About 10 years ago, the theater director Rob Roth was reading his favorite guilty-pleasure book, “The Andy Warhol Diaries” on a gay family cruise as a quiet respite from the packs of children roaming the ship. Roth, who collects Warhol erotic art and memorabilia, had read the diaries many times. But suddenly something leapt out at him that he hadn’t noticed before — a reference to Warhol going to Truman Capote’s apartment and recording tapes for “the Broadway play.” Wait a minute, Roth thought, what are they talking about? Were Warhol and Capote working on a play together?
After some digging, he confirmed that the pop art icon and the flamboyant literary lion had, indeed, discussed such an endeavor in the late 1970s.
“That was all I needed,” Roth says during a recent interview. “I’ve got to see if I can find these recordings.”
What ensued was a decade-long quest to unearth the tapes, get permission to use their contents, and then create a piece of theater inspired by Warhol’s original idea. The result is a new play, “WARHOLCAPOTE,” that’s receiving a world premiere at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge Sunday through Oct. 13. The piece is adapted by Roth from conversations between the two men and stars two-time Tony winner Stephen Spinella (“Angels in America”) as Warhol. As with the tumultuous lives of its subjects, the production is facing its own adversity. Leslie Jordan, who’d been in rehearsals to play Capote since early August, abruptly left the show days before the first performance due to “unforeseen personal circumstances,” according to the ART, and was replaced by Dan Butler (“Frasier,” “All the Way”).
As Roth began the saga, he learned from the Andy Warhol Foundation that its archives contained a trove of some 3,000 tapes, featuring scores of people, that the artist recorded with an ever-present Sony Walkman. But they were hidden away under lock and key at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. No one had ever been allowed to listen to them before, and Roth says lawyers had placed them under embargo for 50 years because of potential legal issues.
Still, that didn’t deter Roth. After getting permission from the Truman Capote Literary Trust and agreeing to indemnify the foundation, he was allowed to have an archivist look through the trove, where they uncovered 59 90-minute cassettes marked “Truman” in Warhol’s handwriting.
Roth had hit the jackpot. “I just went blindly forward,” he says before a recent rehearsal. “The whole idea that they actually recorded a play and taped it, it’s too good to not pursue.”
He wound up with nearly 80 hours of tape (and 8,000 pages of transcripts) containing intimate, gossipy, and wide-ranging conversations, which he supplemented with additional interview material and published quotes.
Then the real work commenced. He began editing and shaping the vast material into a cohesive drama. “It’s a treasure hunt, puzzle, and play all rolled into one — all these things that I love,” says Roth, who went from directing Disney theme park shows to shepherding “Beauty and the Beast” to Broadway in 1994. (He now directs rock concerts for the likes of Cyndi Lauper and KISS.)
Warhol had suggested that he simply record Capote, with those edited conversations forming the basis for the play. “What I ended up with is five conversations that never remotely happened anything like this at all,” Roth says. “It’s from my imagination, except every single word of it is theirs. This is very much Andy Warhol’s idea, agreed to by Truman.”
Indeed, Roth points to the T-shirt he’s wearing, emblazoned with the image of Warhol’s 1963 cowboy Elvis silkscreen. “This is an image of Elvis Presley, who’s a real person, and Andy filtered that picture through his creativity, and it came out a piece of art that we all know. Truman took the murder of a real family in Kansas, the Clutters, and filtered it through his imagination, and it came out as ‘In Cold Blood.’ That’s what this play is: Real dialogue filtered through creativity and imagination, and it comes out as what I’m calling ‘a non-fiction invention.’”
Tucked into a modish Egg chair that will be used as a set piece in the show, Spinella marvels at the prescience of both men. “I think what’s going to hit everyone the hardest is just what it costs to be an artist. At one point, Andy starts saying he thinks society is going to get to a point where it’s going to be really scary to be publicized, where anybody who’s in the news is going to be really attacked by people.”
Roth extends his fingers to display a large rectangular silver ring engraved with an image of Warhol’s famous silkscreen of nine dollar signs. He says it’s one of only a handful that were made. “I have to say, this ring got me through the ups and downs. It’s been like pushing a rock up a hill for 10 years. There were a lot of days where I was like: Is this ever actually going to happen?” he says. “But there came a point where I realized that I owe something to Andy Warhol and Truman Capote. They wanted to do this, but they didn’t get to finish it. Now I unearthed it, so I’m going to finish it for them.”
Presented by the American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Sept. 10-Oct. 13. Tickets: From $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org