The theater — long enamored of con artists: music guys, rainmakers, shifty producers, lotharios, and flimflam men — now welcomes Jonas Nightingale, the slick televangelist played by Raul Esparza in the new Broadway musical, “Leap of Faith.” With songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, the show is based on the 1992 film, which starred Steve Martin as a fake faith healer who tries to fleece the desperate citizens of a small Kansas town — until he’s unmasked by a curvy heroine with a son in a wheelchair.
Janus Cercone, who wrote the film, is still credited as co-librettist for the musical. But after a poorly-received world premiere at Los Angeles’s Ahmanson Theatre in 2010, the producers brought in Warren Leight, the Tony-Award-winning author of “Side Man” (he also wrote the musical “Mayor”). Though his Tony Award was for a play about a jazz player who was more of a ne’er-do-well than a con artist, Leight is no stranger to that breed. He co-wrote “Dear God,” a flop Garry Marshall film starring Greg Kinnear, and has encountered more than a few as a writer for “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “Special Victims Unit,” as well as “In Treatment.” Here, the New York scribe also admits to having been suckered by a few in his own life.
What is it about con men that makes them such good fodder for musicals like “The Rainmaker,” “The Music Man,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and “The Producers”?
It’s strange, isn’t it? They’re seductive. A guy who’s a hero? Okay, great. Now what? It’s much more fun watching a con man seduce a town and try not to be seduced yourself. At one point in the show, Jonas asks the town folk to raise their hands in the air and pray — and half the audience at a preview raised their hands, too. In sophisticated New York! You try to keep your guard up and stay ahead of the con even if you’re rooting for the guy because he’s so good at what the does. It challenges the audience in a way that other shows do not. Even Jonas, who is a much darker character than others you’ve mentioned, he’s not black and white. He’s in denial, but is also very conflicted about what he’s doing. The audience can project onto him all their conflicted feelings. We’d rather watch him wrestle with his demons than wrestle with our own.
It sounds like you’re saying that a good con man can’t be conflicted.
That’s why Jonas is having such a hard time here. He's been surviving and doing well for a decade because his denial has never crumbled. He fleeces a town and moves on. He’s a shark, essentially. He’s addicted to the power of holding people in the palm of his hand. Why would he give that up? And for what? The scariest thing for him is to stop, feel, think. As long as he keeps getting that adrenalin rush, like an addict, he’s okay. It’s a high-wire act. But once he stops, it’s like a hand coming out of a puppet. Is anybody there when he’s not on the con?
Who’s the best con you’ve ever met?
A famous Hollywood producer who shall remain nameless. When he wants something from you, you feel like you’ve never been this well understood in your life, you’ve never been appreciated this much, and if you stick with him, your life will never be the same. And when he gets what he wants from you, you’re discarded so fast that it takes your breath away. I’ve known people who’ve worked for him a number of times and he’s so good that he actually gets them to believe that this time it’ll be different and then he does it again. It’s hard not to fall for that line: You’ll have a film at Sundance and only if you go with him will you become the moviemaker you were destined to be. And people go with him. Repeatedly. You’re playing with the devil and this time you believe you’re going to out-trick him.
Sounds like love is a con where a partner thinks, “I can get them to change.”
It’s exactly that. And that’s what interested me in “Leap of Faith.” What does it take to drag a con man, kicking and screaming, to redemption. Nobody really thinks they can change this guy because you can’t. Change happens only when you’re ready for it. Or in this case, Jonas can’t withstand the purity of faith of this kid, Jake [the sheriff’s handicapped son]. But you can’t force change on somebody, and if you don’t know that, you’ll get that lesson over and over again.
Is there something quintessentially American about con men?
That’s funny. This guy comes from a long line in American story-telling. This country has always had a gold-rush mentality, been vulnerable to snake oil salesmen. For a con to work, the victim has to want something that he doesn’t deserve. People who are trying to get something for nothing are the ones who are most easily conned. The people in “Leap of Faith” are desperate to be healed, to have their lives changed just by going into a tent. Not going back to college, or working hard to change things around. We’re a lottery country. “I’m just one big score away from being okay.” Even as cynical as we think we are, we are naïve as babies compared to Europe, as some of our elections have proven. Also, people in other countries are suspicious of outsiders. We’re a nation of outsiders. And a very forgiving nation. Americans love a good con.
Hasn’t technology made it much easier to unmask these guys?
It’s much more dangerous and that’s why I wanted to update the show to present day. It raises the stakes. Word travels much faster but that means you’ve got to up your game. And you can use technology to gain as much information as possible about your potential victims. Their weaknesses, their needs. The truth is, there are guys, evangelists who are under indictment, exposed as frauds, who are still touring in revival tents and raking it in. If these guys are good, they can make you feel as though you are truly having a spiritual awakening. And they truly believe they are doing good. The best cons don’t even know when they’re lying anymore. And then they fleece you for all you’re worth. It’s a strange combination of a spiritual gift and a very immoral motive.
So there is a lot of collusion and denial involved among the conned?
Absolutely. I did a lot of research on cons and they always have an out. They make an outrageous promise and if it happens, great, and if it doesn’t, then it’s not their fault, it’s yours. The first lesson is “Blame the victim.” People don’t want to think that they’ve been conned. If you’re in a revival tent, then someone in the tent didn’t pray hard enough for the miracle. They screwed it up for the rest of us. A lot of times when con men get arrested, you find out that they were running a con for years and thousands of people didn’t come forward. They were too embarrassed to admit it to others and to themselves. No one wants to believe they’re that stupid.
Like the Bernie Madoff scheme?
He’s a great American con. This is definitely a post-Bernie Madoff musical. Again his scheme was predicated on the idea that people were getting a better deal than anybody else. They thought that Madoff had some inside information. They thought they were in on the con.
Read more on theater in Play by Play