‘All Things Equal’ Opens at Bay Street - 27 East

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‘All Things Equal’ Opens at Bay Street

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Michelle Azar as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “All Things Equal: The Life and Trials of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida. COURTESY FREEFALL THEATRE

Michelle Azar as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “All Things Equal: The Life and Trials of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida. COURTESY FREEFALL THEATRE

Michelle Azar as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “All Things Equal: The Life and Trials of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida. COURTESY FREEFALL THEATRE

Michelle Azar as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “All Things Equal: The Life and Trials of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida. COURTESY FREEFALL THEATRE

Michelle Azar as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “All Things Equal: The Life and Trials of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida. COURTESY FREEFALL THEATRE

Michelle Azar as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “All Things Equal: The Life and Trials of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida. COURTESY FREEFALL THEATRE

Michelle Azar stars in

Michelle Azar stars in "All Things Equal." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER

Rupert Holmes, playwright of

Rupert Holmes, playwright of "All Things Equal." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER

authorAnnette Hinkle on Oct 24, 2022

This week, Bay Street Theater opens a new show as part of its Literature Live! series. Though geared toward middle and high school audiences, the program’s annual productions are for audiences of all ages and bring to life on stage classic books or subject matter being studied in the classroom.

This year’s play, “All Things Equal: The Life and Trials of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” is a one-woman show that opens November 3, and revisits the life of the late Supreme Court Justice who died two years ago. Written by Rupert Holmes, the piece comes to Bay Street direct from a successful October run at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida. It stars seasoned actress Michelle Azar as Ginsburg and is directed by Laley Lippard, co-founder and co-executive producer of The Chicago Home Theater Festival.

In a recent interview from his home in Cold Spring, New York, Holmes, who is best known for his hit 1979 pop song “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” explained that in creating “All Things Equal,” his goal was not to portray Ginsburg as a heroine to be placed on a pedestal, but rather as a real person who overcame staggering professional hurdles at a time when women were expected to know their place and remain in it.

“I thought what she accomplished was so remarkable, but I was aware I didn’t want the play to become too glib about what she did with her life,” Holmes explained. “The whole notorious RBG thing made her a buzz word, but she had a remarkable life and did things against great odds. We forget people like that are just human beings like us.

“I thought I’d love to write a play about her before she becomes a trope — before she becomes merely an icon, or a New Yorker cartoon, as a punchline in some way.”

Holmes only began penning the play after Ginsburg’s death and he admits that the divisive political climate of recent years was partly what informed the piece. But on a more personal level, he was also inspired by the experiences of his wife, Liza Dreifuss, who, like Ginsburg, overcame great difficulty in pursuing her professional life.

“My wife was orphaned by 13. There was no one to take care of her and she was written off in high school,” explained Holmes, noting that instead of college, Dreifuss was told to set her sights on office administration work. “Though she had no parents, my wife sent out college applications and got accepted. She went to Boston University and then thought, ‘I could aim higher.’ She got into Barnard College and became a wonderful teacher and then, after having had a daughter, decided she’d always loved law and became an attorney. She went to Rutgers and learned how to be a student again.”

Ginsburg, who lost her mother to cancer the day before her high school graduation, coincidentally earned her law degree from Columbia (Barnard is Columbia’s sister school) and it was Rutgers where Ginsburg got her first job as a law professor — though she was paid less than her male counterparts because, she was told, her husband had a good job. Like Dreifuss, Ginsburg pursued a law degree while raising a small child. But Ginsburg also had the added burden of caring for her husband, Martin Ginsburg, and helping him with his studies after he was diagnosed with cancer as a young law student at Harvard.

“I wanted to get that story out there in a way you got to know her as a human being and not just an icon,” said Holmes.

This is not the first time Holmes has written about the life of a famous figure. His 2002 play “Say Goodnight, Gracie” is about legendary actor and comedian George Burns and it earned him a Tony nomination for Best Play and won the National Broadway Theatre Award for Best Play. Holmes explains that he wrote the play as if Burns is in the limbo of afterlife, recounting his 100 years on Earth to a higher authority while the audience sits in judgment.

He notes that in one-actor shows, the audience, by default, becomes the other character in the room and in “All Things Equal” they take on the role of a visitor who has come to Ginsburg’s office. Though he is reluctant to offer too much detail about exactly who Ginsburg’s visitor is in the play, Holmes said, “I purposely picked the person she is addressing because it’s someone who gives her the opportunity to explain things in a more human way than in a biography. It’s more conversational. You feel you’ve walked into a luncheonette and they’re both having coffee.”

In “All Things Equal” though, the theme of Ginsburg’s ability to overcome great personal odds may have been inspired by the story of Holmes’s wife, it turns out that Holmes knows a bit about overcoming great odds himself. Though “The Pina Colada Song” is arguably his most well-known claim to fame, Holmes was also the composer of The Buoys’ 1971 unlikely hit song “Timothy” about cannibalism, which made it to No. 17 on the Billboard charts. The song told the tale of three young men trapped in an abandoned mine who turn to one of them for sustenance when hunger becomes unbearable.

