In a Dusty Drawer, a Trove of Theatrical Voices

Something got twisted about a minute after Seth Cotterman turned on a machine that was no longer new when he was born in 1989.

Oh, the joys of open-reel tape. The take-up reels that have to be threaded. The tape that has to be straightened after someone rewinds it wrong. The difference between 3¾ i.p.s. and 7½ i.p.s. The fact that “i.p.s.” stands for inches per second, for the speed of a tape.

Mr. Cotterman, 22, has learned about all of that because of what somebody found in a dusty bottom drawer in a storage room at the Dramatists Guild of America, where he works: Several hundred audio tapes that had gone untouched, probably for decades.

“I saw what was on the labels, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’” said Gary Garrison, the guild’s executive director for creative affairs.

There was a question-and-answer session with Richard Rodgers in 1971. A session from 1973 called “Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Neil Simon” with — guess who. A conversation from 1977 with Stephen Sondheim, Julie Stein, Betty Comden and Sheldon Harnick about the anatomy of a theater song. And about 200 other reels, the oldest from 1956, the newest from 1991.

“It’s history,” said John Weidman, the librettist and frequent Sondheim collaborator who is a former Guild president, “but it’s hardly ancient history.”

Mr. Garrison sent 20 reels out to be copied to a digital format. He called Mr. Weidman, whose father was the author and playwright Jerome Weidman — and the moderator on many of the panel discussions from the 1970s. Jerome Weidman, who wrote “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” as well as “Fiorello!,” died in 1998.

Mr. Garrison called John Weidman and said, “You’re going to hear his voice again.”

He had to call back and say there were technical difficulties. The first batch of digital copies contained only muffled audio. Jerome Weidman’s voice was inaudible.

Mr. Garrison was disappointed but not ready to give up. He told Mr. Cotterman to get out the old reel-to-reel recorder that had also been in the storage room. Mr. Cotterman put on the first seven-inch reel and turned a lever to “play.”

“Perfect audio quality,” Mr. Garrison said.

So the reels went back to the digitizer with orders to try again.

Mr. Weidman said it was “astonishing” to hear the power of his father’s voice. On one tape, Mr. Weidman said, he heard his father explaining that he had been chosen as the moderator because he happened to pass by when the committee planning the session was looking for one.

“Mostly what you’re listening to is a give-and-take from what constituted the playwriting community in New York and, by extension, in the United States,” Mr. Weidman said.

And for the Guild — which represents playwrights, composers, lyricists and librettists — the tapes are intriguing for what amount to cameo appearances by notables like Wendy Wasserstein, John Guare, Terrence McNally, David Rabe, Marsha Norman and Edward Albee. When the time came for questions, they were the ones who asked away. But the listener has to figure out who they are by recognizing their voices. “It’s not like they’d stand up and say, ‘Mr. Barnes, my name is Edward Albee,’ and then ask their question,” Mr. Weidman said.

The Guild has barely put a dent in the nearly 250 tapes. Mr. Weidman said he had listened to some of the digital copies while driving. The questioners were not miked, so Mr. Weidman had to turn the volume way up to hear what they were asking — and then turn it down to keep from being blasted by the reply, from the guest who was right next to the microphone.

“My wife said, ‘Can’t you stop doing that?’ and I said, ‘But Paddy Chayefsky’s asking a question,’” he said.

Mr. Weidman said he had also listened to a conversation his father had had with the critic Clive Barnes. “One of the cliched parts,” he said, “was, plus ça change.” He said Mr. Barnes had been “lamenting the fact that for a family of four to go to dinner and the theater, it can cost close to $100.”

That was in 1971, according to the label on the box containing that tape.

But the labels seemed to play tricks on latter-day listeners. The label on a tape dated Dec. 1, 1969, said it was a conversation between Jerome Weidman and the critic Walter Kerr. But Mr. Garrison said he could not tell whether the guest was Mr. Barnes or Mr. Kerr because Jerome Weidman said he was introducing “the critic everyone respects more than any other: Clive Barnes.”

There was a pause, and Mr. Weidman said: “Oh, sorry, Walter Kerr.”

Mr. Garrison said he had missed that line and was left trying to figure out why “Barnes” sounded so unlike the voice on the other tape.

One voice on a tape from 1972 is unmistakable: It is Joan Rivers’s — “before,” as Mr. Garrison put it, “Joan Rivers became what we think of.” Her first Broadway play had opened a few weeks earlier. (Mr. Kerr had panned it under the headline “Lots of Jokes, No Laughs.”)

The tape captured Ms. Rivers appearing with June Havoc, whose memoir had been adapted as “Marathon 33.”

Ms. Rivers started by saying that playwriting “makes you a better person.”

“You find yourself giving away altruistically things that as an actress you’d be fighting and screaming at the writer to keep for yourself, which is one thing I found.”

On the tape, she is heard saying something like, “Didn’t you?”

The other voice sounds like an old pro’s: “Well, I wasn’t in my plays,” said Ms. Havoc, who had been nominated for a Tony Award for directing “Marathon 33.” “I wasn’t in it, Joan, so you speak for yourself.”

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