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Uhry, Alfred 1936–

Uhry, Alfred 1936–

PERSONAL: Born 1936, in Atlanta, GA; son of Ralph K. (a furniture designer and artist) and Alene (a social worker; maiden name, Fox) Uhry; married Joanna Kellogg (a teacher), June 13, 1959; children: Emily, Elizabeth, Kate, Nell. Education: Brown University, B.A., 1958.

ADDRESSES: Office—c/o Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd St., New York, NY 10036. Agent—Flora Roberts Agency, 157 West 57th St., Penthouse A, New York, NY 10019.

CAREER: Playwright and lyricist. Worked with composer Frank Loesser, 1960–63; Calhoun High School (private school), New York, NY, instructor in English and drama, until 1980; affiliated with Goodspeed Opera House, 1980–84; New York University, New York, NY, instructor in lyric writing, 1985–88; worked on comedy scripts for television.

MEMBER: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Dramatists Guild.

AWARDS, HONORS: Drama Desk Award nominations, 1975, for The Robber Bridegroom, and 1987, for Driving Miss Daisy; Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Award nomination, American Theater Wing and League of American Theaters, 1976, for The Robber Bridegroom; Pulitzer Prize for drama, 1988, for Driving Miss Daisy; Academy Award for best screenplay adaptation, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1989, for Driving Miss Daisy; American Theater Critics Association Best Play, Outer Critics Circle Award and Tony Award for best play, 1997, all for The Last Night of Ballyhoo; Tony Award for book of a musical, 1999, for Parade.

WRITINGS:

(Lyricist; book by Terrence McNally; music by Robert Waldman) Here's Where I Belong (musical; based on John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden), produced in New York, NY, 1968.

(Lyricist and librettist; music by Robert Waldman) The Robber Bridegroom (two-act musical; based on Eudora Welty's novella of the same title; produced Off-Off Broadway, 1975, produced on Broadway, 1975), Drama Book Specialists, 1978.

Chapeau (musical; based on a French farce, An Italian Straw Hat), produced at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 1977.

(Lyricist; book by Conn Fleming; music by Robert Waldman) Swing (musical), produced in Wilmington, DE, 1980, produced at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 1980.

(Adaptor) George M. Cohan, Little Johnny Jones (two-act musical), produced on Broadway, 1982.

(Lyricist and librettist) America's Sweetheart (musical; based on John Kobler's book of the same title), produced in Hartford, CT, 1985.

Driving Miss Daisy (play; produced Off-Broadway, 1987), Theater Communications Group, 1988.

(With Amy Jones, Perry Howze, and Randy Howze) Mystic Pizza (screenplay), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1988.

Driving Miss Daisy (screenplay), Warner Bros., 1989.

Rich in Love, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1993.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Theater Communications Group (New York, NY), 1997.

Parade, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, produced at Lincoln Center Theater, 1999.

Also author of screenplay, Blondie, Walt Disney Co., and worked on script for Paradise Road, 1997. Adapted musical comedies for revivals, including Funny Face.

ADAPTATIONS: The Robber Bridegroom was adapted for a sound recording, Columbia Special Products, 1978.

WORK IN PROGRESS: A screenplay, Charm.

SIDELIGHTS: After years of working in the wings as a lyricist and librettist, Alfred Uhry burst into the limelight with his first original play, the Off-Broadway hit Driving Miss Daisy, in 1987. He had had some success in the mid-1970s with the Broadway musical The Robber Bridegroom, receiving a Tony Award nomination for his work, but subsequent projects had fizzled. Uhry was considering leaving the theater altogether when the idea for Driving Miss Daisy—about an elderly Jewish woman and the black chauffeur foisted on her by her son—finally struck him as viable. The finished play garnered him a Pulitzer Prize and box-office success; his film adaptation won an Academy Award.

Uhry's first well-known work, The Robber Bridegroom, is a rustic musical based on a novella by Mississippi writer Eudora Welty; Uhry wrote the "book," or script, and the song lyrics. The story concerns a gentleman thief in backwoods Mississippi who decides to steal not only money but love. First produced in small venues, the play became a surprise hit on New York's Off-Broadway circuit in 1975 and ran on Broadway for nearly one hundred fifty performances during the 1976–1977 season. In a 1976 New York Times review, Clive Barnes characterized the work as "unpretentious … but extremely stylish" and commended Uhry for being "very fair to the original." Barnes felt that Uhry succeeded in retaining "not only Miss Welty's strange command of fantasy but also something of the original's underlying menace." Barry Bostwick, who starred in the 1976 production, won a Tony Award for his performance.

After The Robber Bridegroom Uhry's fortunes waned somewhat. He turned to teaching, and he worked on other musicals, including a revival of George M. Cohan's Little Johnny Jones starring teen idol Donny Osmond. Some of the musicals closed on opening night or soon after; others never opened. By 1984 Uhry was struggling to get a workshop production of a musical about gangster Al Capone off the ground—America's Sweetheart—and thinking about leaving theater for good. In an interview with Chicago Tribune entertainment editor Richard Christiansen, Uhry commented: "Here I was,… working without pay, and doing something that was very, very hard. Something whispered in my ear that it was time to sit down and write a play."

