Podcast Episode 68 – Stephen Flaherty
Ken: Hello, everybody. Ken Davenport here. You’re listening to Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I am so excited for today’s guest because he is one of my favorite composers and part of one of the greatest musical theatre writing teams we have today. Ladies and listeners, welcome to the podcast Tony award winning composer Stephen Flaherty. Welcome, Stephen.
Stephen: Hey, thanks for having me. Great to be here.
Ken: I first came to know Stephen’s work when I wandered into the Booth Theatre back in 1991. I was a sophomore at NYU, I didn’t know what I was in for. It turned out I was into one of the most joyous nights I’ve ever had in the theatre. It was seeing Once on This Island and it remains to this day one of my favorites. In addition to Once on This Island some of Stephen and his collaborator Lynn Ahrens’s early work includes Lucky Stiff, My Favorite Year which, side note, “Larger Than Life” was one of my audition songs when I was an actor, and then of course Seussical, the monumental Ragtime which I was lucky enough to be the associate company manager on, Rocky and what I call their Lincoln Center shows, A Man of No Importance, Dessa Rose, The Glorious Ones and so on. And, upcoming, about to open in a few months out of town, Anastasia, based on the movie which featured his songs, including the Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past” and on and on and on. I could go on for days with just your bio.
Stephen: That is good research! Very good, Ken.
Ken: But enough bio stuff, let’s get to the juicy questions and answers. Tell us, when did you know you wanted to write for the theatre?
Stephen: You know, it’s funny, I never thought of it as writing, I thought of it as making stuff up and I think I’ve been making stuff up ever since I was a kid. I started playing piano at age seven, I started making stuff up when I was 12 and I wrote my first musical when I was 14 and we did it at my high school and it was hilarious.
Ken: What was it called?
Stephen: It was called Pitts because I grew up in Pittsburgh and each scene took place in a different locale, a different neighborhood, in my hometown and each number was written in a completely different musical vocabulary and each number was written in a different color ink so of course the big gospel spectacular was the final scene and we had a country and western song, a rock and roll song and it was the most fun I ever had in my life. Oddly, there’s a subplot that involves Siamese twins and this is way before Sideshow.
Ken: Will we see a revival of Pitts?
Stephen: No, you will not. You will not, but it was the kind of thing, it was two friends of mine who were in the drama department who had gotten what they said were roles that weren’t large enough for their talents that year and decided to write their own show and they said “Do you want to write the music?” and I had never really thought of writing music but clearly I was a theatre kid and we were a bit of a hit in our little school. We had a wonderful music teacher and a wonderful drama teacher and they both said “You should do more of that,” and so I did. This is all I ever wanted to do since I was a kid. I was just obsessed with theatre and I had to be a part of it. Also, because you’re a producer, the recent revival of Godspell, that is the first professional show that I ever saw. It came through my town, we were taken to it because it starred Jesus and so the nuns from my parochial school took us to see the Jesus musical Godspell and it hit me like a ton of bricks and I just thought “I have to somehow be a part of that.”
Ken: So you said “Clearly I was a theatre kid,” and I hear this a lot from people who do the podcast.
Stephen: We’re nerds, let’s face it.
Ken: What is it that so clearly said you were a theatre kid? You’re obviously an incredibly talented composer and even back then, obviously, you had a flair for music. Why the theatre and not, say, “I want to write like the Beatles?”
Stephen: I honestly think because theatre, and musical theatre in particular, combine so many art forms, it’s this American mongrel art form, and at the time, as a kid, I was drawing, I was painting, I was trying to write stories, I was learning music, I was trying to write music, I was putting on odd little shows in my basement and all of that stuff. I thought “I can use all of this in creating musical theatre,” and also, for me personally, I was not like a team sport kind of kid, I was a personal best kind of a kid. I was really good at figure skating but in terms of the team I liked being part of the community, I liked being part of a team and I loved creating something with my friends and I loved creating something as part of a community and I started and I never stopped. I’m lucky it worked out because I can’t do anything else, this is all I can do.
Ken: So a career in figure skating or a career in musical theatre.
Stephen: That’s right.
Ken: You leave high school, you’re the hit of the high school, what happened after high school?
