Skip to main content

Guitarist Mickey Baker.

Guitarist Mickey Baker. The 74 year old musician is about to receive a pioneer award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation for his work as a sideman on hundreds of recordings of R&B and rock & roll records from the 50's and 60's. He recorded with Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Ruth Brown, and many more. The Awards banquet takes place in L.A. February 25th. (The Rhythm and Blues Foundation is located in Washington D.C.)


Other segments from the episode on February 25, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 25, 1999: Interview with Mickey Baker; Review of the television movie "Alice in Wonderland"; Interview with Paul Rudnick; Review of art exhibits featuring 17th…


Date: FEBRUARY 25, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 022501np.217
Head: Mickey Baker
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Well, this is the big music awards week. The Grammy's were last night. Tonight is the Rhythm and Blues Foundation awards ceremony. Smokey Robinson will MC. The Lifetime Achievement award will go to John Lee Hooker.

One of the Pioneer awards will go to guitarist Mickey Baker, who is being honored for his work on hundreds of recording sessions in the '50s and '60s as a sideman. Recordings by such performers as Laverne Baker, Ruth Brown, The Coasters, The Drifters, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Ivory Joe Hunter.

Mickey Baker was also half of the duo Mickey and Sylvia, which had the 1957 hit "Love Is Strange." He's lived in France since the early '60s. Before we meet him, let's hear him with Ray Charles on this 1953 recording of "Losing Hand."


I thought I'd be your king baby
Yes and you could be my queen
I thought I'd be your king baby
Yes and you could be my queen

But you used me for your joker
Cause I thought your deal was good

GROSS: Was this rehearsed at all? Had you worked out with Ray Charles the interplay between his piano and your guitar?

MICKEY BAKER, GUITARIST: No. . In those days you'd go in the studio, you'd listen to the music and you'd start recording. Well, of course they had charts -- but everything was done from the soul -- from the heart, you know. The charts didn't mean anything. What you coming out on the record, none of it was written on a chart, you know what I mean?

But I was a specialist at that sort of stuff. I really analyzed all of those types of blues playing and what not. And that's how I become a studio musician because I was -- I took it very seriously, playing that music, you know. They knew that if Mickey Baker was playing the guitar he would find something to do that would fit in with the mood of the music. That's about the best I can say it.

GROSS: Would you choose one of the Atlantic recording sessions that you're featured on that you particularly like?

BAKER: One song that was nice was "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean" by Ruth Brown. It starts off with a guitar. And what I was playing on the guitar was a type of guitar that everybody wanted to hear at that time, you know.

And I used that type of guitar playing on that -- I use on that song, "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean," many times -- on record sessions I -- basically it's the introduction that -- that's what makes it nice -- ya da da da da da da -- you know what I mean?

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

BAKER: What year it was, I don't know. Maybe '54, I think.

GROSS: Actually, I just looked it up. It was recorded in 1952.

BAKER: It was?

GROSS: Yeah. And let's see, you're featured on guitar. Connie Kay, from the Modern Jazz Quartet, is featured on drums. He did a lot of session work for rhythm and blues records didn't he?

BAKER: Connie was -- in those days Connie had a set of drums that were really comical, you know, actually everybody was started off in those days. Nobody had anything, you know. And they were just happy to be musicians. And I think that's what made the music go so well.

Nobody really knew what they were doing in those days, but they did it so well. You know, it was all done live in a studio within three or four hours -- four sides, you know what I mean? And today to do three or four sides on an album, it takes these guys a month with all kinds of recording.

But it was all done live in those days. Your had singers -- the singers were there -- saxophones. Everything was there at one time.

GROSS: Why don't we hear Ruth Brown's 1952 recording of "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean" with my guest Mickey Baker featured on guitar.


