Q&A: Medill alum David Thompson talks third Tony nomination and Lin-Manuel Miranda collaboration

June 1, 2023

After graduating from Northwestern with a degree in journalism, David Thompson (Medill ’78) applied his research and writing skills to a different platform: the stage. 

In May 1996, a revival of “Chicago” opened at the New York City Center with a book by Thompson. Shortly after, the musical moved to the Richard Rodgers Theatre and eventually became the longest-ever Broadway run of an American show.

Earlier this month, Thompson scored his third Tony nomination in the Best Book of a Musical category for his work with Sharon Washington on “New York, New York,” a new musical loosely based on the 1977 Martin Scorsese film of the same name. The nomination follows previous nods in 1997 and 2011, both for Best Book of a Musical.

The production opened last month at the St. James Theater and features lyrics by Thompson’s longtime collaborators John Kander and Fred Ebb, with additional lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

The Daily sat down with Thompson ahead of The Tony Awards to talk about his third nomination and his long career on Broadway.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Daily: How did your training and your skills from Medill prepare you for a career as a playwright?

Thompson: It’s really about learning how to research. Every project that I’ve ever done has always been very rooted in a particular period of time, or with particular historical events. And so that idea of really digging in and finding the understanding of the world that you’re living in is very much a part of the whole world of Medill. 

The Daily: What was it like working on “Chicago” with Kander and Ebb, and what is it like having your name attached to such an iconic musical?

Thompson: It’s been a wonderful project because a lot of musicals become very old very quickly. That’s the crazy thing about that piece: no matter how many times you’ve seen it or how many productions there have been, it still remains relevant.

The Daily: What was it like adapting Scorsese’s work for the stage?

Thompson: We knew when we started that project that we didn’t want to do the film as it was literally, because I don’t think it would resonate with a (modern) audience. And so instead of adapting the film, what we decided to do was to look at the lyrics to the song “New York, New York”. And there’s nothing more important in any musical than understanding what is so important for those characters. In this case, what you’re looking at is people who want to come to New York and be successful, and that’s a big want. That’s something that really resonated with us when we started the project. 

We realized very quickly: That same thought is very current today. Because New York is coming back to life after a very dark time during the pandemic. So we knew that idea of people coming to the city to do something they couldn’t do someplace else, and coming after a time of displacement and darkness to a place of opportunity and optimism, would resonate.

The Daily: What was it like working with Miranda, who has become a newer, more contemporary legend on Broadway in terms of songwriting and lyrics?

Thompson: It was fun to watch Lin and Kander work together, because Kander is one of the fastest songwriters on the planet. He just puts his hands on the piano, and a melody will come out. He just taps into music like it’s the simplest thing in the world. And then Lin would work and come back with songs, and they would say, “What do we think of this?” or “How do you like that?” And in it would go, or out it would go. He couldn’t be more collaborative. And when you see Lin in the world … he’s someone who has an incredible generosity of spirit. And it’s been a dream working with Lin, just an absolute dream.

The Daily: Now, 27 years after “Chicago” opened, how do you feel like musical theatre on Broadway has changed?

Thompson: The economics of the theater are just crippling. Orchestras have gotten smaller, and the size of the shows oftentimes is very reduced. It takes a lot of nerve on the part of the producers to jump in and to get stuff on its feet, especially when it’s not a revival because it’s a difficult marketplace. A lot of shows do well as revivals, and we love revivals, but it’s a difficult marketplace for new work because of the expense and because the way audiences even hear about musicals is completely different. It’s no longer driven by newspapers. It’s driven by social media, and I think that’s great. It’s moved away from critics. So it’s just a different world. 

The Daily: Does the excitement and thrill of receiving a Tony nomination ever wear off?

Thompson: It’s great. It’s wonderful to be recognized by your community for work that you’ve done. Every writer on the planet is trying to do something and trying to get it up and trying to get in front of an audience. It’s not for the faint of heart. But to get that nod of recognition is wonderful, because it doesn’t always happen. So when it does, you’re very thankful for it.

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Twitter: @jacob_wendler

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