Is coincidence really God's way of remaining anonymous?
Thoughts on the first anniversary of Franco Zeffirelli's passing.
Many things we experience in life challenge us to change, improve, and resist, some diminish us and make us regret decisions. But the ones that trouble me most are those that seem to have significance yet never quite make sense, or so it would seem. One of my more significant "loose ends" as I think of it, was the series of perplexing encounters with director Franco Zeffirelli I had between 1977 and 1983, and in a way, last year, 2019.
Back in 1977, when I first decided to write a work centered around the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance's crazy activities in 1856, I had written a draft of the script and sketched out a lot of music. Since Franco Zeffirelli was equally comfortable with film, opera and theater, and had done two Shakespeare films as well as a biopic on Francis of Assisi, I decided that it would be great to speak with him about my project, especially since it was using music in a more narrative way, like in opera but in a cinematic style.
Of course, today, one would just search Google and find a treasure trove of interviews, articles and organizations eager to tell one everything about writing a script, scoring a musical or the chances of getting either produced. But back then, I lived in the San Francisco East Bay and had Hollywood Reporter and Variety.
I traced Zeffirelli's whereabouts back to Rome at Cinecittà studios. When I called to see if I might speak with him they told me he was at his home. When I confidently asked the operator for his number, she asked who was calling. Knowing that Paramount had been the source of financing for his earlier films, I confidently blurted out that it was absolutely Paramount that I speak with him. She kindly gave me his number without hesitation and to my greater surprise, I got his housekeeper to pass him the phone doing the exact same thing.
We spoke briefly that day, Mr. Zeffirelli and I, and despite his initial annoyance that I was not from Paramount, he told me to send the script to his producer, Dyson Lovell, at Paramount in Los Angeles as he was going to be there in a couple of weeks to start filming The Champ. I appreciated his willingness to give me a chance.
Of course, being completely defiant to Hollywood etiquette and not wanting to trust the US Postal Service, I decided to hand deliver the script to Mr. Zeffirelli myself. I had heard too many stories about scripts getting tossed out by assistants or lost in the shuffle to trust the gatekeepers. Through a number of calls I found out where Zeffirelli was staying in Los Angeles. A couple of weeks later, I showed up at his residence at 8 PM -- surprisingly, it was an apartment on the third floor of a building with unrestricted outside stair access. I knocked, he answered in his bathrobe. I was standing there with my script in hand, introduced myself and reminded him that I was the person who had called him in Rome. To his credit, he was very gracious but nevertheless insisted it would be better for me to send the script to his producer. So, the next day I made my way miraculously past Paramount’s security desk walking in within a group of employees with badges while officials were busy checking someone in on the other side of the desk and made my way to the production office for The Champ. Unfortunately, I was only able to meet Dyson Lovell, the Producer, who took the script from me despite intense skepticism.
About a week later, I received the script back with the usual apologetic rejection cover letter. I have no idea if anyone ever gave it a passing glance as the cover didn't show any creases along the margin or other signs of wear. I also learned around that time that the best way to reach someone like Zeffirelli is through a literary agent. What an interesting concept, I thought.
About two years later, in 1979, a friend in charge of a small film production in New York offered me the opportunity to move there and work with the director of the project. I wasn't that interested until I found out the director also happened to be Franco Zeffirelli’s cousin. Piero Tellini was an Italian screenwriter and director who had made a number of movies in Italy and now, at age 64, took on the short film project in New York almost as a retirement project. What a coincidence, I thought, and I jumped at the opportunity convinced that he would be able to help me reach Franco again. He did.
A few weeks after my arriving in New York, Zeffirelli arrived there to direct his new production of Puccini's La Boheme at the Met. I was amazed at the coincidence! So while learning to edit 16mm film on a flat bed editing table, Tellini did manage to get me backstage after the premiere of La Boheme to meet Zeffirelli in person and we finally got to shake hands under normal circumstances. He was very gracious but did not seem to recognize me and the room was full of people waiting to meet him and that was that.
Interestingly -- and yet another coincidence --- a very good friend of mine from Florida State, Linda Zoghby, a soprano with an absolutely gorgeous, uniquely dark voice who had performed a number of my songs in graduate school a few years earlier, understudied for Teresa Stratas in that exact production of La Boheme and a few days after the premiere, she got her debut as Mimi when Stratas called in sick. It was a great experience to hear her on the big stage as well as be able to celebrate with her after that career-changing performance. But I kept asking myself, what are the odds, and it must surely mean Zeffirelli is going to help me, right? Unfortunately, she did not have the relationship with Zeffirelli to intervene on my behalf. And besides, Tellini had already promised to see what he could do.
Not long after that, Tellini and Zeffirelli dined at a townhouse on the Upper East side. I was serving as a personal assistant to Tellini at that point and had showed him a draft of my script for The Vigilance of San Francisco and piano versions of the score. He seemed impressed and we discussed certain aspects of it in conversation, but nothing much more was really discussed except that I had long wanted to show it to Zeffirelli. When I picked Tellini up after dinner that night, he told me that he had never asked Franco for a favor in his entire life (probably in reference to his claiming to have gotten Franco his first break at La Scala). That is, until that evening—and the favor was that he would listen to The Vigilance.... I was really surprised because up until then, Tellini had not said much about it other than he thought it showed real promise. Tellini told me he left Franco the Script and a cassette tape I had given him. But I have no idea if Zeffirelli really ever gave it the time of day.
