Posted on December 22, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Just in time for Christmas, a jam-packed bonus overstuffed edition of “Ask JRB!”

Last week, while en route to a writing retreat on St. Barth’s (because I’m fancy, that’s why) I tweeted, “It’s time for a blog, and I’m sitting doing nothing on an airplane, so I could write it now, but I can’t decide what to write. You tell me.” Here’s some of the things you all wrote back.

Zach Zadek writes: Did you weave the Songs for a New World theme into the music after you wrote it? Or was it in them originally?

The “New World” theme, for those of you who don’t know what Zach’s talking about, is the five note figure stated by the piano at the very beginning of the opening sequence. It is then transfigured and repeated in a variety of ways throughout the show – part of what makes Songs for a New World feel like a unified score is the continuing restatement of that theme.

When I put together the very first version of Songs for a New World, which was a cabaret act at Don’t Tell Mama in 1991, the opening number was a song called “Follow Me.” (Don’t ask, it was dreadful.) The song was in 6/8, and it ended with an ostinato of 16th-notes in the right hand – F#, G, F#, D, A, G. When I wrote the song, I didn’t know what I was going to do to get out of that ostinato, so one day I just kept playing it, and suddenly I decided to speed up and change time signature and move to a whole different chord in the left hand; instantly, I had written the first eight bars of “King of the World,” turning the first five notes of that ostinato into a new figure, and I kept on going from there, finishing the whole thing in less than a day. (I still play “King of the World” in G, but it’s in C in the score.)

Even though “King of the World” didn’t stay in the second spot of the show for very long, that five-note figure began worming its way into the rest of the score, and every time I wrote a new opening number (I wrote something like seven of them), I’d try to integrate the theme somehow. The opening number we ultimately settled on, oddly enough, was the version that used the theme least (after the first four measures) – I only was able to cram it into the vocal arrangement after the bridge (when Man 2 and Woman 2 sing “All of a sudden…”).

Thereafter I made several attempts to deliberately shoehorn the figure into the score – my favorite: the opening bass line of “Just One Step”; my least favorite: the intro to “I’d Give It All For You” – but what’s truly weird is that the theme showed up in some places where I didn’t even intend it, like the accompaniment to “The Flagmaker” (during “Grab a needle, grab a thimble…”). It’s likely that my fingers just gravitated toward that series of notes, which is probably how I ended up putting it into “Follow Me” in the first place.

We all got pretty tired of that theme by the time the show opened, but I thought it would be fun to stick it into all of my subsequent shows somewhere, like Hitchcock making his appearances in his own movies. You can hear it in Parade during “All The Wasted Time,” after Lucille sings “Years on top of years”; and in The Last Five Years during “If I Didn’t Believe In You,” after Jamie says “I don’t want you to hurt.” But I don’t think I put it into the score of 13 anywhere.

There is one other song in which I prominently used that theme – when Daisy Prince got married, I wrote a song for the occasion which has several inside jokes, one of which is the statement of the New World theme as part of the melody. Can you tell which song and where the theme is used?

Kyle Freesen asks: What ideas are bouncing around for the next show?

Oh, my, there’s a lot on my plate at the moment. Daisy Prince and I are writing a new show together, which we hope to premiere in the spring of 2012. Marsha Norman and I are hard at work on a musical version of The Bridges of Madison County, and we’ll probably do a private reading of the first act early next year. Alfred Uhry and I are adapting a French musical for Kathleen Marshall to direct. I’ve been hired once again to write the score for the 2011 State Farm National Convention. A screenplay of 13 is currently being shopped to movie studios, and a movie of The Last Five Years is in pre-production. I’m trying to finish a new solo album for release this summer. And a German theater producer has asked me to write some songs for a musical version of a very famous fantasy novel. Not to mention Honeymoon In Vegas, which is on a path to Broadway in 2012, and a possible Broadway production of The Last Five Years which I will be directing! (Oh, I’ve also got a tour of Australia in February and March, The Trumpet of the Swan at the Kennedy Center in March, and concerts all over the world booked for the next year. Oh my God.)

Donna Lowe wonders: Are college music degrees really valuable for aspiring theatre performers? If a talented singing actor toils away for a few years in amateur theatre, is the experience gained just as valuable as getting a degree?