The song was not based on an actual event, but rather was written as a clever gimmick. Holmes explained that he wrote “Timothy” in order to help a friend at a minor record label make a splash when he was given a chance to record a single. The scrappy realization that he lacked connections in the recording industry convinced Holmes that something a bit more controversial was required.

“I’m actually very proud of myself — I was the 20-year-old boy who knew no one in the music business and schemed a way to get a record on the charts without payola,” he explained. “I knew a junior engineer at Spector Records. As a kindness to him, Spector said if you come up with a single and a group, we’ll put the record out. He came to me and said I have this group and I can use the studio, but what should I do?”

Holmes suggested recording a single that would get banned would create both controversy and publicity.

“He said, ‘Will you write me a song that gets banned?’” recalled Holmes. “I said, ‘Yes.’”

Holmes adds that “Timothy” was inspired by the Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song “Sixteen Tons,” which he was playing at his house one day while the TV in the kitchen was broadcasting a cooking show by Graham Kerr, a.k.a. The Galloping Gourmet. Holmes thought the song’s lyrics of muscle, bone and blood in the mine sounded something like a recipe, so he merged the two and a hit was born.

“I thought cannibals during a mining disaster could get a little publicity,” he said. “It was just me trying to figure out a Horatio Alger way to get a record made when there was nobody in the business I knew.”

He wasn’t wrong. While the quirky song was a hit in the Midwest and South, those who grew up in New York or Los Angeles have probably never heard it because of the simple fact that “Timothy” was banned from the airwaves in the biggest U.S. markets, just as Holmes had predicted.

Beyond his curious success in the world of pop music, Holmes has also conquered Broadway. He authored and composed the musical-comedy “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” which, in 1986, won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and received a 2012 Broadway revival by the Roundabout Theater. He is the first person in theatrical history to solely win Tony awards as an author, a composer and a lyricist.

“Playwriting was a 17-year plan. I always wanted to tell stories and compose music,” said Holmes, who has an honorary doctorate from Manhattan School of Music. “I didn’t know anyone in theater, I was 17 and could play a guitar and got into music business sideways. I tell my stories in song, like a mini-musical or a mini-movie. So I always wanted to get into theater.”

Holmes theatrical dreams became reality in 1983 while he was performing at Dangerfield’s comedy club in New York City. The Public Theater producer Joseph Papp happened to be in the audience one night and said to Holmes, “What you’re doing in your act is theater. Have you ever thought about writing a musical?”

In fact, Holmes had thought about it and had the complete idea for “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” in his head.

“He said ‘Have you written it?’ I said ‘Not yet, but I have the idea,’” Holmes said. “Joe said, ‘OK, I love your songs.’ He said, ‘Who’s going to write the book of the musical?’ I said, ‘I will.’ He said, ‘Can you do that?’ I said, ‘To have two hours after all my three minute stories and it doesn’t have to rhyme? Sure.’”

So Holmes wrote “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” a musical based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens that has various endings depending on how the audience votes on three key questions each night.

“I wrote multiple lyrics for the same song. The women have to be prepared to have a love scene with eight different men,” he said. “At our first show at Central Park’s Delacorte theater, the audience went mad. They could sense something was going on and the voting made everyone crazy. We were sitting in the audience and Joe Papp turned to me and said, ‘Well it works.’ I said. ‘You went this far and you weren’t sure?’ He was rolling the die sometimes.”

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” premiered in 1985 and went on to Broadway followed by two national tours and a production in London’s West End. In 2012, The Roundabout Theatre Company revived the musical and it continues to be produced widely around the world.

But in 2020, the theatrical world shut down due to COVID-19, the political rhetoric began heating up and Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. Holmes realized he needed to take the time to write her story.

“The political and social upheaval inspired me to write it immediately to get on stage as soon as possible,” he said. “I wrote this during the lockdown, and I thought if we’re going to come back slowly, the things that will come up the earliest will be shows with one or two actors. It’s the right play at the right time, from the political Petri dish and also in terms of the theatrical one.

“I knew it was important to do this,” he added. “People need to be reminded, not only of the viewpoints she held, but the civility. I’ve got to remind people that here was someone for whom it wasn’t always simply about being the winner. In her dissents, it was just as important to be articulate in the language she used. The dissent tries to lay the groundwork for overturning the decision one day.

“Ginsburg devoutly believed that there was a pendulum to justice, and it could only swing so far before it would swing the other way,” Holmes added. “I’ve not given up on her being right about that. I think she demands we stay optimistic. I want to side with RBG. You have to fight for justice, be tough as nails and you just have to be persistent and assume one day people will see the light.”

“All Things Equal: The Life and Trials of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” written by Tony Award-winning playwright Rupert Holmes, runs November 3-27 at Bay Street Theater. Public performances are Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $35 at baystreet.org or 631-725-9500. Additional weekday performances are provided for free, to any school group that wishes to attend. Student performances will be followed by a talkback and Q&A session with members of the team. School groups should call Bay Street’s administrative office at 631-725-0818 or email education director Allen O’Reilly at allen@baystreet.org.

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