As the widow of the Oscar-winning screenwriter and Broadway playwright James Goldman, Bobby Goldman must have many tales to tell — and as Jim, as he was known, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1998, nearly 20 years to tell them. But the tale she tells in Curvy Widow, the new Off-Broadway musical starring the incandescent yet thrillingly loopy Nancy Opel, is fundamentally about herself. About picking herself, unexpectedly single. About the monumental personal adjustment needed to determine what’s next in love, in life.
If it isn’t really fair to judge the quality of a couple’s marriage by, of all things, a musical written by the surviving spouse, you do feel like Bobby Goldman’s book for Curvy Widow gives you a good idea of what it was like — abetted by Drew Brody’s gently, sardonic, sensitive score. Bobby had fine attributes of her own before Jim died (her program bio calls her a “world-class chef, interior designer, contractor and boxer”), but as the show begins, it’s a crowded household of three: Bobby, Jim, and Jim’s ego. She does everything for the man, it seems, including handling his contracts. Then Jim dies and Bobby is alone, and what should surround her but Jim’s literal ghost? One that turns up and turns up and turns up as Bobby tries, tentatively, to move into whole new chapters of living, through dating and through sex and beyond, until she can finally, bravely, defiantly bid Jim an honest — and permanent — goodbye. And he’s not going to make it easy for her. Of course he wouldn’t.
Curvy Widow finds Opel running one train on two tracks: playing the sexy, even semi-raunchy comedy in Goldman’s script; and playing the tumultuous interior of a woman in mourning and thrilled to be free. It’s a plum assignment for a performer who’s been a Broadway baby since she became Patti LuPone’s understudy in Evita nearly 40 years ago. A dozen-plus shows, three Drama Desk nominations and a Tony nod later, Opel’s natural and infectious vitality offers Bobby the right depth for her dimensions.
Name the last musical about a woman in her 50s rediscovering her libido. Or the douche-y ghost of her husband berating her for having one. Bobby wants sex. Wait, wait — does she? More to the point: should she? Opel’s job as the key performer of the seven-person cast isn’t to answer these questions; Goldman’s autobiographical script certainly doesn’t answer them all. But it is Opel’s job to give Bobby’s soul. And that she does. She’s complicated. She’s cranky. She’s a Curvy Widow:
Leonard Jacobs: How does something like Curvy Widow come into a person’s life?
Nancy Opel: Way back when, Bobby wrote a one-woman play called Curvy Widow, and I did a reading in her home. All these years later, when the producers approached me about the musical, she didn’t remember me. I guess I made a really good impression. Cybill Shepard got attached to the one-woman play. But that’s how I first got a taste of the story.
LJ: Oh, I’m sure they remembered you.
NO: Well, last year, kind of out of the blue, someone from [General Managers] Foresight Theatricals got in touch with me. They said, “You know, we’re interested in doing this — would you please read the script and listen to a few songs?” Taking it from a one-woman play to a musical with seven people is quite different. With more people, with the addition of music and lyrics that were — are — really good, I expressed my interest. They asked if I’d go into the studio and record some stuff and I said yes.
LJ: So — promising.
NO: Right? Then they said, “You know, we’re looking to do sort of an out-of-town tryout with this; we’re thinking somewhere in the early spring . Then they found a place for Curvy Widow to premiere — down in Asheville, North Carolina, at NC Stages. And it just so happened I sort of had a slot available when they were ready. In October of last year, we did the show down there. It’s funny how you don’t really know what you’ve got until you get it in front of people? I don’t think anybody writes musicals to impress a certain group, but you never know how it’s going to hit people. It’s also a musical about a woman at an age where you play the old granny or the new stepmother. I liked the feel of this because it was a fresh story. So we went to North Carolina and had this amazing response. We were all kind of shocked at how good the response was. After a little bit of making changes, when we were getting ready to finish, Bobby said to me, “Hey, you don’t happen to know any theaters…?”
LJ: And then Nancy just happened to know…
NO: Exactly! So I said, “Well, I know a theater with a demographic perfect for this show — let me get in touch with them. Who knows?” That was the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
LJ: Some shows spend a million years in development and Curvy Widow was on warp speed.
NO: Now it’s toward the beginning of November, last year. Not long after Thanksgiving, [George Street Artistic Director] David Saint called me up and said, “Nancy, tell me about this show.” He’s very dry; he asked me questions. I said, “David, I’m with you that it could seem a little weird on the page, but it plays. I give you my word: this plays.” I also said, “How many times have I asked you to do a show that I thought was good? This is the one. I’m cashing in all my chits: this is the one you should do.” David keeps the last show of their season open always for just an occasion like this, so probably right before Christmas, George Street gave Curvy Widow their last spot of the season.
