Actor talks Wilder from  ‘Matchmaker’ to ‘Bridge of San Luis Rey’

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Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Thursday, July 12, 2018 4:15PM

Playwright, actor and director David Greenspan is attending the Third International Thornton Wilder Conference as a cast member of Wilder’s one-act play The Long Christmas Dinner on Thursday, July 12, at 8 p.m. at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture.

Greenspan is also participating as a panelist in the Wilder Conference Session 9: Special Session: Wither Wilde? on Friday, July 13, at 11:15 a.m. The panel will be lead by Wilder’s nephew Tappan Wilder.

Greenspan also performed parts of his play, based off Wilder’s novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” at a Wednesday night reception for conference attendees held Wednesday night at Keene State College.

“I’ve always found Thornton Wilder an interesting writer. I was first introduced to his work in high school,” Greenspan said in an interview.

Greenspan said it was a small part in The Matchmaker. The hit musical Hello Dolly is based off the Wilder play.

“I just loved the play. I loved it, mostly the philosophy. Also the way it broke the fourth wall and played with the conventions,” Greenspan said of The Matchmaker.

Greenspan said he had grown up with musicals, and there was something similar about the way Wilder characters will sometimes turn and address the audience the way a character in a musical will turn to an audience and start singing. “The humor of the play was very appealing,” he said.

A few years ago a friend asked him to write the book for a musical based off “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” he said. However, the project went nowhere when they couldn’t get the rights from Wilder’s estate.

“The long and short of it was we couldn’t get the rights. There was already an opera in the works,” Greenspan said.

First published in 1927, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” won a Pulitzer Prize and allowed Wilder to leave a teaching job to pursue writing fulltime. The novel tells the story of a bridge collapse in Peru and uses flashbacks to tell the stories of the different people thrown together in the disaster.

“I loved the novel when I read it and I recognized some of the themes,” Wilder always touched on, he said, “… the ephemerality of life, of unexpected events and the ever presence of death.”

Greenspan eventually moved forward and got the rights to write it as a straight play. He chose to interweave the story of a 1960 plane crash into a residential area of Brooklyn, New York, that had initially inspired his friend to write the musical.“In that case there was a terrible crash out of nowhere where a lot of people die,” he said.

Greenspan said he was also inspired by the experience of living in New York City when 9/11 occurred.

“You really never know what’s around the corner. I added the line where I said, ‘We tend to forget that death is constantly to our left until the moment it taps us on the shoulder. We turn our heads and there we are, dead.’ It’s my line, but it is certainly my understanding of Thornton Wilder’s concern, artistic concern,” Greenspan said.