Podcast Episode 37 Transcript – Steven Sater
Ken: Hello, Producer’s Perspective Podcast listeners. I am Ken Davenport. Welcome to week number two of Spring Awakening month on the podcast. Last week we got to hear from director Michael Arden and this week I’m thrilled to have sitting in my office the Tony Award-winning book writer and lyricist of Spring Awakening and my new friend, Steven Sater. Welcome, Steven!
Steven: Thank you, Ken.
Ken: So let’s start at the very beginning.
Steven: A very good place to start.
Ken: Yes. When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? When did you have the first inkling?
Steven: Oh, that beginning.
Ken: Yes, way back.
Steven: My beginning. When I was five I wrote a novel. I printed it, and my mother still has it.
Ken: What was it called?
Steven: I don’t know if it had a title. But it was about these three sisters trapped in the Midwest, so sort of like Chekov. And I was five years old in Evansville, Indiana. But I think it was about feeling dispirited with life and surroundings, so it was a prelude to everything that was then to come.
Ken: At five years of age.
Steven: Yeah. I was sick a lot. I was in and out of hospitals as a kid. I had a lot of pneumonia and bronchial problems, and so I was in and out of oxygen tents. So I was home a lot, so I was with my dog a lot, and I generally just found writing.
Ken: And okay so after five your novel . . .
Steven: Still unpublished.
Ken: Unpublished . . .
Steven: I’m like Harper Lee. We’ll drag it out in later years.
Ken: So you experience this massive failure at five because no one picks up your novel. What do you do after that?
Steven: Well, I wrote plays for Sunday school. We used to put them on in the backyard. I would write plays and make costumes with my sister. We would put on plays and charge admission. I was an aspiring Ken Davenport, part of me. But where did I go after that?
Ken: Yeah, did you know when you were writing these, that, “Oh this is what I want to do for the rest of my life?”
Steven: No, no but I will say this. My first love is literature, and it still is, and that’s what I kind of . . . Wordsworth says, “Our being’s heart and home is with infinity and only there.” I come at life through poetry, through writing. It’s kind of where I, again, as a kid who stayed home a lot, and had plastic all over my room and my mother would get freaked out if someone came over to see me. I wasn’t allowed out really to play until sixth or seventh grade. I would go to school and come back. So I had this weird sort of childhood. And I found a place in Emily Dickinson that made sense to me. Made sense of the world to me. So I don’t know if I knew I wanted to write. I didn’t. But I did know . . . I’m still that way. That’s where I’m happiest. Like before I came here . . . and I’m happy to be here and I’m happy to be promoting Spring Awakening, which is a major thing of my heart . . . but I was so happy and working on this play where I’m, I’m actually working on something where I’m translating it from German again and completely adapting it again. And I was just so happy. That’s how I’m happy. I write on yellow pads and with pencils. You’ve seen me. That’s what I like, it’s just sitting still.
Ken: I have seen you, and I did want to ask you about that.
Steven: My fetishism of . . .
Ken: I went to see a development play of Steven’s . . . no, it was at auditions, at callbacks, and I saw you with your yellow pads and I asked. “Oh, I’m writing a play,” or, “I’m writing a pilot.” So you don’t use computers or technology at all.
Steven: Like everyone I have a computer, but I don’t write on it, no. I mean, everything is on it. You can’t believe . . . like if I opened the file “Spring Awakening” you would be frightened at how much stuff there is and how many drafts everything goes through. And I have things I’ve worked on for so long, so many subsequent versions. But no, I write by hand on yellow pads. And then, in truth, my assistant inputs the stuff for me, and then I rewrite all of her pages that I get back and then we input those. It’s not like I can’t get on the computer and revise things in Final Draft if I need to. I do. I have a couple of TV projects where I’m working with kind of major showrunner people. The only things I’ve done for TV have been to create TV shows, not to go on staff. So when I work with . . . I’m doing something with Chuck Lorre. So when I’m with Chuck, I’m the one on the computer. I’m very comfortable being on it. It’s not like I don’t know what I’m doing. I have a thing with Paul Reiser and he’s the one on the computer, but I’m sitting there with him and I can take over. It’s like, “Okay, you drive.” You know, Ted Hughes, who was Poet Laureate, who was married to Sylvia Plath . . . a great British poet who died not too long ago, and did a translation of Spring Awakening, by the way. Anyway he said that he felt . . . he was decrying word processing writing. Or maybe it was even typewriter writing. He said we have such memories of the time in our hand learning to write cursively, and that difficulty of writing becomes part of your heart. I’m putting this in my own words, but becomes part of your heart. And you lose that experience. And that is what I find, that you’re writing from your mind and instead of from your . . . I don’t know, the emotional memory that’s your body.
