Eyen is best known for works at opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum. Mainstream theatergoers became acquainted with him in 1981, when he partnered with composer Henry Krieger and director Michael Bennett to write the book and lyrics for the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls, about an African-American female singing trio. Eyen's career started, however, with avant garde plays and musicals that he wrote and directed Off-Off Broadway in the early 1960s. This eventually led to Off-Broadway success in the 1970s, with the controversial nudity-filled performance-art play, The Dirtiest Show in Town and Women Behind Bars, a camp parody of women's prison exploitation films. Eyen died of AIDS-related complications in Palm Beach, Florida at the age of fifty.
Early life and education
Eyen was born in Cambridge, Ohio, the youngest of seven children of Abraham and Julia Eyen, who owned a family-run restaurant. He attended The Ohio State University but left before graduating, in 1960, and moved to New York City to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Having no success with acting, Eyen worked briefly as a press agent and then began writing. He found a home for his unique outlook on contemporary life in the 1960s at the Off-Off-Broadway avant garde theatre scene at Caffe Cino and La MaMa Theatre, where he gave Bette Midler her first professional acting roles in his Miss Nefertiti Regrets and Cinderella Revisited (both in 1965, a children's play by day and an adult show by night). With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, he formed his own company, the Theatre of the Eye Repertory Company, in 1964. The company performed together for a decade, and took Eyen's 1967 play about Sarah Bernhardt, "Sarah B. Divine!," to the Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1967. Eyen is considered a principal proponent of the 1960s neo-expressionist Off-Off-Broadway movement. The New York Times noted, "His plays are known for emotionally grotesque material combined with sharp satire."
Eyen was prolific, writing and usually directing 35 plays at La MaMa alone in the 1960s and 1970s. Early Off-Off-Broadway plays, other than those mentioned above, include My Next Husband Will Be A Beauty! (1964), Frustata, The Dirty Little Girl With The Paper Rose Stuck In Her Head, Is Demented! (1964), The White Whore And The Bit Player (1964; revived in 1981 at Corner Theatre ETC), "Why Hannah's Skirt Won't Stay Down" (1964), Can't You See A Prince? (1965), Court (1965), The Last Great Cocktail Party (1965), The Demented World Of Tom Eyen (1965) and Why Hanna's Skirt Won't Stay Down; Or, Admission 10c (1965). The title character has been described as an icon representative of all the crudeness, exuberance, decadence and off-the-cuff profundities of the era. Others included Give My Regards to Off-Off Broadway (1966), Grand Tenement/November 22nd (1967), Kama Sutra, The (An Organic Happening) (1968), Who Killed My Bald Sister Sophie? Or, Thank God for Small Favours! (1968), When Johnny Comes Dancing Home Again (1968), Alice Through A Glass Lightly (1968), 4 Noh Plays (1969) and Caution: A Love Story (1969).
1970 to 1980
In 1970, Eyen had his biggest commercial success to date with The Dirtiest Show in Town, a satiric response to, but also an example of, the era's plays featuring sexual situations and nude actors, which ran for two seasons with later versions Off-Broadway and in London's West End.
This was followed by such shows as Areatha in the Ice Palace; Or, The Fully Guaranteed Fuck-Me Doll (1970), Gertrude Stein and Other Great Men (1970), Lana Got Laid In Lebanon (1970), What Is Making Gilda so Gray?; Or, It Just Depends on Who You Get (1970), 2008: A Spaced Oddity (1974) (with music by Gary William Friedman) and The Neon Woman (1978) starring Divine. According to The New York Times, "Eyen was called the Neil Simon of Off-Off-Broadway at one point when he had four plays running simultaneously." Eyen wrote the song "Ode to a Screw" with Peter Cornell for the 1971 Miloš Forman film Taking Off".
In 1973, Eyen co-wrote the book for and directed one of Broadway's most notorious flops, the Paul Jabara disco musical Rachael Lily Rosenbloom (And Don't You Ever Forget It), which closed after seven previews. The lead character, a flamboyant entertainer, had been inspired by Midler, who nevertheless passed on the role. Following this setback, Eyen began to commute to Los Angeles to write for television. He contributed scripts to the 1976-78 ground-breaking evening soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, produced by Norman Lear. In 1978, he earned an Emmy Award nomination for writing Bette Midler's first television special, Ol' Red Hair is Back.
