He Made Those Housewives Desperate
By Christopher Hann
Musicals are your first love. How did that happen?
I loved musicals when I was in high school. I would do backstage crew because I wasn’t a very good singer. And I would occasionally act because in community theater in suburban southern New Jersey you never have enough guys. Anyone that’s got an X and Y chromosome and a pulse is sort of dragooned.
How’d you start writing for the stage?
The spring of my freshman year there was a course being offered in writing for musical theater. It was a lab class on Monday nights at 7 p.m., three hours long. And I thought, “Wow, this is cool. I’d like to write a musical.” So I hooked up with another theater major that I didn’t know really well named Dan Studney C’89. And I asked him if he wanted to collaborate on a musical version of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. Dan didn’t give me an answer for a while, so I supposed he wasn’t interested until we were both at a party and Dan was telling someone else about this awesome Antigone musical that we were writing together. Dan and I wrote a couple of musicals that got produced at the Kirby Theatre [then called Bowne Theatre]. We specialized in wildly ambitious musicals that were far beyond the actual financial and logistical capacity of the Department of Theatre Arts to execute.
I read that you and Dan were on a long car ride from L.A. to Oakland when you decided to write the Reefer Madness musical [which began as a stage play and was later made into a Showtime movie, featuring an Emmy winning song adaptation].
We were listening to “Joe’s Garage,” Frank Zappa’s brilliant, totally anarchic stab at writing a musical that was semiserious in nature. And Dan goes, “What about Reefer Madness?” And we realized that that was the perfect way to tell this outlandish morality tale but at the same time talk about things that were important to us, such as people who stand up on a podium and use religion and use fear and use their children as weapons against other people. This was a period when Bill Clinton was being attacked for really ridiculous reasons when he was trying to do really good things. And I felt angry about it. When we went to write the movie screenplay, Bush was in office. If I was angry when I was writing the first Reefer Madness screenplay, I was apoplectic writing the movie screenplay. The Bush administration gave a tremendous gift to us in making our drama more relevant.
You’ve made musicals of Antigone and Reefer Madness, which is quite a range.
That’s without even touching on the musical version of Dennis the Menace, which I’ve written and we workshopped in Seattle in 2008, [or] Heathers, starring Kristen Bell. We’re also in negotiations to write a musical about the life of Cher.
Would Cher play Cher?
No. It’s going to be dealing with her life, and one of the things that is really important to her is being able to tell her story in an honest, straightforward way using the facts of her life that have never been revealed.
You’re also an executive producer of the new show Caprica on Syfy.
I was hired as a consultant. We did some rearranging, and I took over as showrunner. A showrunner essentially makes the day-today creative decisions for what we put on the screen, particularly with regards to text. I’m a huge, longtime fan of Battlestar Galactica. This show is a prequel. It takes place 58 years before the events of Battlestar Galactica, but it’s set in the same universe.
Let’s talk about Desperate Housewives. You were in on the ground floor, eventually becoming a co-executive producer.
I had finished shooting the Reefer Madness movie. This was 2004. I got a call from a colleague of mine, Tom Spezialy, and he said that he was doing this new show Desperate Housewives, and they needed someone to be a high-level writer-producer. So I met Mark Cherry [the show’s creator], and we shared a deep and abiding love of Stephen Sondheim. We hit it off. I was essentially head writer. I was the last person who would touch the script before it would go to Mark and Tom.
I read that your favorite housewife is played by Felicity Huffman.
I adore her.
She’s wicked smart, cares deeply about her character, cares deeply about where her story lines go, and she asks a million questions—and it’s never in a confrontational way in which you feel that you’re bumping up against preconceived notions.
Your wife [Noreen Halpern] is the executive producer of HBO’s Hung. Do you tell friends that you were the inspiration for that show?
Well, they had to downplay it a little bit because otherwise the truth would be implausible.
Is there a best perk about being a success in Hollywood?
People feel safe about continuing to hire you for new jobs.
You have a 2-year-old son, Carter. Do you work any differently now that you’re a father?
I try to balance what I’m doing because there’s a lot of stuff that he won’t be able to see for 10 years. For every Reefer Madness, I try to do a Dennis the Menace. I have another project, Green Monkeys, a children’s animated series. It’s something that Carter could enjoy immediately.
Do you always have two or three or four balls in the air?
If you’re successful, 90 percent of everything you develop never gets to see the light of day.
At Drew you and some friends helped start The Other End, the coffeehouse in the basement of Sitterly. Did you know it’s still around?
I’m delighted by it. I was the original kitchen manager. I had to cook apple pies in bulk.
Partly because I knew it was a school where I could double major, so it would be possible to mollify my parents into thinking I was doing something that would eventually make me money. Then I could bait-and-switch them and add the theater major once I’d been here a month. So I acted the first semester. Then I saw the talent surrounding me, and I was like, “Oh shit. I suck.” So I never auditioned again.
It sounds like there’s a direct line between what you learned at Drew and what you’re doing now.
It’s such an eerily direct line that I would hate to give people the impression that it’s just that easy. You know: “Come to Drew, and you’ll meet two longtime writing partners, and you’ll meet a professor who will help you launch your professional career, and suddenly they’ll introduce two courses that are exactly tailored to the thing you want to do.” There are no limits here beyond those which you set for yourself. My experience is the school will say yes to anything.
—Drew Magazine, Spring 2010