David Willinger is a writer who recently adapted Bashevis Singer's Fabius novel “The Manor” into a musical play titled “The Open Gate.” The show will run at the theater for the New City from October 11 to October 27. Tickets are priced between $10 and $20.

“The Open Gate” tells the story of a wealthy businessman of Jewish origins and his four daughters who hail from humble backgrounds. As times change, the family struggles with scientific and social changes. David Willinger rendered this show as a kind of historic tapestry. An experienced lyricist, David has also send-directed several plays that he adapted.

His works have been shown at dozens of well-known venues in NYC and elsewhere.

David discussed his career, “The Open Gate,” and more via an exclusive interview on October 2, 2018.

Novels, lyrics, and characters

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get into theater and why do you enjoy adapting novels so much?

David Willinger (DW): I've been in theater all my life, starting from the age of 11. The other mothers in my neighborhood were having their children take piano lessons for the "cultural status." I was terrible at it, so it was "drama class" for me. I shortly found my vocation when at the age of 13 I apprenticed in my acting teacher, Miranda McDermott's professional summer stock company in Mahopac, NY.

I caught the magic of it when her father, veteran actor Tom McDermott, played Archie Rice in “The Entertainer.” I loved helping him learn his lines. Later acting morphed into writing and directing. I love adapting novels, since novels are my favorite form. It's a way of sharing and making them accessible to people who are less and less prone to reading them for themselves.

I love the necessary fluidity of an adapted novel - all the little tricks at finessing time jumps. Also, novels tend to have a much vaster canvass than most plays, and it's a scale I prefer. It's not just the microcosm, but the entire mosaic.

MM: What most intrigues you about “The Open Gate” and what most interests you about its characters?

DW: I think for Singer it's the equivalent of "Buddenbrooks" for Thomas Mann - a sprawling family and community epic. Yet it seems almost nobody has read it! It's wonderful how he offers portraits of Jews who have made all kinds of choices - from the most cloistered to the most assimilated, even converted. All are presented sympathetically. At the point when I adapted it, I had no connection to the Jewish religion, only a vague longing that Judaism could be as spiritual as I found Zen or Yoga to be. I love the way Singer dramatizes and presents inner spiritual journeys that are palpable and appealing. The character of Jochanon, the saintly young rabbi, is the epitome of a desirable form of Judaism - esoteric and all-embracing.

Only three years ago I stumbled on such a form of Judaism, which became my current practice and which has changed my life. So, Singer showed me the way. As I look back into this work, I now see that these artistic seeds can and do blossom into a living experience. In fact, it is my life now.

MM: You based this play on a novel titled “The Manor,” so how did you find out about that book and why did you think it would make a great play?

DW: Singer writes so many scenes of dialogue within it. He has a great sense of the dramatic situation and of characters at a cross-roads, causing themselves and others pain. The central character Calman is an Aristotelian tragic figure. He is of stature, only wants to do good, but has a tragic flaw that lays him low.

The novel is highly musical in so many ways - full of set-piece scenes and inner monologues that easily become arias. It's got high and low, buffo and exaltation. It's a whole world!

MM: “The Open Gate” is also a musical, so what the process of writing lyrics, etc. like?

DW: Yes, that's the point. In many cases, Singer's words lent themselves to music, as in the dramatized family argument, "Bicker." In other cases, I took vast liberties as in the comic numbers, "Calmanke" and "My Name is Dr. Marian Zavatski," where I dipped into the tradition of music hall and bawdy, deliberately silly Yiddish theatre to get belly laughs. Elsewhere we border on opera, as with the opening and closing numbers.

In the opening, it's the historical background of the Polish uprising against their Russian overlords that gets put onstage. It's reminiscent of “The Finale” dramatizes Calman's heart attack, followed by his out-of-body experience. His soul travels to higher realms where his ancestors and the seraphim reside - where he learns that time doesn't exist and that light and dark are flipsides of the same thing - such profound spiritual lessons. Meanwhile, those who survive are back there in the town, singing in counterpoint, lamenting what they are sure is his death. It really is the stuff of opera, and we have presented it in an unapologetically lush fashion. The lyrics are most exalted; it's a pleasure to write the words for such experiences.

MM: What feelings and memories do you hope audiences take away from “The Open Gate”?

DW: I honestly want to open peoples' hearts and minds as to the multiple nature of Judaism. I would so love it if the show could give a glimpse into invisible worlds - both the life tucked away in the human heart and the invisible world that - perhaps - exists parallel to the concrete one. The concrete one might actually be the illusory one, as the novel suggests. I would like the audience to go on a roller coaster ride and have their hearts opened just a bit wider.

New work, career, and hopes for the future

MM: Are you writing any new work right now and what sorts of subjects/topics might you like to artistically approach in the future?

DW: With Christopher Beste I had created another musical adaptation - of Thomas Hardy's "Mayor of Casterbridge" that we called "Casterbridge." I would love to see that show have more of a life. Another play I wrote called "Out of their Minds" about Samuel Beckett's relationship to James Joyce and his family - notably Joyce's schizophrenic daughter Lucia, which had a small production - I feel has much more potential. Also, I'm just in the early stages of writing something totally different. It would be a very abstract show that is suggested by four pages from an early novel by the Argentinian, Julio Cortàzar. I can't say much about it, but it wouldn't be commercial in any sense. I can really see a marriage of live action and video which I'd love to explore more of.

But it's an idea that is in such early stages that I don't dare say another word about it.

MM: What are your biggest hopes for your career as a playwright and lyricist?

DW: Well, quite simply, I'd love to see "The Open Gate" discovered and enable it to play for a much wider public. It's old-fashioned in the sense that it's tuneful. You can go out humming the melodies. I feel there is a great audience for this kind of theatre, but they're not getting it. In the twenty-year interval between when we first put on "The Open Gate" and now, Isaac Bashevis Singer has gone into the background; I would say that since the great adaptations for theater and screen - "Yentl," "Enemies, a Love Story," and so on - he's lapsed into obscurity. My fondest wish would be that this show would leverage a revived interest in his work, especially his big novels which for me rank with Tolstoy and Gide.