Mama he treats your daughter mean
Mama he treats your daughter mean
Mama he treats your daughter mean
He's the meanest men I've ever seen

Mama he treats me badly
Makes me love him madly
Mama he takes my money
Makes me call him honey

Mama he can't be trusted
Makes me so disgusted
All of my friends say they don't understand
What's the matter with this man

I'll tell you mama
He treats your daughter mean

GROSS: Ruth Brown, recorded in 1952. My guest Mickey Baker featured on guitar. And he is being awarded a Pioneer award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation for the hundreds of recording sessions that he worked on in the 1950s and '60s.

Now this was a period when usually if there was an instrumental break on a rhythm and blues record it was like a honking saxophone break. Did you have to kind of fight for room for the guitar because the saxophones were so prominently featured?

BAKER: No, well the guitar was -- in those days the type of guitar that you played you can always fill in behind the saxophone while he's doing his solo, you know.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

BAKER: Anyway they chose who was going to play the solo, you know, because they say, we want a saxophone here or a guitar solo here. It was all worked out. There was always -- worked out who was going to do what solo here even if it was half of a chord, you know what I mean? It was all done -- I used to say "liperraneously," (ph) you know.

GROSS: Say that?

BAKER: "Liperraneuously," you know, like extemporaneous. In "liperraneous" we just talk how -- once we know the pattern of the song we know how we were -- once you know what kind of rhythm guitar is going to play in the background, what the piano is going to play in the background, and what the saxophones is supposed to be playing.


And they all worked themselves out together, you know. It was a natural for the musicians to do it. They didn't do that with any musicians. They had very well chosen musicians to do that, you know. You couldn't get that from many musicians.

GROSS: Did you usually like the records that you made? Did you usually like the groups that you were recording with? You know, the vocal groups?

BAKER: Well, it was always funny how you felt that you were doing something great, you know. Making hit records. We were young and you would think you could hear yourself playing on a record, you know, and nobody knew who you were on the record but they like the guitar solo. But you feel good that you're doing something like that, you know. We were very proud of what we were doing no matter who we were working for -- recording with, you know.

GROSS: Well, you just made a good point there which is that the session men were really pretty anonymous. I mean, now maybe on a reissue it'll say who the musicians were on a date, but when the records came out in their own time it would give the name of the group or the lead singer and that was it. You wouldn't be mentioned as the guitarist. Did you feel bad about that?

BAKER: No. You have to realize that you're working as a studio -- I wasn't -- I was working as a studio musician. Sometimes I would do three or four records sessions a day.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

BAKER: And in a weeks time -- there was no week that went by that I didn't do at least 15 or 20 records sessions. Who cared? You made the money. In those days, in the '50s -- because this is the '50s we're talking about now -- I was making like four or five hundred dollars a week very easily. Can you imagine -- in those days four or five hundred dollars a week was unheard of.

GROSS: Let me play The Shirelles hit "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow." And the first thing you hear on this record is your guitar. Do you have any memories of this session?

BAKER: No. I think I did something very different on the guitar though, something that had never been done before. But I can't remember what it was. They asked me to -- because I would always be so proud -- "Mickey you do this -- what can you do with this?"

I'd stick my chest out -- after all, I was 25 years old or something. Stick my chest out and say, "I can do this and I can do that." But you must remember something else, I wasn't actually this type of a guitarist from my roots. I was a jazz musician, so I could do a lot more things with a guitar than an ordinary blues musician can do. You get the idea?

And so I would come up with ideas and I think there was a lot of ching-a-ling things, you know what I mean?

GROSS: Why don't we play the opening for you and that will refresh your memory. This is The Shirelles, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow."


Tonight you're mine completely
You give your love so sweetly
Tonight the light of loving in your eyes
But will you love me tomorrow

BAKER: Yeah, like I said, that's the ching-a-ling guitar sound. You're playing appregios on the guitar.


GROSS: They're very clangy.

BAKER: Oh, in those days that's what they loved. That -- like Dinaldi (ph) had the guitars -- just piercing the guitars. The way they do it today they've got boxes to do that. They got a box to do the guitar. I think on that guitar you're hearing there, there was a terminal on the amplifier -- just slightly terminal effect on the amplifier. And you get that waving sort of a sound.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

BAKER: You know, on that guitar. But nowadays they have so many different types of boxes that have been put on -- you didn't have all of those gimmicks -- in fact, you didn't have anything in those days. That's at the time when we would create these ideas.