Ken: You also picked up writing at such a young age.
Ken: So you were trained to do it. That’s how you learned, how you exercised those muscles, so it makes sense to me.
Steven: Yeah, and you know I have like a broken back and this whole history, and I write completely in the worst possible position. I’m like humped over all day over a yellow pad.
Ken: I know a little bit about your personal history and your broken back as you say.
Steven: Oh yeah, I can’t believe we’re talking about this.
Ken: That’s what we get to on this podcast. This is the intense emotional stuff.
Steven: This is way more intense than Oprah.
Ken: Steven is already crying, everybody. There’s just a bucket of tears. But some of the readers and listeners may not know this. Can you talk about this story a bit?
Steven: What are we talking about? Oh, my accident?
Steven: Okay. I was in my sophomore year of college. I had written this . . . well this had a big impact on Spring Awakening. I had written this paper on James Joyce’s Ulysses. I know I keep referring to literature, but maybe that’s good one week of the month, one day of the week that someone talks about books. James Joyce has this book, Ulysses, one of the great novels of the 20th century, and in that book he took the 24 books of the Odyssey, the ancient Greek poem, and he kind of . . . they become 18 chapters in this book, but each chapter is based on a chapter in the Odyssey. So I for my paper, of course, wrote 18 chapters based on the Odyssey doing this . . . anyway, it was this major piece, right? And I woke up, and my room was on fire. I lived off campus. I went to Washington University in St. Louis, and we moved off campus, and we didn’t have a car. It’s actually the apartments that are very similar to the ones in The Glass Menagerie. There are these tenement apartments that surrounded Wash U, and I woke up, and it was on fire. In fact I turned back, and my bed went up in flames within seconds of me getting out of it. And the flame was coming toward me, and I ran out. There were French doors, it was a balcony, it was the third story, it was high. I ran out, and there were people on the street, and they called up, “Just stay there. The fire department’s been called.” And I waited and the fire kept coming toward me, and I remember saying, “It’s getting hot.” And then the next moment the glass in the French doors burst out, and this fire caught on my bathrobe, which I was wearing, and it just went up in flames. So I threw off the bathrobe, and I was on fire at that point, so I put out the flame on my face, and someone screamed from below, “Jump,” and I honestly don’t know if I would have thought to jump. So I had to climb up on this ledge of the balcony, and then I just leapt off, and it was a long fall. I broke with my hands. I sort of fell in push-up position, and so in all I broke my . . . I shattered and fractured a total of 14 vertebrae, and I broke my arms and my wrists, and I was all burned. So I was taken to a hospital, and my parents found out about this like a day and a half later. They were in Evansville, Indiana, and they came and they got me out of this public hospital I’d been put in and got me into this other hospital called Barnes, and I remember the most painful thing. They had to rebreak my wrists because the way my wrists had been set in the cast they would have been permanently awry. So that was a major episode in my life, and I was laid up in this hospital bed for a long time. There are these beds called striker frames. They’re like ironing boards. They’re a long thin bed, and you’re turned every two hours on this bed, so it was two hours on my stomach, two hours on my back. And I had a page turner that I could turn with my teeth when I was on my stomach, and then I had a different one I could turn with my teeth with these glasses to that I could read, and I taught myself ancient Greek. I said no TV, no movies, no videos. Here’s what happened. This is going back to the Odyssey and Ulysses. I lost my work. It went up in flames, and I thought, “I have to create things that will last.” I had been acting, which I stilled loved, but it seemed to me everything I had been attached to was really ephemeral. And I have always had this love of ancient Greek culture, and I thought, “Well these plays have been around forever. There’s a reason.” So I was determined to read them. And so I did. I taught myself ancient Greek, and then when I came out which was a while later, and I was in a back brace for a long time, but I read Homer. That’s what changed my life. The Iliad. That’s my favorite work of literature. And I have to say, had I not been