Posted on March 9, 2011 at 10:47 pm
When I was in Hamburg last September, I was interviewed by Ralf Rühmeier for Musicals Magazine, a German periodical devoted entirely to musical theatre. (Don’t you love that there’s one of those in Germany but nothing equivalent in the United States?)
Because I don’t speak German, the interview was conducted in English, then translated into German for publication. That meant, however, that I couldn’t read the finished article, so I asked my friend Wolfgang Adenberg, who has beautifully translated all of my musicals into German, if he would take a shot at re-translating it to English so I could see what I said! With the caveat that re-translated English is sort of like twice-defrosted chicken, here are some excerpts from a fun interview:
You gave two master classes, one for professionals and one for students. In America you teach performing and composing at the University of Southern California. Is there a difference between American and German performers?
I don’t know if I could generalize that way about that. Moreover, there is the language barrier for me. Americans are naturally more comfortable with the language and understand it that way. So anything that I say has to be filtered through that.
I was told that in the student master class the students come from different colleges and that I would see all the regional differences. But I didn’t really. Singers are singers and actors are actors. The kind of work that I do requires a very specific connection to the text and to the music, and when people have it then they have it. Somebody like Pia Douwes has an instinctive connection to the work. The way she works isn’t any different from the way Bernadette Peters or Audra McDonald works. So I don’t think there is a sort of national style – at least I didn’t notice it with my stuff. I don’t want anybody to do my work in a way that isn’t authentic.
Do you have a credo as a teacher?
It is about authenticity, about trust in the material. Trust the song and the dialogue. You have to trust that the author knew what he was doing. And when the author didn’t know what he was doing, you have to trust that anyway. Really understanding deep down what a composer or a lyricist might have meant is the most important thing, because then you can bring it to life. It is using who you are to bring this text or this song to life. You can’t become something you have never been. All you can do is take the text and bring it through you, through what you’ve experienced and what you’ve lived.
Why wasn’t it allowed in the master classes to sing Frank Wildhorn songs?
Ha! It’s not just Frank Wildhorn songs, there’s a whole range of contemporary musical theater material I won’t work on. It’s nothing personal against Mr. Wildhorn, he’s just a convenient example because he’s very successful and kind of ubiquitous, which I also hope means he isn’t that offended that I don’t want to work on his stuff. (I suspect the feeling’s mutual, by the way.) I just have a very specific vision of what a theatre song should be. It should get a character from one place to another place emotionally. The character crosses over a barrier. I find that a lot of contemporary pop musical work is much more related to pop songs, which put a character emotionally in one place and explore that place emotionally but don’t travel anywhere, don’t take any journey. Frank Wildhorn, who was a pop songwriter, comes very much from that tradition. That’s what he obviously wants to do. So, for example, someone is angry, then the song is an “angry song.” I find that really hard to act – even more, it is impossible for me to teach. I don’t know how to teach an actor how to work through a song where they just have to stay in one place for a long time. So it’s not about Frank Wildhorn, there are a lot of writers who work that way. It’s a pop musical theatre thing. I think it is very hard to do We Will Rock You or Mamma Mia! which again were pop songs put into theatre. I don’t know how to act those, because there’s not much there to act except that “I am in a place and I am feeling a thing.” But how long can you say that? That’s my problem with that material. It’s not that it is impossible. I just do not know how to work with it. I have no idea how to do it. There may be teachers who know.
How does it feel to hear your songs in a foreign country, sung by foreign singers?
So weird! One of the strangest parts was when Volkan was singing “Flying Home”, Charlotte Heinke was still on stage and I motioned for her to sing the background vocals, and she knew them, because she had done a production of Songs for a New World, so she knew all the parts. And I was so thrilled and mystified by that: There is this girl in Germany, who just knows the parts of songs I wrote almost 20 years ago! We just started singing together – that was pretty amazing.
