Eavesdropping on Warhol and Capote

Capote held a similar place in Mr. Roth’s heart. The writer’s star turn in the movie “Murder by Death,” a 1976 comedy, got Mr. Roth going back to the theater 15 times, he said, braving the neighborhood bullies each time he went. Mr. Roth already sensed he was gay — so, it seemed, did those bullies — and Warhol and Capote showed him that this didn’t have to limit his options.

Mr. Roth’s career in theater began with a degree in drama and then writing and directing live shows for Disney theme parks. It exploded in 1992, when Disney agreed to let him concoct a musical based on its animated movie “Beauty and the Beast.”

The result was a vast hit, and Mr. Roth (then known as Robert Jess Roth) spent the next several decades staging the show around the world. That reliable, profitable gig eventually gave him the luxury of spending almost every non-“Beauty” minute digging into the Warhol tapes.

Early on, he discovered that the recordings might work as the bones of his play, “but it needed a bit more meat on it.” He imported a fresh supply of Capotean eloquence from published interviews; he mined new, more extended Warholisms out of the artist’s books, some of whose words come from the pens of ghostwriters.

“You can’t play the tapes and hear the play, at all,” Mr. Roth admitted. For all the genius of his heroes’ conversation, “they needed help making it into a Broadway play,” he said. (Capote himself has been center stage there before, with Robert Morse winning a Tony in the one-man “Tru.”)

Mr. Roth’s years at Disney had taught him that a show needed drama and emotion to speak to an audience, so he arranged his material to supply both.

That may turn out to be his riskiest move. Warhol once published a novel based on taped conversations, and, like so much of his art, it was radical: Readers were left to drown in…

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