so immersed in Greek tragedy as I really was, I don’t think Spring Awakening would have ever had the form it had. I really appreciate the form of musical theater. For me, I’ve never like songs that forward the plot of a story. They don’t feel like songs to me. And when dialogue is forwarding action in that way, then you might as well say it. I always thought that songs about what you can’t say, what’s profounder than speaking. Songs come out of silence, and so I could look to ancient Greek tragedy for a model because the songs come from the chorus, they come from the culture, the elders of a city or the women of the city. And they enrich the action. They deepen your investment in the action. And I thought, “Well, what if I did that but used the characterologically?” This was many years later, but if the songs could work as a kind of . . . I’m jumping so far ahead, I’m speaking in the middle of things. But there’s a sense in life that we all go through things with our class, with our grade, with our year. There’s a commonality of our experience, and you go through things together. I thought, “Well, that is kind of the body politic of childhood. It’s your friends, it’s the people you know, it’s those you’ve known.” And so that gave rise a lot to Spring Awakening. And now I’m just jumping into Spring Awakening. We’ll go back. But I remember when I first proposed to Duncan that we worked on Spring Awakening, we talked about this very issue, that he didn’t like in musicals how people are talking and singing and talking, and it feels arbitrary. And that was when I had this thought. I remember calling him from 72nd Street walking the block. I said, “You know, I was thinking the songs could be internal monologues.” Which, by the way, is a technique that began really with James Joyce and Ulysses, to bring it full circle. But then I remember talking to Michael about this, Michael Mayer, our original director, and the need for group numbers, and I said, “But everyone could be an extension of that person,” the way I just said, we’re kind of the body politic of one another, and I think that affected the whole concept of the show, the staging, the way that, both in the initial production and now, the two young lovers are in the hayloft, but everyone is there. I think one of the most powerful and evocative things that Michael Arden is doing this production is making use of the company in ways that I had never imagined. I don’t know how much we can give away about the production, but there are moments where someone does something essentially shameful . . . Wendla’s mother, or Wendla and Melchior together . . . and suddenly the whole company is there watching them. It’s exciting. Shame is a public experience.
Ken: So you come out of school.
Steven: I come out of school. You mean high school?
Ken: And you now are going to be a professional writer. What’s the first thing you start to do? What’s the first thing that gets on?
Steven: Oh, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I went to graduate school, then I moved to New York and I was working for a literary agent. I was auditioning as an actor, and that wasn’t doing it, and I wanted to write these plays, and what did I do? Well, I’ll tell you the first thing that got on. It was insane writing with all these ambitions, but the first thing that got on was this play called Carbondale Dreams. That was these three mini Greek tragedies set in the Midwest, and it played . . . do you know there was a theater, it’s still there on 42nd Street, between 10th and 11th? It used to be called the Kaufman Theater.
Ken: I do remember that space.
Steven: So we were there, and it ran for like a year and a half in this 99-seat theater. It was kind of amazing. It was hard to get it up. It was a lot of work. But I remember I used to work the TKTS booth a lot. I would have flyers for the show, and I would go trying to convince people to see the show. In fact, there were people who remember me from that. They come up to me and say . . . I love her, the woman who runs . . . this is rehearsal space we use a lot, the Snapple building. I’ve used it for a few things, and the woman who runs the Snapple building remembers me from the TKTS booth passing out flyers.
Ken: Catherine Russell, I know her well.
Steven: Catherine Russell, yes! She was there with Perfect Crime.
Ken: She’s still there. Very proud to say it.
Steven: She’s still there. Carbondale Dreams went down. It ran for 18 months, it got published, and that was exciting.
Ken: There you were as the author, hawking your own show.
Steven: 100%. And I was really responsible for getting most of the people in.