GROSS: My guest is guitarist Mickey Baker. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest, guitarist Mickey Baker, is getting a Rhythm and Blues Foundation award tonight for his work as a side man on hundreds of records from the '50s and '60s.

Now I want to play something different from what we've been hearing. And this is a recording in which I'm not sure if you're the leader on this or not, but it's an instrumental recording, and so it's not a question of being a studio musician for a vocal group.

The Bear Family label has reissued a lot of your instrumental tracks. And this is from 1955. And it's the title track of this reissue, it's called "Rock with a Stock." And it features you on guitar, Jimmy Lewis -- bass, Dave "Specs" Bailey on drums, Earnest Hayes -- piano, Warren Lucky on tenor. Now, what do you remember about this?

BAKER: "Rock With a Sock" was one of my songs that I recorded at Rainbow Records back in the days of Alan Freed, you know.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

BAKER: Because I wanted to name that song "(unintelligible.)" And Alan Freed said, "no you're not going to put that name on that record." So we changed the name to "Rock With a Sock."

GROSS: Why don't we hear your 1955 recording of "Rock With a Sock." This is a tune by my guest Mickey Baker, who's featured on guitar.


GROSS: Guitarist Mickey Baker, recorded in 1955 with the title track from the reissue called "Rock with a Sock." Mickey Baker is getting a Pioneer award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation for his work on literally hundreds of recording sessions through the '50s and '60s.

Now you were not only a session guitarist, you had your group for a while, Mickey and Sylvia, whose biggest hit was "Love Is Strange." How did you end up forming that group?

BAKER: Well, that's -- like I said, Alan Freed was the popular man in those days. And I was doing Alan freed shows as a guitarist in the band, you know. And we'd come out and we'd do our numbers and what not. And Sylvia was actually at one time a guitar student of mine.

She was also a singer. She had been making records and sing them, called Little Sylvia, you know. And she came to me when I was on an Alan Freed show, I think it was the first Alan Freed show -- rock and roll show -- the very first rock and roll show that was done, ever. And Sylvia asked me if I could help her get back in show business.

And I said, yeah. Of course at that time there was Mary Ford and Les Paul, you know what I mean?

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

BAKER: And Mary Ford and Les Paul -- now Les Paul had all of those tape recorders. The music was very nice but they couldn't perform it on stage.

GROSS: Because he did a lot of tape manipulation with his recordings.

BAKER: What they do today -- he was the master of that, way back then, you know what I mean? So I said, why don't we take the two guitars and we'll figure out a way to make Mickey and Sylvia and do it on stage. But I want you to know that this was all done as a joke.

I never did think that Mickey and Sylvia would really become so big, you know. But I figured it would be a good idea to try it -- it's something that's never been done. Well, at the time I was a very busy musician. I was making a lot of money. And to start this Mickey and Sylvia thing going I had to give up a lot of things to do it.

Because I had to go out to a lot of (unintelligible) places with her trying to make her play the guitar, because she never played the guitar on stage. It took time to do that, you know.

GROSS: So to you the whole Mickey and Sylvia act was something of a nuisance?

BAKER: No, it was a joke. I didn't know there was going to be -- well, no it was like a Frankenstein monster. It all of sudden wanted to choke me to death. I packed up and left the country after that. I wanted to be bothered with any of it.

Mickey and Sylvia -- I made -- don't get me wrong, I made a pile of money with that, you know. But I was no longer a musician. I was Mickey of Mickey and Sylvia. I didn't like that too much, you know.

GROSS: Well, in spite of it, let's hear "Love It Is Strange." It's a great record.


Love is new
Love is strange
Lot of people
Take it for a game

Once you get it
You never want to quit
After you've had it
You're in on all those games

GROSS: Mickey Baker of Mickey and Sylvia. Was that the Sylvia who owned Sugar Hill Records?

BAKER: Yeah, she became very popular. She was a fantastic -- she had a fantastic imagination.

