Grote Expectations: A New Musical Heralds the Power of Story

"I’m partial to the guillotine as a device," the playwright said.

Layan Elwazani, Chad Goodridge, Jen Anaya and company in a rehearsal photo from "One Thousand Nights and One Day." Photo: Chris Milligan.

When I was but a baby blogger, mewling and verbally puking around in what used to be called the Theatrosphere, playwright Jason Grote commanded such an enviable following — one that has only grown and deepened over time. As gifted with rhetoric as in his craft, my sense of his now-shuttered blog, The Fortress of Jason Grote, wasn’t that it needed a tall wall for defense (ahem) but that it was a welcoming, warm, if rather formidable, enclave. Grote’s hugely successful play 1001, an intensely creative and sweeping adaptation and deconstruction of 1001 Arabian Nights, possessed a similar appeal, functioning as a near-perfect summation of the playwright’s fecund mind and sensibility. He has written many other plays, of course — and TV episodes of Mad Men and Smash and Hannibal — but 1001 remains Grote’s most produced work, with scores of productions nationwide. And now, quicker than you can say “subsidiary rights,” it is about to become a new musical, called One Thousand Nights and One Day.

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I asked Grote how he’d describe himself to someone wholly unfamiliar with his work. You get the sense that the following was penned in a single, fingers-on-keyboard breath, like a  flash of focus, of white heat. You might not recognize all the people, places and things that he refers to, but the greater point is that his values, like his talent and heart, are never far from the surface:

Jason Grote was arrested in 1998 for allegedly being part of a plot to release 10,000 live crickets in One Police Plaza to protest Rudy Giuliani’s sale of the CHARAS/El Bohio community center and hundreds of community gardens to private real estate developers. He spent nearly 24 hours incarcerated, including a stretch at the infamous Tombs at 100 Centre Street. CHARAS was lost, as were many of the gardens, but many others were saved thanks to the work of hundreds of activists and organizations including (but not limited to) The Community Garden Coalition, Time’s Up, The Lower East Side Collective, The Trust for Public Land, and Bette Midler. He currently lives in LA and mostly writes for TV, including the Mad Men where everyone gets speed injected into their butts.

Produced by Off-Broadway’s Prospect Theater CompanyOne Thousand Nights and One Day is a meta-paean to storytelling for it is very much storytelling about storytelling. In mythic Persia, a daring young woman spins tales in order to save a kingdom — and her life. Meantime, in modern-day NYC, a Jewish man and Palestinian woman fight to find love in a fractured world. And so on and on it goes, with the classical continually colliding with the contemporary, and genres effortlessly bent and twisted to suit the moment. Like 1001One Thousand Nights and One Day questions past and present images of the Middle East as it explores the eternal, primal power of a tale well told. For the musical version, Grote wrote book and lyrics, Marisa Michelson composed the highly versatile score, and the director is Erin Ortman.

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Grote told me that the musical is like his play in that “it’s a deconstruction of the Arabian Nights through the lens of Edward Said’s Orientalism — that is, the creation of the Arab ‘other’ in centuries of Western literature.” But, more simply, he says, it’s equally a love story one abetted by a score that is, in his view, “completely its own animal, aesthetically and narratively, moving fluidly through Middle Eastern and South Asian musical forms, choral music, electronic avant-gardism, and music theater.”

One Thousand Nights and One Day begins previews on Apr. 4, opens Apr. 15, and runs until Apr. 29 at the ART/NY Mezzanine Theatre (502 W. 53rd St.). For tickets, click here.

And now, 5 questions that Jason Grote has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

This one.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

People have said many idiotic things about my work, but none of them have ever been questions.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

Whether I owed my obsession with grocery stores to Don DeLillo’s White Noise.

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There’s such a great description in the press release for One Thousand Nights and One Day: “King Shahriyar is marrying a new bride every night and beheading her the next morning.” Sounds metaphorically familiar, hm? Should audiences draw parallels with anything in our political times or is that, er, too stormy an idea?

This is actually the plot to the original Arabian Nights tales. Its provenance is disputed (this dispute is explored in the play), but most scholars agree that it’s anywhere between 1,000 and 400 years old. Though it might feel as if Trump’s presidency has lasted that long, it’s only been a little over a year. Perhaps there is some connection between sexual depravity and a certain idiotic version of aspirational despotism.

There’s also a Washington Post quote on your website about your work — how your plays “explode the boundaries between the ordinary and the chimerical, the political and the aesthetic, the intimate and the dizzyingly cosmic.” Nice words; but now it’s your turn. In 20 words, describe your unique voice and value proposition as a writer for stage and screen.

The stranger walks toward the children, who walk into the sky. A lesson is born.

Bonus question:

If you could devise a three-act play depicting how American society could bend toward real social justice at last, what would be the action at the play’s climax?

I’m partial to the guillotine as a device.