Out of the Basement: Roger Rosenblatt Debuts on Piano

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Playwright and musician Roger Rosenblatt, photographed in his home in Quogue. Michael Heller photo

Roger Rosenblatt has always believed in the connection between writing and music — a kinship embodied by his daily morning ritual.

By no later than 6 a.m., he has found his seat in front of his piano, at first simply listening to Sarah Vaughan sing “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” before joining in himself.

As his self-taught fingers dance across the keys — moving only by ear and never by sheet music — she scolds him for playing too fast, or too slow, or finds herself tickled by an improvised surprise. Other mornings, she asks him, “Why don’t you learn how to read music like anybody else?”

Rosenblatt can stomach the imagined criticism — “because it’s Sarah Vaughan,” he quipped — and finally arrives at his desk with humility, playfulness and a certain musicality that translates into his writing.

A borderline writer’s superstition, the routine will also set the pace for his one-person play, “Lives in the Basement, Does Nothing,” unfolding on stage this weekend at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor — marking his first public performances on piano, despite his playing since age 4.

“What I really intend to do all the time is to write like an improvising piano player,” Rosenblatt said. “I’m always hunting for the next note, or the next word. It’s that connection. Jazz is the art of improvisation, and to me, writing is the art of improvisation. And the nice thing about improvising? There is no wrong.”

Despite authoring 18 books, Rosenblatt is taking a literal approach to the free-form tradition and, as of last Friday, had not physically penned one word of his upcoming play.

He intends to keep it that way.

“I didn’t write it. I just thought it. It’s not on paper. It’s like improvising a whole play,” he said. “It’s not impossible I’ll forget the whole thing, apologize to the audience and go home, return their money. But I’ve talked about writing so much and I know about it — it’s the only thing I do know about — that I have some confidence I can just talk about it without having written it down.”

Arguably facing a similar level of pressure, Rosenblatt once visited his granddaughter’s fourth grade class to speak. To his delight, she introduced him as, “This is my grandfather, Boppo. He lives in the basement and does nothing.”

Jessica’s interpretation wasn’t completely inaccurate, the writer admitted. Following the death of his daughter and her mother, Amy, he had moved into the lower level of his son-in-law’s house in Bethesda, Maryland, to help with his grandchildren.

But that is where the truth began and ended, he said — and Jessica knew it.

“She’s always been a very sharp little girl and she knew she was making a joke, but the kids, of course, now that I think of it, they had no reaction to that at all,” Rosenblatt recalled, bursting into laughter. “‘Okay, he lives in the basement and does nothing.’ You can tell kids anything.

“I thought that was the goddamn funniest way to describe a writer, because we all live in a metaphorical basement and, to the observation of the world, we do nothing,” he continued. “I riff on that in the performance, too. Every time I get a chance to go back to the title, I do. I thought that was such a delicious remark.”

On Saturday night, Jessica — who is now 18 years old and bound for Emory University in the fall — will finally hear the story as an audience member, as will writers Amy Hempel and Alice McDermott.

Except halfway through the play, they will each take a turn on stage — Hempel on Friday, McDermott on Saturday — improvising with Rosenblatt on the rewards, humiliations and sheer madness that come with being a writer.

“People find ways to humiliate writers you can’t possibly invent,” Rosenblatt said. “Actually, Alice McDermott and I, who are longtime pals, have a humiliations competition, as to who has been humiliated more. We email back and forth. The lead changes every other month or so, but she’s ahead at the moment.”

The story is McDermott’s to tell, though it does involve a reading in Pennsylvania where the mayor introduced her as an author who grew up in Nigeria, not Brooklyn. Rosenblatt expects to steal back the lead at Bay Street, he deadpanned, “prancing around on stage, talking about improvising a life.”

In a sense, that is precisely what he’s done — with his writing laid bare for all to see and, now, his music on blast for a theater to hear.

“A decent man would be insecure about it, but I have no fear at all. The truth of the matter is, music’s no different from the insecurity of writing,” he said. “You’ve sought to write a book and you think, ‘Who the f–k wants to read this?’ And then you dismiss the question because you insist on your worth in writing a book.\

“I insist on my worth writing the book,” he said, ‘and I sort of insist — a little more timidly — on my worth in playing a tune my way.”

“Lives in the Basement, Does Nothing – A Writing Life,” a new show by and starring Roger Rosenblatt, will stage on Friday, April 26, and Saturday, April 27, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $30. For more information, call (631) 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.

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