GROSS: She's like one of the mothers of rap music. I mean, her label Sugar Hill is like the first gig -- rap label.

BAKER: She made the first rap record, yeah.

GROSS: Uh-huh. So were you kind of proud to be kind of affiliated with that?

BAKER: Well, you know, actually we lost contact with one another. But actually that song, "Love Is Strange," was very inspirational. It made me record that song in the first place. We had to work it out in a way, but I didn't want to be bothered with it one way or the other, you know. But finally we had a big fight, and I said, OK, we'll record that song.

I went and wrote some new lyrics to it and we sat down and we worked it out. And we put it out -- it became a smash hit right away. But she had a nose or an ear for what's popular. Actually, she made the very first rap records by just listening to kids in the street. She said, "that could be good on a record," you know. They made a pile of money with those first rap records. In fact, you got rap music today -- it's because of Sylvia.

GROSS: So you went to France to get away from the whole Mickey and Sylvia thing?

BAKER: Oh, Mickey and Sylvia was not was not the only thing. I was fed up with lots of things, you know. In the first place -- let's put it this way, when I was a little boy I always wanted to go to France simply because I heard that Josephine Baker was in Paris and she was raging a storm, you know.

I said, "one of these days, I'm going to go to Paris and I'm going to do the same thing." I was 11 and a half-years-old and all of a sudden one day I did it.

GROSS: Now I have a question for you about your childhood. I know that you spent a good deal of your childhood in orphan homes and reform schools, yes?

BAKER: Not so much reform schools -- it was an orphan home to keep kids from going to reform school later on. You know what I mean?

GROSS: Right.

BAKER: Because that's exactly where I would have wound up.

GROSS: And you kept running away. Did they keep bringing you back when you'd run away?

BAKER: Yeah, they'd bring me back all the time. I ran away and went to New York one time and they came up and brought me back. And I went to Chicago and they brought me back. And I went to St. Louis. I went to St. Louis because that's where the blues was created. I had this fantastic imagination, you know.

I said, I want to go to St. Louis first because that's where the St. Louis blues was written. I got to St. Louis blues and all I could see were shoe factories. No blues at all.


And so I -- next time I said, I'm going to Chicago with all those gangsters, you know. And then the next time I said, I'm going to New York. and I'm going to go to New York and I'm going to become a merchant seaman and take a boat to France. And then I'm going to become French.

GROSS: So tell me was having freights and hitchhiking as a kid alone on the road...

BAKER: ...not hitchhiking, darling...

GROSS: ...not hitchhiking.

BAKER: I'd just get on freight trains and go. In those days it was possible, you know. You could go to a hobo camp -- they called them hobos, you know. You go to a hobo camp, and the guy would say I want to go to Pittsburgh. There was a certain train that would come out of the yard -- because you couldn't go in the yard, but you could go outside the yard to catch the train.

And the hobos would always be there. They didn't do too much about it. They used to beat them up and knock them off the trains, but they couldn't get rid of them. Hobos are not bums -- they weren't bums. They were just people who liked to go from one place to another. Free. On freight trains, you know.

GROSS: Now let me ask you, since you've been on hundreds of recording sessions do you ever hear a record getting played on the radio and think to yourself, "is that me. I can't remember if that's me are not?"

BAKER: Not really. I knew how ridiculous I was on the guitar. I can hear some people and I'd say, "damn, that sounds like me." But then he'll do something else in the course of what he's doing that I know that I don't do. It could be much better than what I did, you know, but I'd right away that it's not me, you know.

GROSS: Well, Mickey Baker, I want to congratulate you on your Rhythm and Blues Foundation award, and have a good visit to the United States before you return to your home in France.

BAKER: All right.

GROSS: Want to say a few words for us in French before you go?



