In March 2020, the pandemic shutdown in New York City darkened Broadway and sidelined its many artists, including Robert and Steven Morris, pit musicians and identical twins.
But there was an upside for the Morris brothers, 53, and their writing partner, Joe Shane, 49, whose musical gigs also dried up.
The songwriting trio, which has a handful of Off Broadway and other shows to its credit, refocused on a longtime project: a musical about Elaine’s, the Upper East Side nightspot that for nearly a half-century attracted famous writers and other celebrities.
The musicians had been toying with Elaine’s-themed tunes going back to the 1990s when they became regulars there and befriended the restaurant’s temperamental owner, Elaine Kaufman, whose death in 2010 led to Elaine’s closing a year later.
But in the early day of the pandemic, over Zoom, they began fleshing out the show, “Everyone Comes to Elaine’s,” adding new songs, tweaking existing ones and working with the show’s book writer, Asa Somers, who as an actor in “Dear Evan Hansen” was also sidelined by the lockdown.
“As horrible as it was, the pandemic gave us an opportunity to reflect — we just Zoomed every day for four hours writing songs,” Mr. Shane said.
In a suddenly silent city reeling from thousands of virus-related deaths, they sought solace by summoning a time of teeming nightlife before masks and social distancing.
“It lifted our spirits during a dark time,” Mr. Shane said.
With many other Broadway actors similarly sidelined, the writers easily recruited a working cast for online readings. The Morris brothers also arranged recordings of the songs while separated by emailing audio files back and forth.
“It was a time without distractions that allowed us to turn our energy toward this project and go deep into this story that we really believed in,” Robert Morris said.
An in-person reading planned for last December was disrupted by the Omicron outbreak, which infected Mary Testa, a decorated Broadway actor who was reading the role of Ms. Kaufman.
When the reading was finally held last month, she was back, along with a cast of ringers from top Broadway shows being overseen by a Tony-nominated director, Jeff Calhoun, whose résumé includes “Newsies” and “Big River.”
Among the 150 attendees, the show writers said, were potential investors and producers, several of whom expressed interest in trying to help the show become a Broadway production.
Anita Waxman, a producer who has won three Tony Awards, attended the reading and said of the show’s Broadway potential, “I think it’s got a really good chance, but it needs to continue its development because it is really good.”
Ms. Waxman, herself a regular herself at Elaine’s, said she was too busy with other projects to get involved with the show but might join on in the future.
The show begins with an Elaine’s patron being ejected through the front window, a nod to Ms. Kaufman’s famously prickly attitude toward some customers and an exaggerated version of a real altercation for which Ms. Kaufman was arrested in 1998.
The opening number, “Everyone Comes to Elaine’s,” notes the restaurant’s notoriously “crappy entrées” and Ms. Kaufman’s strict “Don’t bother Woody” rule regarding Woody Allen, a regular who had his own table and filmed a scene for his 1979 film “Manhattan” at Elaine’s.
Other Elaine’s luminaries, such as Frank Sinatra and Truman Capote, are referenced in the song “My House, My Rules,” Ms. Kaufman’s musical assertion of her dominance over her restaurant realm.
The show mentions storied Elaine’s episodes, like when the New York Rangers stopped by the night they won the Stanley Cup in 1994.
It also includes the songwriters’ personal recollections, like Steven Morris’s tale about standing at a urinal next to James Earl Jones, who looked over and intoned the words “sweet relief” in his inimitable baritone.
The musical’s plot centers on a period in the early 1980s — not long after the Billy Joel hit “Big Shot” came out, mentioning “the people that you knew at Elaine’s.”
Long single and something of a den mother to a coterie of mainly male writers, Ms. Kaufman was in the middle of a short-lived, tumultuous marriage that was endangering her business.
“It was a hole she fell into that threatened everything,” said Steven Morris.
Her troubles led to a soul-searching moment and ultimately to a recommittal to her “restaurant family,” as one song says.
At the reading last month, Ms. Testa drew a rousing ovation from the audience, which included numerous Elaine’s regulars. One of them, the writer Gay Talese, approached Ms. Testa afterward.
“He said ‘I have to tell you, you really nailed her,’” recalled Ms. Testa, a three-time Tony Award nominee who recently played Aunt Eller in “Oklahoma!” on Broadway as well as other Broadway productions of “On the Town” in 1998 and “42nd Street” in 2001.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a musical based on a restaurant,” Mr. Talese, 90, said later in an interview. Then again, he added, the real Elaine’s itself was quite a nightly show.
“It was a revue, with characters coming in and out,” recalled Mr. Talese, a longtime friend of Ms. Kaufman whom he called “an American Gertrude Stein” for her role hosting writers, albeit in a saloon rather than a salon.
The show has its earliest traces in the 1990s when the three musicians began frequenting Elaine’s by happenstance.
Mr. Shane, 49, from Queens, was living in an apartment above Elaine’s in a building owned by Ms. Kaufman. The Morris twins — Staten Island natives who have played in the pit orchestras for Broadway shows like “Hamilton,” “Hairspray” and “Mamma Mia!” — lived nearby.
They began frequenting Elaine’s and “for some weird reason, she took a shine to us,” Mr. Shane said, letting them nurse beers at the bar and then inviting them to prime tables usually reserved for famous and high-spending regulars.
They rubbed elbows with regulars, including the actors Alec Baldwin and James Gandolfini and the director Robert Altman. They knew enough to leave the Joe DiMaggios and Woody Allens alone, but enjoyed encounters with more approachable celebrities, like Don Rickles and Keith Richards.
“As New Yorkers, we caught the tail end of a New York that doesn’t exist anymore,” Mr. Shane said, “and it allowed us to write a love letter to Elaine.”
Five years ago, the three creators brought their songs and concept to the prominent playwright Tom Meehan, who wrote the books for Broadway productions including “Annie,” “Hairspray” and “The Producers.”
Mr. Meehan was enthusiastic about the show, and before his death in 2017, he recommended they option the rights to the 2004 book “Everyone Comes to Elaine’s,” a portrait of Ms. Kaufman and the restaurant by the writer A.E. Hotchner, an Elaine’s regular who died in 2020.
The musicians did so and also took on as a creative and business partner the author’s son, Timothy Hotchner, 50, who in an interview said of the songwriters: “They’re among the last bastion of people she took under her wing before she died.”
This is not the first attempt to take Elaine’s to the stage or screen. A memoir, “Last Call at Elaine’s,” by Brian McDonald, a former Elaine’s bartender, was optioned as a possible TV series that was described as “‘Mad Men’ meets ‘Cheers’” but was never produced.
Mr. Hotchner wrote a musical with the late songwriter Cy Coleman, also an Elaine’s regular, that featured the actress Lainie Kazan as Elaine.
Ms. Kaufman attended a 2005 reading of that show, “Elaine’s Domain,” and promptly hired a lawyer to have the project killed. She banished A.E. Hotchner from the restaurant, Mr. Talese recalled.
“Elaine didn’t like the way she was being portrayed,” Mr. Talese recalled, “and I think she walked out before it was over.”