Authors: James Kirkwood

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright and novelist

Author Works

Drama:

There Must Be a Pony!, pr. 1962 (adaptation of his novel)

UTBU(Unhealthy to Be Unpleasant), pr. 1965

P.S. Your Cat Is Dead!, pr. 1975 (adaptation of his novel)

A Chorus Line, pr., pb. 1975 (libretto with Nicholas Dante; music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban)

Surprise!, pr. 1981 (one act)

Legends!, pb. 1983

Stage Stuck, pr. 1989 (with Jim Piazza)

Long Fiction:

There Must Be a Pony!, 1961

Good Times/Bad Times, 1968

P.S. Your Cat Is Dead!, 1972

Some Kind of Hero, 1975

Hit Me with a Rainbow, 1980

Screenplay:

Some Kind of Hero, 1982 (adaptation of his novel; with Robert Boris)

Nonfiction:

American Grotesque: An Account of the Clay Shaw-Jim Garrison Affair in the City of New Orleans, 1970

Diary of a Mad Playwright, 1989

Biography

James Kirkwood, Jr., perhaps best known as librettist for the Tony Award-winning musical A Chorus Line, contributed a variety of groundbreaking works to post-1960’s American literature not only as a dramatist but also as a novelist and nonfiction writer. While many groups align themselves with Kirkwood’s work, he is also known for his pioneering literary forays into changing social mores during the sexual revolution and his concise exploration of human emotion in both fiction and nonfiction.{$I[A]Kirkwood, James}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Kirkwood, James}{$I[tim]1924;Kirkwood, James}

Kirkwood began his life in 1924 in Hollywood as the child of two silent-era film stars. His father, James Kirkwood, Sr., worked as an actor and director. His mother, Lila Lee, was an ingenue whose career success was diminished by her recurring illnesses. Kirkwood’s parents divorced in his early childhood. Both Kirkwood, Sr., and Lee suffered dwindling success as actors, and Kirkwood was often sent to live with an aunt until the fortunes of his parents improved. By the time Kirkwood graduated from high school, he had attended eighteen different schools.

Kirkwood started in the theater not as a writer but as a child actor, acting on Broadway and in theatrical tours and summer stock. He also appeared on television numerous times and as part of the comedy team Kirkwood and Goodman. Kirkwood often expressed frustration for what he viewed as the negative aspects of acting–the auditioning, the rejection, and the inability to do his job without permission. He dealt with this frustration by beginning to write. He made the transition from actor to author with the publication of his first novel, There Must Be a Pony!, in 1961. Kirkwood admitted that this work, as well as many of his other novels and plays, contained an element of autobiography.

Kirkwood adapted his novel for the theater, but the play never reached Broadway. Kirkwood would achieve his first Broadway credit as an author with the play UTBU (Unhealthy to be Unpleasant), which opened on Broadway in 1965 and starred Tony Randall.

Kirkwood’s work as an author continued in 1968, with the publication of the novel Good Times/Bad Times, which was set in a boys’ boarding school in the eastern United States. A strangely terrible yet tender book, Good Times/Bad Times explores the life of a youth who, in the course of suffering sexual abuse at the hands of a headmaster, murders him. While the horrifying conclusion was not based on Kirkwood’s personal experience, he did draw from his memories of an unhappy time in boarding school.

In 1970, Kirkwood wrote his first nonfiction book, American Grotesque: An Account of the Clay Shaw-Jim Garrison Affair in the City of New Orleans. He felt that, for the most part, reviewers had misunderstood the intention of the book, falsely assuming that it would reveal the killer or killers of John F. Kennedy. In 1972, he penned P.S. Your Cat Is Dead!, reputed by many to be one of the best and most intriguing plays of the 1970’s, a groundbreaking examination of social and sexual mores during a time in society when such subjects were taboo. Kirkwood later adapted his successful novel for the Broadway stage.

In 1975, Kirkwood’s Vietnam War-era novel Some Kind of Hero helped define the emotional and alienating circumstances of Vietnam War veterans as they made their way back into society. In 1982, Kirkwood adapted this novel into a screenplay. Perhaps the greatest highlight of Kirkwood’s career was his work as librettist for the musical A Chorus Line, for which he won not only the 1976 Tony Award for best book in a musical but also a Pulitzer Prize. The musical, the brainchild of Michael Bennett, was based on the discussions of a number of chorus dancers concerning their lives in the theater. Kirkwood, who had also acted on the Broadway stage, rounded out this group as the playwright who, with Broadway dancer Nicholas Dante, wrote the award-winning libretto.

Kirkwood’s last major contribution to the American theater was a play titled Legends!, a compelling look at the egos and talents of two aging stars as they struggle to work together. Legends! toured with actors Mary Martin and Carol Channing in the title roles in 1986. Kirkwood chronicles his experiences with Martin and Channing in his last book, Diary of a Mad Playwright, considered by some to be the definitive insider’s look at the enthralling, but sometimes treacherous, world of the American theater. The book was published shortly after his death. James Kirkwood died of cancer in New York City in 1989, leaving one last novel, “I Teach Flying,” unpublished.

BibliographyKaye, Phyllis Johnson. National Playwrights Directory. 2d ed. Waterford, Conn.: O’Neill Theater Center, 1981. Offers a brief biography of Kirkwood, including information on published works, awards, and professional affiliations.Kirkwood, James. “Good Times Getting Better.” Interview by Don Lee Keith. After Dark Magazine, February, 1972, 18-24. An in-depth and inclusive interview. Contains a variety of pictures spanning the novelist’s early life.Lee, Baayork, et al. On the Line: The Creation of “A Chorus Line.” New York: William Morrow, 1990. A behind-the-scenes look at the making of the musical A Chorus Line, based on the recollections of a group of the original cast members. Includes brief discussions of Kirkwood’s contribution to the project, as seen through the eyes of others.
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