GROSS: Mickey Baker will receive a Pioneer award tonight from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation at their 10th annual awards ceremony.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Mickey Baker
High: Guitarist Mickey Baker. The 74-year-old musician is about to receive a Pioneer award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation for his work as a sideman on hundreds of recordings of R&B and rock and roll records from the '50s and '60s. He recorded with Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Ruth Brown and many more. The awards banquet takes place in L.A. February 25.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Mickey Baker

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Mickey Baker

Date: FEBRUARY 25, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 022502NP.217
Head: David Bianculli
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Sunday night NBC presents "Alice in Wonderland," a new live action TV version of the Lewis Carroll classic. TV critic David Bianculli has seen this new "Alice" and says it's wonderful.

DAVID BIANCULLI, TV CRITIC: It's taken more than a hundred years, but technology finally has caught up with Lewis Carroll. This new NBC "Alice in Wonderland," using the latest computer graphic effects and state of the art puppeteering, actually manages to re-create in three dimensions most of the reality bending craziness of Carroll's original stories and John Tenniel's memorable illustrations.

When college professor Charles L. Dodgson (ph), under the pen name Lewis Carroll, published his first "Alice" book the Civil War had just ended. "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" came out in 1865, followed by a sequel, "Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There," in 1871.

Around the turn of the century the motion picture was invented and Alice inspired one of the first silent movies aimed at children. Now we're nearing the turn of another century, and this time everything Carroll imagined actually can be duplicated with special effects.

Alice can play croquet using a flamingo as a mallet and somehow have it look real. A squealing baby can turn into a pig with no warning and the Mad Hatter, played with giddy enthusiasm by Martin Short, really can sport a head three times as large as it ought to be.

Peter Barnes, who also wrote NBC's "Merlin" miniseries, has adapted the two "Alice" books by faithfully dramatizing the former and borrowing selected characters and scenes from the latter. He also adds an original beginning and ending about Alice having to give a musical recital, which introduces all the actors out of costume. And in terms of structure, is a nice little nod to "The Wizard of Oz."

The only really regrettable omission in this TV version is that of the "Jabberwocky" poem from the second book. It should have been included, especially since so much of Carroll's other poetry made the cut. This new "Alice" is so enchanting though that not even that oversight, nor its other flaw the unimaginative music by Richard Hartley, can rob this NBC treat of its four star rating.

Director Nick Willing, working with visual effects supervisor David Booth, production designer Roger Hall and Jim Henson's Creature Shop has created the ideal world in which prim young Alice finds herself. Alice is played by Tina Majorino, from the movies "Andre" and "Waterworld." And she's surrounded by sparkling talents.

Especially delightful are Short as the Mad Hatter, Miranda Richardson as the Queen of Hearts, and Christopher Lloyd as the White Knight. There's also Peter Ustinov as the Walrus, Gene Wilder as the Mock Turtle, Whoopi Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat and Robbie Coltrane and George Wendt as Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Listen to how much fun Miranda Richardson has as the Queen, halting her entourage to meet Alice for the first time.



UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I agree entirely.

RICHARDSON: Don't be ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Would I lie to you Your Majesty?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Oh, well, thank you. Compliments are always welcome.

RICHARDSON: You're an idiot.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: That's right Your Majesty. Only you could spot that. It takes one to know one.

RICHARDSON: A complete idiot. Your name, child.

TINA MAJORINO, ACTRESS: Alice. If it please Your Majesty.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Why have we stopped?

RICHARDSON: And who are these?

MAJORINO: How should I know? I'm a stranger here.

RICHARDSON: Off with her head!

GROUP OF ACTORS: Off with her head!

RICHARDSON: Off with her head!

MAJORINO: Stop losing your temper. It's vulgar.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Consider my dear, she's just a child.

RICHARDSON: You think so? Yes, I will account for it. Children have no respect for their betters.

BIANCULLI: NBC's "Alice," like the original book, embraces both logic and absurdity with equal fervor and captures a dream-like feeling in ways unlikely to be forgotten. If you stay long enough to fall down the rabbit hole with Alice, you'll know by then you're in for a truly special TV journey.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the "New York Daily News."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: David Bianculli
High: TV critic David Bianculli previews "Alice in Wonderland" on NBC this Sunday.
Spec: Entertainment; Television and Radio; Lifestyle; Culture; David Bianculli

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: David Bianculli

Date: FEBRUARY 25, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 022503NP.217
Head: Paul Rudnick
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:36

TERRY GROSS, HOST: How many times have you heard this reproach of homosexuality, "God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve?" Well, in Paul Rudnick's latest play, "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told," it's Adam and Steve who find themselves in the Garden of Eden.

