Albert Innaurato, whose early play Gemini ran on Broadway from 1977 through 1981 and was adapted as both a feature and television film, has died. Deadline confirmed that he was found dead Tuesday at home in Philadelphia; the precise date of death had not yet been determined. For much of his adult life, he had been challenged with significant health issues.
‘Albert was a real artist and rejoiced in the power of language and song. He was idiosyncratic and undisciplined. But like Tosca, he lived for art.’ – André Bishop
Innaurato was an artist who, both literally and intellectually, cut a larger-than-life figure in the worlds of theater and opera. His talents included not only the writing of plays – notably The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie, Coming of Age In Soho, Passione, and Gus and Al in addition to Gemini – but also teaching the craft of his work, sharing his encyclopedic and unreservedly biased knowledge of opera and its practitioners, reluctantly writing screenplays and teleplays, and retailing insights, commentary, gossip and observations that ran the gamut from fawning to blood-letting on web sites, in letters to the editor and occasionally in keen-eyed journalism.
Gemini (the 1980 feature film with Madeline Kahn and Rita Moreno was re-titled Happy Birthday, Gemini) tells the story of Francis, a recent Harvard grad who returns to his blue-collar Philadelphia home, when sibling Cambridge classmates Judith and Randy show up to help him celebrate his 21st birthday. Judith has eyes for Francis who, much to his own discomfiture, discovers he has eyes for Randy, leading him to come out by the end of the play.
After productions at Playwrights Horizons and the Circle Repertory, Gemini transferred to Broadway’s Little Theatre (now the Helen Hayes), where it settled in for a long run. Much like Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, which would take over the same theater just a few years later, Gemini‘s still-risqué gay theme became a kind of sympathetic underscoring to the larger, time-honored Broadway value of familial love trumping traditional social constraints, and the show – egged on by a ubiquitous TV and radio ad campaign – was embraced by Broadway ticket buyers.
In some respects, Innaurato never recovered from the sensational success of Gemini; he never produced a comparable hit.
“During our time with Gemini, he was 29 and so full of life,” Reed Birney, who played Randy in the original production and currently is seen in 1984, told Deadline in an email. “That meant equal parts rage and joy. The creating of the play was a high that was new for all of us, but to see Albert find the play and be so full was thrilling. I think one of the great sadnesses in his life was his inability to experience that fresh, unprecedented joy again.”
Nevertheless, Innaurato’s output was prodigious, as he eked out a living teaching playwriting in Philadelphia, writing for such seminal television series as The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, and churning out plays that featured outcasts, losers, whiners, unsung geniuses, frustrated artists and all-around loners (an early collection of them is grouped under the title Bizarre Behavior). He wrote from personal experience, as with Gus and Al, in which a character named Albert goes back in time to chew the fat with Gustav Mahler, and he wrote out of jealousy or vengeance (his off-Broadway play Doubtless was an acid splash in the face to fellow Catholic playwright John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt).
If critical support was elusive, Innaurato was never without his admirers, even when the work came up short: In a mixed but encouraging review of Passione, the second and final of Innaurato’s Broadway ventures and as brief as Gemini was long, Frank Rich in The New York Times called him “one of the most brilliant iconoclasts of the American theater.”
Innaurato had a supportive home at several nonprofit theaters. André Bishop was the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons and took him under the company’s wing.
“Albert was a real artist and rejoiced in the power of language and song,” Bishop, now the longtime director of Lincoln Center Theater, told Deadline in an email. “Like a few notable opera singers of the old school, he was idiosyncratic and undisciplined. But like Tosca, he lived for art. There was always some version of Albert in his plays – most notably in Gus and Al where Al (Albert) took on a friendship with Gus (Gustave Mahler).”
Opera was as much a love and pre-occupation for Innaurato as was the theater. He was a frequent contributor to Metropolitan Opera programs, including its magazine, Opera News, and wrote for opera blogs, mainly Parterre Box. His love for the form and keen eye for detail are evident in an interview he published in The New York Times Magazine on the occasion of Franco Zeffirelli’s new production at the Met Opera of La Traviata:
“In the Zeffirelli production, Violetta is discovered on her deathbed during the prelude, remembering her affair with Alfredo,” Innaurato wrote. ‘This prelude tells of a person dying of TB,’ [Zeffirelli] says. ‘It starts with consumption music. Verdi uses the strings crying out of the orchestra, no breath practically, dying out.’ He hums the opening bars, undistracted by the hammerings and shouts of stagehands and the queries of those who will run the production. ‘That is unmistakably a female dying of consumption. In the middle of it is an explosion of love.’ Evidently a tenor at heart, he soars into the big tune, stopping for a minute to tell Gil Wechsler, the lighting designer, that the mists being projected on the scrim in front of Violetta’s deathbed don’t look venereal enough. Mr. Wechsler whispers orders into his walkie-talkie, the mists thicken and slow and Mr. Zeffirelli continues singing.”
“He was an original, a larger than life creature who was capable of great warmth, charm, humor, and intelligence,” André Bishop wrote of Innaurato. “That was very much reflected in his plays. There were very few “subdued” characters in anything he ever wrote. He was graceful and witty and wild. He knew enormous amounts about music, especially opera, and to some degree he identified with the very divas whose voices he either loved or abhorred. He had a low self-image and believed more in his eventual failure than in his actual success.”