Playwright/author Joe DiPietro, seen here in 2015, wrote the book for the new musical "Ernest Shackleton Loves Me," now playing off-Broadway (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
This month alone, playwright Joe DiPietro has one show opening off-Broadway (“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me”), another returning to New Jersey for the first time since its 2013 premiere (“Clever Little Lies”) and one of his earlier works — the second longest-running off Broadway musical of all time — is being staged in North Carolina, Indiana and Texas (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”).
“I’m a juggler,” said DiPietro, who is focusing his energies on launching “Shackleton” at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser theater. “I can rewrite a show every time it’s done somewhere, but I’ve learned you need to work really, really hard on it, try to get it to New York, then just freeze it and move on to the next one.”
DiPietro always seems to have a next one. He’s written, adapted or co-authored more than 20 plays and musicals since his first show took the stage of Fairleigh Dickinson University in the early 1990s. DiPietro still remembers that first production.
Wade McCollum and Valerie Vigoda star in “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me,” a new musical written by N.J.-born Joe DiPietro (Photo by Jeff Carpenter)Christopher Kelly | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
“I remember thinking, ‘This is my audience. I know how to write for these people,’ ” said DiPietro, who may be best known for the Tony Award-winning “Memphis.” “My natural inclination is towards stories they would enjoy, stories about middle class suburbanites making their way through life with family and work and all the other issues.”
DiPietro has strong New Jersey bona fides: He was born and raised in Bergen County, has an English degree from Rutgers University, and has collaborated on three shows with Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan. One of those collaboration was 2008’s “The Toxic Avenger,” which was based on the Lloyd Kaufman’s cult horror/comedy film. The play is set in the most polluted town in New Jersey — a fictional place, in this instance. That show, which has been performed internationally, is being staged this month in Missouri and Ohio.
“Everybody across the world gets New Jersey jokes,” DiPietro said. “I was always thinking I should change the names to make it local and the people say, ‘No, no. We get it.'”
DiPietro writes about real people, people like the ones he grew up with.
“I had a happy, middle-class, suburban upbringing in New Jersey and that has affected my writing. I’m not a dark person or a dark writer,” he said. “My plays are often about people who love each other and are trying to work through the human comedy that is life.”
“Clever Little Lies,” which opens at the Morris Museum’s Bickford Theater April 21, is one of those stories that resonates with its audiences.
“This is a show where everyone is lying about something, big ones, small ones, even to ourselves,” DiPietro said. “It’s about the little lies we tell in a relationship and in a marriage to keep it going.”
That said, don’t make the mistake of pigeon-holing DiPietro. After all, he and Bryan collaborated on “Memphis.”
“I was worried about how Memphisians — that’s what they call themselves — would react to two New Jersey guys writing a show called ‘Memphis,’ but no one’s ever questioned it,” he said. “They loved it so much they gave us a star on their Walk of Fame.”
Clever Little Lies
Morris Museum’s Bickford Theater
6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown
Tickets: $20-45, available online at morrismuseum.org. April 21- May 7.
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me
Second Stage Theatre
305 West 43rd St, New York
Tickets: $89-$109, available online at www.2st.com. Through June 11.