2003-03-01
Philadelphia Theater Company
Michele Volansky

We are so thrilled that we are doing THE LAST FIVE YEARS because it continues our relationship with you, which began when you were the music director of DINAH WAS.  You¹ve made quite a career for yourself out of musical directing – how did that come about?  How do you feel about working on someone else¹s music? 

Music direction has a good side and a bad side: it’s extremely valuable to me as a composer to get to live inside other writers’ music every once in a while, to wrap my fingers around other pianists’ riffs, to figure out what makes other songs tick and then, armed with that knowledge, to bring them and the singers who perform them to life.  The bad side is that I can’t always stop my instincts as a writer from coming out, and if I’m presented with material that isn’t dead-on for the theatrical moment, it’s hard to resist the urge to throw it out and write something of my own, which is not always (or even often) a practicable option.  At least with "Dinah Was," I wasn’t collaborating with other composers in any active way –­ the songs were well-known standards, by and large, and if they had to be adjusted to tell the story, I just went ahead and adjusted them.  "Urban Cowboy" is a little more complicated because there’s new material by new writers and old songs by legendary Nashville hands, so I’ve got to be very careful and politic in how I adjust and interpret the material.

Your own work – I¹m thinking about SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD, PARADE and of course L5Y –­ has been called "elegiac."  What does that mean to you?  And is it something that you¹ve strived for in your work? 

"Elegiac" sounds more mournful than I would like, though it certainly applies to "Parade" in a lot of ways.  I guess there is the occasional wistfulness to my work, and "The Last Five Years" has a lot of regret in it, but I actually like to think of all of my work as hopeful and positive.  I know that sounds crazy, since on the surface it’s clearly not hopeful or positive, but I think if that sense doesn’t come across in the storytelling, the shows aren’t particularly compelling.  I’m not a very downbeat guy, truth to tell, I remain a romantic and an optimist at heart, and I think I infuse the shows with that energy.  But I’m probably not the best judge of the emotional impact of my work.  I do strive for emotional reaction, emotional investment, it’s very important to me that an audience not sit through one of my shows feeling like they’re being left in the cold.  I think "excessively cerebral" is a charge that gets thrown at a lot of us Sondheim disciples, and it’s grossly unfair and cheap: the people who reflexively toss that out seem to think that musicals should be completely brainless and glitzy, but plays are allowed to be whatever they have to be to express what they want to say.  I don’t think of a musical as a lower form of theater and I refuse to "write down" to it, but some audiences (and critics!) prefer their musicals to be as challenging as, say, an episode of "Hee-Haw," and I can’t really expect them to get behind my work –nonetheless, I get furious when it’s suggested that my shows are cold.

In both PARADE and in L5Y, I¹ve found there to be wonderfully moving quality about the music.  These pieces also tell important stories.  How significant are social concerns in your work?  And a follow-up is how did you connect to the Leo Frank story? 

I don’t think of myself as a particularly political writer, though I have to say that that’s changing these days, when I find myself compelled to formulate an artistic response to a world growing increasingly complicated and I hear so few voices questioning or protesting in their art.  But like I said, that’s a new thought to me, and I was until quite recently vehement in my assertion that the inner world was much more my field than the outer world.  The hardest and least satisfying parts of "Parade" to write were the mob scenes, and the workings of the political machine.  By and large, I was happy to leave that stuff to Alfred Uhry and to Hal Prince, who’s made a career out of sweeping social statements in musical theatre.  But more and more, I’m grateful to "Parade" for actually having something to say, and for telling a story that reaches beyond the boundaries of the living room and the bedroom.  That doesn’t mean I dislike "The Last Five Years" (whose boundaries are deliberately as constrained as possible), I just wouldn’t want to make the rest of my writing life about small pieces.  The funny thing is that I think "The Last Five Years" is just as epic as "Parade" in terms of the emotional life of its characters.

You once mentioned that you tend to infuse your life into your work, and so much has been written about the "personal" side of L5Y.  You don¹t need to talk about that, but I wonder if you could comment on the feeling that so many people just relate to what you are writing about in LAST FIVE YEARS.  People understand this relationship on a deep, deep level. 