So now we’ve just closed in North Carolina and we’re looking at a spring opening in New Brunswick — which we were all shocked and thrilled about at the same time. Then we’re on our way to George Street and [Off-Broadway’s] Westside Theatre became availablem. So right before rehearsals at George Street, we secured the Westside Theatre. Here we are.
LJ: Did the fast-track on this show make it difficult to evolve the material?
NO: Every change made since George Street is pretty surgical and precise — once you really know your show, it’s easier to make changes. We’re maybe 90, 85 minutes, something like that. We’ve still tinkered since getting into town, which I think has made the show clearer, crisper, sharper. Here we are, in less than a year, into our third production. It’s like a rocket ship. No one was expecting this would happen. We were thinking the trajectory would be two years, maybe.
LJ: Is it mostly the creative team offering suggestions or changes, or were you — given that you as Bobby is the center of it all — integrated with the process?
NO: This has been an extremely collaborative process among all of the creative team and the rest of the cast and the producers and me. It has been less about “Would Bobby Goldman actually say that?,” and more “Hey, I feel as an actor on the stage that this might work a little better.” I don’t claim to know Bobby Goldman’s life more than she knows her own. Sometimes I’ve given them jokes that we’re using. Nobody is precious with what they’ve done, and that’s the point. It makes it so much faster. We’re all working to make the show good. We’re almost ego-less about it.
LJ: Is there a “but,” though, since Bobby wrote this about herself?
NO: Here’s the interesting thing. What Bobby set out to write was kind of a naughty, racy, sexy, campy romp: What happens when you find yourself alone suddenly in the middle of your life? Friends will say “You’ve got to get out and date again” or “You’ll be happier if you find someone.” They mean well, but these people want to partner you up again, they want you to think you must want it again to be happy again. Is that true? I don’t think that’s true. Bobby says the fact that there’s a woman originally from Kansas playing her softens the edges a little bit. So — naughty, racy, sexy, campy romp. OK. Sometimes I’ll say, “Hey, I’m feeling a little crossing the line-y right here.” So even though she wrote this thing that she thought was going to be sexy, campy, she also wrote with a composer-lyricist who channels the emotional landscape of this woman. There was a song — one of the first I ever heard for the show. It’s a ballad, right after Bobby’s husband dies. One of the first things I said was that the lyric — though they’re beautiful — aren’t quite exact in terms of where I go in the play. They feel a little victim-y. She’s not a victim that she finds herself alone in the middle of her life. It’s “What now? What now?” Drew said, “OK, OK, let me look at this.” So a couple of days later, we were already at Asheville, and he came back with a new set of lyrics that were incredible — exactly the jumping-off place we needed. He’s very adept at understanding emotional landscapes.
Here’s what makes it important, though, because it’s not about me saying this to him. So many widows have come up to me after performances and said, about the song Drew wrote, “That’s exactly the feeling I’ve had.” They talk about when you’re feeling down and there’s nobody bringing you a washcloth when you’re not feeling well, the moment you really feel alone. It’s “Hey, wait a minute. Am I missing a person? Or am I missing the care-taking of another person? Is it missing a habit?” I think sometimes people say, “Oh, it must mean I’m lonely and I need to find somebody right away.” Look how many people have rebound relationships.
LJ: What you’re describing is subtext as much as context.
NO: This is the part of the show where I wondered if everybody would go along for the ride. Once you get to be funny and make people laugh, people roll with the punches that Bobby’s dealt.
LJ: I think the punches start before they’re dealt — before Jim dies. Sorry, but not very likable.
NO: Everything was about him. I think Bobby cooked for 100 people on her wedding day. She is a very efficient, effective person. And she was that during their marriage. When I say some people are used to just care-taking, we’re talking about her. She still handles contracts for people. She’s a very interesting person.
LJ: Does she think it was all about him?
NO: I know that at least she felt — this is all subjective — that it was all about him. She had a husband who was well-known, so it was all about him.
LJ: Every time Jim’s ghost reappeared I was sort of grimacing at whatever withering remark he had to lob at Bobby next.
NO: See, saying it was all about him was her efficient way of dealing with her conscience in the show when she starts to date. Then she had to come to “Don’t make me feel bad for dating.” Honestly, what Jim provides in an efficient way is a guilty conscience; it’s “Should I go on a date and feel bad because I slept with a man?” When Bobby says goodbye to Jim at the end, she’s embracing her life and doesn’t need to feel bad anymore. I’ve discovered a lot from meeting many widowed people. Couples who have been widowed. I remember one couple in the front row of George Street. They kept on grabbing each other’s hand, and there were tears. They understood.