What’s the difference between a tailor and a psychiatrist? A generation, goes the old joke, nailing the American Dream. In the case of the Silvermans of New York and Los Angeles – and, for many springs and summers, Stratford, Ont. – father Stanley is no tailor, but a craftsman who weaves magic with his music; and son Ben is no psychiatrist, but an Emmy and Golden Globe winner whose accomplishments include a weight-loss TV phenomenon that he saw as an antidote to all the mean reality television out there.
This American Dream tale comes with a generous helping of Canadian content, in the form of the Stratford Festival. Perhaps the new riddle could be: What does Shakespeare have in common with Ugly Betty? No joke.
The son of Russian immigrants who sought a better life in America, Stanley Silverman is a Grammy- and Tony-nominated composer, a legend of the New York avant-garde scene whose works include the eclectic 1968 multi-genre pop opera work Elephant Steps: A Fearful Radio Show, and Up From Paradise, Arthur Miller’s only musical. His bio reveals that he was the model for the character Bruno in the 1980 film Fame. He spent many years composing music for plays at the Stratford Festival.
Ben Silverman is an A-list Hollywood mogul, the executive producer behind shows such as Ugly Betty, the U.S. version of The Office, and The Biggest Loser. A former co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, in 2009 he founded the studio Electus, whose projects include the upcoming Robert Duran biopic starring Robert De Niro.
His career owes much, he says, to Stratford, where he spent many spring and summer days, and which continues to influence his work.
“The role [it’s played] has been ongoing, truthfully; it has not stopped,” Ben said at the recent Banff World Media Festival, where he brought his dad along to see him receive the Award of Excellence in Digital Innovation, just as Ben had travelled to Stratford last year to fete his father at celebrations marking Stanley’s 75th birthday, and his 50th anniversary at Stratford.
“One of the things early that impressed me … is that the performance level of these predominantly Canadian actors was so high and their Shakespeare training was so deep, because they’re basically in a Shakespeare factory up there,” Ben explained in an interview, his dad sitting next to him. “And I was so inspired by it and impressed with the depth of talent … across all of the crafts.”
Stanley was first invited to Stratford in 1963 by Glenn Gould, one of the organizers behind the festival’s music series, to play guitar for a Schoenberg recording financed by Stravinsky (it never got made, but that’s another story).
“Glenn picked me up at the airport in his big Lincoln, midsummer in a long coat,” recalled Stanley, who at once evokes Alan Alda, a gentlemanly musical genius and a lovable grandfather. “He talked to me the entire time about the stock market.”
Stanley fell in love with the festival, and began work there in 1967, composing the music for John Hirsch’s production of Richard III and continuing at Stratford, off and on, until 1994.
“To me Shakespeare is the greatest theatre lyricist of all time. Sorry, Sondheim,” Stanley said. “The other allure too, you have to understand, is I came out of a period in the sixties of assassinations. You’re going to make me cry now – but the peace, the quiet, the love that I felt up there – that was it.”
Ben was born in 1970 and has vivid childhood memories of Stratford: playing baseball in the field behind the theatre, swimming in the quarry at St. Mary’s. But more to the point, seeing theatre that blew his young mind.
“I just loved the physical manifestation of the productions – the way the horses moved. What they would create inside that theatre was amazing. It was like sci-fi but it was Shakespeare,” said Ben, who displayed early hints of a producer’s eye at Stratford – recognizing, for example, the talent of Brent Carver when “nobody knew him,” according to Stanley.
Ben can trace the line from Stratford to some of his own TV triumphs. About the choice of Steve Carell to star in NBC’s The Office: “I knew that to do a really crazy world, you had to ground [it] with brilliant performers and that was a direct Stratford thing.”
About his reality TV show The Restaurant, he says that’s the new theatre. “Everyone’s on display, everyone’s performing, every table has its own character-driven drama going on.” The line from Stratford The Tudors is more obvious.
“And for me, Ugly Betty – that was Shakespeare,” he said about his adaptation of the Colombian telenovela. “I heard that title and said, ‘Oh that’s the way to do it today.’ Her Cinderella story, her ugliness is about being an immigrant. Her ugliness is not just pigtails and braces.”
He says the festival as a whole not only provided a model for working on a studio lot, but has informed how he operates in Hollywood, seeking out the super-smart as collaborators. “What pisses me off a lot about the group that arrives in Hollywood is they’re coming to pursue fame. They’re not coming to express themselves artistically, and that’s so different than what was going on with the community at Stratford.”
At 43, Ben is a powerful Hollywood figure, generating his share of ink and attention. But he has been known to dip into his dad’s Rolodex (Colm Feore, Jersey Boys writer Marshall Brickman) and still receives creative advice from “papa, Stanley.”
Their conversations are peppered with casual references to very famous people: Sofia (Vergara), Paul (Simon), Lenny (Bernstein). This in no way feels like an exercise in name-dropping; this is their life, these are their collaborators. And this has been an important factor in Ben’s development.
“Being bounced on James Taylor’s knee, he’s not afraid of stars,” Stanley said. “You know what I mean? He’s not intimidated by them.”
Stanley spent Father’s Day in L.A. with Ben – a country club dinner (“It’s very different than my sort of not-for-profit life,” said Stanley, now on the line from L.A.). At 75, he’s busy – Elephant Steps was re-released by Sony last year; and Up From Paradise will finally have its London premiere this July, with some new material.
There’s another place where Stanley would love to see his work mounted, a theatre festival that is close to his heart all these years later. You know where, right? That’s a riddle that isn’t tough to solve.