Playwright, composer and lyricist Albert M. Tapper penned his first non-musical “Bettinger’s Luggage,” with a specific message in mind. “I wrote it because the amount of antisemitism was increasing in the United States, probably greater than it was since the end of the second World War,” he said. “So I wanted to write something that would show that we’re all the same, so why can’t we all live together?”
Tapper, a Worcester, MA native-turned-Midtown East resident who is of Jewish heritage, also wove in experiences with his own family into the show, which will debut at the AMT Theater–a 99-seat Off- Broadway theater on West 45th Street which he himself designed and opened last summer–on Sept. 19.
“Bettinger’s Luggage,” is set on Delancey Street in 1974 and is inspired by the life story of a guest who was once at Tapper’s home. It follows a father who owns a luggage store whose son is not interested in working with him, because he has dreams of becoming a standup comedian.
The octogenarian, who wrote his first musical at 20, purposely “created a melting pot” with this play and introduces characters of different nationalities that all coexist in harmony with each other. “I wanted to write a show where there were people from different ethnic backgrounds who really cared about each other,” he said.
You wrote your first musical at the age of 20 while you were in college.
Yes, I went to Boston University and I was asked to write the school show, which I refused to do unless they paid me. So they gave me $20, which, then, was a lot of money, so I wrote the show.
Before that, had you known that was what you wanted to do in the future?
No, I didn’t really know. I’ve been writing music since I was a kid. Actually, I thought anybody could write music. I didn’t think it required any talent. My father played, so I just went to the piano and picked out tunes and thought that anybody could do this. I realized a few years later, it did require some skill.
When did you move to the city? Did you come here to pursue music?
About 35 years ago. Yes, I was writing theater pieces and pop songs probably since the ‘70s. And so that’s where the action was, so that’s where I went. I lived on 65th Street and First Avenue and then I got a little lucky, I moved into the Carlyle Hotel. And then I was with a woman who had a 7-year-old child, so my apartment at the Carlyle wasn’t big enough, so I bought an apartment at the Lombardy, which I still have today. That’s where I live, although right now, I’m in Cape Cod.
Tell us about AMT Theater and how you thought up the idea.
Well, I had written a lot of shows with Tony Sportiello, who’s now the artistic director at the AMT Theater. I think we were on 9th Avenue and 46th Street at a restaurant and we had a new show that we wanted to put on, which we still haven’t put on, it’s a musical called “Upside Down.” I said, “You know, it’s so hard to get a theater.” He said, “Yeah, we have to try so many different places to get one.” I said, “Well, why don’t we build one?” So he went, “What?” I said, “Yeah, let’s build one.” So we literally went around the corner and saw a space that had been used as a dance studio and theater. It was available for rent, so I got it. It took us about a year to build the theater.
The first show of yours that opened there was in July 2022.
It was called “An Unbalanced Mind.” It was a musical. But the interesting part about this is that when we got the empty space, just the empty space, and made the announcement that we were going to put in a theater, we had more people coming in and saying, “I’d like to rent it.” Because the demand is so great for off-Broadway theaters. So we now have it rented. When we’re not doing our own show, we have it rented until the end of 2024.
Your show is based on a true story. Tell us how you first heard about it.
A friend of mine lived in New York. He’s since passed away. In fact, both of these guys have passed away. George, who was the son of Lou, went to visit my friend Pete. And he thought he could stay over at Pete’s house. Pete says, “You can’t stay here, I don’t have any room for you. Go to Al’s.” So he shows up in my apartment with a suitcase. And he comes in and I didn’t know him that well, so in trying to have some kind of conversation, I said, “Tell me about your life. What do you do?” And he told me the story about his life, about his father, the luggage store, the people that lived around there. I wrote it, so there’s a lot of made up stuff, but the characters’ names and the area where it takes place are all real and inspired by George Bettinger.
Can you give us a synopsis of the show?
The show takes place on Delancey Street in a luggage store owned by a Jewish guy who doesn’t get along with his son because the son wants to be a standup comic and the father doesn’t want that because then the son would outdo the father. And the father wants him to be in the luggage business. Next door to the luggage store is a Greek luncheonette and on the other side is an Irish hardware store. George falls in love with an Italian girl and the manager of the luggage store is a Puerto Rican. So I created a melting pot in writing this with a purpose of saying, “Look, here is a neighborhood in 1974 where everybody gets along, everybody likes each other, even though they’re angry sometimes at each other and they’re yelling, you know that there’s an enormous amount of affection between all the neighbors.” And the feeling was, why can’t we all be like that?
Tell us about the documentary that won you the Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting.
That was “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy.” What people don’t realize is that during the heyday of theater and Broadway, 95 percent of all Broadway musicals were written by Jews. And I never knew that, I mean I knew that everybody was Jewish except Cole Porter. And Cole Porter couldn’t get a show produced. He was a terrific songwriter and impressed everybody, but he couldn’t get a show. So he went to see Irving Berlin and ... Irving says, “Go to shul.” Shul is Yiddish for synagogue. Because Broadway music is Eastern European in its roots. So we wanted to find out why so many Jews were the composers and lyricists of Broadway shows. We researched and interviewed every living composer and if the composers weren’t alive, and many weren’t, we had their wives, children or their grandchildren. So they’re all interviewed in the movie and the stories they told were just wonderful.
To learn more, visit www.amttheater.org/bettingersluggage