Ken: Did you tell them you were the author? You were like, “I wrote this play, please come see it.”
Steven: No, I didn’t.
Ken: So what was your sales pitch?
Steven: I just talked about how rich and strange the play was and how it would bring them all the feeling of their own families. I don’t know what I said. I was convincing. I was sincere.
Ken: You were right before, you do have a producer instinct in you, it sounds like, for sure.
Steven: I do, it’s some part of me. It’s from my dad. You have a Tony Award.
Ken: I do. You have a couple of them.
Steven: I do. Yeah.
Ken: For those of you that can’t see, Steven just glanced at my Tony. He’s got more awards than I do. But you write for a lot of different mediums now. You talked about television, film, poetry. Is there one form that you like more than the others?
Steven: Oh, are we allowed to be honest? I care most about poetry.
Ken: Poetry. What about poetry?
Steven: Poems are so . . . they hold everything in such a little . . . infinite riches in a little room. They’re so little, and they have the world in them.
Ken: Someone write that down, there’s a poem right there.
Steven: But I’ve always loved theater, too. It’s like a different part of me. I always think of theater as the mind. Again, the body politic. Because it’s words. Theater is words. Movies aren’t really words. Theater is dialogue.
Ken: Did you know then, if you were such a lover of poetry, that you would write lyrics eventually?
Steven: Never. I never thought about lyrics at all.
Steven: And I never listened to . . . did I listen to . . . I’m trying to think of a lyricist. Joni Mitchell, David Silvia, accomplished lyricists. I don’t think I ever envied them their lyrics, no.
Ken: Was Spring the first thing you wrote lyrics to?
Steven: No. Well, it began the same year. What happened was I met Duncan, and then we ended up writing songs together. I had this play called Umbrage which is still really great, just now it has a different name. That’s how long I work on things.
Ken: It’s your five year old unpublished novel, just recovered.
Steven: Something like that. But we met, and we wrote a couple songs together for this play of mine, then he said we should do an album together. I’m shortening the story. But we ended up writing four or five songs. I’m relentless, so I just kept giving him lyrics, and so it was like, “Oh, this is fun,” and it felt sort of like falling into something that always had been destined, which is what I felt when I met Duncan. That was like my life turned a mystic corner. And anyway, we started writing songs, and I said we should create a piece of theater together and he recoiled.
Ken: Did he really?
Steven: Yeah. He said, “Musical theater?” And I said, “Well, we could do something cool.” And he said, “Well, I would want to do something where the music is relevant to the culture at large,” and the moment he said it I thought of Spring Awakening.
Ken: And how did you know the play? Just because being . . .
Steven: Being me.
Ken: Just being you.
Steven: I don’t mean it badly. I just mean I knew the play. I’d read the play. I discovered it in high school in the city library, so when I first moved to New York, I went to graduate school at Princeton, so I was near New York, and my girlfriend’s grandmother had a rent controlled apartment in the city, so I spent a lot of time here. And Hanschen’s monologue was my audition piece.
Ken: So, you were very familiar with the source material. So instantly that comes to mind to your mind when he says . . .
Steven: That was my first thought.
Ken: And what did he say? Was he like, “Oh, let me read it. Yes, I’m in.”
Steven: No, he said, “Well why don’t you give it to me?” And so I gave him a translation, and his interest was piqued. I don’t know if he fully understood it at that time. And he said, “Well, maybe it would make a cool movie, it’s very edgy,” and I said, “No, I think it really could make a piece of musical theater.” And I think that’s how he said, “How would the songs work?” And one thing led to another.
Ken: And how long did it take for the two of you to write it?
Steven: Well, in all it’s eight years.
Ken: Eight years.
Steven: Well, we started in 1999, and we opened at the Atlantic in 2006, so that’s arguably seven years, but the Tony Awards were eight years, and then when we went to London, I did further work on the show, some of which is incorporated on Broadway for the first time in this production. So, for example, when Melchior sings that kind of descant when Wendla’s singing “Whispering,” and he sings, “No more listening,” that’s never been on Broadway before. Because I put it in London, and then Michael didn’t want to put it in on Broadway, and then we put it in the national tour, I think it was already the second year of the national tour when they put it in.
