Posted on August 4, 2012 at 5:10 am
To my delight, there are two big productions of Songs for a New World playing this weekend. In London, there is the National Youth Music Theatre production at the Bridewell, directed by Sarah Redmond (who played Woman 2 in the 2001 British premiere of the show). And in New York, the York Theatre Company and Patricia Hoag Simon are presenting a “lab production” at the Theatre at Saint Peter’s off-Broadway.
The cool thing about the production at the York is that it’s sharing a set with the extremely well-received revival of Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire’s revue Closer Than Ever, a show which has been an enormous influence on me and my work.
Last week, Jim Morgan, the producing artistic director of the York, wrote to me to ask if it was true that Closer Than Ever was in fact the inspiration for Songs for a New World. This is what I wrote in response:
All true. I saw Closer Than Ever with my Dad one night in 1989 while I was on vacation from my teaching job at a performing arts high school in Miami. I remember so much about the experience, from the enormous charm of the Cherry Lane Theatre to Patrick Brady’s extraordinary playing, the astonishing vocal arrangements, Sally Mayes’s total star presence, even the staging of most of the songs. I’d never seen anything like it before, and I was enthralled.
Once I arrived in NY, I determined to create something exactly like Richard and David had done. Four characters, a piano and an onstage band, a non-narrative but thematically arranged revue – I even became a pianist at Eighty-Eight’s in the West Village because I knew that’s where the first performances of Closer Than Ever had taken place (and indeed, the first performances of what was then called “The New World” happened upstairs at Eighty-Eight’s in 1991).
Richard was living in the Village then, one block away from my dingy studio apartment, and one day I chanced to meet him at the local copy shop. I arranged, with the kind of brash ambition that I am, to my regret, far too embarrassed to summon up anymore, to drop a cassette of my revue – so clearly modeled on his – at his house. Richard then called me and invited me over to a lovely lunch in his backyard, where he essentially said it was unlikely that my show would ever get produced, but I seemed talented and I should keep writing.
It was another three years before I could prove the first part of Richard’s analysis wrong, and we opened the show at the WPA Theater in October of 1995. Richard was in the audience, and was as heartily enthusiastic as anyone could ever want their secret hero to be. I am deeply honored to have our shows side by side, so to speak; part of what I love about Songs for a New World is how it relates to its inspiration, commenting and reflecting on Richard and David’s extraordinary work to become something entirely its own. Much of Closer Than Ever seems to me to be about the perspectives afforded by time; Songs for a New World is the opposite, a piece that is all about exploring what the unknown future holds, but given the thematic differences, there is much that is the same in the treatment.
In that afternoon in Richard’s backyard twenty years ago, he said “I’ll choose to be flattered by the song that’s almost exactly ‘Life Story.’” He was referring to “Stars and the Moon,” which to this day is my most performed and most popular song. Thank you, Richard and David – you’re right, it’s almost exactly yours, and I couldn’t have asked for better teachers.