On October 11 & 12, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (a service organization made up of some of the top producers, presenters and theatrical educators in the nation) will present its 24th annual Festival of New Musicals. Eight new works will receive readings for industry professionals in hopes of finding assistance with further development and ultimately productions. In the second of a series of personal blogs, I will take you behind-the-scenes of the festival as my collaborators and I prepare our show Triangle for its presentation.
Writing musicals can be a lonely business. Most of the time it’s just you and a collaborator in a room together. So when I was presented with the chance to talk with a few of my fellow writers presenting shows at NAMT this year, I jumped at the chance. If nothing else, it would be like group therapy. But rhymed.
Just over a week ago, I sat down with two amazing writers: Gaby Alter, composer and co-lyricist of the recent Old Globe hit Nobody Loves You; and Harris Doran, lyricist for the post-apocalyptic fairy tale Bleeding Love. With presentation preparations hitting high gear, we took a brief moment to breathe, talk about our inspirations and discuss the best part of writing versus acting in a musical (hint: booze).
When did you get the bug to write music theater because…how old are you?
HARRIS: I’m younger.
GABY: Usually people are younger than me.
HARRIS: You look younger.
GABY: Well, thank you.
And I’m the oldest one in the room so shut up.
HARRIS: But you look younger than me.
That’s staying in the final interview.
My point is that when I look back and think about when I was in high school and college, music theater was not popular. There’s a renaissance right now…
HARRIS: Is there? Because of Glee?
When I talk to an 18 year-old or a 22 year-old, within a certain segment, they think music theater is cool.
HARRIS: True. There are musical movies now and Glee and something else…
And Smash. There are certainly now people wanting to get into the field. An excitement. And that wasn’t so much the case when I was that age. So how did you start?
GABY: It was sort of an accidental thing, a convergence of stuff that I did. It was after high school and I had a friend who wrote plays. He was like, “Want to write a musical?” It was over the summer. Neither of us were musical fans. It’s not like I hated musicals, I just knew very little about them except what I knew as kid. I knew the Rogers and Hammerstein stuff. He said, “Do you want to write a rock musical?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” But I thought it was a ridiculous idea.
GABY: I also didn’t think we were going to do it. Especially when you’re 17 or 18, you say so but…actually he had a whole plan and he was very organized. He came over the next day and had some lyrics.
HARRIS: Oh wow.
GABY: So we ended up doing it over that summer. And it was the high of doing it. “Let’s get our friends who were actors in high school and involve everybody.” And you invite your family and you feel really cool because you’re all of a sudden on stage. I hadn’t had that experience except in a band. But it was easier for me to write stuff in that format. I was writing with him. “You do this and I’ll do that.” There are clear guidelines. Like fun homework. I really responded to collaborating and working as a group… Later I came to appreciate musicals and how difficult writing the really good ones is.
We can all second that.
HARRIS: I had no idea.
GABY: What about you guys?
HARRIS: I’m an actor. I’ve done musicals over the course of my career. But mostly I’ve done plays and more recently films. I’ve always written, even as a little kid, I wrote poetry. It was recommended to me that I go to BMI (Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop) and I was like, “I don’t know.” I ended up having the interview for BMI and still hadn’t written anything so I spent the night before writing some stuff…
HARRIS: I went in there with my lyrics and I acted them out for them and I got accepted. I thought, “OK, I guess I’ll do that.” I didn’t take it seriously. Got some good feedback but still couldn’t care less and then I was assigned to Arthur, who is still my writing partner, and we were paired up to write an assignment on It’s a Wonderful Life. We wrote this rock song. I went through and thought, “This movie is so boring.”
HARRIS: But there was this one tertiary character who’s got this idea, “You’ve got to have plastic.” And he comes back all rich at the end so we wrote this song called “Plastic is Fantastic” which was killer and I thought, “Maybe I can do this.” And I kept going.
You saw you could come at musicals from a different angle.
Same thing for you, Gaby, coming at it from a rock/pop angle.
HARRIS: Over time, it has given me something else to put my energy into. If I’m not acting, I’m writing. And I usually forget that I do the other while I’m doing the one. I say I’m an actor and I feel like I’m a liar. Then I’m writing and I feel like a liar because I’m an actor.
Didn’t you find that, because I was at a similar fork in the road, that writing is something I can do wherever, whenever I want. No one has to hire me as a writer. And I loved that I could go home and be creative.
I mean, I could go home and do my monologues but the roommates don’t really want to hear you doing that Brighton Beach Memoirs monologue again.
HARRIS: (in perfect Simon accent) “Two up, bases are loaded…”
I played a lot of young Jewish boys. Look at me. How that happened I have no idea. But in the Midwest…
HARRIS: …this is as close as it gets.
Gaby, you spoke of R&H. Is there some show of theirs that you are able to look at now, with experience, and you do see it as a goal?
GABY: I went to Tisch; the graduate musical theater program there is really good. It got me thinking about the classic musicals and why are they classic. And then I saw South Pacific at Lincoln Center and I remember thinking I was very skeptical about it. I know their stuff is good but…it seems a little bit schmaltzy and dated. But it wasn’t those things. It was a romantic musical but it wasn’t cheesy. It looks at racism and it looks at death. And they were great songwriters… I wouldn’t write like them now but you can see the things that were at stake.
