Noted. Tell me, how do you travel with a Tony?
Horn: You don't. You have to give it back.
Horn: You take it to the parties because they want pictures with it. Then they basically snatch it out of your hands, engrave it and mail it to you. But you do travel with the confidence of knowing you've got it.
Young: Which is huge. Does it require an extra seat on the plane?
Horn: It's an automatic upgrade.
Functional Dysfunctional Comedy
Young: I’d like to start at the beginning. You had a difficult upbringing. At what point did you find comedy?
Horn: Comedy was always the survival mechanism. It had to be. When you're dealing with dramatic structure in a family; when you're very poor and living a nontraditional childhood, the only way you can survive was to make jokes all the time. So it was always about finding the comedy of the situation to dissipate the tension that existed from the problems we were having. That's the prism with which I've always worked thru life. Everything is fodder for a joke. And I would find that if you could laugh, that just made it a little more tolerable. Then eventually I found I could make a living doing it.
Young: In those earlier days were there entertainers that you admired or looked up to?
Horn: Not really of the time but my grandfather was a big vaudeville guy. He was a dancer in vaudeville when he met my grandmother. He introduced me to the sort of old school Borscht Belt comics that I love. The Sid Caesars and the Jackie Gleasons and the Alan Kings and the Tony Fields and all the great Jewish Borscht Belt comics that influence my work and my love. And then I grew up with Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen and that school of comedy. They really influenced what I would be the next generation of, and what I was going to do- character driven, joke driven, comedies. I remember reading the works of Neil Simon when I was very young and saying, “This is what I want to do."
Young: And you did some standup?
Horn: Yeah. I did. Very badly. It was sort of improv stand-up with my old friend Evan Gillette. We had a once a month show at a little theater in New York called the Black Box. And then we would go to comedy clubs with these scripts. We would basically do early Saturday Night Live skits…but like bad. Some of it was really funny though, and really gross. We were very amused by the gross factor of it! Being as disruptive as possible. I wanted to act for a little while, which anybody who ever does anything in the business first wants to be an actor. And then they realize what their niche really is. But I was really, really bad and I knew it. All of that led to me to realize my calling.
Young: Got it. You were forming the next step.
Evolution of a Broadway Hit
Horn: Yeah, it was a very natural evolution because what you realize when you're on stage is- you're basically, as a writer, giving birth to characters, giving birth to story. What I wasn't good at was bringing it to life. That’s a certain talent that actors have. What I really was intrigued by was the marriage of author performing...full circle to Tootsie. So much of what's onstage, I created working with the incredibly talented actors. It's like watching The Carol Burnett Show; a real ensemble. And I work to develop the characters with them.
Young: I believe that. Even in the little audition work you’ve helped me with, you have a special talent in working with actors, of getting what’s written on the page to come out of the actor’s mouth in a believable way. I can’t even imagine the next step, when they're your words developing.
Horn: It's also knowing what it is they do well. Knowing so much about the craft that you can hear the rhythms certain actors can do, what they can deliver, how they can deliver it and what they're really good at. So you start to work with the individual actors. I mean, you’re not compromising story or character but knowing how to write for them.
Young: And the cast of Tootsie has all been together from the beginning right?
Young: Two years or so? Is that common in the Broadway musical world?
Horn: It gives you the confidence to know… I'm now stressing about when they leave, how are we going to find anybody to replace them? They're that specific. But we have a phenomenal director Scott Ellis who is a savant when it comes to casting. 90% of our cast did not audition. He would bring them in for readings because he had a feeling they'd be right and they’d get cast because they were just that fantastic. So it really was this natural evolution. Which was, yes, -it’s comforting because you know what you're working with. It's not this last minute desperation to find somebody. And it gave us the luxury of time.
Young: Every project I’m sure there’s a different rationale, but with Tootsie, what led you to it?
