Jim Lehrer on 'Bell’ and Why It Won’t Be a Musical

The former PBS NewsHour anchor wrote a one-act play about the inventor.

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Debate moderator Jim Lehrer speaks during the first of three presidential debates before the 2008 election September 26, 2008 at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi.

Of course it's not as stressful as moderating a presidential debate, but former PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer – in his role as a playwright – still expects some opening night jitters. Lehrer has penned "Bell," a play about inventor Alexander Graham Bell, which debuts at National Geographic's headquarters in Washington, D.C., later this month.

"There are places where they're supposed to laugh and if they don't laugh, I'll be so upset," Lehrer said of his prose encountering an audience for the first time. "And if they're supposed to be teary and they're not teary – it's so personal."

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Lehrer's journey to the Grosvenor Theater began with a call from Greg McGruder, the vice president of public programs at National Geographic. Word had gotten out that Lehrer, who moonlights as a novelist, had also written plays.

"Let's face it, I wasn't well known as a playwright," Lehrer said. "And some of my earlier plays were just not that good because I didn't have time to devote to the workshopping, and all of that, that is required to bring a play from a piece of paper to a stage, in a way that works."

McGruder hoped that Lehrer would consider writing his next theatrical work on Bell, who was the National Geographic Society's second president. "I took a few days and did some basic research," Lehrer noted. "There was a hell of a lot more to Alexander Graham Bell than a telephone."

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Lehrer agreed to do the project, a 90-minute one-act play for just one actor, as long as he had editorial control. "It would not be a puff piece," the retired journalist told Whispers, though he did show some bias. "I hope I'm objective enough when I tell you that I really think you're going to appreciate this play," Lehrer said. He's also waiting for an audience reaction before voicing bigger stage ambitions. "I don't have a long term plan for 'Bell,'" he acknowledged. Though he did know one thing: He wouldn't be taking "Bell" to Broadway. "I don't sing very well," he mused, then slightly changed his position. "When I was a kid, I took tap dancing lessons in Kansas, when I was 6, 7-years-old. Maybe I can turn it into a musical," Lehrer laughed.

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