RYAN RAFTERY AS MARTHA STEWART. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRENDAN BURKE.
“What I really wanted to do is create a populist musical,” Ryan Raftery tells us at a corner table in the Public Theater’s Library restaurant. “Everybody knows Martha, and everybody has an opinion about her.” The Martha in question is, of course, Martha Stewart, the lifestyle mogul who built a brand, a billion-dollar company, and an empire around a single, living human being: herself. The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Martha Stewart—which opens tonight at Joe’s Pub, and stars Raftery in the title role—follows Stewart from her less-than-charmed childhood in New Jersey, to her breakthrough years at Turkey Hill, to her time in federal prison, all the way to the present day, where she is still a formidable, if burnished, star—and an authority on how to live, as Raftery describes it, “correctly.”
Much like the early days of Stewart’s career, Raftery’s own on stage has been somewhat meteoric. After a spell in Los Angeles, the Brooklyn native returned to New York and began writing cabaret musicals about himself (Ryan Raftery and Friends: A Solo Act, Ryan Raftery: King of the Jews!) which earned him a dedicated following but little mainstream attention. The turning point came in 2014, when he stepped into the shoes of Vogue editrix Anna Wintour for Ryan Raftery is the Most Powerful Woman in Fashion. The musical—the first in his trilogy of media titans, as he calls them—was a smashing success, with a sold-out run that eventually traveled the country, and was quickly followed by Ryan Raftery’s Watch What Happens, about the TV personality Andy Cohen. He concludes his trilogy with The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Martha Stewart.
During Interview‘s wide-ranging conversation last month, Raftery held forth on getting in the heads of his subjects—including himself.
HUMBLE BEGINNINGS: I had done television and commercials, but all I ever wanted to do was be on Broadway. I grew up in Brooklyn, I went to L.A. for a couple years to do TV, and I moved back with the confidence that if I didn’t become a huge star out in Hollywood, it would happen here. You know in Funny Girl there’s that line, “I just had to get on stage somehow”? That was me. I started going to see all these cabarets that were really bad, and it gave me an idea to do a cabaret about someone who was delusional. So then I wrote a show called Ryan Raftery and Friends: A Solo Act, which is a joke in and of itself. It’s about this guy who thought he was a major star. I was performing it at Paris Commune—a restaurant that closed a few years ago in the West Village—that had a wine bar in the basement that sat 40 people. This space did not have a dressing room, a backstage, or anything like that. There was a Duane Reade on the corner, and after Act I, I would sit in the pharmacy and change. I started doing that show every week, and then I started doing it at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, so it moved to 110 seats. Then the shows started getting more popular; I did it in L.A, someone asked me to do it in North Carolina. It was clear something was working. So I started writing more. The second show I wrote was Ryan Raftery’s This Isn’t It. Then I did Ryan Raftery’s It Gets Worse, which was about growing up gay in Brooklyn. Then I did Ryan Raftery: King of the Jews!, which opened with me in a crown of thorns. After that show I did Ryan Raftery is Black & Better Than Ever.
THE AGE OF ANNA: I suddenly had absolutely nothing else to say. I had written about everything. I had a day job working at Coach in public relations, and I thought, “Maybe this is it. Maybe it’s time to think about actually making money and being an adult, and blah blah blah.” Then my friend working there said: “You’re working in fashion. The first rule of writing is write what you know—write about fashion!” I remember hearing the name Anna Wintour: Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna. The universe was telling me something. So I started thinking about writing a show about Anna in some way shape or form. Then fashion week approached. We had to bring the entire Coach collection to Vogue; Anna wasn’t going to come to us. I can’t tell you the way the air is disturbed when you know she’s there. I remember going to the offices, and just like the opening of Devil Wears Prada, you see someone running, you see someone pushing a rolling rack. I literally had chills up and down my spine. And I remember I was in the cab back to the office, and I was like, “This is the show.” I’ll just use the exact same formula I’ve been using for all my other shows, and drop Anna Wintour into it.
A VISIT FROM BEE: The Public’s press office told me Bee Shaffer [Wintour’s daughter] was coming to opening night. I immediately started freaking out. The only good thing about me knowing she was coming ahead of time was I could control where she sat. I didn’t want her too close, I didn’t want to be able to see her face—that would throw me. So they put her a good distance away, though still at a good seat. There’s this monologue where Anna addresses the audience, and I suddenly see where Bee’s sitting a phone being held up. Bee’s holding her phone up recording, and I know exactly why she’s doing it, and who’s going to see it. You know how they talk about those moments where you kind of float above yourself and look down? That’s what happened. It was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life, and every single time on stage, subsequently, I’ve been like, “It’s not that night.” Bee came backstage and took so many photos of the wig. We Instagrammed a photo together. I’ve heard from people at Condé Nast that Anna said: “He didn’t get the fashion right.”