In a lot of respects, I wish I’d had some more time with the singers to get everybody more comfortable with the material. My songs are very difficult, you know, they don’t leave a lot of room for error, and so it was really intense trying to pull everything together that quickly. What it feels like… if you are doing my songs and you aren’t entirely prepared for them, it feels like an obstacle course. It feels like jumping over a hurdle and then, bang, there’s the next one already. But if you feel really comfortable with the material, you’ll feel there’s a natural rhythm to it. I feel like we all managed to get there in the concert, but it was scary. And it was really amazing to hear a foreign audience respond to it. Because I didn’t know whether anyone understood English. It was really amazing how well everybody picked up not just on the language but on the idiomatic jokes. You want to believe as a writer that your work is universal but there is no way to be sure, there is no way to get to know – and then sometimes you are in the middle of a moment and you realize: the things you wrote touch hearts and souls even of people who haven’t lived the same experiences you have. That’s the thing I think a writer hopes for most – an elementary, universal core.
Why have you been determined to become a musical composer? Did you ever struggle?
I’m still struggling. I’m a musical composer because it’s the only thing I know how to do. That’s not true – I know how to do a lot of things. But a theater composer is the thing that I do that’s special. What I do as a composer I don’t think anyone else does the same way. And I’m very glad about that. And in spite of how frustrating the job sometimes is and in spite of how weird my career is, I feel an obligation to that gift. It’s not always a picnic, it’s hard work. But when I look at my work on stage, I think, “No one else could have done that.” It is important to me that I did it and it is important that I keep doing it because nobody else can do it. I don’t care whether anybody is more successful. When I sit in an audience and watch my stuff I think, right, that’s what I’m destined to do. That’s me!
In your song analyses during the master classes you were very precise in telling when a song is good or bad. Don’t you realize that in your own shows? Or put differently: Why didn’t you have a hit on Broadway?
Those are two different questions. I think “good” and “successful” are entirely different criteria. It would be much more fun if a good show and a successful show were always the same thing. But I don’t feel that any of my work is “bad” because it wasn’t financially successful. I feel my work stands on its own and I’m very proud of it. Of course it would be a lot better for me and my accountant if my shows were successful. But if I had to pick I’d always prefer “good and less successful” over “successful and less good.”
I feel it is my privilege to have an audience watching the result of my work. And I have to respect that audience by not cheating them. I have to be honest with them and show them what I have to say. Of course, there are always people who don’t like you; not just as a writer, I mean personally, too. That’s normal. Some people react positively toward you, some don’t. And so I can’t spend the whole of my time worrying if people like me or not. I just can be who I am. And the work is the same way. I can’t go nuts worrying if people will like it and spend $120 for it, which is the ticket price of a Broadway show. If I spent my time wondering whether what I was doing is worth $120 every night – I mean, really, I wouldn’t write anything. So I can be proud of my work, and I try not to spend my time wallowing in self-pity that I didn’t write Hairspray or Tanz der Vampire…
You always did original musicals. But now, with Honeymoon in Vegas, you are going to write your first adaptation of a movie. A rule on Broadway says “Never do an original theme”! So I was wondering if you are changing a little bit more to the commercial way.
I always wanted to be commercial! To be honest, I just haven’t been hired to do that work before. Parade was my first job. It was a very dark and difficult piece. So I think people assumed that that was what I gravitated towards. But in fact I like being happy. I like writing happy things. 13 was really my attempt to be in the mainstream because I wanted to write a musical comedy. I wanted to write something that was fun with kids. Something that was very likable. Honeymoon in Vegas was kind of hard to write it but it felt very true to me. I wouldn’t have taken that job if I didn’t feel I knew how to do it. But now I love it.
But to answer your question: No – it’s not that I hit 40 years old and I decided to start pandering. I hope that every project that I do is different from the last project that I did. There’s no point in doing the same thing over and over again. So Honeymoon in Vegas is just a new project for me, something that is very different in tone and style, but I think it will still sound like me. It will still feel like mine.