Screenwriter and playwright Paul Rudnick has satirized life from the gay point of view in "Jeffrey" and "In and Out." He also wrote the screenplay for "Addams Family Values" and writes a satirical film criticism column in "Premiere" magazine under the pen name Libby Gelman Waxner (ph).

"The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told" is now running off-Broadway. I asked Rudnick if he ever came up with a witty retort in response to someone saying that God didn't make Adam and Steve.

PAUL RUDNICK, PLAYWRIGHT, "THE MOST FABULOUS STORY EVER TOLD": Well, I came up with a play. I thought why not take these people at their hard hearted words, sort of spin it, and see what would happen if God had indeed made Adam and Steve and the first two lesbians, Jane and Mabel, as well. To really take that as the basis for an entire New Testament. And it ended up being a wonderful amount of fun.

GROSS: What are some of the differences between the two couples?

RUDNICK: The two couples? Well, it's funny. I think they go through -- it's more a question of similarities, I think. I think the couples go through what -- I wanted to keep it as universal as possible because they go through what every couple, gay and straight, go through.

At one point, they're all captive on the ark where it's pouring, and they're surrounded by animals. And they've all been together for 400 years. So of course they pretty much have run out of things to say. That happens to almost every couple. Sometimes it doesn't take 400 years, but suddenly they're, while still desperately in love, also at each other's throats. They're going through all those stages of romantic development.

That's something else I wanted to investigate in the play, is to use the whole story of the Old Testament also as a romantic journey.

GROSS: Of course at least one of the people is having sex with animals on the ark.

RUDNICK: Yes, see, but that's one of the -- one of the interesting developments when you begin in a gay run universe is that people don't tend to reproduce quite as rapidly. So we remain -- the planet has just those initial two couples for quite a few millennia. So the only romantic options after a certain point are all the rhinosauri and cats and pigs on the ark. And because to their open and loving universe it becomes kind of a great mixer.

GROSS: Have you gotten any protests from religious groups to your script?

RUDNICK: Well, it's funny, not quite so many. There have been a few. There is a group that is very dedicated to a defense of Our Lady of Fatima and whatever miracle occurred at Fatima. And so they, for a while, did kind of bombard the New York Theater Workshop with phone messages and letters.

Mostly asking why couldn't Paul Rudnick write a play about Our Lady of Fatima. And I kept thinking, do they really want me to?


Interesting question on both sides. But what I would hope is that anyone who worries about the play, who imagines objections would actually go to see it.

What I found most disturbing about a lot of the furor that surrounded Terrence McNally's play, "Corpus Christi," was that it erupted from sources that had no real contact with the play. They had neither seen it nor read a script. And I think you only get a more intelligent and human dialogue about any work of art when both sides have witnessed it; have gone through it; have read it or seen it.

GROSS: The Pharaoh has a nice part in your play. Would you do for us a couple of the lines in which he's talking about the building of the Pyramids?

RUDNICK: Well, Pharaoh is a role that I wrote for just a superb actor named Peter Bartlett, who has appeared in other of my plays and films. So I will only be able to do the most tepid impression of his genius. But he does play an extremely madcap and empowered Pharaoh.

And at one point he looks out into the audience where he envisions his empire and he says, "I have enslaved hundreds of thousands of homosexuals to build my pyramids. Oh, look at them all just sitting there criticizing, `why can't we build a beach house?' Get to work!"


Now he's that kind of Pharaoh.

GROSS: And then how about the line where he's telling all the slaves to sing as they work?

RUDNICK: Oh, yes, after there's been a kind of Spartacus-like slave uprising led by Adam, the Pharaoh turns to his -- one of his beloved Amazon guards Fatatita (ph) and says, "let them go. Let them all go. I am the boy King of all Egypt. I am immortal. Sing the gay slaves. Sing as you toil. Sing a gay slave song."