THE ANDY SHOW: After the Anna show was over I clearly understood I had to keep going with the celebrity thing. Plus I did always see this as a trilogy, because I love the idea of threes. I knew I wanted to do a man next, and I knew I wanted to have some sort of very, very light through-line through these shows: media. It didn’t take long to get to Ryan Seacrest or Andy Cohen, and it didn’t take long to get rid of Ryan Seacrest. At first it was going to be like A Christmas Carol, where Andy was Scrooge, and he was going to be visited by the three housewives. Then I saw an interview with him and Anderson Cooper, and somebody said, “Have you ever dated?” And Andy was like, “No, no, neither of us were into it.” And I was like: “Bullshit! Anderson wasn’t into it. Who wouldn’t be into beautiful, blue-blood Anderson Cooper?” I thought to myself, “This is the show.” As I started writing it I was dating someone who broke up with me and sidelined me; I was so shocked. I thought to myself, “What if the show is about this blind ambition to succeed, driven by the fact that this guy’s not going to like me unless I’m famous?” So this show was about a boy who was in love with television—just like I was—but who’s lonely. Afterwards, Andy sent me flowers with a note that said: “I finally have something in common with Anna Wintour.”
DISCOVERING MARTHA: Thinking of this as a trilogy of media titans, there aren’t many people on that level to choose from. I knew I didn’t want to do someone in fashion again; I didn’t want to do someone in entertainment again. It didn’t take long to get to Martha. I never researched someone more. I created a book where I pulled all these interviews with her, and I reached out to people who had written the pieces, some of whom talked to me. Somebody very, very close to Martha talked to me, someone who was very high up on her second television show. We talked for an hour and a half. The amazing thing is she’s been interviewed so many times. Her 1994 Charlie Rose interview is a real benchmark for my show. Charlie asks her, “This all seemed to happen very easily for you, has anything bad ever happened to you?” And without preamble, she says, “Charlie, the only bad thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life is I got divorced.” And Charlie’s like, “Well, why did you get divorced?” And that’s where she gets flustered. As writer, that’s what I look for. She’s like: “I, I, I got divorced because I married someone who didn’t want to be married anymore.” Apparently she was very absent in the marriage, cold to him—who knows if this is true, of course. But it was interesting to me.
THE MIND OF MARTHA: Martha is from Nutley, New Jersey, but you’d never know that from her accent. Because her accent is a fabrication. Alexis, her daughter, wrote a book, and she writes: “I grew up with a glue gun pointed to my head.” She also writes, “There was never any food in our house, only ingredients.” That stuck with me. There is this idea of this perfectionism that’s attainable to Martha, if you’re willing to work hard enough. Martha Stewart wanted to create this image of perfectionism, and she’s done it. Her name still means something to so many people, even after going to jail. But we have to remember Martha is a felon—she cannot vote. She is never allowed to be the CEO of a company again. She was investigated by the SEC, and she was not convicted of anything but lying; she obstructed justice. What’s interesting is, at this time, in 2002, is when Tyco, Enron, WorldCom, and all of these scandals were going on. Regardless of whether or not those guys got punished—and some of them did—Martha became the poster child for corporate greed. It wasn’t fair. They came after her because she was a very successful woman. I’ve never, ever done a show where I’ve been more invested in my subject, where I’ve cared more about my subject. It’s truly a Shakespearean tale, and I only have 85 minutes to tell it. I could write a three and a half hour musical about Martha and still have stuff that didn’t make it in.
THE FUTURE: I have been thinking about doing Andy Warhol—I’ve been obsessed with Andy for a very long time. I keep on setting the bar really high as far as these pop culture icons, so I feel like dipping down into something more niche—Richard Nixon is someone else who fascinates me. I haven’t had to work that hard to find a subject, I just cast out the net and something eventually gets caught. I have to spend a lot of time with these people, so I have to like them, or at the very least find them entertaining. An interviewer once said, “Why don’t you do Donald Trump?” I was like, “Absolutely not. I would have to spend too much time with him!”
THE RISE AND FALL (AND RISE) OF MARTHA STEWART OPENS TONIGHT AND RUNS AUGUST 22, 28 AND SEPTEMBER 11, 12 AT JOE’S PUB.