Broadway salutes Sam Shepard

Tributes to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Broadway salutes Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard on August 2, 2017
Broadway salutes Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard on August 2, 2017 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In 2010, I attended a dress rehearsal for Sam Shepard's A Lie Of The Mind, directed by Ethan Hawke. Alessandro Nivola, who took on the role Harvey Keitel played in the Eighties, told me that Sam "started offering up new dialogue."

Sam Shepard shared bird rescue and Gregory Corso stories.
Sam Shepard shared bird rescue and Gregory Corso stories. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Shepard in 1969 provided a text for Kenneth Tynan's Broadway musical/revue Oh! Calcutta!, which also had contributions from Samuel Beckett, John Lennon and Jules Feiffer. True West came to Broadway with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in 2000. Gary Sinise and John Malkovich played the brothers in the 1982 Steppenwolf Theatre Company production which was filmed for television.

Buried Child won a Pulitzer in 1979 and the play with Lois Smith was directed by Sinise in 1996.

Fool For Love starred Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda in 2015 and Operation Sidewinder with music composed and performed by The Holy Modal Rounders in 1970 round out Sam Shepard's adventures on Broadway.

At the press conference for Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, I asked Tim Roth, who is Oswaldo Mobray aka "The Little Man", if there were any similarities with the role he played in Sam Shepard's play God Of Hell opposite Randy Quaid and J Smith-Cameron in 2004. He said "Wow .... Regarding God Of Hell, I think just that duplicitous nature of the character. There's a similarity in that. That's an interesting angle. It hasn't crossed my mind in a while."

When I met up with Alessandro Nivola for a conversation the week after the American Hustle reception at Monkey Bar in 2013, he gave me some more insight on how open Sam Shepard can be with re-editing his play.

Anne-Katrin Titze: When I arrived, you were discussing future plans with Ethan Hawke?

Tim Roth on Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight and Sam Shepard's God Of Hell:
Tim Roth on Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight and Sam Shepard's God Of Hell: "There's a similarity in that." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Alessandro Nivola: We're scheming about a project that we might put together.

AKT: Theatre?

AN: No, film. We'll talk in six months.

AKT: I'll take you up on that.

AN: You know, he directed me in A Lie Of The Mind (2010), the Sam Shepard play, and for both of us it was one of the most successful endeavors that we have been part of. It was a big moment for him as a director. It was a very challenging role for me. For both of us it was a very exciting time.

AKT: I was at a luncheon with Sam Shepard yesterday and we spent some time together afterwards. We shared bird rescue and Gregory Corso stories. Christopher Marlowe and how it feels to hold a heart in your hands.

AN: You're kidding me? He came around when we were rehearsing that play. At first he kind of quietly watched from a distance the rehearsals. Then he started offering up new dialogue. It was like Shakespeare changing his own folio. He would tailor the dialogue to our performances, which was so bizarre.

Alessandro Nivola on Sam Shepard:
Alessandro Nivola on Sam Shepard: "It was like Shakespeare changing his own folio." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Do you remember one of the new lines?

AN: I can't distinguish them from the original but I remember he gave me lots of new jokes. The play is such a young man's play. It has the perfect balance of gut-wrenching pain and black comic hilarity. I suspect he was nervous about the play being revived again. He had originally done it with Harvey Keitel in the Eighties.

It was such an emotional blood-letting at times and this comic tour de force. I imagine, as a young man you just pour your heart on the page and he wanted to protect the play from potential skeptics by giving more weight to the comic side of it.

AKT: Sam is also a very funny man.

AN: He is hilarious and so dry. And all his plays have that. He himself, from what I can tell, is that cocktail of, on the one hand, son of an Air Force pilot, a guy from the West, grown up in a family that taught him how to be a man, being somebody who is like a tough cowboy. On the other hand he is a kind of Greenwich Village poet, who was floating around with Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan. Those, almost warring sides make all his plays so beautiful.

AKT: He has a lot of layers.

At 7:45pm on August 2, 2017 the marquee lights of Broadway darkened for one minute in honour of Sam Shepard.

Sam Shepard died on July 27, 2017.

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