Stephen: It’s an interesting thing – it dawned on me slowly that the musical star of each high school then goes to college and then, if you’re lucky, you become the musical star of the college and then you come to New York. It’s a series of being thrown to the bottom of the barrel and it’s very humbling. I was pretty much self-taught and I needed to get some technique and so I went to CCM – the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music – and, at that time, in the ’80s, they didn’t have a program for writers of musical theatre so I basically went there and studied classical composition, orchestration, conducting, took some theatre classes and basically started making my little shows there and I had no collaborator because this is Ohio, you know, there’s nobody to play with. So I became a book writer and a lyricist and a music director and a composer. It was a wonderful time at that school because there were so many talented people there. I was a freshman and Faith Prince was a senior and Jason Graae was there and it was an amazing group of repertoire players and we would do student-based shows and whenever I came to New York I had my little group of repertoire players from Cincinnati and so they became the cast of Lynn and my’s first musical which was Bedazzled which was based on Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and she said “Where are you finding these amazing people?” and I said ‘They’re my classmates.’ It was a good thing that we all moved as a group to the city.
Ken: Any chance of us seeing a revival of Bedazzled?
Stephen: You know, it’s an interesting thing. Lynn and I, I guess it was two years ago, we did a series of concerts at 54 Below because it had dawned on us slowly that we had been collaborating for 30 years, which is kind of impossible for me to believe but that’s true, and we thought it would be really fun just to celebrate it because it’s such a big round number, so we thought we’d do it at 54 Below and we wanted it to be equidistant between my birthday and her birthday and we thought we’d make it like a celebration month and invited people that we’d worked with and people that we wanted to work with and we wanted to do some early songs so we actually had two Bedazzled songs that we did as part of the evening and then we did two songs that we had written that year. We thought it would be really cool to have songs that we had written in the first year of our writing and songs from, to that point, the last. God, what a fun time that was. I should point out it’s a live CD, you can get this, it’s called “Ahrens and Flaherty: Nice Fighting You”, which is a lyric from Lucky Stiff.
Ken: We’ll put a link to that when we put up this podcast. So let’s talk about Lynn – obviously Lynn did a podcast with me a few weeks ago.
Stephen: I know, she loved it too.
Ken: Oh, good. Did you listen?
Stephen: I haven’t heard it, no.
Ken: Oh, good. I feel like I’m about to do one of those dating shows where I’ve talked to one partner on this side and now I’m going to ask you.
Stephen: Well, you know our answers are going to be totally different. We thought if we were to ever write a book it would have to be like a “He said/she said” and you could read Lynn’s from this cover and then you’d flip the cover over and then my version and my guess is it would be an amazing Rashomon story, like somewhere between these two tellings is what went down.
Ken: You’re going to get interest from a publisher after they hear this, for sure, because that book sounds fun. So you meet her at BMI workshop, right?
Ken: And what did you think when you met her? Were you like “Oh, this is the one,”?
Stephen: I shouldn’t say this but I found this to be true in a lot of workshops and a lot of music theatre programs – there’s always a lot of terrific or good composers and there’s always one good lyricist. In any class that’s usually been my experience and she was so fresh in her approach to what she did. It was really different from what I would do. In my idea of what writing was about – I had a beard that year, I would wear black, I had a beard, I would lock myself in a monastic kind of room and somehow summon the muse and I would write music. She came from a totally different background. She came from like the commercial pop music world and she would write on her feet, she would literally throw ideas around. It was much more of an improvisatory background, which was totally different, whereas I would score all to paper. At that time I had never really collaborated. I have to back pedal to the first week I was here – I got to go and meet Stephen Sondheim, believe it or not, at his home, and I had a little cassette, because that’s what we had back then, we had things that were called cassettes, and I gave him a couple of my tunes and the short of it, or at least what I got from the critique, was that he thought that I had a gift for music and a musical counterpoint and he didn’t like my lyrics, he didn’t care for them, so I thought “Okay, maybe I should try working with a lyricist, it could shake things up, it could lead to a new or exciting thing,” and so in BMI you do these class assignments, one a week, and it was literally the last class assignment and I had not collaborated yet and Lynn was walking down the street and I was maybe almost a block away and I projected very far and I said “Lynn, do you want to write a song together? Let’s do this last song together?” and she goes “Really? Yeah, okay,” and it was an interesting first meeting. She denies this but she said “Alright, so, let’s hear something. Make something up,” and I was not used to creating in front of another person, I felt kind of naked, honestly. It was such a different way to find a song or find a piece of music and I realized “Oh, I get it. We both have a hand on the driving wheel and we’re trying to find a way that we can connect to find this song.” I must say that our first song was not good but the process of creating it was great and after that we said “We should try to find a project,” and that’s when we began writing Bedazzled and we just had so much fun and it was a totally different way of working for me. I think the whole thing about collaboration is why even collaborate? And it’s because you can find something that you wouldn’t have been able to create on your own. That’s what I think. So we just started and we didn’t stop and that was my first year in New York.
