LARRY KING: Who’s Whory Now?

When some novice dramatist says, “I’m going to write a play for Broadway and get rich and famous,” the only sane response is, “Dream on, sucker.” But such a storybook success comes along just often enough to keep that dream alive, and that of Larry L. King, co-author of the hit Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, is a prime example. Without any guarantees at all, King took six months off from his busy career as a freelance journalist to collaborate with actor Peter Masterson on the book for the musical, for which pop songwriter Carol hall wrote the score. And boom! The show was potted in a workshop production at the Actors’ Studio and instantly snapped up by Universal Pictures, which bought not only the movie rights but agreed to finance both the Broadway production and a brief Off Broadway tryout. The rest is history.

Whorehouse is still, after a year and a half, going strong in New York and has spawned a resident production doing sell-out business in Houston, as well as two national companies, one of which is at the Shubert in Boston. In addition, rights to the show were recently sold in 11 foreign countries. King, who gets a percentage of the gross for every performance wherever Whorehouse plays, is sitting pretty; his take has been averaging $9000 a week, and he hasn’t given much thought to journalism lately. “My good friend David Halberstam keeps riding me about it,” King told me, “saying, ‘When are you gonna get back to serious writing?’ I say, ‘Fuck it, you do the serious writing. I’m gonna take the money.”

That may sound mercenary, but who can blame him? On the subject of freelancing, which he’s done since 1964, and its perils, King is quite convincing. In 1964, he quit the job he’d held for ten years as administrative assistant to a Texas congressman and began writing about everything from politics to jazz to Southern women for the likes of Harper’s and Esquire. During that time, he published several books, including two anthologies of his magazine articles: Confessions of a White Racist, which was nominated for a 1971 National Book Award; and Wheeling and Dealing, the memoirs of Capitol Hill con-man Bobby Baker. While they were well-received and sold respectably, neither was especially lucrative, which meant King often had to crank out crap for Cosmo to pay the rent – not an experience he remembers fondly. “Writing a book takes about a year and a half, plus to make money to live on you have to meet 14 to 16 magazine deadlines a year. Out of all those, maybe three or four are stories you care about, and the rest you don’t want your friends to read. The timetable is killing, and I’m glad to be out of it. I’m 50 years old, and I figure I’ve hustled enough.” 

Besides, according to King, writing for the theater is easier and a lot more fun. “You work long hours when you’re shaping the work, and there’s the frustration of collaborators. But look at it this way. You write books at home by yourself. You get a bunch of reviews and modest sales. Maybe a handful of letters trickle in, most of them telling you that you misspelled a word on page 39. And then that book is over. It makes you crazy. I actually used to hang around bookstores trying to catch people buying my books. But it’s really a kick to stand in the back of a theater and watch people laugh at something you rote. It’s instant gratification! I can see why people thrive on it.”

King himself has certainly caught the theater bug. Although he has plans for a heavy, very personal novel based on the men in his family (“I see this as my one very serious, major work – I really want to put everything into this”), what he actually did after the success of Whorehouse was write another play, a one-man show about Huey Long called The Kingfish, which was done at the Playwrights’ Theater in Washington, DC, where King lives. “Carol Hall saw the play and said she wanted to make a musical out of it, and I’m interested in that,” says King. “Mike Nichols saw it and he might want to direct the musical, in which case I’d be ever more interested. I know that if it gets turned into a musical a lot of the writing and things I like about it may have to go, and it’ll turn into something else – which is what happened somewhat with Whorehouse. I feel very ambivalent about that, but at this point I don’t mind too much because I know what financial advantages there are to doing a musical.”

Looking back over our conversation, dominated as it was by his gloating over his sudden wealth and by discussion of screenplays and novelizations and foreign rights, king hastened to add, with a grin, “But if I get the novel about my family done and let them turn that into a musical, then I’ll know I’ve lost my soul.”

Boston Phoenix, October 9, 1979