Uhry had always known his family's legend about his grandmother, a cantankerous former schoolteacher who continued to drive long after she could do so safely and who was finally forced to relinquish the driver's seat to a black chauffeur. The tale hadn't seemed worth mining for drama at first. "I can't tell you how uninteresting it all seemed to me when I was a young man," Uhry told Leslie Bennetts in a New York Times interview. While he contemplated trading theater for teaching, however, he decided he could write the story of his grandmother, if only for himself. Such a play could counter misperceptions about race relations in the South. The chauffeur was neither a cowed servant nor a fiery revolutionary; the grandmother was not openly hostile toward blacks and even insisted she was not prejudiced. "Being rude is frowned upon in the South," Uhry observed. "Probably the same things are going on under the surface as everywhere else, but in the South everyone's sugary and sweet and polite." The relationship's twenty-five-year span covered the civil rights struggles from the 1950s to early 1970s, allowing Uhry to reflect some of the changes of that era in his play. And the changes in the relationship itself provided ample material—two very different people, suspicious of each other and resolutely formal in their relations, nonetheless become friends.

When Driving Miss Daisy begins, seventy-two-year-old Daisy has just wrecked her new car, and her son, Boo-lie, decides she needs a driver. Over her strong objections, Boolie hires Hoke, a black man ten years her junior, to drive for her. At first Daisy refuses to use his services; grudgingly, she finally consents. She finds fault with Hoke at every opportunity, but over the years she takes a more positive interest in him and even teaches him to read. Years pass before she will admit any kind of fondness for him, however. Daisy is in her nineties when she finally admits Hoke is her best friend. "This odd love story, though it never underestimates the difficulty of intimacy between the races, could easily grow mawkish," noted Robert Brustein in a New Republic review. "It is a tribute to Uhry's discreet understatement that the sentiment does not grow into corn." Such understatement turned out to be inherent in Uhry's subject—as he told Bennetts: "Sentiment was never going to get in [my grandmother's] way. When I was a little boy and wrote her letters, she would send them back to me—corrected."

Other critics joined in praising the restraint, humor, and humanity of Driving Miss Daisy. In the New York Times, Mel Gussow observed that Uhry "wisely refrains from melodramatic confrontation. The play remains quiet, and it becomes disarming, as it delineates the characters with almost offhanded glimpses." A quick trip to the store, a visit to the synagogue, a day at the cemetery become occasions to examine Daisy and Hoke's backgrounds, attitudes, and misperceptions. Daisy learns that Hoke is illiterate, for example, only because when they visit the cemetery he can't find the headstone she asked him to put flowers on for a friend. Daisy's conviction that blacks are thieves stands revealed when she prematurely accuses Hoke of stealing a can of salmon from her pantry. "Driving Miss Daisy is all of a piece," assessed Brustein, "combining elements of sense and sensibility, not to mention generous portions of pride and prejudice. It is the work of decent people, working against odds to show how humans still manage to reach out to each other in a divided world." Describing it as "sparely written, powerfully felt," Christiansen concluded his Chicago Tribune review by calling the work "a little play to treasure for the rest of our lives."

Critics were similarly receptive to the film version, starring veteran actress Jessica Tandy as Daisy and Morgan Freeman recreating his stage role as Hoke. The adaptation, written by playwright Uhry himself, "aspires more to complex observation of human behavior than to simple moralism about it," remarked Richard Schickel in Time. "Precisely because it has its priorities straight, it succeeds superbly on both levels." Vincent Canby of the New York Times deemed it "the most successful stage-to-screen translation" since Academy Award-winner Dangerous Liaisons. Canby commended both Uhry and director Bruce Beresford, who, "working in concert, see to it that the essential spirit of Driving Miss Daisy shines through."

The adaptation of Driving Miss Daisy was not quite Uhry's first experience with writing for the screen: earlier he had helped finish the script for the 1988 film Mystic Pizza, about three young women working in a pizza parlor in Mystic, Connecticut. Already credited to three screenwriters, the script came to the playwright with some problems and a story that interested Uhry, the father of four daughters. All three characters are working-class Portuguese-American girls making their way through various romantic entanglements on their way to maturity. Jojo is in love but afraid to get married; gorgeous Daisy is involved with a blue-blood recently expelled from Yale University; Daisy's sister Kat, set on attending Yale herself, falls in love with a married man. The finished film received mixed reviews.

In a Washington Post review, Hal Hinson found the conflicts "at best, formulaic," the film itself "old-fashioned" and clichéd. New York Times critic Janet Maslin, however, stated that although the situations might be predictable, the film "manages to seem fresh anyhow." Suggesting that all its elements "are presented in an entirely winning way," Maslin asserted that Mystic Pizza "offers warm, inviting and funny glimpses into the lives and loves of three appealing young women."

