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.
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...
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