Ken: I love that statement because it’s a very selfless statement coming from an artist, especially someone who had been doing it all before that.
Stephen: It’s a tricky thing because to face a blank piece of paper or a blank screen each day, you either have to have balls of brass or a huge ego or incredible, immense faith than somehow an idea will come and manifest itself, or all three. I really think that writing is an enormous leap of faith and after all of these years I can’t honestly tell you how it works because there is an element of mystery that I think is wonderful and I don’t want to over analyze or analyze that at all because it is alchemy and it is mysterious and ideas fly in the side door at weird times and odd places. I think it’s really exciting. Lynn and I have worked with young writers a lot recently – actually for a decade and a half now – and you can teach them technique and you can teach them how to analyze the work of others, you can’t teach them how to have an idea or where ideas come from and I honestly don’t know where they come from. That’s been part of the fun – and no day is the same as the day that precedes it either. Each one of our writing days you’re starting from scratch and I love that.
Ken: You said it’s part of the fun but there have got to be those days where you stare at the blank page and nothing comes out. How do you deal with the famous writers’ block, if it ever pops up?
Stephen: You know what, I’ve never really had writers’ block. I shouldn’t say that because now that I have said that…
Ken: Oh please don’t let me have jinxed Stephen Flaherty, for God’s sake!
Stephen: It’s like you’re tempting fate, but I have always believed that it is a leap of faith and there’s more where that came from. As a young writer I used to freeze up sometimes because I would get to, say, measure 16 and you know at measure 16 there’s a fork in the road and if you make Choice A the piece becomes that or with Choice B it becomes a different kind of thing and, rather than just make a choice or blindly going forward, I would not know which choice was the right choice, if there was anything that is right or wrong. Lynn loves to rewrite and I think the craft of writing reveals the song so we might try many different approaches until we find the approach that actually works for any given song line. So I think believing that there are many different ways to get to where you need to go, I think that’s a valuable thing to know.
Ken: Is your process for writing with Lynn the same as it was back then? How do you approach something now?
Stephen: it’s an interesting thing because we had, actually, false starts with a couple of early shows, like we wrote a song score for Bedazzled that became spoken about a lot around town, everyone wanted to hear that show. We had producers that wanted to produce that show – we could never get the rights to that show so that never happened – and our follow-up was an original idea that we were actually writing with George C. Wolfe and this is like George C. Wolfe pre the Colored Museum, pre the Public Theatre, and that was an interesting notion in search of a plot that we never found and so all of these things, and Lynn comes from the commercial world which moves much faster than my monastic upbringing of music, so then we began working on a third show and we hadn’t been produced at that point. I actually think that was an asset because it allowed us the time to get to know one another, to get to know one another’s processes, which at the beginning were very different, and we got to date longer before we were at that altar and I think that was a great idea. We got to know one another and I think it deepened our relationship and it deepened our writing craft. I think if I had just come into New York and met Lynn in the first month – and I did – within six months of writing with her and the very first thing I tried to write got produced, all of these things are happening, I think it would have given me an incredibly distorted view of how things happen and I think having something not get produced, it gives you a little more resilience and so it was maybe five years until we had our first show produced, which was Lucky Stiff.
Ken: It’s so funny you say that – Pasek and Paul were on just a couple of weeks ago.
Stephen: They’re great.
Ken: They are fantastic. They talked about getting a show up, it happened very quickly for them, and how they felt like they had made some mistakes early on and it was very difficult to get through that and onto their next show because it happened so fast.
Stephen: Well you know Lynn and I cofounded a program at the Dramatists’ Guild which is an amazing program, it’s called the Dramatists’ Guild Fellows and it’s one of the few programs here in New York City for composers, librettists, lyricists and playwrights, because usually in a lot of the writing programs in New York they tend to ghettoize the playwrights and the music people are in their own little club house and never the twain meet. This program, it’s astounding, it’s very intimate, there’s mentorship, there’s opportunities to basically ghost writers and ghost performers as guests, it’s all about the process, and Pasek and Paul were our youngest Dramatists’ Guild fellows, they were right out of college and they were so amazingly talented. It was great to see them as kids and now… I was just talking about their new show at Second Stage, I can’t wait to see it. I’m going to try to see it next week.
