Ed Dixon is best known for his 40-year career as a Broadway singer, but he comes to Pittsburgh as the writer of more than a dozen plays and musicals. Brent Harris is known for playing classical roles from coast to coast, but he's here to originate a character in "L'Hotel," a world premiere at Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Mr. Dixon wrote the Public-commissioned play based on an idea from producing artistic director Ted Pappas, who has collaborated with Mr. Dixon from the beginning and directs the production.
"We were going to sit down to create a musical together and the first thing Ted said was, 'Well, I don't really have any ideas for musicals… but I have always wanted someone to write a play about Pere Lachaise, and I said, 'What's that?' He couldn't believe I didn't know, and now I can't believe I didn't know."
Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is the resting place of marquee names such as Moliere and Pissarro, Marceau and Piaf, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas… Mr. Dixon was handed a list by his friend and went off to write.
The names that made the cut—Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Jim Morrison, Victor Hugo, Isadora Duncan and Gioacchino Rossini—weren't the problem so much as how to get them talking.
"I'll tell you how I got my toe in the water. About midnight that night I thought, 'What if it starts at a dead run?' Then I thought, what if there was a waiter who for all eternity had to satisfy these gigantic egos, had to take care of them? And that became the turning point. And indeed, there is frantic activity from beginning to end," Mr. Dixon said.
"I had an idea for a play, and he turned it into something much more than I could ever imagined," Mr. Pappas said.
The clash of these titans of the arts takes place in the luxurious Old World hotel of the title, designed by James Noone and including stained-glass created by local artisans. The waiter will be portrayed by Evan Zes, a well-traveled comedian who proved his physical dexterity in City Theatre's "The 39 Steps." Another writer creation for "L'Hotel" is a mysterious woman (Erika Cuenca) who makes possible the idea of reincarnation.
At the center is Oscar Wilde, whose voice most resonates with Mr. Dixon. For the actor originating the role, "It's like stepping on the moon," Mr. Harris said.
He knew of Wilde, of course, having performed in plays such as "The Importance of Being Earnest," but began to delve into the man, studying portraits and getting an idea of "the artful way he liked to present himself." He found a more human connection reading "De Profundis," an essay on spirituality and faith written during the gay writer's imprisonment for "gross indecency."
"It was startling and moving, so personal and surprising in how naked and bare and painful it was," he said. "When we think of Oscar Wilde, we think of this glittering comic force, endlessly witty. People know about his tragedy, but I began to understand what a horrible, horrible fall it was and a terrible ending. There's this dark side to his life."
"I love what Brent is doing," said Mr. Dixon, who had just rewritten a major scene dictated by something he saw in rehearsal. "In many ways that's the heart of the play. Someone asked me why I made Wilde the central character, and I said, 'Because he's me, stupid!' " the writer said with a laugh. "The way the play works out, it's geared toward him and he has several soliloquy moments that really enforce the view."
Joining Mr. Harris' Wilde are actress Bernhardt (Deanne Lorette), Doors frontman Morrison (Daniel Hartley), "Les Miserables" author Hugo (Sam Tsoutsouvas), dancer Duncan (Kati Brazda) and "Barber of Seville" composer Rossini (Tony Triano). Mr. Hartley has perhaps the toughest job, because Morrison, who died in 1971, can be seen online with the click of a keyboard. Other famous names in Pere Lachaise who didn't make the cut are given their due with mentions, either in conversation or by playing their music.
The half-dozen cemetery denizens who Mr. Dixon has gathered for "L'Hotel" are representative of anyone who pines for immortality through art.
"They are from different disciplines, and this is a play about art and the meaning of art and the importance of art. Also this a play about what fame is and who is remembered,' " Mr. Dixon said. "Once I got connected to these people, I couldn't imagine it going in any other direction."