Horn: The check! Six zeros. Part of it was that I was going work with David Yazbek, the composer. I'd been wanting to work with him. Although I said no when they first offered it to me. They said come and take the meeting, I said no because it was very intimidating. It's a Larry Gelbart screenplay. It’s iconic, the number two AFI comedy of all time. And I didn't want that target on my back. I had no desire to put the movie onstage. And how would people feel about this iconic thing that I would be changing, drastically changing? But then again, it’s a great story... The DNA of it is such a great story that everybody -especially I- relate to. What would you do if you were basically told you could no longer do the thing you loved more than anything? How far would you go? And as artists you know we're told “no” all the time. So I was drawn to that story and I was drawn to the love story because, it's really a love story. It's a love story between actors and theater. It's a love story about our craft, about our industry; it's a love story to New York. And there's a bromance at the center of it. There's an ex-lover relationship. There's a budding relationship with nothing but conflict in the center of it. When you sit down and say, “can something work?” you look at how high the stakes are. I knew it had to be a farce- look at the Importance of Being Earnest or any great farce- you see how high the stakes are. I knew the story had really high stakes and therefore it could be really funny! And then you ask yourself, “Well, why is it a musical? Why does it sing?" When we took it out of soap opera and put it into the world of musical theater, it organically sung. But it was all trial and error. We didn't know if it would work until suddenly it started to work. And then you still don't know until the audience comes in and tells you. So you do that first preview and you say, “Let's see if we were right-“
Flowing in Creativity…or Not
Young: A bit of a process question- As I travel, one of the things I like to ask people who are passionately doing what they love is in regards to flow. As a writer, there's got to be days when it's so hard to write a scene. And then other days might be a little easier. Do you necessarily know when you're in that space? Would you call it a flow state when you drop in and let the creative juices take over?
Horn: Yeah. You know, there's a zone you go into -you know as a runner there are days when it's just such an effort to run. There are days when you are like, ‘I'm just not going to do it today,’ but you make yourself. Then there are days when you're in the zone and it's like ‘this is why I do this.’ It’s like that. I try to make myself write every day, even if it's just throwing it out, to keep the muscle active. But yeah, you just know when it's right. You feel it. You don't know where it comes from, but suddenly you’ve written something and read it back and are like: "Wow- Where’d that come from? -That’s good. That's funny.” And then there are days when you just struggle. And you find ways to- you have to know when to walk away and not give up. Walk away and have something else. I always say intake is as important as output. So some days you’ll watch a movie or watch TV or read something that will inspire you.
Young: That's one of the things from when we first met that I remember. You and I first really bonded over a tragedy; my then boyfriend, your ex passing away- something kind of- it's not funny, but a tragedy turned into something really great-
Horn: But we made jokes about it!
Young: We sure did. Even then, that's one of the things from very early on that I can picture you doing. You would walk around with a little notepad. Middle of a workout, you'd stop, jot down notes, make some observation.
Horn: People would never know.
Young: And I learned from my side studying as an actor, always be observant. Take notes on everything.
Horn: Everything can be inspiration around you. It's all about interpretation. You never know when ideas are going to hit so be prepared. I mean, now I use my phone. But yeah I would always take notes just because you never know, especially when you're in the middle of something, you just get ideas. When you're working on something, they become very fertile in your mind. Tootsie, for example, was three years of work in my life, in my marriage, in my house and in my head. It never is not in your mind. One of the things that's great about John is that he understands that. He knows that at any moment I could think of something and he's OK with that. It’s both a job and a passion. It consumes you and you can't control it. There's not a time clock with creativity. It hits when it hits.
Young: Literally a calling-
Horn: Yeah, I you know you experience that all the time. It's like giving birth! When the water breaks the water breaks and you don't know when it's going to be. The frustration is when it doesn't come and you're on a deadline. And you need to write something and you don't know what it is. Nothing is coming and there are days when you’re just tired. There are days when you don't have answers. That's when collaborations are great because you can lean on someone else. Those days when it doesn't come I've learned, I used to not, you know me- I used to torture myself when I would get blocked, but I’ve realized it’s all part of the process. That's part of creativity; some days are not great. And then some days are so fertile that you don't have enough time to write it all. What age gives you is the ability to time manage that, but also to be OK with whatever happens. There are good days and bad days creatively and you never know where inspiration is going to come from. -Didn’t that line inspire you? Write that down!
Young: Good stuff.
Horn: It's an art but it's also a business.
Waitress: Another Arnold Palmer guys?
Young: Yeah, please. -And something I've been dealing with. Part of my life -all my running stuff- as it becomes more and more business centric, I have to remind myself, I started doing this because it feeds a purpose. It's enjoyable, well my idea of fun. It's what I love doing-
Horn: It helps your mind and it's OK to make it commerce. But if it becomes just commerce and you lose the initial draw, then stop doing it. Then you're just going to resent it. It's also exhausting. Creativity, it's tiring. Sometimes you give all your mind; there have got to be days when you just don’t think. There are days when you say, “I'm not going to think today. I don't want to think. I want a clear head.”