Ken: You’re talking about Dear Evan Hansen but we’re getting back to you now – you’re so generous, talking about other people and how great they are. What I love about your scores is the diversity of them, from the Caribbean rhythms of Once On This Island, to Ragtime and you actually just talked about Pitts, how Pitts had gospel, country… How do you access those different styles? Do you do research before? What’s the process of getting into the scores?
Stephen: I’m just really open to all kinds of music and my playlist is crazy, all over the map. Even as a young kid growing up I wasn’t really a rock and roller but I was an R&B kid. We had one of the great R&B stations in Pittsburgh called WAMO and my father couldn’t stand this, couldn’t stand that kind of music, so he would give me the keys to the car – and I was like seven – and I was a seven year old starting up the engine and listening to the radio in the car and it was amazing, I really responded to rhythm, I responded to those kinds of rhythms, and a little later I began singing classically so I had a classical piano background. I spent a summer working in Nashville, Tennessee, so I picked up a lot of stuff down there. I began studying music theatre scores and I think, honestly, I never like to repeat myself and I know that Lynn and I, in looking at material, we try to find something that we’ve not done before and I think that keeps it fresh. The process of writing the shows is always different and it always is dictated by the subject matter and the musical materials. Like Once On This Island was a show that didn’t want to be written at the piano, whereas Ragtime was a show that had to be written at the piano for a lot of that music. I’m just fascinated by it. I actually did a somewhat experimental, really cool piece this summer at the Old Globe in San Diego called In Your Arms. It was Christopher Gattelli, the wonderful choreographer/director, who came up with the notion of “Let’s do a theme and variation show all about dance.” It was his really cool idea to come up with one topic, which is romantic destiny, and then he went to ten different playwrights and said “You can write on this theme, it can be any gender, any culture, any time period, any story, any style – comedy, tragedy – the only thing is you can’t use words,” so they were writing basically scenarios that then would be all danced, so we had ten of them and the stories were so wildly different and I had to find some way to translate each playwright’s individual story and their point of view and their approach into music. It was really like writing a complete musical and it took us seven years to get the show together because we would do two at a time, three at a time, because they were all over the map, like Douglas Carter Beane wrote a piece, New York City in the Roaring ’20s at a drag ball at Webster Hall and I thought “Okay, I know how to do that,” and then there would be a piece by Alfred Uhry about young love in 1950 in Atlanta, Georgia in a Cadillac up on lovers’ lane and I thought “Oh, I know how to do that,” and then David Henry Wang, early on, threw me a huge curve ball, it was a piece set in modern day Shanghai in a techno club and the lead actor, somebody puts a drug in his drink, he’s transported back in time to the Ming Dynasty. He had written it for a friend of his who’s a star of the Peking Opera and he said “It’s really important to have martial arts in this piece,” and I just thought “That is the wildest thing I’ve ever heard,” and I was so scared for the longest time about that particular piece and then, finding a new way to approach it, it actually became great, great fun and it became a favorite and the thing that scared me most was the thing that probably gave me the most joy in the long run.
Ken: Do you think any subject can be made a musical? Do you think any story or does a musical require a certain something and, if so, what’s that something that you look for?
Stephen: Well I always feel that it needs to have some sort of heightened quality, whether it’s in the language. I think the hardest thing to translate into musical terms is something that’s very kitchen sink and for me personally, after writing Ragtime, which was a wonderful experience for all of us and we loved working with Terrence McNally and he said we should absolutely do another show but we figured that you couldn’t do a show larger than Ragtime so we thought “Why don’t we do the exact opposite thing? We’ll do a miniature show,” and he said “Is there a kind of music that you’re interested in?” and, as you know, the Irish people in Ragtime are the villains and so we were just cutting all of their music, there’s evil Irish people, and of course I’m Irish American – my parents were not happy and the poetry and the music of my people had been cut from this quintessentially American show so I thought “You know, I would like to try my hand at doing something Irish,” and I said to Terrence “We should look at different things,” and I said “I’m not interested in doing the potato famine musical but I would like to do something that has an Irish color, an Irish flair,” and Terence found a small independent film called A Man of No Importance that starred Albert Finney, Brenda Fricker, Rufus Sewell and it was all about the creation of theatre and it was all about the love of friendship and it was a man’s coming out story and it was very naturalistic and I couldn’t for the life of me get music