Eyen's campy-disturbing send-up of women's prison exploitation movies, Women Behind Bars, became a major Off-Broadway hit in 1975, first with Pat Ast, and then with Divine, playing the lead role of the sadistic matron in drag. The New York Times called it "an extraordinarily interesting work from one of America's most innovative and versatile playwrights." He followed up on this success with The Neon Woman, another Off-Broadway play starring Divine, in 1978.
Dreamgirls and later years
Eyen and Krieger first worked together on the 1975 musical version of Eyen's revue The Dirtiest Show in Town, called The Dirtiest Musical in Town. Nell Carter's performance in that musical inspired Eyen and Krieger to craft a musical about a black singing trio, which they workshopped for Joe Papp with Carter, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine but shelved in 1978 when Carter took a role in a soap opera. A year later, the project caught the interest of Broadway director-producer Michael Bennett, who asked Eyen to direct a workshop production of Big Dreams, as the musical was then known, with Sheryl Lee Ralph, Loretta Devine and gospel singer Jennifer Holliday as Carter's replacement. However, Holliday left the project, unhappy that her character died at the conclusion of the first act. After several workshops and numerous rewrites, Bennett decided that he needed Holliday, and the team rewrote act two to build up Holliday's character.
Produced on Broadway in 1981, Dreamgirls' was the biggest success of Eyen's career. It was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards, including two for Eyen: Best Book and, as lyricist, Best Original Score. The show won six Tonys, including Best Book. It also earned Eyen a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Lyrics. The original cast album won Eyen a Grammy Award as lyricist, and one of the show's songs, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going", sung by Holliday, became a top hit.
When a film adaptation of Dreamgirls by writer/director Bill Condon was released in 2006 by DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures, the soundtrack became a number one hit, and two of Eyen's songs from the soundtrack, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going", sung by Jennifer Hudson, and "One Night Only", sung by Beyoncé Knowles (credited as Deena Jones & The Dreams), became hits again. To promote the film's release, DreamWorks and the licensee of the musical, The Tams-Witmark Music Library, paid the licensing fees for all non-professional stage performances of Dreamgirls for 2006. As a result, more than fifty high schools, colleges, and community theaters staged productions of Dreamgirls in 2006.
Eyen's 1984 attempt to duplicate his Dreamgirls success with Kicks: The Showgirl Musical, a collaboration with composer Alan Menken about members of The Rockettes during World War II, never made it past the workshop stages, though individual numbers from the show are often performed in concert.
Eyen died of AIDS-related complications in Palm Beach, Florida at the age of fifty. A memorial service was held at the St. James Theatre in New York City on September 23, 1991. In 1993, he posthumously received the Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute Award at The Ohio State University, where his papers are archived.
- Review: Women Behind Bars, The New York Times, 1984
- Review: Women Behind Bars in San Francisco, TalkinBroadway.com
- Holden, Stephen. "Tom Eyen, 50, Prolific Playwright Specializing in Off Off Broadway", The New York Times, May 28, 1991
- Richard Eyen obituary (2007)
- American Academy of Dramatic Arts Alumni List
- Klemesrud, Judy. "Dirty is a State of Mind", New York Times, Sunday August 16, 1970.
- La MaMa article
- Time magazine profile on Midler
- NY Times review
- Information about Hannah, LaMama.org (2005)
- Information about Hanna and Dirtiest Show
- Divine bio, FineLineFeatures.com
- "Broadway on Showtime: The Dirtiest Show In Town BFI Film & TV database
- The Dirtiest Musical in Town is mentioned in this article on Krieger
- Aufderheide, Jeremy. Pre-Broadway. Dreamgirls: Your virtual coffee-table book of the musical, 2010, accessed July 16, 2010
- Hill, Jeremy. "Pre-Broadway. Dreamgirls: Your Virtual Coffee Table Book of the Musical.
- Olsen, Mark (Dec. 12, 2006). "One stage of film's marketing is on stage", Los Angeles Times. Retrieved on December 15, 2006
- Ostrow, Stuart Present at the Creation, Leaping in the Dark, And Going Against the Grain 2005, pp. 117-188.
- Description of several "forgotten" releases
- Eyen profile at FilmReference.com
- Stone, Dr. Wendell, Simulated Performances: Tom Eyen's Employment of Filmic Devices. (2002)
- Stone, Dr. Wendell, Caffe Cino: the birthplace of off-off-Broadway. (2005)
- List of Eyen's early plays
- Obituary: Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1991.
- Obituary: Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1991.
- Obituary: Variety, June 3, 1991, p. 69.