Ken: Relentless you keeps working on your pieces.
Steven: I’ve made a couple of changes for this, but it had to do with making sense with the signing and the deaf actors.
Ken: So over the seven to eight years that you’re working on this, what’s the collaborative process for you two? What’s it like? You two are two of the nicest guys I’ve met and artists that I’ve met.
Steven: Really? That’s good.
Ken: Do you get at it? Do you fight? Do you argue?
Steven: No. Duncan and I do not argue. I say that now, and now we’ll go have an argument. But that’s not how we work at all. And we have a number of projects now, and I kind of have the heavy lifting up front. And all the things we’ve done so far . . . obviously we’re both doing things with others now . . . but I kind of conceive the project and have a conceit for it and a sense of how the music might work, and then we talk about that. He’s super smart about music, so he has great ideas. And this is going to sound so weird, but something that really distinguishes Duncan is that he reads. He reads a lot. He reads nonfiction, which I don’t read as much, but he reads serious books. He’s a thinker. So we have great conversations. I have these ideas, and then I start, because I write the book and the words. I write the lyrics first and then he sets them. And it’s kind of a miraculous thing that easily 90% of the lyrics we have, he sets verbatim what I write. When I say verbatim, I mean the same number of “blah blah blahs” were in the text I gave him are now in the song “Totally Fucked.” Truly the same number. The same thing with the “oh oh oh oh oh oh” in “Left Behind.” You can look at it on the page. It’s exactly how it looked. And then there are times when he’ll say, “I need another one of these. I need another verse.” Sometimes he’ll record it, and he’ll just sing the same lyrics again. It’s like, “Duncan, why didn’t you tell me?” And then other times he’ll ask for things, or he’ll say . . . like we’re doing a project about Alice called Alice by Heart, and we have this great anthemic song right at the beginning called “Down the Hole.” He said, “This is great,” but it was like ABAB. He said, “Can it be AABB?” It was like, “Oh shit. This won’t work at all.” So I had to rewrite it a lot. Sometimes he’ll say, “Keep it.” It was the same structure, I just changed the rhyme scheme. Or he’ll set something, and then I’ll think, “Oh, I don’t like the words anymore there. Or in that part.” And then sometimes there’s more back and forth than that, but we don’t ever write in the same room together.
Ken: For two guys that are so close, you never . . .
Steven: We’re really close, and no we don’t. And I think each of us feels embarrassed if the other’s around. But we have been, for many years, off on retreats together and workshops together, and so it’s happened that I’m in one room and he’s setting a lyric in an adjoining room and I hear what he’s doing and I try not to pay attention not to make him self-conscious. And there was a time on our show, I remember showing up at his house with a lyric and he was like, “Oh, this is a no-brainer,” and just set it in front of me. That’s not usually the way. It’s usually the two of us in our separate environments and we email back and forth.
Ken: I have a lot of people that listen that are writers, that want to write musicals, that talk about how collaboration on a musical is such a difficult and unique thing.
Steven: It’s huge.
Ken: Do you have any advice for successful collaborations?
Steven: To be a good collaborator. You know what I mean? I’m very open. First of all, I’m very determined. I have a very strong take on things and I always go at things in such a strange way that it’s like, “What was I thinking?” and I have to catch up with my mind. But I think if you have a great partner . . . I rely on my director. A lot. A lot a lot. Michael Mayer and I really developed the shape of Sprang Awakening together. And not that Duncan wasn’t a part of it. He obviously was. Usually he was. But there was a lot of time that was Michael and me, and Tom Hulce was very involved in that. Moving scenes, reshaping what if this happened here, what if that happened? There’s so much you learn in three dimensions that you can’t know on a page until you’re in a room hearing it sitting around a table. But I think it’s about finding collaborators you trust, and listening. And you can listen too much, too. To me my relationship to the director is always really primary.
Ken: Have you ever written anything or are you working on anything where it’s lyrics but not book, or book but not lyrics?
Ken: Do you find that more challenging, less challenging?