About three weeks later I coincidentally ran into Zeffirelli at the TWA terminal at JFK. Zeffirelli was leaving for Rome and I was there to pick someone up. As he walked into the gate area he saw me and just laughed and walked right up and embraced me. He was with others but took the time to apologize that he was not able to consider my work but added that he actually admired my spunk. I, of course, admired his work tremendously and told him that he was one of the few in the industry who could understand my efforts to produce an original music-drama for the screen. He did mention that Tellini had presented the work to him but that its being about the American West, it was not his “cup of tea” and that even if it were a masterpiece, he was booked for the next ten years and it would not be fair to hold the work up for all that time.
About a year after La Boheme, Zeffirelli was back in New York to record the soundtrack for his upcoming film of La Traviata (1983) at Manhattan Center Studios. Coincidently, again, I was there as part of a film project and we briefly bumped into one another in the control room on the 7th floor. When I said hello, he realized it was me again and, a bit taken aback, nicely asked what I was doing there. I assured him I was gainfully employed and on a project and it was really just a coincidence. As he was busy with Teresa Stratas and Placido Domingo we didn’t have much more time than that and we both went about our day.
He was right about the ten years, though. Little did I know it would be forty years! Fast forward to last spring, 2019. I decided in May I needed to get The Vigilance of San Francisco off the shelf, rework it and get it finished at any cost. Life was racing past me, and besides, its themes of populist discontent and abusive power seemed all the more relevant than it had ever been. I dusted it off and started thinking that the one person I could really see doing a good job with this work would be Baz Luhrmann. He seemed to be the only director whose work shared a similar artistic sensibility and style as Zeffirelli and as both men had done musicals as well as Romeo and Juliet in the original Elizabethan English, successfully, I thought perhaps they had spoken at some time about those projects, or just knew each other professionally. I thought, if I reached out to Zeffirelli and explained again who I am, he might help me this time and perhaps even know Baz Luhrmann. I spent several hours researching the Web for any reference of the two having met. All I could find was that Franco was still alive in Rome.
I did, however, find innumerable articles on the two directors' film productions of Romeo and Juliet. After spending almost four hours reading over reviews, essays, and film school theses, I was taken out to dinner by a friend. The restaurant we intended to go to had no parking and after twenty minutes we decided to head to another venue equally packed which surprisingly had one spot directly in front. How lucky! It was after all, Saturday evening. Inside, where the wait was to be one hour, we found the only table for two open in the packed bar. But it was located between two other tables packed close along a wall and I didn't want to have to listen to other conversations. After walking around for a minute or two confirming there was no other table, we took the crowded one. I was actually surprised that it was still open despite numerous people standing around waiting. When we sat down, I was impressed with the appetizers the young couple at the next table had and commented how we need to order what they're having. Naturally, we all immediately engaged in conversation and after a while of chatting, I introduced myself and my friend only to discover that the woman's name was --wait for it-- Juliette, and, yes, the guy she was with, her husband, Roméo—literally. I ask you, what are the odds?
I got home, inspired by the coincidence and on fire to write Zeffirelli this one last time. I could not ignore the signs. I felt like the universe was screaming at me, “Reach out to Zeffirelli again!” I kept thinking of Einstein’s axiom that coincidence was God’s way of remaining anonymous.
I continued to speculate that Zeffirelli was now 96, maybe, just maybe, if I asked ever so nicely, or offered to come to Rome and buy him coffee or lunch, he would grant me some time so that I could really bend his ear; if he were in my shoes, how would he proceed? Of course, deep down, I was hoping he would perhaps refer me to someone who had the means to open doors, maybe someone who knew Baz Luhrmann. We all know how much such personal referrals can change one's career.
So, I wrote the letter but it needed time to mellow. I had one chance and it needed to be right. Definitive. It had to make him want to help me. It needed to remind him of our past meetings and coincidences, and what I had been doing since the 80's, overseeing the initial expansion into television studios at Manhattan Center, video productions, composing, raising a family.
I decided the letter was ready to send him on July 3th, 2019 and had just found the proper Web address to send it when an old friend just happened to call about another matter. When I told him what I was about to do he calmly replied, "Oh wow, didn't Franco Zeffirelli just pass away recently?"
I was dumbfounded. He couldn't have!
Checking the Web while on the call, sure enough, Zeffirelli had died two weeks earlier on June 15th! I had waited too long. What a strange coincidence, I thought--and the final one! I started to remiss how if I had just sent him the email the day I got the idea to write him back in May; or the day I met Romeo and Juliet in the restaurant, he might have been able to make a difference.
I learned a good lesson that day: Timely effort is as important to accomplishing a goal as the insight that sparked it. Waiting too long to act cost me the opportunity. But then, what were all those earlier coincidences? Law of Attraction at work? Mistakes? I was wrong in reaching out? While I had always acted on my insight in the past, clearly something was afoot which I to this day have not been able to figure out. Perhaps his first rejection letter in 1977 WAS the answer? I wouldn't accept that, not without having a real conversation about the work first.
Of course thinking what could have happened is futile. Maybe nothing. I'll never know. All I can conclude is that by hesitating too long after insight is given, one can definitely lose the window of opportunity. Heaven's generosity apparently has an expiration date, Mr. Einstein.
So, while I’m sad that I never got to have that conversation with Franco Zeffirelli, I am nevertheless thankful for the inspiration he provided at the time, showing that film was not just within the purview of pop culture but had the remarkable ability to become its own art form. And in that vein, taking Mr. Zeffirelli's quote about opera in the header above to its next logical conclusion, that film can actually offer a higher artistic statement potential than any other art separately, a living, moving canvas as it were, where word, picture, and music, centered on a unified vision expressed through time and space, can find ever higher and deeper levels of expression by artists who seek to master all three disciplines. It all just depends on where the artist is coming from. But I'll leave that discussion for a later blog.
If you would like to know more about Franco Zeffirelli and his work, a good overview is available at: The Guardian, Franco Zeffirelli.