This month marked the 39th anniversary of the first diagnosed cases of HIV/AIDS. Larry Kramer (1935-2020) was there. Read Trey Speegle‘s thoughtful #RIP here. He wrote a play about it, The Normal Heart, which I have a bit of history with.
The original 1985 production was produced by Joseph Papp at The Public Theatre, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, starring Brad Davis as the Kramer stand-in Ned Weeks (Joel Grey replaced Davis later in the run). The play shocked and touched audiences and ran for a year.
The Normal Heart finally played on Broadway in 2011, winning a much deserved Tony Award for Best Revival Of A Play, along with Tony Awards for my friend John Benjamin Hickey and the terrific Ellen Barkin. Kramer was on stage to accept the award along with the producers:
“For gay people everywhere, whom I love so dearly, The Normal Heart is our history. I could not have written it had not so many needlessly died. Learn from it and carry on the fight. Let them know that we are a very special people, an exceptional people, and that, our day will come.“
Against all odds, after trying for three decades, The Normal Heart was finally made into a stirring, well-acted, emotion-packed film directed by Ryan Murphy with a screenplay by Kramer. The film stars Mark Ruffalo, Taylor Kitsch, Alfred Molina, Julia Roberts, plus gay actors Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, B.D. Wong, Stephen Spinella, Denis O’Hare, and my boo, Jonathan Groff. It was nominated for nine Emmy Awards, winning for Best Television Film.
Here is the story with my own association with Kramer and The Normal Heart: Despite my reputation as a hedonist, a fellow known to swig and smoke and swallow substances to feel better, forget, or lose myself; I have never performed while anything less than stone cold sober. As an actor, I was always clean as a whistle, had my homework done, was prompt for rehearsals and performances, and made it a point to get along with the cast and crew. I had done a lot of work, a lot of good work, sometimes with some troublesome behavior swirling around me, at Seattle’s extraordinary hit-making Pioneer Square Theatre in the 1980s.
I was not completely surprised when the artistic directors and the theatre’s managing director told me that they had seen a production of The Normal Heart in London, and that they had secured the rights for the first Seattle production, and that they had me in mind for the lead role of Ned Weeks. I had already read the play and I was very intrigued with the idea of playing someone so close to my own personality. I usually was chosen for roles that were not anything like the real me. It is a breathtakingly good role in a powerful play. I never assumed for even a moment that the role was all sewn up. I worked especially hard at the audition and call backs, but I had a different kind of confidence, knowing that the play had been chosen with me in mind.
I didn’t get the part. I never portrayed Ned Weeks, a role on paper that haunted me with the likeness to my own persona. The role went to the artistic director himself, a straight guy, who must have realized how juicy the character was. I was offered another role and was told: “….we would still like you to be a part of this project”. I should have been a better man and a better actor; I turned down the smaller role.
When the Seattle production of The Normal Heart opened, I had inner-dialogue where I congratulated myself on dealing with my dreams being dashed in such a grownup way. I never shed a tear. I wished the cast all well on their opening and moved on. I had read a week’s worth of press before the opening and I didn’t flinch with sadness for opportunities lost. But on the afternoon of the opening of The Normal Heart, I broke out in a serious case of the hives. Every inch of my body covered in welts and rashes. Six weeks of bottling up my feelings and putting on my proud face took a toll on my body and I was a total mess. I finally cried. I would never be Ned Weeks. My boyfriend (now The Husband) said: “The body is a powerful thing. Yours is giving you a really strong message”.
Kramer described himself as a shy person who “gets nervous when I’m away from my computer”. He was nominated for a Tony Award for The Normal Heart. He won that Obie Award for his play that continues Ned Week’s story, The Destiny Of Me (1993), which was also a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize.
In 2017, I wrote a #BornThisDay about Kramer. I was surprised and atingle when I received an email from him the next day. In my piece, I had labeled the famed activist and writer “grouchy”. He thanked me for the tribute, and argued that he was only a little grouchy, but mostly “I am out outraged!”.