out of that because it was so naturalistic and I said “I can’t find the heightened quality, I don’t know how to get them singing,” and also the lead character in our show, played by Roger Rees, was so secretive and he didn’t really have the scene partner to talk about what he was feeling in his heart so it was virtually impossible getting this guy to sing and then Terrence gave us a great gift – he made a surround for the show so that the entire show took place in one instant in the main character’s mind and it was him remembering what had happened in the past couple of weeks to bring him to what was a low point for him and also the character of Oscar Wilde is mentioned in the film, he’s not in the film, and Terrence put him right in the show, so all of a sudden there was a fantasy character, Oscar Wilde, and he was Alfred Byrne’s, the hero, his scene partner and the minute Oscar Wilde was allowed to be in the room with him the music just poured out. It was the most amazing thing, I couldn’t understand it, I couldn’t get this character to sing at all before and now I couldn’t get him to shut up because he had Oscar Wilde there. Terrence is a funny guy because he’ll write a scene that will inspire a song and usually, whenever we’re presenting the song, it’s a lot of information to analyze so he tends to be very analytical and, every single song I’ve ever played for him, he’s never said “Wow, can I hear that again?” Never once. This is the entire score of Ragtime, never once, and I’ve written with Lynn a song called “Man in the Mirror” which was our character of Alfie Byrne singing to his reflection but in fact he’s singing to Oscar Wilde and he drops a huge plot bomb at the end of the song and Terrence just lit up – he goes “Oh my God, that’s our show, that’s the sound of our show, will you please play it again?” The only time!
Ken: Come on, Terrence! “Wheels of a Dream”, “Your Daddy’s Son”?
Stephen: No, none of them. He blushes whenever I bring this up but I think he was so taken because it had been such a struggle to find the musical core or the sound or a way to get music to come out and that was cracking the nut and then the show wrote itself quite quickly after that.
Ken: For those of you that don’t know it, go get that recording, it’s a terrific score and one of my favorites, “Streets of Dublin”, having Steven Pasquale sing that, I will never forget that moment. So I’m going to ask you one of my James Lipton questions, speaking of some of your most memorable songs – I want you to imagine that the Smithsonian calls you and says “Stephen, we have room for one of your songs in the institute. Just one.” Which one, of all of the songs that you’ve written, would you want preserved?
Stephen: You know, that’s a hard question because I always think of song writing and creating theatre as parenting, and hopefully it’s good parenting, and it’s like you never want to pick a favorite, like you never want to pick son #2 over son #3 or whatever. I would think it would have to be something from Ragtime, though, because that show came to us as a gift and some of your listeners may know, some might not, but that was a show that we auditioned to get and it was a majorly crazy story to get the show and I was so happy that that was part of it because I remember reading in the New York Times that the theatrical rights for the novel Ragtime had been acquired and I’m like “Shit! Kander and Ebb are going to write that show, those lucky guys!” and when they just opened it up to basically a songwriting derby, I think there were maybe twelve teams, and we got a beautifully written treatment by Terrence McNally that was 65 pages and basically the assignment was you had to write four songs based on Terrence’s treatment and we knew in order to get this job, which I was obsessed with, I was so passionate about it because I had been a ragtime piano player since I was 12 – remember The Sting? Remember that? When all the little kids were playing “The Entertainer” and I loved it and I just thought to take that kind of music and yet make it sound fresh again and reinvent it and it was about America and about all of these different ingredients in one stew. I just thought “I really want to do this,” and we had eleven days to write, arrange, produce, record, mix, stick it on a cassette – back in the day of cassette – and had it in, and the day we had to hand it in was the opening night of Show Boat, it was all this crazy, theatrical Garth Drabinsky timeline and we started counting the days that we had to do all of that. We had eleven working days so, being practical, we just decided I would write two songs of music first and Lynn would write two songs of lyrics first and we would swap and three of the four songs are in the show and so I think, for me personally, I would probably pick the title song which also opens the show, it’s Ragtime, and I would pick it because I remember the process of writing that song and it was such velocity with such passion it wound up being ten minutes long – it’s incredibly long, this song – and also just trying to see, with only so many musical ingredients, how you could tell that much story, that much about the theme, that much about the musical character of the evening and somehow make it a cohesive, exciting opening – and that was a music first one. I just remember that as being an exciting, thrilling time, writing that.
Ken: What were the other two songs? Everyone’s dying to know.
