Setting the Stage
Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance” ‘queers up’ “Howards End” and reveals a gay legacy
By Frank Rizzo
“The play and the project began very humbly,” says Matthew Lopez from his Brooklyn loft, munching lunch and looking back at his now-not-so-humble play’s early development.
He’s talking about “The Inheritance,” the two-part, nearly seven-hour work, which was a sensation in London and is a major event of the current Broadway season, sure to earn an armful of awards and prizes this spring.
Though it ends its run March 15 due to ticket sales, it remains a theatrical piece that is audacious, ambitious, theatrically thrilling, and deeply emotional – the end of Part One leaves many in the audience sobbing. The work touches on themes as sweeping as what it means to be a gay man through several generations, and as intimate as asking, “How do you discover your authentic self?”
When Lopez was selected eight years ago to be the next Aetna New Voices Fellow at Hartford Stage, which included commissioning and development of a new work, he pitched to artistic director Darko Tresnjak and associate artistic director Elizabeth Williamson an unusual idea for a play.
“Matthew said he was always obsessed with E.M. Forster’s ‘Howards End,’” says Williamson, “but it wasn’t until he was in his late 20s that he realized Forster was a closeted gay man. He said he had an idea for some time to go back and really ‘queer up’ the book, setting it in New York now and involving three generations of gay men.”
The 1910 novel dealt with class and social differences in turn-of-the-last-century Edwardian England. Lopez wanted to see it through a gay spectrum of Manhattan men he had known a century later. But where to begin?
In June of 2013, Williamson helped organize a forum of Hartford-area gay men of different generations so the playwright could tap into their personal experiences about coming out, the gay rights movement, and the impact of AIDS on their lives.
“I had no intention at first of speaking for a generation or writing a grand statement,” says Lopez. “Honestly, it was as simple as taking my favorite novel and re-examining it – and it grew from there. As it turned out, I had a lot on my mind.”
Lopez began working on “The Inheritance” in earnest during the 2013-14 season, when his play “Somewhere” was presented at the theater. But by the time his play “Reverberation” premiered at Hartford Stage in 2015, “The Inheritance” had become the beginnings of a two-part play.
“It grew to fit the dimensions that it clearly wanted to fit,” says Lopez.
Forster himself became a character – a kindly counsellor of sorts, guiding a group of urbane gay young men who are struggling to tell their own stories, and of one young man in particular and his journey that in a meta-moment resonates with Lopez and the play itself.
Hartford Stage also produced “a cold reading” of Part One in New York in June 2015, which featured Michael Urie, Simon Callow and Jonathan Groff. Hartford Stage also produced another New York workshop during the summer of 2016 of Part One and a reading of Part Two. It was then that Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot,” “The Audience,” Netflix’s “The Crown”) became involved in the project, after Lopez’s agent Olivier Sultan sent the high-profile director the script.
With Daldry on board and now collaborating with Lopez, the play was scooped up and taken to London’s Young Vic Theatre. In March of 2018, the production of the two-part “The Inheritance” had its world premiere, featuring designs by Bob Crowley and a cast that included recent Yale School of Drama grad Andrew Burnap who plays the dazzling, impetuous, and tormented Toby Darling, and Vanessa Redgrave in the only female role in the play, giving the work its concluding state of grace.
With raves from the critics, the show made a beeline for the West End, where it won four Olivier Awards, including best new play, director and actor (Kyle Soller, who plays the moral center of the work, Eric).
It was only a matter of time before Lopez would have his first Broadway production. (Burnap and two other recent grads from the Yale School of Drama, Arturo Luis Soria and Dylan Frederick, are featured in New York.)
Always The Outsider
Lopez, 42, the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Polish-Russian mother, both teachers, and grew up Episcopalian and gay in Panama City, Fla. on the Florida Panhandle, the older of two brothers.
He was hooked on theater as a kid, inspired by his aunt, actress Priscilla Lopez, who originated the role of Diana Morales (singing “Nothing”) in the 1975 production of “A Chorus Line” and who won a Tony Award for starring in “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine.” As a nearly four-year-old boy, Lopez visited his aunt backstage and a photograph of that day shows a wide-eyed kid, clearly smitten.
In an interview several years ago for The Hartford Courant, Lopez told me that the course of his life was set then and there: “From that day forward, there was nothing else I wanted to do but work in the theater. Look at that picture. I’m like the junkie with his first fix.”
But when he told his aunt he wanted to be an actor, she gave some prophetic advice: “Be a writer instead.”
Still, Lopez pursued acting when he went to the University of South Florida. After college, Lopez arrived in New York in 2000, uncertain about his acting fate and where he could find a place in the theater.
Or in the world, for that matter.
Lopez had always felt like the outsider. As a teenager he resisted being gay, having been frequently bullied. It was hard enough being the only Puerto Rican family in town, he said. When he did finally come out when he was 21 in the late ‘90s, it was bundled with the fear of AIDS that was drummed into his head throughout his teens.
But in the first decade of the 21st century, with new treatments being discovered, the epidemic receded from the news.
Arriving in Manhattan at the start of the millennium, Lopez struggled as an actor to get any traction in the theater in which he so desperately wanted to play a part. He was at a loss.
In 2002, he sent scores of letters to leading figures whose names and addresses he found in the Theatrical Index, an industry listing periodical. His letter read: “I am Matthew Lopez and I want to work in the theater. I don’t know at what capacity but if you have a job that needs doing, I will do it.”
He only received one response – from Harold Prince, the most award-winning producer and director in Broadway history.
