SHOW FOLK: Amanda Green on Cheerleaders and Hard Bodies
Once a month, a member of the theater community will pull up a chair to our cyber table and join us for a little conversation. I’ll edit the transcripts (removing the truly libelous parts) and post the results here every second Wednesday. For November, we’re talking to one of the busiest writers in the business…
Amanda Green is hands down one of the sharpest lyricists working in music theater today. I’ll never forget the first time I heard her sing her ode to codependence, “If You Leave Me…Can I Go To?” a bitingly funny yet surprisingly touching plea; I knew then and there that she was something special. Now, everybody knows it–with two big (and diverse) shows making headlines. First up, the exuberant and high-flying cheerleader musical Bring It On just began a major national tour. Then in the Spring, the La Jolla Playhouse will see the world premiere of Hands on a Hard Body, Amanda’s collaboration with Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright and Trey Anastasio (Phish!)
During a recent phone conversation overflowing with her deliciously infectious laugh (she was in Los Angeles preparing for the run of Bring It On), we had a chance to catch up and discuss the turning point in her career, the joys of being in a show biz family and the distraction of working with far too attractive choreographers.
One of the things I love most about you…
I like this opening.
[laughter] You have written some of the dirtiest songs I’ve ever heard in my life.
You know I love a dirty joke. In your family, was that a currency, who could come up with the dirtiest, funniest joke?
Yes. My father [legendary lyricist and playwright Adolph Green] had a filthy potty mouth. As did his friends. And my brother, who is wickedly funny. I’m like a puritan compared to them.
I grew up in a place where it was anything for a laugh. If you could be funny, dirty and funny, then that was prized. Not just dirty for dirty’s sake but funny dirty.
My Dad had filthy, filthy limericks he made up. Things like that.
Was there ever one of your lyrics that made him blush or say, “That’s it!”
Well, I always like to tell the story of “The V Song” that I wrote with Curtis [Moore]. [It’s a song that features a list of euphemisms for female genitalia, as sung by an effusive, female gynecologist.] I was working on it and I went for a walk with my Dad. I told him the lyrics and I was a little sheepish about telling him. I recited them to him and he was like, “Did you include ‘box’?”
“Did you include ‘p****’? You did? OK.” All he cared about was that I got everything in and didn’t leave out anything funny.
Good times. The warm moments you share…
Father and daughter…
Now, with Bring It On, what’s it been like to work with multiple collaborators [the music is by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the lyrics are by Green and Miranda, the book by Jeff Whitty]?
It’s been a very cool experience, I have to say. It started out very much—we got doled out separate assignments; we were usually not even in the same city. Everyone was doing their things. But slowly, as we’ve gotten more comfortable with each other—I don’t want to say it’s a free for all but…It started out a very formal collaboration. Lin would write this section and Tom and I would write that section and the two of them would figure out how the music would come together… But since then, the three of us have sat in a room and written songs together. I feel free to chime in with Lin and he feels free to chime in with me on a lyric. So it’s become much freer and more fun… And Jeff has created all-new characters that are so singular and so great and terrific.
Did you ever cheerlead?
Not even remotely.
In Manhattan, there was no football team; there were no cheerleaders.
Where did the cheerleader types go then? They have to go somewhere.
I don’t know. I think they were on the volleyball team. I went to basketball games because there was a basketball player who was cute. But I wouldn’t cheer.
[laughter] I also just saw that your show Hands on a Hard Body is getting a full production at La Jolla. That must be thrilling.
It is. That has been a long labor of love.
Can you tell me a little more about it because I don’t know much about it other than it’s based on a documentary?
Yes. The documentary chronicles a contest to win a pick-up truck at this car dealership in a small town in East Texas. The contestants, their names are picked out of a hat and they put their hands on the truck and whoever stands there the longest with their hands on the truck gets to drive it off the lot. And it turns into this marathon contest which goes on for days…[the musical] is sort of like They Shoot Horses Don’t They mixed with A Chorus Line. With laughs.
Doug Wright came to me with the idea like five years ago, maybe seven years ago, and we pursued the rights and got them. And then we realized we probably needed the life rights of our favorite contestants in the film so we found them and wrote to them and went to Texas and met with them.
What were those meetings like?
It was unbelievable and such an education. They didn’t know what to make of us and we didn’t know what to make of them. I learned so much… Doug is so eloquent about it but once you meet someone–we never wanted to make a joke out of it or be condescending to these people–but once you meet them you are honor and duty bound to present them as a human being.
I’m just going to mention one of your collaborators on this project so I can post pictures of him next to this interview, your choreographer…
Yes, Benjamin Millepied.
Can you even concentrate when he’s there in front of you dancing?
[laughter] He’s a beautiful man.
Nobody in the room can. Male. Female. Gay. Straight. He crosses all boundaries.
How did he become involved, because it seems totally out of left field with his ballet background?
It’s turned into a really happy marriage. He and I have the same agent, which is how he sort of came into our world. We saw examples of his work and it’s beautiful and balletic but it also has humor. And it was fresh and interesting… This is a musical where ten people stand with their hands on a truck for two hours…
It’s not an obvious dance piece.
[laughter] And no one had to audition doing a dance… he’s not dealing with the corps here… But he has choreographed this simple movement, like when people are singing and the truck turns and they are weaving in and out and it is simply gorgeous. He’s found a great vocabulary of movement.
You know, with so much show biz in your background [her mother is actress Phyllis Newman], was there ever a time you thought about not being in the business?
I don’t think so. I mean, I worried that I wouldn’t be, that I wouldn’t be able to make it and I didn’t know what my place was. I think I spent a long time trying to figure out what that was.
Do you remember what the moment was when you realized you found your place?
I do think starting to write music theater in the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop was important to me. I sort of had been floundering around. I went to acting school and I realized, if my job was to go on auditions, I’d have a very slow week—because I barely got any auditions.
I sang at cabarets and I wrote pop songs. I went down to Nashville. It’s the same thing when people come to New York and say, “I’m going to write a Broadway musical!” You have to live there and have to know it. And it was the same thing with Nashville. You have to move there. It has to be in your blood. You have to make that your life. I resisted writing for musical theater but I joined the BMI workshop saying, “Why the hell not?” And all of a sudden, writing theater songs, I said, “Oh, I know how to do this. This is where I belong.”
What’s your favorite part of the whole process?
You know that moment, as a writer, when you feel that click. Finding the solution and going “Oh God, yeah. That would do it.” You sort of know it. Because you spend so much of your time writing and rewriting, trying to polish the turd…
Trying to make it better and better and better. When I’m not sure I ask everybody. My poor husband has to listen to me. “This line or that line. That or that.” But every once in a while you know it’s right. And it feels good. I love that moment.