Broadway playwright Arthur Kopit passed away April 3 at the age of 83. The Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated playwright is best remembered for his plays Indians and Wings, along with the book to the 1982 musical Nine.
Born Arthur Lee Koenig in Manhattan May 10, 1937, Mr. Kopit would eventually take his stepfather's surname. While studying engineering at Harvard University, Kopit began trying his hand at playwrighting, ultimately making his professional debut with Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. After the piece won a Harvard playwriting contest, it enjoyed a hit 1962 Off-Broadway run in a production helmed by Jerome Robbins that would also play a six-week Broadway engagement the following year.
Written to re-shape the largely false narratives around cowboys and Native Americans in the early days of the American West, Mr. Kopit's Indians premiered in London in 1969 before becoming his sophomore Broadway outing the same year. Despite a relatively brief run of 96 performances, the work earned Mr. Kopit his first Tony nomination, and was a finalist for the Pultizer Prize for Drama.
Mr. Kopit moved to Vermont in the early 1970s, continuing to write plays while teaching at Wesleyan University. His New York return would come with Wings, inspired by his stepfather's recovery from a stroke that left him mute. The work had its world premiere in 1978 at Off-Broadway's Public Theater before moving to Broadway in 1979, where it enjoyed a three month run and earned Mr. Kopit additional Tony and Pulitzer nominations.
Mr. Kopit's next project would be the musical Nine, based on the Fellini film 8 1/2. The brainchild of composer-lyricist Maury Yeston, the musical had been in development since the early 1970s with playwright Mario Fratti writing the book. When Tommy Tune became attached as the piece's director, Mr. Kopit was brought in to write a new book, which was the script that ultimately opened on Broadway in 1982. Mr. Kopit would receive a Tony nomination for his work; the production won Best Musical.
Yeston and Mr. Kopit re-teamed in 1983 on Phantom, an adaptation of Gaston Leroux's novel The Phantom of the Opera that was, unbeknownst to its creators, developed concurrently with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the same source material. When Lloyd Webber's musical became an international mega hit in 1987, Mr. Kopit and Yeston's Phantom lost investors, and its Broadway hopes were dashed. Despite this setback, the work has gone on to be regularly produced at regional theatres nationwide, and also became a non-musical TV mini-series in 1990 starring Burt Lancaster.
Mr. Kopit's other Broadway works include a 1982 adaptation of Ibsen's Ghosts, the short-lived 1984 End of the World, and the book to the 1998 musical High Society, based on the Cole Porter movie musical and Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story.
The playwright also taught at Yale University and City College of New York during most of his career. Mr. Kopit donated his papers to New York University's Fales Library in 2005. He was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2017.
He is survived by his wife Leslie Garis; children Alex, Ben, and Kat; grandchildren Arthur, Beatrix, and Clara; and sister Susan.