Maurice Sendak’s home phone number is hidden under a wall in my house. It’s like a secret from one of his books, a dream in code, a treasured key which unlocks memories.
About a decade ago, a publicist from New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas called me. The festival was hosting an Italian puppetry troupe who’d built a performance around a short, silent Maurice Sendak cartoon sequence. Sendak himself had deigned to give an interview, and they’d like to present this rare honor to me.
Unfortunately, the offer came too late for me to do anything practical with it. The New Haven Advocate was the only place I wrote for at the time, and I’d already filed my A&I previews for that week’s issue. The paper was already at the printers. There was no way I could do a timely article on Sendak prior to the Italian troupe’s brief local run. Surely they could be offering this opportunity to one of the daily papers covering the festival?
“Well….,” the publicist said, “we’re not sure we could trust anyone else with him.”
Maurice Sendak’s legendary prickliness was not just a reality. It was a liability. The artist, who had been enduring severe health problems for decades before his death last week at age 83, did not suffer fools gladly. A&I didn’t want to inflict him on someone who wouldn’t be able to handle him. I have a reputation not just for doing substantial homework before interviews but for respecting an artist’s whole body of work. I instinctively knew that the secret to an interview with Sendak, despite what all my friends and colleagues said when they heard I would be having a phone chat with him, was NOT to mention Where the Wild Things Are. I was a lifelong Sendak fan. There was so much I was genuinely curious about regarding his extraordinary career, including obscure projects I’d never seen mentioned in stories about him, that I took the plunge.
The A&I rep gave me Sendak’s number. My wife and I were redoing the kitchen in our newly-bought home, and the walls and ceilngs had been gutted. I scrawled the digits on a piece of drywall now languishing behind the painted wall installed over it, and further buried behind a cupboard and a telephone. My own little Night Kitchen secret.
So what did Maurice Sendak and I chat about? Mostly about opera. That ended up being the only safe way to bring up Where the Wild Things Are, since it had been made into an opera that Sendak had designed. Sendak contributed the information, known to few at the time, that he was cool with the book being filmed. (He was, of course, referring to what ultimately became the controversial Spike Jonez. Dave Eggers adaptation.)
We discussed the children’s book he’d done with Tony Kushner, based on the Holocaust-wrought children’s opera Brundibar by Hans Krasa and Adolf Hoffmeister, which had originally been written and presented by those held in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Sendak mentioned that project was being turned into a stage production as well.
The talk was a joy. It was scheduled to last a few minutes but we kept talking for over an hour, with him asking me as many questions as I asked him. We discussed modern artists he admired, delved into his lifelong love of Mozart and both tried to figure out the process through which he decided when and how he would collaborate with others. He was as surprised as anyone when he signed off on certain adaptations and new projects. Some, like a theatrically inclined series of pre-K-friendly photo-books featuring the slapstick characters “Frank and Joey,” whose antics were staged on sets designed by Sendak, were pitched by old friends such as Arthur Yorinks. Others, like the beloved Carole King musicalization of Sendak stories, Really Rosie, just felt right. A collaboration with the modern movement troupe Pilobolus, on a Holocaust piece which played New Haven’s Shubert Theatre, had something to do with geographical convenience, since both the artist and Pilobolus (a company which is very cartoon-respectful, and has since devised a piece with Art Spiegelman) were based in Connecticut.
Most of my interview with Sendak never got published. I wasn’t blogging at the time, and there was no relevancy for in the Advocate once the Italian puppetry piece (about a boy getting eaten by a goose) had left town.
But several years later, it was announced that the Yale Repertory Theatre would be producing Brundibar, with libretto adapted by Kushner and sets based on Sendak’s illustrations, as well as a companion piece, Bohuslav Martinu’s Comedy on the Bridge also shaped by Kushner and Sendak. The gestation of this project was that Kushner and Sendak had become friends. Sendak knew of Brundibar and interested Kushner in it. The success of their book version of the story naturally got theaters interested in staging the opera again. The Yale Rep premiere (a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre) had originally been slated for New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre but had been scuttled due to budget concerns.
As the Yale Rep presentation of Brundibar neared, I duly put in for a fresh interview with Sendak, confident that we’d hit it off before, I had proven myself as worthy of his time, and that he might even remember me. I waited weeks in vain. The word came back that he was doing only three interviews around the project—a standard number for big names doing shows in Connecticut. With many stars, despite working for an alt-weekly, I’d be able to be one of those three. This time, I was up against New Yorker Magazine, which was doing a major profile on Sendak for when the Brundibar production moved to New York.
So I dug out my notes from 2001, and there were two pages of Maurice Sendak talking about Brundibar and a slew of comments on other operas he’d done. The quotes were delicious: “I detest puppet shows. I don't know why they exist. They're in the same category as musicals,” for instance. Or “The only thing I agree with Harold Bloom about is that he'd rather read a play than see it.” He called Brundibar “my perfect swan song for the theater.” Apropos of this week, when I mentioned to Sendak that some excellent reprints of his early work had just been published by Harper Books, he told me, “I’m not interested in endurance. It sounds like a tombstone.”
That 2006 feature story on Sendak, as the Advocate ran it, is here.
My Advocate cover story preview of Brundibar, interviewing Tony Kushner and the show’s director Tony Taccone, is here.
On opening night of Brundibar at the Yale University Theater in 2006, I was able to edge my way past the entourage surrounding Sendak and give him my regards. He pretended to remember me, and I like to imagine that I might have had a bit of a chance to speak to him longer if I hadn’t been ushered away by protective Yale Rep staff all too aware of not just his physical infirmities but his snappish reputation.
But in the best tradition of the young heroes whom Maurice Sendak concocted for his classic and uncompromising children’s books, I was the cocky bastard who had a secret from all those fussy grown-ups: I could tame and befriend the wild thing. I sailed away smirking.
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