And Fatatita says, "sing to your Pharaoh." And then the song that the gay slaves pipe right back is "One" from "Chorus Line." Which I think is the equivalent of some sort of gay work hand gospel.

GROSS: That's great. Did you go back and watch "The Ten Commandments" to get a sense of Hollywood biblical speak?

RUDNICK: Yes, well it had pretty much been ingrained, that I grew up on all that sort of pop culture Bible. And that was also where the idea for the play came from. That sense of, oh, the Prince -- you know, the DreamWorks "Prince of Egypt." The Demille films about the Ten Commandments and the life of Christ. That whole homogenized weirdly American version of the Bible in which everyone speaks English.

And usually the bad guys -- the Pharaohs -- tend to have some sort of foreign accent, usually British. But the good guys -- Charlton Heston -- are always Americans. And always seem like quarterbacks or chess club presidents. So it's a very strange and parochial view of the history of fate. But that's why it was also very funny.

GROSS: Now the way you describe the Pharaoh in your play, you said, "the atmosphere might suggest Egypt by way of the MGM Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. The Pharaoh wears a striped headdress and flowing robes reminiscent of the blindingly golden attire of Tutankhamun."

You know, I'm thinking a lot of those gay epics, they seem so -- did I say gay epics? A lot of those biblical epics seem so gay in retrospect, don't you think?

RUDNICK: Oh, absolutely. I mean, there's no inspiration for a drag queen like a decent Pharaoh. I mean, those guys knew how to dress. And the eye makeup, you know. I think every -- what? From Ramses to Cleopatra they seem distinctly Ziegfeld to me.

GROSS: Did you have a sense of that when you were young watching the biblical epics, that there seemed to be just something gay about the movies?

RUDNICK: Oh, I think so, or at least something wildly and welcomely absurd. Which isn't the same thing as gay, but it's certainly a friendly neighbor. And there certainly was something very homoerotic about that whole set of "Hercules" and "Gladiator."

GROSS: That's the word I was looking for, yes, that's right.

RUDNICK: Oh, yeah, that's where you get, you know, Yul Brunner shirtless in a tight tennis skirt, you know, with a few strapped golden arm bands around his rather impressive biceps.

So there's also a famous scene from...

GROSS: ..."Spartacus?"

RUDNICK: "Spartacus," yes. We're Tony Curtis is bathing Laurence Olivier. And the dialogue is fairly coded, but it's an extremely homoerotic scene. So I think, my God, those cultures certainly were enormously open to all sorts of sexual possibilities.

GROSS: Did you grow up with any Bible stories?

RUDNICK: Let me think. I grew up in a violently reformed Jewish home, so what I had were odd forms of biblical kitsch. I had a wrist watch that had a map of Israel on it, and instead of numerals it had Hebrew letters. I also had a book that I really cherished that was made up of invented biblical headlines. It was printed on newsprint and it said things like, "David Slay's Giant: Read All about It."

So it was the Bible translated into Gotham City terms, pretty much. In my -- within my family we were too Jewish to have a Christmas tree, but we were not quite Jewish enough to really celebrate every night of Hanukkah or to go over to the Bible in any great detail.

I remember at our yearly Passover Saders, sometimes there would be an uncle who would really want to go through the whole story in Hebrew and recite every possible plague. And the rest of us would sit at the other end of the table, you know, asking when do we eat? And tossing our yarmulke's around. So it wasn't a really particularly devout home.

GROSS: Now tell me what you do when you're in the audience and you're trying to monitor the audiences reaction. Do you actually count laughs or count the amount of time that lapses between laughs?

RUDNICK: Oh, I'm flaw are cheaper than that. No, I have this -- one of my deepest neuroses is I somehow imagine that the audience's response is directly attached to my central nervous system. So unless I stay incredibly tense they will stop laughing.