HARRIS: Did you see that Carousel revival? Lincoln Center years ago?
GABY: It was good?
HARRIS: Oh yeah! There might be a video at Lincoln Center library. If you liked that South Pacific revival, that Carousel was unbelievable.
What blew me away was…you think of all those songs that you’ve heard, but the way they are woven through scenes is so modern. They don’t stop to just sing one of those pretty songs; they flow through the scenes. I hadn’t realized…
HARRIS: And those shows were written very quickly. Now we spend years and years writing and developing with everyone’s opinions. We actually wrote this musical [Bleeding Love] in less than a year. We talked a lot about The King and I, which I guess they had the entire structure worked out but started rehearsals without a second act and they wrote the second act while they were rehearsing. If you take the time to focus on the structure before you write a word then you save yourself a lot of rewrites later…
That sounds like heaven.
HARRIS: If you write a show without everything figured out ahead of time, you write a song and you’re like, “Wait, that song is 5 degrees off.” It’s not like it’s the wrong song. It’s almost…but you’re f*cked…oh…
You can say f*cked, it’s fine.
HARRIS: If that little wrong is the core of the song, then you’re screwed.
GABY: It’s true. Figuring out structure is smart… But sometimes it’s a matter of knowing what it is. The last few musicals I’ve worked on we didn’t know. It’s sort of developing its own tone and world as you write. The one I’m working on now with Itamar, he’s very good at structure, but structure also changes or in this case changed as we did it.
Harris, would you ever want to act in your own stuff?
HARRIS: (beat) I don’t really want to do musicals.
And why is that?
HARRIS: You can’t drink.
HARRIS: It’s a lot of worrying about your voice. It’s a lot of work.
They work hard.
HARRIS: They work hard.
HARRIS: I don’t love doing musicals. I love the idea of musicals. I love watching them.
Which music theater performers do you look at — do you think have the acting chops and the musical talent to pull it off?
HARRIS: Vicki Clark. I thought that Alice Ripley was amazing in Next to Normal. Tanya Pinkins in Caroline or Change… I like a performer that is risky. I like the cast that we’ve got [for Bleeding Love]. They’re a bunch of quirky, interesting performers. It took us a while to find these people because we were like, “No, much quirkier, much weirder.”
HARRIS: We wanted people who would jump at it and bring it to life… You guys have had workshops and productions?
GABY: We had a production in May in San Diego.
HARRIS: And you applied to NAMT?
GABY: We applied because we didn’t know what was going to happen after the production. These days, unless you have a producer signed on, as I’m sure you know, it’s up to you to find the next thing. Depending on how it works out, we wanted other people to see it and we didn’t know if they’d come out to the West Coast. We found out we got in [to NAMT] during the production and we thought, “Well, good!” How about you, guys?
Our [journey] is harder to describe. Triangle is at an earlier stage because we haven’t had a production yet. Basically, the show existed for a while [with drafts in 2005 and 2006] then it went on a shelf because of a bookwriter issue. [After a number of years], the show became ours to work on again and we did a reading of it at Northwestern last year, testing a completely new half of the story. The modern half of the story we totally rewrote. We thought, “this can work,” so we started applying for stuff to do this year. We applied to NAMT and got into TheatreWorks at the same time. We did a two-week workshop at TheatreWorks [in August]; you do a reading, rewrite for a few days, do a reading, rewrite and reading. It’s sort of a natural progression to be here now…
HARRIS: We’ve never even had a reading of our musical, other than me and the bookwriter. We were pretty good, though.
That first presentation is going to be so exciting.
HARRIS: Monday [the first rehearsal] is going to be exciting when we have actors.
You’ve never had actors read it?
HARRIS: No one. The only actor that’s ever read it is me. It’s going to be so exciting to have an amazing cast do the first reading.
What’s your favorite part of the process when you’re writing, from the moment the idea comes up to presenting to an audience?
HARRIS: When it’s being performed.
You like that? I find it maddening.
HARRIS: Really, why? Because you feel like it’s not being interpreted how you intended?
No. No. Because I want to be involved — maybe because I was an actor at one point – and that’s the part I have to sit back and twiddle my thumbs. I get so nervous.
HARRIS: I’m really excited about what an actor can bring.
Oh, I totally get that.
HARRIS: I get a feeling of pride, not in my work, but in them. Look at them shine. I really like that.
Gaby, what’s your favorite step?
GABY: God, I don’t know. The cocaine.
The party after.
HARRIS: The money.
GABY: No. It sort of depends. I had done a production with Band Geeks but somehow with Nobody Loves You it felt more…no they were both momentous. Make or break. I was terrified. I was sh*tting myself. We’ve worked on this for five years… you’ve crawled over broken glass to get there and actually this might go wrong… I don’t think that part is fun. You know, it might be when you are in rehearsal and everyone’s all in to it and you stage a number for the first time and you’re like, “Oh my god, that’s so much better than I would have imagined.” And the actors are like, “Yeah, that’s awesome!” And there’s no audience there to say, “What is this sh*t?”
We’ll find out how those presentations go, harrowing or triumphant, this Thursday and Friday in New York City. You can read more about NAMT and all of the shows at their blog, Musical Notes.