Steven: I find it less rewarding. I have a couple projects I’m working on . . . well two projects . . . where I have an inherited catalogue of songs. In one of those two cases, I’ll be involved writing new songs with the person who wrote the extant catalogue of hits. So that’s a different situation. And I actually like it, that you get to conceive . . . there’s this body of songs and you get to have some crazy idea about how to make them work, so that’s cool. But the songs are the joy of a musical. The book is the endless labor of a musical. So if you are not writing the songs but you’re writing the book, and I say this with deepest respect for so many book writers, it can be kind of thankless. Just doing all that labor and not . . . for me as a songwriter, I want to be part of that joy. But I have been asked on several occasions to write lyrics for projects where I don’t write the book, and there was one where I was actually going to do it for a while, and I may end up doing it, but at this point I haven’t said yes enough. You have to really feel like you’re in good hands if you’re a book writer and you’re willing to give that up. Because the other thing Michael Mayer said to me, which I think is true, he said people remember the score, but musicals succeed because of the book. And you’re so unsung. You’re never mentioned, and you’re the one who’s always working all night. And there are very few musicals where the book is great. 1776, the book is great. Gypsy, the book is great. Most musicals that don’t work, it’s because of the book.
Ken: And what’s funny is several of those musicals they don’t work, but yet the music often lives on so someone’s walking down the street listening to the music of some flop. They’re never listening to the book of the flop.
Steven: And even you know musicals which now are greatly esteemed and produced again and again, we all know the book never has worked and it still doesn’t. And it’s just another attempt, because the score is so beautiful, to try and rescue it.
Ken: Was there anything ever cut from Spring Awakening?
Steven: So much!
Ken: Right, those hundred or so drafts. Anything you miss?
Steven: Oh, when I’m watching the play do I miss it?
Ken: Anything where you’re like, “God I loved that song,” or, “I loved that moment.”
Steven: No. But I have repurposed some of those songs.
Ken: Like where and what?
Steven: Oh, I have. And there are also those that are like trunk songs. Where and what? I look forward to the day that we’re having a podcast about Alice by Heart, which is forthcoming, and there are a few songs in there, that got . . . I guess there’s two or three, depending on whether or not we cut one of them, that were repurposed from various versions of Spring Awakening.
Steven: And I can tell you that there are songs from Spring Awakening that circulate on the internet because people have recordings of when Lea Michele and Gavin Creel were doing it, or we had all these different amazing casts through the years. But I don’t miss it while I watch it. I think that’s it’s sort of like . . . you know what Michael Angelo said about sculpture was that you just have to keep taking away enough stone until you reveal what was always there. And that’s how I feel. I don’t miss the stone.
Ken: When you first saw the production at the Atlantic that first night when the audience was brought in, did you think, “Oh, this is going to be something that’s going to go to Broadway, that’s going to go around the world?” It’s played in how many countries now? It’s come back to Broadway. Did you know what you had done?
Steven: I thought it would, yes. But I was alone. Maybe Duncan joined me. No, in no way did I imagine in any measure that it would be like it is, no, in no way. But I had this vision from the beginning that this would really be able to reach people. And I had this determination in my heart. My determination was to touch the troubled heart of youth around the world. And I had no idea what that would mean, that there would be all these productions and all the emails and communication from these young people who tell us how it’s affected their lives. No idea. However, I did feel . . . I remember the day, it was May 3rd, 2006 when we first came to the Atlantic Theater, into the space, and we staged the “Bitch of Living.” It had been choreographed and it went on the stage and I sat there. I remember texting Duncan and I said, “This is going to work.” And I was just thrilled and then Duncan came around. He was working with the band around the corner. He came and joined me and we did it again, and it was so spectacular and we sat there will tears in our eyes and then Bill T. Jones stood up and said, “This is not my choreography. What is this?” Then the rest of the day was Bill reworking the number. But yeah, I thought it would . . . again, no, I had no idea it would be like this, but I thought it would affect people. I always believed it would work on Broadway.
Ken: And what do you think it is about it that affects people so much?