In 2002, Prince invited Lopez to his Rockefeller Plaza office. Lopez had already begun writing short plays in college and continued to do so after graduation, and he asked Prince if he should go to grad school to study the craft, feeling intimated by young writers with loftier pedigrees. “He said the best way to do anything in this business is to just do it,” Lopez recalls.
Prince put Lopez in contact with playwright Terrence McNally, who took Lopez on as an assistant for a new musical. In return for the help – “which he really didn’t need” – McNally agreed to read Lopez’s work. “I gave him something that was dreadful, but he was encouraging and pointed out where there were strengths and weaknesses. He recognized things that even I didn’t see at the time.
“Writing was something I always did for myself, but I wasn’t sure to what end. Writing was something that other people did, special people, anointed people. I just didn’t feel I had permission. But all I needed at that time was encouragement. What Hal Prince and Terrence McNally did was not so little – something like that can literally change a person’s life.”
He wrote the Civil War drama “The Whipping Man,” which premiered in 2006 but didn’t have an off-Broadway run until 2011. “Somewhere” followed and was the only produced play of his that tapped into his Latinx heritage. “Reverberation” premiered at Hartford Stage but has not yet received another major production. But Lopez made a mark with the 2015 off-Broadway hit “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” a comedy about a straight man performing drag in a Florida Panhandle nightclub (which TheaterWorks Hartford produced in 2018).
His Authentic Self
For “The Inheritance,” Lopez wrote a play that was more deep and personal than any he had ever written. In dealing with Toby, a vainglorious and aspiring writer, Lopez was revealing a lot about himself, including issues of alcoholism, sex, and narcissism.
As a gay out man in his 20s in Manhattan, Lopez indulged in clubbing, heavy drinking, and careless sex which masked his personal struggle of loneliness, not feeling worthy, not fitting in.
“I was very aware that I was putting a lot of my own history into Toby, but it was also me trying to put myself into ‘Howards End,’” says Lopez, “and nine years sober.” He told a cast member that “Toby was who he was, and Eric is who he aspires to be.”
Years ago, Lopez told me that he wrote his share of semi-autobiographical works when he started out and didn’t have any interest in doing that any longer. “Oh, I have a drawer full of plays about breakups, lonely gay boys, and love affairs,” says Lopez. “There’s a lot of me in my early plays but no one wants to see my life depicted on stage. I’m bored by my life.”
But that all changed when he started writing “The Inheritance,” and – like Toby and E.M. Forster, too – he is reaching for his authentic self.
“If there’s anything I learned from sobriety – and I’ve learned a lot –it’s impossible to recognize the patterns of your life while you’re in the midst of it and it’s only when you come to the end of a cycle can you look back and see how long the cycle was and how it was constituted. It’s very clear to me now that this is the culmination of a 20-year cycle that started Jan. 5, 2000 when I first moved to New York, to Nov. 17, 2019 when we opened on Broadway.”
I asked him if he felt things had come full circle since his arrival in Manhattan and that meeting with Prince, who died last summer at 91 and knowing of Lopez’ success. Forster’s words from “Howards End” echoed: “Only connect.”
Terrence McNally’s husband, Tom Kirdahy, became lead producer for “The Inheritance.” Connections continue. Lopez’s play could also be seen as a younger generation talking to “Love! Valour! Compassion!” – McNally’s Tony Award-winning play, staged a quarter-century earlier.
In Rebecca Mead’s story on Lopez in The New Yorker, McNally said of “The Inheritance:” “As an 80-year-old survivor, observer, and participant of the many years covered in the play, it was as if someone were telling the story for the first time – so hot are its passions – and for the last time, with the compassion and wisdom we seek from our artists.”
I asked Lopez if he could have written “The Inheritance” when he was younger.
“It all seems that everything led up to it, that everything that preceded it was informing it. But at 23, you don’t think that way. You want everything right now. You’re impatient and I certainly was, and I got in a lot of trouble because of impatience,” he says. “I honestly think that if you told me at 23 that in 20 years I would have a show on Broadway, I would have probably said, ‘Why do I have to wait so long?’ But I couldn’t have written it at 23. I didn’t know enough about myself. For me, it took 20 years to get there. I wouldn’t do anything differently.”
And since the Broadway opening?
Crazy busy, he says, with not that much time spent at the Fort Greene loft he shares with his husband, Brandon Clarke, a private-school administrator. (They met in 2004 and married in 2015.)
Lopez is now tackling a multitude of projects, including a new script for a musical based on the film “Some Like It Hot.” (Not to be confused with an earlier musical version in the ‘70s.) He also says there’s interest in taking his play “Somewhere” and turning it into a television series. Work on the film version of his popular off-Broadway comedy “The Ballad of Georgia McBride” continues. There are several other film projects, too.
No, he hasn’t heard from television producer Ryan Murphy about turning “The Inheritance” into a Netflix project but if he does, Lopez jokes – kind of – there are a few scenes that he cut from the stage version that he’d be interested in putting back.
Finally, when I ask him to reflect on what impact “The Inheritance” has had on him as well as others, his tone shifts to a voice that is not unlike that of the play’s Eric, Lopez’s aspirational self.
“After asking an audience to sit there and listen to my play for seven hours, I realized very early on at the Young Vic that my role after the play is over is to then listen to other people, and they are so willing to tell their stories. ‘The Inheritance’ is just one story. It’s just my story. It isn’t meant to be definitive. It would be very depressing to think this was the only story. What’s been so gratifying is that others have wanted to tell their stories as a result, and I think that’s about as close to a mark of success as you could ever hope to find.”