Do you write at a specific time every day? Or do you carry a song a long time with you and then write it down?
Right now I have got 4 songs I’m developing. They are all sitting in my head and taking up space and trying to find their shape. And when I’m jogging and cooking, and when I walk with the dog, they attempt to germinate. That’s where I have ideas. When I sit down at the piano is a bad time to have ideas. It’s a good time to finish ideas, it’s a good time to bring them to life, but most of the best ideas I have are in the shower or when I am lying in bed in the morning. I find it best to do a lot of my work away from the piano and then sit down once I know what it is that I want to do. But when I am sitting at the piano, the pressure to have an idea at my age is actually too big.
You said “at your age.” So in the past it was different?
Sure, when I was twenty years old, when I sat at the piano and started playing, everything sounded completely new. If I had known that we only have a limited amount of material, I would have been much more judicious about the writing I did when I was younger! But the songs I wrote for Songs for a New World musically? I still have those ideas now. I just have to dress them up differently. I have been playing the same chords for twenty years. Now it is just a question of what can I do with them that’s different than last time.
That sounds frustrating.
If you are a writer it is frustrating and it is thrilling – both sides of it.
Why do you write your lyrics by yourself and not with a partner?
I happened to like doing it and I got pretty good at it, so I stay with it. I will write with a partner if the project calls for it, and I have in the past. But collaborating is hard because you want everything to be up to the standard you are bringing. When I think the music is fantastic but the lyric is like “…What?”, that would be a waste of time for anybody, disappointing and frustrating – so the lyricist that I work with has really to be able to come to my own standard.
Your songs are often very long – which is often pointed out by reviewers. Do you like composing so much and don’t find an end?
It is not about composing so much. I think that a character, in order to get from one place to another, has to take as long as they have to take. So some songs are longer, some are shorter. With Songs for a New World and The Last Five Years, the songs of these two shows are very self-contained. There is no dialogue to set them up. There are no set changes in the middle to help you understand. They have to create a whole world and tell a whole part of the story by themselves. And so the songs are very long because they have to carry a lot of weight. If you want to do something like “The Schmuel Song” in The Last Five Years, you have to introduce who these characters are, why they would be talking about what they are talking about and what they’re supposed to accomplish over the course of the song – and then you have to create an entertaining song out of all that!
If you look at Parade, the songs are often fairly short because there’s a lot of dialogue to set them up. We had to pack a lot of story in Parade, so we had to move very quickly. So I think the reason people think my songs are long is because they’re familiar with those two shows. But in fact, in 13 and Parade, the songs are much more what I say conventional length – but it’s more fun to pick on me for writing long songs.
After your Broadway shows – did the meaning of Broadway change for you?
Broadway is now a sort of the beachhead of the commercial theatre. It’s very, very expensive to bring a show to Broadway, and then that show has to fight for attention amongst a lot of other shows and everything else that you can do at night in New York. And so Broadway shows have become very broad, designed to appeal to the largest number of people.
The Broadway that I thought I was going into, that I grew up knowing and loving, was much more quirky and individualistic and sort of charming and weird. There isn’t much room for that anymore. I think you have to sort of swing with a very large baseball bat at this point. And that’s not always so much fun for me. When a Broadway musical is great, when it is done well, then it’s the most wonderful thing in the world. That’s what most makes me tick. But I find that there are very few shows that really do that now…
But don’t forget: when you’re growing up you have the benefit of all the history. You get to explore 50 fantastic musicals at the same time. They were never all playing at the same time! But in your head, it feels like they might have been, like there was some magical Broadway-land where all those shows were playing. But when you grow up, every season you’re lucky if there’s one show you can enjoy. At least for me. So my idea of “Broadway” has changed a lot over the years. But there is still such an unbelievable romance when I walk down Times Square. I look up at the marquees and think: That could be my show. My heart will always long for that, because Broadway is where my work belongs. And no matter how much it has changed, I will keep writing and either the work will find a home there or not. That’s all I can do.