Steven: I think it’s the cry from the heart. It’s like the young woman who created mother’s day just because she so believed in honoring her mother. She was passing out carnations and now it’s celebrated around the world. I always thought about that. I thought that if you touch, the pure cry of one heart resonates with every other heart. And there’s so much in this play that’s about what it means to have a mother and what it means to be a mother and what it means to masturbate in your room and what it means to lose your best friend. I just thought these are things we all feel. That’s what I feel when I write songs. You want to get to the cry below the cry and so if you get that then you can touch something true and people respond to it.
Ken: Did you ever think it would be back so quickly?
Steven: No. I didn’t. And I remember closing night of the show . . . I guess it was 2010, 2009, when was it? Whenever it was . . . maybe it was 2009 . . . I remember saying . . . I was talking about ghosts and I was saying Spring Awakening on Broadway is now becoming a ghost. And I felt maybe it’s like being a grandparent, to see your child give birth to another child. It feels like revisiting this life moment that was already a stolen season of my life and that here I am having it again. And it’s kind of amazing. Nor could I have ever imagined the play being performed in the way it is where it’s been translated into the language of silence.
Ken: So tell me why, in your words, why you approved this production to come back when you saw the production.
Steven: You’re not going to like this answer, but a lot of it had to do with you.
Ken: I like that answer just fine. I’ll take it.
Steven: Because when I saw it in LA . . . well first of all I saw it on Skid Row. And I thought it was really moving and I thought there were a lot of problems with it. I had a lot of notes and I was tough with them. But I knew it was beautiful and how moving it was and I saw it a couple of times. And I was impressed by how much progress they made. And then it moved to the Annenberg and that too was a process. But I knew how moving it was. It speaks to the silence in all our hearts and our inability to articulate our own deepest feelings. So I was moved but I thought it should go to St. Ann’s, or go to a regional theater and continue working on it and maybe have a tour. So that’s what I wanted. And when we met you I just was so impressed with you and I thought that you could pull it off, and that even though in a way it was also a financial risk for us because it was a short run . . . we didn’t know if you’d make the money, and if the show didn’t make money would it endanger . . . there’s a sense that the show’s an annuity for us. And then I just thought, “No, Ken will take care of it.” I don’t know, that’s what I thought. And I thought you’d be a good producer for Michael and all of us. I know I’m saying this sitting here, but it’s true.
Ken: Well, thank you. That means a lot to me, more than you know. And . . . I’m a bit speechless right now to be very frank. I’ll try to get back on track here in a second. I’ll check my notes. And what about the ASL component and the Deaf West mission statement?
Steven: It’s extraordinary. You know what I really think? Again, this boy who goes back to literature again and again. But in 1891 Frank Wedekind wrote this searing indictment of the world of his time, saying that parents teachers and students . . . that being the original Spring Awakening, Frühlingserwachen . . . and saying that we’re not listening at all to what’s in the heart of our children and we’re sort of sacrificing our young people on a public altar. Then there’s been this history of that play, which was not really fully produced until 1906, and then it wasn’t produced in an unexpurgated version in English until 1970, and only at the insistence of Laurence Olivier passed the royal censor. And then we brought rock music to it and introduced this play to this whole other audience. And by the way we really transformed that original play. I think the greatest critical misapprehension of Spring Awakening is that we took the play and added songs. The most work we did on the show was on the book, for sure. I’m throwing kudos my own way but I’ll give them to Michael and Tom and Duncan. I think that’s the major achievement. We made the book work. We created heroes’ journeys for those characters. But so then was our play, and then the play is out there and hauled away, and now here’s this Deaf West production and I think it does honor to the history of the play. I think it’s a transformational moment for this work of literature in the world. I think it will be a milestone that’s remembered by people who think about such things. So all that really meant a lot to me, and I knew having it on Broadway would be a more public forum for it. So yes, was that a component of it? Yes. It’s been an extraordinary experience, being part of this deaf community, developing this piece. It’s amazing. And feeling like you’re speaking to a whole other audience and also speaking to a different part of the same audience. So yes, that’s a big deal.
Ken: Advice for young writers out there? Five year olds who have a novel they want to get published?