Young: What do you do on a day like that?
Horn: You tell yourself that's what it’s going to be and maybe it doesn't happen, but you end up always writing something. I came back to LA a week ago and said to myself, "I'm going to spend a month and not work.”
Young: And what, did you make it three days?
Horn: No, I unpacked and I started writing again. Because it also- it can become a little neurotic. I mean, how many days can you go without running?
Young: One at the most and even by the end of that afternoon I start getting fidgety. Because it is a mental thing. It is mind clearing.
Horn: It's also kind of a high.
Horn: I don't get in as good of shape though from writing. I can't write on a treadmill.
Young: Trust me, I’ve seen some people try. People try some crazy things on treadmills.
Horn: That's not a good draft! It's also a gift and you have to, as cliche as this sounds, you have to honor it. Because it’s a gift to be able to see life in a certain way and then translate it into something that can entertain. You can't ever take advantage of that. You have to approach it with a bit of humility and say, “I'm so lucky I can do this.”
The Audience Responds
Young: Speaking of seeing life in a certain way and honoring it, that was something I mentioned after seeing the show. Everybody around me during Tootsie was laughing uncontrollably, leaning over their seats, having the best time. I was too, but there was an emotional attachment to it because I was thinking, "Oh my god- this is Robert up on stage!”
Horn: Yeah- its my voice.
Young: It’s so authentically you.
Horn: I don't waste any jokes.
Young: It's so your point of view.
Horn: It's also... I'm so neurotic that I'll sit in the house with an audience that is just rip-roaring laughing and I'll think, "What's wrong? Why are they not laughing?” And John will turn and go, "Do you not hear that?"
Young: Have there been audiences that you were felt were OK?
Horn: Oh yeah. I'm just never happy but, yeah, we have great audiences. Audiences are living, breathing entities; each has a personality. It's the same show every night but audiences react very differently to it. And there are nights when the show runs four minutes long because the laughter is so huge. And then there are nights when they're not laughing as much but they're listening. They're listening in a different way or they're laughing at something they didn't laugh at the night before. You can lose your mind if you try to analyze an audience. And we’re in a sixteen hundred seat theater- our theater in New York is a whole different thing. It’s a huge house. Laughter really feeds on laughter. And so the audience will tell itself how vocal they're going to be that night. They never don't engage. We've not yet had an audience that wasn't into the show and they didn't think it was hysterical. I'll sit after the show and think, "It wasn't the best house. They laughed. But you know, -whatever.” Then you'll see people that same night tweeting, “Tootsie. It’s funniest thing I've ever seen!" You can't put your interpretation of what comedy should sound like on an audience. If you've done your job, they'll appreciate it in their own way.
Young: Gotcha. I'd love to hear your thoughts, say, on
Young: Yes please. No. But in that thread, I’ve never known you to be a straight-up social commentary writer but your writings are filled with an inadvertent social commentary.
Horn: First of all, I always felt that if you could make someone laugh you could make them think. Take Tootsie. There are politics inherent in the story. I didn't have to put that much into it. What I had to navigate was where we are as a culture right now politically, in terms of the #MeToo movement and such. There are things I had to navigate so it felt contemporary. But I didn't want to hit the audience over the head with the message because I knew they would get it. It's built into the story. I just had to find where the humor lived and it would work. We got a lot of reviews that appreciated the fact that we weren't manipulating with a message. I also don't want to alienate an audience. I don't really write political comedy; I write entertainment for mass audiences. And there are ways to get a message across so that everybody thinks. I'm not out to- I don't set out to attack anybody. I mean there are jokes and things that certain people might-
Young: They might react to some pointed jokes but, I think, it's exactly what you're saying. Getting someone to think about their own point of view is much more important than getting them to believe your point.
Horn: You're sitting in an audience of 1,600 people- a lot of people have different points of view about a lot of different issues especially when you deal with misogyny, feminism and equality in terms of gender and class. We're talking about a show about a man, as he says in the show, in an era where women are literally clutching their power back from between the legs of men. You have the audacity to take a job away from one by perpetrating one? And we're living in that era. And though that's not what our story is about, it is about a deception and it is about learning how someone else has to navigate the world, a world in which you have no idea how it really is. It's about having empathy and understanding of that. So that's a political story. We don't have to add more to it. It's all there. And I want everybody to laugh. If they're not laughing then I haven't done my job.
***This interview has been edited for space and clarity.***