With Driving Miss Daisy a hit with stage and screen audiences, Uhry became recognized as an artistic representative of his home town, Atlanta. In that spirit, he was commissioned for the 1996 Cultural Olympiad in Atlanta, an arts festival that accompanied the Summer Olympic Games. Uhry wrote the comedy-drama Last Night of Ballyhoo for the festival; the play takes place in 1939 at the eve of the world premiere of Gone with the Wind—the last time prior to the Olympics that the city had been in the international spotlight, according to the author. This play explores the Jewish experience in the South as seen through a family preparing for Ballyhoo, a cotillion for young Jewish belles of the pre-World War II era. Debutante Lala Levy, tragically dateless for the ball, is the object of obsession by her mother, Boo. "Preparations for and attendance of the gala ball parallel the gala Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind as well as the gala events that occur in the film prior to the outbreak of the Civil War," as Mel Koler described it in Contemporary Southern Writers. When Last Night of Ballyhoo was taken to Broadway in February 1997, Dana Ivey, who created the character of Daisy on Broadway, returned to play Boo Levy in what proved to be a popular production. "Uhry's dialogue is packed with laughs," declared Greg Evans of Variety, "and the byplay between Ivey and [co-star Celia Weston] is wonderfully performed." Ballyhoo went on to win a spate of awards, including a Tony for best play.

As an established voice for the Jewish South, Uhry was a natural choice to provide the book for the new 1999 musical, Parade. Based on a true story, Parade deals with the trial of Leo Frank, an Atlanta pencil factory manager indicted for the rape and murder of a thirteen-year-old employee, Mary Phagan, in 1913. Though the evidence against Frank was flimsy and his defense inadequate, "Georgians were satisfied with the result," noted New Leader contributor Stefan Kanfer. "As soon as they learned Frank's name and background they thought the worst of him. He was, after all, a Jew. Moreover, he was a Jew from New York." Through the relentless intervention of Frank's wife, Lucille, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. This infuriated a vigilante mob, who kidnapped Frank and offered him one more chance to "confess" to the murder. When he refused, they lynched him.

While generally well received, Parade was the focus of some critics who found the subject matter somewhat heavy-handed for a musical. Kanfer wondered why the drama was in this format at all: "Granted, [the musicals] Rent and Titanic have recently demonstrated that grief can inspire Broadway melodies. The sad fact, though, is that Frank was not nearly as compelling in life as he was in death. He appeared to have very little personality then, and seems even more remote today." Kanfer also noted that the depiction of Southern bigots and kangaroo courts has been explored, to greater effect, in works like To Kill a Mockingbird and Inherit the Wind. Parade's characterization of small-minded Atlantans, remarked Variety writer Charles Isherwood, "makes for less than nuanced drama." Still, Parade netted Uhry a Tony award for his book.

Addressing the issue of critics, Uhry had this to say: "Critics are a necessary evil as far as I'm concerned. I don't think they write their reviews for me, but I suppose we need them in society. I put no store by good reviews or bad reviews. Bad ones hurt my feelings, sure. But they don't change my opinion of things I like or don't like."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Contemporary Dramatists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

PERIODICALS

Atlanta Constitution, April 25, 1990, Keith Graham, "Alfred Uhry Driven by His Craft."

Back Stage West, December 13, 2001, Terri Roberts, review of The Last Night of Ballyhoo, p. 13.

Chicago Tribune, April 3, 1988; April 24, 1988.

Daily Variety, November 4, 2002, Markland Taylor, review of Edgardo Mine, p. 8.

Entertainment Weekly, June 20, 1997, Mark Harris, review of The Last Night of Ballyhoo, p. 31.

Explicator, Spring, 2003, Brian Sutton, "Williams's The Glass Menagerie and Uhty's Last Night of Ballyhoo," pp. 172-174.

Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1988.

National Review, April 12, 1993, John Simon, review of Rich in Love, p. 64.

New Leader, January 11, 1999, Stefan Kanfer, review of Murder in the Present Tense, p. 22.

New Republic, September 28, 1987, Robert Brustein, review of Driving Miss Daisy.

New Yorker, April 27, 1987.

New York Times, October 19, 1975; October 11, 1976, Clive Barnes, review of The Robber Bridegroom; April 16, 1987; October 11, 1987; December 23, 1987; October 23, 1988, Janet Maslin, review of Mystic Pizza; June 4, 1989; December 13, 1989; February 23, 1997, Alex Witchel, "Remembering Prejudice, of a Different Sort."

People, May 23, 1988; March 8, 1993, Leah Rozen, review of Rich in Love, p. 15.

Time, December 18, 1989, Richard Schickel, review of Driving Miss Daisy; March 8, 1993, review of Rich in Love, p. 73.

Variety, February 21, 1994, p. 169; March 3, 1997, Greg Evans, review of The Last Night of Ballyhoo, p. 77; December 21, 1998, Charles Isherwood, review of Parade, p. 85.

Washington Post, October 22, 1988, Hal Hinson, review of Mystic Pizza.

ONLINE

Chelsea Forum, Inc. Web Site, http://www.chelseaforum.com/ (August 20, 2004), "Alfred Uhry."

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