I really think it depends on the individual actor. Experience in and of itself is not necessarily going to improve anyone’s performance. I think often of that guy who has been playing violin outside the Fairway on the Upper West Side for as long as I can remember – all that practice, I say to myself, and he still sounds terrible. Repetition does not inevitably lead to improvement; you will practice better if you have a guide, someone that pushes you into understanding how you can move up to the next level. The best college programs are the ones that know how to guide an actor or a singer to his or her own highest level of achievement.

Daisy Prince says, simply and tantalizingly: The Nibby.

I made a transcendently powerful culinary discovery this year: The Scharffen Berger Nibby. Look at it. Love it. It’s the perfect dark chocolate flavor, with little delightful crunchy bits. I’d like to give the whole world a Nibby. In 2011, Nibby will make the world better.

Chip Deffaa asks: Any thoughts you might wish to share on The Scottsboro Boys? Does its situation have resonance for you, with your experiences with Parade? In both cases, I admired the creators’ seriousness of purpose, willingness to grapple with substantive issues, and very much liked the music– but saw larger audiences embracing lightweight, less ambitious, and less well-constructed (but “happier”) shows.

Honestly, seriously and truly, this is what I think: I’m really fucking tired of people assessing a show’s value based on how long it runs. The Scottsboro Boys had a beautiful production with a stellar cast in a Broadway theater, and some people loved it and some people didn’t. Same as Wicked, same as The Pirate Queen. I don’t know why every musical should have to compete with Hairspray or The Producers. Some shows are designed to do nothing more than entertain and amuse, and some shows challenge the audience in very different ways. The incredible and unexpected success of Next To Normal might well encourage musical theater writers to explore much more difficult and emotionally challenging subjects, but it does not augur an era where those shows will be financially successful. A show like Next To Normal, or The Scottsboro Boys or Parade, is always going to be a tough sell in a commercial environment, just like Schindler’s List is harder to sell than Pirates of the Caribbean. If you loved The Scottsboro Boys, then celebrate it, revel in it, and share your love for it, but most of all, be grateful for it. I hate this insane nonsense where people who say they love theater salivate over the grosses in Variety or debate the precise number of a show’s weekly nut – all that shit seems to trivialize the theater and turn it into one more stupid commodity. I got into it because theater moves me and inspires me in ways that no other art form can. Having now written several shows that were total flops in New York, I think that whether a show runs for a long time or makes any money seems like a ridiculous way to judge its success.

Jeff Pietrantoni asks: I am currently working on a project exploring at how Broadway bound musicals change/evolve on the road and wonder if you would shed some light on why “I Take It Back” was cut from Urban Cowboy. Matt Cavanaugh performed it at one of BCEFA’s Leading Men concerts and it was wonderful. By any chance is the sheet music available for purchase? Having a copy to include in my presentation would be quite helpful.

We screwed around with Urban Cowboy so much during previews that it’s hard to remember why any one thing came or went. I was never nuts about “I Take It Back,” and I’m still not – it’s a whole lot of noise about a whole lot of nothing – but it certainly showed Matt off well, and the audience always loved it (to the extent that the audience loved anything about that show). I think there was some agreement that it wasn’t “country” enough, or that Bud (Matt’s character) shouldn’t be that articulate or self-aware, or something; I replaced it with a different song, called “I Wish I Didn’t Love You,” which is much better but didn’t give the actor or the audience the same kind of release. Either way, what was clear to me during that moment in the show was that we were spending a lot of time trying to get an audience to root for a character who did really stupid shit all the time and never seemed to get smarter; there’s no fixing a problem like that.

You can hear the song on Kevin Odekirk’s new album, Unheard, and you can download the sheet music by clicking here.

Speaking of sheet music, we’ve made ”Flying Home” from Songs for a New World commercially available for purchase for the first time! For those of you who’ve asked about Lauren Kennedy’s version, just transpose the file into C minor before printing.

Emily Goodman wants to know: When will you be performing in NYC again?

April 28, 29 & 30, with Anika Noni Rose and the Caucasian Rhythm Kings and Brass! More details to come soon!

Ben G. asks: In your opinion, what’s the best way to get over a girl?

Nothin’ but time. And no one can guess how long it’s going to take you. You can fill that time a billion different ways, but all you’re doing is filling time. Go wallow in your misery if that makes you feel satisfied, or go tap dancing through Times Square; either way, one day you’ll wake up and not be thinking about her. Meanwhile, get on with the rest of your life.

And on that note, I’m going to get on with the rest of my life. Have a fantastic holiday season, and best wishes for a sensational 2011!

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