Stephen: The other two? Well it’s the song that we close Act One with, called “Til We Reach That Day”. That was an interesting one because that was also music first and it was going to be the funeral of Audra McDonald’s character, Sarah, and so I wrote a gospel-tinged song that would be sung by the ensemble and Lynn said “It sounds so hopeful,” and I said “They’re feeling rage but, yeah, this is something that would be sung in this flavor,” and she said “Well I think that the subtext of rage has to start bubbling forward,” so I go “Great idea,” so I wrote this really angry ragtime figure that was what Coalhouse was thinking, and then eventually other people, and eventually it became a song like “We can’t allow this to happen anymore in this country,” and having those two kinds of music at odds with one another was really what made the song. I listen to this demo to this day and I’m like “Why is that demo better than what we have on either recording?” and I had forgotten we had a secret ingredient – and here it is: on the alto line, singing right at the very edge of it, was Billy Porter. So he was singing the women’s parts and I’m like “That was the secret ingredient! That’s why it never had that!” because Billy Porter was never singing that line ever again in any version of the show, but that demo was hot. Then the other song is a song called “Gliding” which is Tateh and his daughter, the immigrant character.
Ken: I tell a lot of people that one of my greatest memories in the theatre was I was the associate company manager on that show and our officers were in the basement of the Ford Center.
Stephen: I remember well.
Ken: And where some people would take a coffee break or a smoke break I would take a break and just watch the show because it was such a magical production.
Stephen: It was an incredible time for all of us. I think all of us that were able to get near that show, it changed our lives, really for the better.
Ken: What did you think when Garth went bankrupt, went to jail, all of this nonsense?
Stephen: Well, you know, every single day that I worked with Garth was an exciting day, and if you would say “What is his talent?” I would say his talent is making other people excited. First of all, he had amazing taste; secondly, I always felt I was so protected by him, that he would not let the show off the tracks. It was a very extravagant time and we couldn’t fully understand how we were able to get these enormous orchestras, he commissioned a suite of music from the piece, which was really cool because I was able to just look at the music for music’s sake, without having to serve story or the book, and created a big symphonic piece with William David Brohn, our inspired orchestrator, and we recorded it with like an orchestra of 65 and we were like “How’s that happening?” None of it quite made sense but we were just loving every moment while it lasted. He’s a complicated guy.
Ken: Is that what you like to get out of producers? You’ve worked with a lot of them, from Garth to Barry Weissler, very different styles of types.
Stephen: Yeah, and Andre Bishop, we’ve done many, many shows with Andre, both at Playwrights’ Horizons and Lincoln Center.
Ken: So what do you look for from that relationship? What would make you want to work with a producer today?
Stephen: I always bring it back to good parenting. I think each show is individual, it has its own personality, I think you need to deliver exactly the uniqueness of that show and I don’t think it’s possible, nor advisable, to make a musical or any piece of theatre all shows to all people, because once you start doing that its individuality flies out the window. Once On This Island is so special because it followed no rules, it was very much its own kind of show, kind of score, kind of storytelling and the creation of the show was absolutely pure – we never designed that show thinking “This is going to be a Broadway show,” we were just creating something with people that we loved and it was about creating magic out of nothing and that’s what the show was. The fastest writing I’ve ever done – we wrote the whole show in six months and then changed one song on its way to production. I think that was good producing, that was Andre Bishop at Playwrights Horizons. He created a safe space in which we could try new things. Early on we had a mentor, it was Alfred Uhry who wrote The Robber Bridegroom which is having a wonderful revival right now, and he said “Remember, your show is so unique, throw out every single rule that you ever learned at BMI.” He said “It has its own rules, it has its own logic, you don’t need the comic song for the parents in slot number two.” I think he was just saying let the show be its own unique self and that’s great advice and if you are lucky enough to find a producer that can encourage that, then that’s gold. I think you get in trouble whenever the marketing is leading the show, and of course I’m not saying marketing is not important – it is – but I think the most important thing is the uniqueness of the show and allowing for that.
Ken: Of all your shows, which is the one that’s changed the most during previews?