Everything I did in "The Last Five Years" was part of a conscious effort to make both of those characters absolutely real and completely sympathetic.  I don’t mean we’re supposed to like either of them all the time, but we should understand them and see how they could get from Point A to Point B.  I had some comments from audience members that it’s not clear enough whose "fault" it is that the marriage collapses, but I really resisted creating some defining horrific moment at which everything falls apart, because I don’t think that’s how it happens.  It’s nobody’s fault, and it’s both of their faults, and their inability to articulate that culpability is what makes the show so meaningful to me, at least –­ blame is very fluid and volatile, but the pain of loss is absolutely immutable.

Jason, you have a cult following.  I¹m sure you know this.  There are websites, and discussion lists and it seems as though everyone wants to do L5Y.  Why do you suppose younger theater artists connect to your work and want to do it, and celebrate it so much?  And the follow-up is about your peers in the music theater world ­ who do you like?  Who do you respond to?  When you go to see a musical, what do you like to see?  What about plays? 

I’m not going to be coy and say I don’t know what you’re talking about, but it is important to stress that whatever cult I have is ridiculously small in comparison to the culture at large.  I do think people feel deeply about the work I create, which is what I hope people will feel –­ I don’t write surface entertainments, which may be why the cult is so small but I was always willing to make the sacrifice of mass public acceptance in exchange for a real definable integrity.  That sounds so pretentious, but it’s just who I am, I’m so proud of the shows I’ve written and I’m so proud when I look at them and see how little my vision (or in the case of "Parade," our vision) was compromised for the sake of selling tickets.  But there’s the point, of course, since not a whole lot of tickets got sold.  Oh well.  I can feed my family well enough, and the people who are moved by what I do are, as you say, intensely devoted to it, which is a great consolation.  I think it all connects up to what I said earlier about most musicals being held to a very low standard of honesty and intelligence –­ I hold my work to a much higher standard, and I think the people who respond to it are very grateful for that and feel, as I do, that it’s a rare thing.

All of which is to say that I don’t go
to see musicals very often, outside of professional curiosity and courtesy.  I mean, I love flash and glitz and tap dancing and all of that stuff, really really really love it, but it’s so hard to do it in a way that feels genuine and organic as opposed to either the manufactured tits-and-teeth crap that’s always coming down the pike or the tongue-in-cheek sort of thing that spends the whole time apologizing for being a musical.  I don’t think it’s bizarre for people to sing their emotions, that’s what songs are, and I don’t find it odd when someone who has been having a conversation finishes the conversation by bursting into song, that’s what it sounds like in my head all the time.  So when I see a musical, I ask that the music be amazing and the singing be amazing and the comedy be funny and the dancing be spectacular and the sets be beautiful and the pace be blinding, but I don’t want any of that to happen at the expense of the story being told or the dignity of the characters, and very few, really a miniscule number of musicals can do that.  Of my peers, I worship Adam Guettel, not that he needs any more praise or worship, but I just think his musicality and his inherent theatricality are completely his own and absolutely dead-on.  For a while there, there was a sense that me and Michael John LaChiusa and Jeanine Tesori and Adam and Andrew Lippa were all a community of writers working to burn our brand on the musical, but that seems to have dissipated.  It’s funny, I resented constantly being grouped with everyone else at the time but I miss it now.

How did the URBAN COWBOY project come to you?  Could you talk about how that is going?  I¹m sure you¹ve had in-depth meetings with John Travolta…

"Urban Cowboy" is a blast, I got hired to replace another musical director, and I happened to be available for a variety of reasons.  The fun part is that I had sort of given up on my plans to be a Broadway conductor, and now here I am doing exactly that, with a wonderful cast and a really top-notch band and a show that’s so gratifying and enjoyable.  I’ve so loved working with these people.  That all sounds boilerplate, but the fact is that there’s no reason for me to be a musical director anymore unless I’m really enjoying it, and I’m really enjoying it.  As for John Travolta, he calls every day, two or three times a day, begging to just be in the chorus or something, but I haven’t had a chance to call him back.  I was surprised, to be honest –­ I thought he was busy these days, but I guess no one can resist the lure of Broadway.

Finally, the death of the American musical has been predicted for decades.  How do you envision the future for the musical theater? 

Oh, who knows?  I learned, with great reluctance, to stop pontificating about that.  I think musicals are great and I think I’m going to keep writing them, and that’s probably all I know about the future of musical theatre.


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