Steven: Well I have to say you have to trust your own . . . look, I could be like Melchior too and totally fucked by the end, but I think you have to trust your own true mind. You have to create things according to your own . . . you have to trust the kernel that’s within yourself. And then I say that as the person who says you really have to listen to people around you. You have to take in how the audience is reacting. But I don’t think you can really crate things that are deep or lasting by following rules. I think you have to learn from the rules and make them your own. And I say that as a classicist. I’m one who really honors all the rules. But you have to find your own way.
Ken: Well that’s a perfect example of what Spring Awakening is. I remember seeing it and it revolutionized musical theater. I’m a big “traditionalist” in terms of musical theater, as far as my training goes. I studied it, I learned it almost like Shakespeare, the Rodgers and Hammersteins of the world.
Steven: Of course.
Ken: And here was you took this piece of literature written in the 1800s and then you modify and change it and make it new and fresh and your own, which is exactly that advice you just gave to writers out there. Okay, my last question. You ready? I call this my genie question.
Ken: Which is this. I want you to imagine the genie from Aladdin knocks on your door . . . do you like Aladdin? Have you seen Aladdin?
Steven: Do you mean Walt Disney’s Aladdin? I have to change the genie in my head. Is it Robin Williams?
Steven: Okay, I don’t know it so well, but that’s okay.
Ken: So imagine Robin Williams comes to you. Forget the genie, just Robin.
Steven: He was a good genie.
Ken: He was a great genie. And he says, “Steven, you have done such an amazing thing by speaking to these troubled youth around the world and allowing them to acknowledge the cries within their cries, as you said, with your beautiful, beautiful words, and I want to thank you for that. I want to grant you one wish. I want you to think about the one thing that drives you crazy about Broadway. What’s the thing that frustrates you so much, that keeps you up at night, that you say, “Oh I wish this could be different, I wish this could be changed.” What’s the one thing you would ask that genie?
Steven: So it’s about Broadway?
Steven: What I would do to Broadway. But I would have an impossible question for him. I wouldn’t know how to say that, because I would want it to be accessible for everyone and I would want us to host great works of literature. And someone could say go see Shakespeare in the park. But I don’t know, I don’t think that much about Broadway. I fell in love with it as a boy. I don’t know, but I can tell you that I think the history of art proceeds by transgression. And there’s this series of transgressions to create great things and I think most of what we see sort of lives in a mode that is very derivative or that proceeds by sending up what’s already been done. I love Rodgers and Hammerstein. I happen to love them. And I think they’re so radical. And I think that’s what we forget, how radical things are that really change the world and move us in a deep way. Carousel‘s fantastic. So I don’t know if that’s a good answer, but I don’t know how hospitable Broadway is . . . well look. We’re back. Hamilton is on Broadway. It’s the biggest thing on Broadway. So that’s encouraging.
Ken: You know, I’ve never thought about Rodgers and Hammerstein being radical, and of course they were!
Steven: Of course!
Ken: We think of them so traditionally now, and it’s about being the radical for your generation.
Steven: That’s what it is. Yeah, and honoring the . . . the thing about Spring Awakening is it is ground breaking. It still is. But it also fulfills the traditional dicta of storytelling. It does. It has three heroes’ journeys in it. That’s unusual. So I think I would want to vote that I want to create great classic works. I would want us to be living in a time where there are plenty of great new classic works and we can all attend like we did in ancient Greece as if we were in a temple come to purge ourselves of great dark worries.
Ken: Well there you have it. Steven Sater wished for a giant temple in the middle of Times Square where we can all go see great works of art. Thank you so much for being here. I think you win the contest of the most buzz-worthy phrases and poetry in one . . . I was taking notes about all the great things that you said, so thank you so much for spending your time with us. I know you’re working on a bunch of stuff. And thank you for letting me produce Spring Awakening on Broadway. It is already one of the things I am most proud of in my life, not just on Broadway. So thank you for that, thank you for the gift of it around the world. And thank you all for listening. Next week we’re going to hear Steven’s partner in crime, Duncan Sheik, tell a lot of Spring Awakening stories, and we’ll see if he says, “Oh yeah we have a great collaboration, we never fight.” So tune in next week. Thanks so much. Bye.