Stephen: Oh, wow. I know the one that changed from the beginning of the writing until we got it on stage – that was The Glorious Ones, which is a show that took us 13 years to bring to an audience. It was really hard and I couldn’t figure out why it was so difficult. It was very Candide-like. It was very picaresque, it’s based on a novel by Francine Prose who’s a wonderful writer, and it’s about the members of a commedia troupe and, in the novel, each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character in the troupe and there are so many incidents, so many characters, and we started out as quite a large scale show and we did a first reading at Lincoln Center, I believe in 1993. People say “How long did it take that show to be written?” and I say “Let me just put it this way, the anguine had Donna Murphy in the first reading. That’s all you need to know about that show.” It’s also about a changing of theatrical tastes and trends and it’s about these young Turks who come in this world of theatre and they basically steal the theatre or morph it or change it from the more established artists. So there’s an older artist and his lady friend and a younger young Turk and his muse and we started out writing that show and I thought “I totally get this young Turk character, I understand it,” and it took us 13 years so by the end of it I’m going “I’m totally relating with the middle aged character. I really get his story,” and I think it was actually a blessing it took that long because I was able to understand every aspect. That changed the most; it started out as a large scale show and by the time we reached Lincoln Center it was seven characters playing all of these different parts in their style. We were actually at the point where we were going to give it up because we couldn’t crack the nut of the show. We had some amazingly exciting and beautiful songs but we didn’t have a show that we could make work and, oddly, to her great credit, Francine Prose, the novelist, she said “I know you’ve been working all these years and you keep renewing the rights for this novel and, you know, I’ve never heard any of the songs, so before you give it up and let it go I’d like to hear some of the songs,” and we thought “That’s a fair request,” so she and her husband came to Lynn’s apartment and we just started playing through a couple of the songs from The Glorious Ones and she, after the first song, was in tears, “Let me hear more, let me hear more,” and she was so effusive, so unbelievably supportive and she said “These songs are like one act plays, this has to be in a theatre,” and I said “No offence but we can’t find a way to lasso your plot. The plot is driving us mad,” and so she basically said “Throw out what you want, use what you will,” and she was amazingly generous and that helped us crack the nut of The Glorious Ones.
Ken: Incredible, and now you’re just a couple months away from your newest piece hitting the stage.
Stephen: A couple of months?
Stephen: I am starting rehearsal in two weeks from today.
Ken: So when you wrote the songs for Anastasia, for the movie, did you have any idea that you’d be a few weeks away?
Stephen: No, no, it came out of the blue. We had been developing an animated film musical for Disney – and this will tell you something about timing. Actually, I don’t want to go there, but anyhow.
Ken: Oh, go there.
Stephen: I’ll go there, okay. So we were working on an idea that I thought was a really cool idea. it was about the migration of whales and it was about community and, as we all know, the whales communicate through songs so they literally do sing, they literally communicate that way, larger than life, and I had been, for my own fun, believe it or not, listening to this amazing Roger Payne recordings of the whales singing – elaborate tunes, really amazing melodies – and I thought “Oh, it could be about fathers and sons, it’s literally about a journey, it’s literally about a migration,” and we started working on the piece and it starts out with the whales singing and then it becomes this voice and, bit by bit, they’re singing lyrics. We loved working on it and of course – you can see this coming like a train – they were working on another animal musical at the same time, Disney was. It was something that I don’t think anyone’s ever heard of – it was called The Lion King. So there was the whale show, The Lion King, and I shouldn’t say this but I’m going to say it, there’s a wonderful scene in The Lion King that was from our whale project. You may remember it – it’s when he looks up and sees his father in the sky as a constellation. I found it even more moving when it was whales. I just put it out there with no judgment.
Ken: I try not to laugh on these podcasts but I can’t help it!
Stephen: You think The Lion King and you think you would have bypassed that and then Ragtime comes out and we open this amazing show with the best cast ever and we were across the street from The Lion King the stage musical and that crazy show is just biting, it’s Pac Man at my rear. So anyhow, we let go of that but because of the people we met at Disney we got a chance to work on a piece for 20th Century Fox which would become Anastasia. I loved the world, I loved the fact that there was a mysterious element to it, I found that amazing and it was a really great experience for us. These films take a long time – this took four years – so we were actually writing Ragtime simultaneously to Anastasia so in the time it took us to write 35 songs that reached the stage in Ragtime we wrote six songs, I believe, that made it into the movie. That’s like a little window into the difference of process, but the experience of all of that was fantastic and, all these years later, we were approached, “Is this something you would like to do for the stage?” I think we both loved the material so much that if we were to go with it we wanted to reconceive for the stage. We didn’t want it to be “Here’s an animated film that we’re going to put frame by frame into a theatrical telling.” And also, as some of you may know, the film did play rather fast and loose with Russian history – Rasputin did not rise from the grave, he was not accompanied by an albino bat and these colorful green minions that would break into song, none of that happened as far as I know. So we thought it would be interesting to go a little more back to what the story was, so I actually think the stage musical, even though we have five songs from the motion picture, it’s really a new show and it’s inspired by the legend of Anastasia. This is our third show with Terrence McNally so that’s been great and I think Terrence was interested only if we could treat the show as if it were an original musical, so even though we have a song, like “Journey to the Past” is in the show, it’s used in an entirely different context than the film and I actually think it’s stronger. So we’re excited – two weeks and we roll up our sleeves and hear it sing, so it’s wonderful.
Ken: Incredible. So it opens in Hartford in just weeks and then hopefully Broadway later on, next season perhaps?
Stephen: Yeah, so if you’re in the Hartford area we begin performances May 12th, we open officially the 27th and then we’re running into June. We’re excited – this is the first time we’ve worked with Darko Tresnjak, who did A Gentleman’s Guide. He’s a wonderful director and he’s kind of the perfect director for this piece. It’s wonderful going back to that. I thought it could be difficult because that was a world that we were quite involved in twenty years ago, musically, but I had done so much research that it must have been in me and it was actually very fluid writing and we were right back into that world. I’ve been able to go deeper, musically, which is exciting.
Ken: I’ll definitely be there for that. Okay, last question. I call this my genie question.
Stephen: Uh oh.
Ken: Genies are good, don’t be scared.
Stephen: Is this about Aladdin?
Ken: Well, sort of. But it’s not about The Lion King! So it’s Disney but not that one.
Stephen: Oh, okay, well that’s good. I feel like I’m a safe space.
Ken: Mustafa knocks on your door… No, the genie comes to you and says “Stephen, your contributions to the American musical theatre have just been so incredible, I want to thank you for that.”
Stephen: Thank you, Genie.
Ken: “I want to grant you one wish.”
Ken: Stephen, you’re such a positive person, everything’s fun even when you’re faced with challenges. What makes you angry? What is the one thing about Broadway that keeps you up at night, that frustrates you so much, that makes you mad, that you would ask the genie to change with a rub of his lamp?
Stephen: I don’t understand why there can only be one “hit” – and I’m putting quotes around that word – per season. I don’t understand that. I think the theatre landscape used to be that there was a whole variety of different exciting work in any given season and now it seems like either you’re a hit or you tank. Whatever happened to any sense of middle ground? Whatever happened to the numbers of 2 through 9? I don’t understand that and I find a healthier atmosphere in the regional theatre and I find a healthier atmosphere, in terms of not only the working conditions and the creative aspect but for the audiences too, in off-Broadway. I remember the season that I saw two shows – I saw a show on Friday and a show on Saturday – I saw Rent on Friday at New York Theatre Workshop and I saw Floyd Collins at Playwrights Horizons on Saturday. Amazing shows, totally having their own sense of self, totally the voice of their individual creators and as different as anything. I’d like to think that the adventurous work will continue and this season there’s actually been some really cool stuff but I find that most of my exciting nights in the theatre are not on Broadway and I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s just because the cost of making musicals is so great now. What’s your theory? I don’t know.
Ken: Yeah, because it’s becoming so expensive it’s getting harder and harder to take risks, but luckily something bursts through like Hamilton and hopefully convinces all of us out there to go “Oh, maybe we should take more risks.” Or Fun Home. We’ve seen some good stuff.
Stephen: Look at the Public Theatre these past two years – it’s a prime example of creating a safe creative space for artists to do their work and, frankly, musicals are slow cookers. Some happen very rapidly, most have to be developed and nurtured over time and Oskar and that institution have created that and it’s such exciting work, such a variety of work, and I remember seeing Hamilton downtown and I thought “This is the kind of show that Joe Papp loves because it respects the history of the art form and makes it new and the cross-cultural aspect of it and just the boldness and the freshness and within the first five seconds it has such a strong identity and sense of self,” and none of that is by chance, a lot of it is by producer. Not to discredit Lin-Manuel and his talented collaborators but for Oskar to create that environment for that to happen, it’s special.
Ken: Well thank you so much for being here and for being such an incredible, positive spirit in musical theatre. If you listeners are not excited about being involved in the theatre after listening to Stephen talk today I don’t know what will get you there. Thank you so much for spending your time with us.
Stephen: Thank you.
Ken: We look forward to Anastasia. Oh, and I like to play one degree of separation between my current guest and my next guest – my next guest is Meredith Blair of the Booking Group which I believe booked the tours of Ragtime, and Suessical so there’s always a connection.
Stephen: There always is. It’s like two degrees of Ken Davenport.
Ken: I like that game. We’ll play that next week. Thanks so much for listening, everybody. Don’t forget to subscribe. We’ll see you next time!