I also tend to make very baroque deals with God where I say, "if you allow the audience to laugh at the next line you can take my right hand." And then if they laugh I immediately rescind the bargain and move on to another body part. So hopefully by the end of each evening I've just been reduced to, you know, a helpless torso.

So lately I've been trying -- this can get a little stressful. So I've been trying to relax, and what I found is that now I can really enjoy the play. Because I take such delight in this production, which is directed by Chris Ashley, who has directed almost all my work. And this cast that I just -- I adore them.

GROSS: Your latest play, "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told," you know, takes up the premise what if God made Adam and Steve instead of Adam and Eve. I'm wondering if you've ended up thinking very seriously about religion as well over the past few years.

I guess what I'm really asking here is I know that you've had a lot -- or I assume that you've had a lot of friends who've died of AIDS over the years. And that's the kind of thing that provokes a lot of people to examine or reexamine their thoughts about the role of religion in their lives or any approach to spirituality.

Some people find themselves drifting closer to it. Other people, further away because they're so angry. For some people they could find meaning through secular pursuits and don't feel they need to turn toward religion. And if you don't mind a serious question here, I'm wondering if the last few years have changed at all your sense of the need or not for religion in your life.

RUDNICK: Oh, absolutely. It's funny, that's one of the reasons why I wrote this play. I wanted to force myself to examine those issues quite seriously. And it's something that goes beyond even the questions of gay or straight or the comedy of the play. That I wanted to see why God is still such a provocative flash point for all of us, and to see what I thought -- what I ultimately need of matters of faith.

So it's been a real -- oh my God -- a continuing exploration. And it's funny, it's why often people now come up to me and say, "Paul, do you believe in God?" And it still could be a very uncomfortable question. It's why -- it's one of the reasons why I wrote the play. I thought, you know, sexual matters have become so commonplace that in many ways religion and God have become this final taboo.

And I wanted to explore that. And I think for personal conclusions, the most of come up with, at least at this point, is I find genuine transcendence in the sense of the spiritual in my work in the theater especially and in film as well. But mostly in that intense collaboration with other people leading to, hopefully, God willing, the delight of an audience. That sense of a group creating something larger than themselves of a communal good.

And I think that also was mirrored in my experience with so many friends who have been sick and who died from AIDS. And working with people in the gay community, and the friends of that community in New York especially. That the truest religion seems to me seems to be the faith that you invent or accumulate on your own and that can certainly involve enormous pieces or even entire manuscripts from traditional religion.

But it's got to come from you or from me. It's got to be a decision that I come to, a morality that I can accept and try to adhere to. That's what makes the most bedrock sense. And that's something I can live with day-to-day.

Somehow if I'm always referring to someone else's text, to someone's Bible, to someone's Koran, then I feel like, my God I've just been given a manual and I'm not quite sure if it's all going to work.

But if I can go into a theater and see people of such enormous talent and such enormous generosity, and work with them and then, you know, present something to the rest of the world and make them laugh -- that's almost all the God I need.

GROSS: Now, how do you deal with the fact that when you're actually at the theater you're they're making bargains with God, like you were saying earlier that if they laugh at this line, God, you can take my right hand? I mean, old habits die hard, huh?

RUDNICK: That's would I would refer to as insanity, which is my other personal gospel. Yes, oh, no, no, no. When you are -- when you want to laugh all bets are off. I'm sorry, human sacrifice would be an easy price to pay for a decent chuckle. You know, I have no problem with that.

If the Moslems will laugh at me I will, you know, head out after Salman Rushdie. I think laughter can also be a little bit amoral. There's that real, oh my God, deep inner laugh lust. And that pretty much conquers everything.

GROSS: Paul Rudnick. His play, "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told," is now running off-Broadway.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Paul Rudnick
High: Playwright, novelist, and screenwriter Paul Rudnick. His new play "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told" looks at God and Creation from a gay perspective. It's playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village in New York City. Rudnick also wrote the plays "I Hate Hamlet," "The Naked Eye," and "Jeffrey." He wrote the screenplay for "Addams Family Values" and "In and Out."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Religion; Paul Rudnick

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Paul Rudnick

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue