Pop Music and the New Musical (Working In The Theatre #335)

Pop Music and the New Musical (Working In The Theatre #335)


Thank you, Sondra and Doug. Welcome, everybody. Today’s panel is presented in association
with the New York Musical Theatre Festival. As many of you know, the music of Broadway
was popular music for the first half of the twentieth century, and that all began to change
in the mid-fifties, when Bill Haley topped the charts with “Rock Around the Clock,”
and of course, Elvis Presley came along with a string of Number One hits, including “All
Shook Up.” And now, “All Shook Up” is a title song
of a Broadway musical, and pop song writers like Elton John and Phil Collins are writing
for the musical theatre. So, we’ve gathered today to talk about pop
music and Broadway. Are we in a new era for pop music on Broadway? And what makes pop song writers want to write
on Broadway, to begin with? To answer these and many questions, we have
an expert panel, and I’d like to introduce them to you now. On my far right, I have Stephen Bray, co-author
of the new Broadway musical, THE COLOR PURPLE. He’s written for a variety of popular film
and T.V. projects, as well as for various recording artists, including his own Grammy-nominated
band, Breakfast Club, plus Gladys Knight, Kylie Minogue, and Madonna. Next to him, Lucy Simon, a two-time Grammy
winner, began her career performing with sister Carly Simon. Her theatre credits include A, MY NAME IS
ALICE and THE SECRET GARDEN, which received seven Tony nominations, including one for
her score. And her latest show, ZHIVAGO, premiered this
summer at La Jolla Playhouse. David Yazbek wrote the crowd-pleasing scores
to THE FULL MONTY and the current hit, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS. He won an Emmy for his work on “Late Night
with David Letterman” and has written and/or produced for such diverse artists as Tito
Puente, Ruben Blades, Crash Test Dummies and They Might Be Giants. On my left, Allee Willis, co-author of THE
COLOR PURPLE, an award-wining writer, director, designer, and interactive multi-media artist. A Grammy winner, Allee has written songs that
have topped the pop, R&B, jazz, country and radio airplay charts, selling over fifty million
records. And last but not least, Rupert Holmes, a double
Tony winner for the delightful MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD. He has five new musicals in the works, yay! Rupert also has distinguished himself for
his work in movies, T.V., and with recording artists including, notably, Barbra Streisand,
and let us not forget his enduring Number One smash hit, “Escape,” which you all
know as “The Pina Colada Song.” (RUPERT LAUGHS) Welcome to our panel. So, let’s begin by talking about the differences
between pop music and theatre music. And David, I want to start with you. And what is different about the way you approach
writing for the theatre and writing for, say, your rock band? Well, the big difference is, I’m acting
when I’m writing for the theatre. So I’m in a room, finding what I have in
common with the character that I’m writing for. And that’s sort of the first job for me. When I’m writing for myself, for an album,
it’s complete self-indulgence, in a way. I mean, it’s really closer to sort of true
art, because it’s needing to say something, wanting to say something, and just saying
it. You know, not putting aside craft, but it’s
about saying what I want to say. And for theatre, it’s about helping the
whole, the story, the character, and getting them to say (LAUGHS) what I want them to say! But what they want to say, also. But in a sort of pop musical style, though,
so you’re still being true to where you come from, musically? Well, you know, I think one of the reasons
why, as a rock musician, I’m kind of like sort of super-marginal (THOMAS LAUGHS) is
that I’m also extremely eclectic. And I’ve kept that aesthetic when I started
writing for the theatre, and just said, “What’s gonna work is gonna work, for this scene or
for this character or for this moment.” So, you know, my first show had rock elements
in it. You know, there was a drum set, and there
were some songs that were kind of R&B songs. And there’s a bossa nova in this show, there’s
a lot of sort of jazzy kind of stuff. So whatever is called for that I feel that
I’m capable of doing and that will work, both in terms of lyrics, and especially in
terms of music, that’s what I’ll do. Great. Allee, you’ve obviously written in many
different musical styles. Did you come up with the same issues when
you were writing COLOR PURPLE? Well, the same issues in that it had to be
good (DAVID LAUGHS) and it had to be, you know, adventurous. (CLEARS HER THROAT) Getting over a cold! But for me, personally, way more freedom,
writing for the theatre, which I just adore. And I love having a visual and I love being
able to tell a story, and I love being able to take, you know, the mindset of many different
characters. And I’m someone who loves to kind of know
the set of problems or challenges, and then figure out a way to mush all that together
and overcome all of it. Whereas in pop music, and I adored my time
there and got to work with unbelievable artists, but you’re essentially having one thing
to say which, you know, you say in the chorus. And then you kind of build up, say it in the
chorus, build up again, say it in the chorus. But you’re essentially saying the same thing. And what I love about theatre is that it’s
just constantly got to push along. And for us, specifically, the challenges that
we had were telling a story that a lot of people anticipate is going to be a very dark,
gloomy, heavy story, when in fact it’s a joyous, triumphant, at times really funny
story. And how do you musically prepare the audience
to be open, you know, to that? And then how do you take music from 1909 to
1949, not have it just sound like a revue? You know, bring what we do into that. So I just found the challenges of writing
this to be beyond thrilling. And Stephen, the two of you are part of a
three person team, working with Brenda Russell, who couldn’t be with us today. Right. But how does it work for the three of you
to write together? That’s unusual, to have three composer-lyricists
working together. Three composer-lyricists who don’t read
music! Or write or notate. (LAUGHS) Yeah, or notate either! Well, I refer to it as the Vulcan mind-meld,
because we basically try to determine, through talking what the agenda of a particular musical
moment is, or theatrical moment. And typically Brenda’s at the piano, more
so, I would say, than either of the two of us, but in terms of generating a sonic bed. But then it becomes a threesome, in terms
of what the melody, what the phraseology of the melodies are, and obviously, what the
lyric are, because we’re all doing composing and words at the same time, really. And it just evolves organically. It will shift from music to lyric and back
and forth and all over the place. But typically, the three of us have to enjoy
it a lot for it to stand the test. Or two people have to really, really like
it! (LAUGHS) Yeah. So, it’s democratic? It’s democratic, right, Allee? Yeah, yeah. Are there any rules? Yeah, we have a definite – well, I mean,
this has been as much and in the most fantastic way, group therapy than anything. (LAUGHTER) ‘Cause we work as much at the
collaboration as we work at the song itself. So as soon as two say, “That’s it, it’s
fantastic,” the third, you have to let go. You’re not allowed to bring it up again
unless – Yeah! (LAUGHTER) You know, a little later down the line, it
still sucks, and then, you know – (LAUGHTER) Although, people try. But it’s an absolutely fantastic collaboration. It’s the hardest room. I mean, I’ve worked with literally thousands
of collaborators from, I don’t know, you know, Bob Dylan to Stevie Wonder to whoever. This is the hardest room in the world. Interesting. But it’s fantastic, because you have total
confidence when you walk out. And you’re collaborating with Marsha Norman
on the book, and I know that Lucy, you worked with her on SECRET GARDEN. Yeah, we’re all of the same family, I think. (DAVID LAUGHS) Because Marsha is such a strong
personality that – in terms of writing for the theatre, you know, you’re not just writing
yourself. As you say, you’re writing other characters,
but you’re also translating the emotion of the book writer, unless you write the book
also, which Rupert does, I believe, and then you don’t need to worry about that. But there are so many things that come into
play when you’re writing a musical. It’s the personality of the character, of
your collaborators, as you find – it’s very interesting to work with more than one
collaborator. And I’m doing that with ZHIVAGO. There are two lyricists and me, and the book
writer, who’s Michael Weller, and the director, who’s Des McAnuff. And you have to take all the personalities
and put them sort of in an aura, and then you find what you want to say. It sort of sifts through you, as the composer,
to put all of those things together. And how many of those people are in the room
when you’re doing that? Well, I usually write music by myself. There’s something very personal to me about
writing. And I get shy, you know? (LAUGHS) Sort of I don’t want to expose
what I – my process in front of people. You know, I will hum a melody, or I will say,
“Yes, this goes this way,” or “This should be rhythmic, like that.” But when I really put it together, I want
to be alone. The shower is great, as everybody has discovered! I mean, there’s a reason for it. You feel completely safe and, you know, that
no matter what you do, it’s going to be all right. But I think in a good collaboration, you do
have that feeling of safety, and you trust each other. Well, we’re noodlers, right? Do you noodle, to find it, or do you hear
it and then it comes out? Well, I, like you, I’m not a trained musician. I’m a singer. So I come from – my background is, you know,
opera, lieder, folk, rock, everything! (LAUGHS) And so, you know, folk has guitar
and classical music more piano, but essentially, I’m a vocalist. So I will approach something from a vocal
point of view. And when I write for other characters, male
characters, female characters, I write in their range, so that I know what it feels
like in their vocal chords, what it feels like in their bodies to sing that. But I’m not a lyricist, and I’m the only
one of us that doesn’t write lyrics. So my concentration on melody, on the translation
of the honesty of the moment or the humor of the moment or the personality, comes from
a pure melodic form and not a verbal form. Rupert, as Lucy mentioned before, you have
done it all. I think you were the first, and maybe the
only, person to win a Tony singly, for both book and score. Yeah. How does it feel to collaborate with yourself,
first of all? And now that you’re working with so many
other composers and lyricists on these other new projects, is that different for you? Well, it’s extremely different, and it keeps
it very interesting for me. I actually enjoy collaborating. People think, simply because in the past I’ve
tended to write book, lyrics, music, that I prefer it that way. And there are times where it’s – I’ll
tell you, it’s wonderful for a producer and a director, when there’s one person
writing it all, because if they decide something has to be changed, it doesn’t have to be
sort of debated. If I go along with that, then the next day
everyone will have been right on board. (LAUGHS) So you don’t argue with yourself? No, I don’t argue with myself. And I don’t argue with my collaborators,
either. Right now, I’m writing with both people
– I mean, they’re heroes of mine. Charles Strouse, Lee Adams, John Kander, Alan
and Marilyn Bergman, Michel Legrand. And I interface in different ways. I’m doing a lot of book writing, which is
interesting for me, because I started out as a song writer. And I wrote a script for Bette Midler for
a movie, and the head of Disney said to me at the time, “Now, this is great! Now who the hell do we get to write the music?” And I thought, “I’ve done it! I’ve accomplished it! (LAUGHTER) I’ve made everyone forget I ever
wrote a note!” And I find that it’s – I think that my
having been a song writer, both for stage and in pop music, is helpful when I’m only
writing the book, because I have some sense of what the song writing team is going through,
what they’re searching for. And I will very often, I find what’s been
working very effectively is that I will write a scene and give it to my collaborators and
say, “Now, this is what a song might cover. This is the terrain that it might cover. And no one will ever see this but you, but
it would be great if this could now be a song.” And sometimes, some of the dialogue ends up
in the lyric, which is both flattering and maddening. (LAUGHTER)
But it does keep those big councils of war that go on to a minimum when you’re writing
it all alone. The director comes to you and says, “Could
we just – would there be a way – ” And instead of five people having five ideas,
you come up with the one you think is best. In THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, we were able
to make changes literally overnight. And I was the orchestrator on that, as well. So by the time the morning came around, a
change could be effected in twelve hours, except for the part about my sleeping. (LAUGHTER) Now, we’ve gotten a little bit lost in our
discussion about pop music. And I’m curious – maybe you want to start,
Allee. I mean, obviously, you’ve written in many
different musical styles, but theatre music is a very particular thing. And did you have any trepidation about the
craft of that? Well, I didn’t grow up being from – he’s
laughing already! I’m laughing because that word is not in
her – “trepidation” is not in her [vocabulary]. (LAUGHTER) Yeah, I’m definitely – like, I don’t
like to – I’m as spontaneous as could possibly be. So the fact that this was completely new to
me, at the same time as being terrifying and horrifying, was also so exciting, because
I tend to be at my best when I kind of don’t know the rules. But what I certainly realized was, not having
come up understanding musical theatre or seeing a lot of it, that it would be impossible to
write anything not knowing why people loved theatre. And that I would have to get to that point
before I could even write a note. And we spent probably the first year of getting
the gig – I actually got involved with the project in 1999, but we officially got it
in 2000 and then began writing in 2001. But we spent the first year reading every
book – you know, “How to Write a Broadway Musical” through, you know, whatever – listening
to soundtracks and – Cast albums, please! Cast albums! (LAUGHTER) Cast albums, cast albums. I still don’t know the terms. Going to see a lot of shows. Going to see a lot of shows! Yeah. But you know, in my case, ‘cause we were
in L.A., so I saw like high school productions (LUCY LAUGHS) and, you know, however I could
do it. And I started getting fascinated with certain
writers and really seeing like, you know, when you write for the theatre, how – I
mean, Stephen Sondheim, becoming like fanatic about him. But reading about him, books and books and
books, before I actually started listening to everything, which was an incredible way
to start, you know, coming into it. But you know, it got to the point where I
thought, “I don’t ever want to write pop music again!” I mean, I just love this so, so, so much! But I think that we bring a lot of our sensibility
from pop music. Like, I think, you know, in pop music, you
have to get to the hook. Like, if you’re going to write a song and
not get to the hook for three minutes, no one’s ever gonna hear that song. So learning about the theatre, which one of
those rules can be broken? Which one of those rules can’t be broken? And then, really trying to write something
that honors the theatre, but that doesn’t leave us out of the mix, ‘cause why were
we, you know, brought into it in the first place? I think one thing about the hook that you
mention, you know, pop music, as you said in your introduction, a lot of it used to
come out of the theatre. I really think that in a lot of musical theatre
music, there are a lot of composers who have sort of forgotten the concept of the hook. Not that you need it in your brain, it’s
just very very nice (LAUGHS) to have some element of a song in the theatre that’s
a hook! And I just know that when they hired me to
do FULL MONTY out of nowhere, I asked the director, you know, “Why me?” And he’d heard some of my albums, and he
said, “Because I think you know where the hook is.” And I thought, “Oh, I’d like to work with
him.” Because I like things to be catchy, you know? Yeah. Not that – the whole show doesn’t have
to be catchy, and there’s certainly stuff that’s through-composed that isn’t structured,
you know, with the hook in mind, that’s very effective. But even a show like LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA – which
is, you know, it’s very lyrical, it goes places, it’s not structured in a way that
you expect – you know that guy, who happens to be a friend of mine – Adam Guettel, we can say Adam Guettel. Adam Guettel, you know that he knows where
the hook is. And I treasure that when I’m at a show. Hooks make audiences comfortable, as well,
whether it’s a radio audience, whether it’s a theatre audience. Explain what you mean by “hook,” just
in case people don’t know. A part of a song that is very hummable, that
might come around a couple of times, but that there’s something familiar enough about
it so that you can settle into it, and hopefully something that’s innovative enough about
it so that you just must hear that again and again. The thing about hooks on radio, or on T.V,
as opposed to theatre, is that you have to remember that when you’re creating a musical,
you get control of the environment for maybe two hours. You know, the thing about writing for pop
music is that you have to – the world that you’re writing for is already pre-determined. It’s called today. It’s called now. And generally speaking, you have to write
in the vernacular. And you don’t have control of how many times
your song will be played in the next half hour. Unless you pay the right people, of course. (LAUGHTER) But when you write a musical, the joy of it,
and I have to believe that for all of us who’ve written pop and then go to write for theatre,
it’s kind of this exultant, liberating feeling, even though you have a whole new list of constraints
and worries. The thing is that you’re no longer writing
for today, necessarily, and I don’t mean for the audience of today. I mean, the world you’re writing for need
not be – I don’t want to state the date, ‘cause I know these things get replayed
(THOMAS LAUGHS) – but you’re writing for a world that you invent. And then you create the music and have the
people speak with the words that seem appropriate to both that world and their character. It’s not just their personality. In MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, I can’t write
as a pop song writer. I’m no longer allowed to write, “I’m
wild again, beguiled again, a whimpering, simpering child again.” I’m just not allowed to do that, ‘cause
that’s not real. But MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, I could do “Ha’penny,
one penny, tuppenny, thruppenny, twelve to a shilling, twice that to a florin, and would
you not feel – ” I can write things like that, and that’s what those characters should
do. But it’s this idea that when you write for
theatre, if you have something in a song that’s important to you, whether it’s the phrase
“the light in the piazza” that you’re going to bring back towards the end, you know,
“You know, I’m gonna play this song in another fifteen minutes when – ” The audience
is going to – because in pop music, familiarity breeds content. No one’s given a name to this fact that
when we hear things several times, we start to like them more. Well, in the old school of musicals, you would
have multiple reprises of songs. Yeah, yeah. So that by the time you left the theatre,
you were humming it. And even before you entered the theatre, you’d
already heard it on “The Hit Parade,” over and over again. (LAUGHS) My father constantly says, “Well,
I used to come out of a show, I could hum every song!” And I’d say, “Dad, you already heard every
song! You heard it on the Ed Sullivan Show, you
heard it – ” Right (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And was it Cy Coleman who said, “They don’t
go out whistling the tunes, they used to come in whistling the tunes.” Yeah, well, that’s maybe the biggest factor
for the drought, for this gap between, I think, between pop music and theatre. Pop music was where – theatre was the source
of the majority of the pop music we were listening to. And I can remember, right up until – as
a kid, I would listen to Billy Taylor on WNEW-AM. And every time a Broadway show opened, right
up through maybe ’62, ’63, you would think, “I wonder what the song is from this show? What’s going to be the song that people
play?” And I mean, so that DO RE MI, “Make Someone
Happy” – now, no one remembers the show DO RE MI, unless it’s revived at Encores! But you had the song “Make Someone Happy.” And it would be sung on Ed Sullivan, it would
be done on The Hit Parade. The death of the variety show on T.V. really
killed that crossover. Because once you started getting AM radio,
Top 40 radio, not playing the kind of material that – they’re not playing “On the Street
Where You Live,” which Vic Damone had a kind of a hit with. And so, when you went to see it, you knew,
“On the Street Where You Live.” Once variety shows went away and Broadway
was no longer a source for things to be performed in other mediums, people walked in and they’d
say, “Gee, they don’t write those songs like they used to.” And what you told your dad was what used to
madden me when people said that. You know, “They’re not writing those scores.” Yeah, but when you went to see a show – when
I went to see MY FAIR LADY, I knew every song in that score. And I wasn’t necessarily that much of a
theatre maven. It wasn’t that I – But those were hook-filled songs. They were wonderful songs, yes. I mean, those great musicals, to me, of the
fifties and sixties, were totally hook-filled songs. Yeah. And in coming up through pop music, that’s
kind of where I lost track of musicals after that. Well, you do have some examples, like Gwen
Stefani did a song, “Rich Girl” recently. “Rich Girl,” yeah. Which was sampling a bit of a melody from
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. So there are periodic examples of, you know
– “Hard Knock Life” was used in a rap record. Well, as we’re writing musicals and we’re
writing the songs, I think we all feel, “Is there something that could be a take-out song?” That is, that it is a song that somebody else
could record and it could be played on the radio. And when you start thinking that way, you
sort of get yourself into trouble, because the main thing that you have to do, in writing
for the theatre, is write something that is absolutely true to the moment. And there are very few times, I find, that
we can say, “Yes, this is something that (LAUGHS) Barbra Streisand should sing, or
one of the younger people that covers other songs.” (LAUGHS) I’d be happy to write a take-out
song, if I thought anyone was gonna – if there was any medium to take it out, just
for the sake of the show, you know? You hear about Sondheim not wanting to write
“Send in the Clowns.” He just didn’t want to do it. And then he did it, and that was a nice moment
in the show and a great take-out song. But that was strange as a take-out song. I mean, that really is not a normal take-out
song. It was a brilliant song! But the fact that, you know, Judy Collins
had the perfect voice and the, you know, Arif Mardin was ready to do something that was
really risky, and Jonathan – Well, he wrote for a character. He wrote it for a character, but – And for an actress who had very limited breath. Yes, that’s right. So he had to write short phrases, and that
became why he – But I think it was freaky that it became a
hit. Right. I don’t think he did it with the intention
of “This is gonna be something that everybody’s gonna know, and it’s gonna be a hit song.” I don’t think you can write that way. If it happens – You’d be crazy to do it, because there’s
so little – your chances, even if it’s a great, great song are so – Yeah, that’s right. Because there’s also an imposed-upon “musical
theatre” music – and partially, it’s deserved – is the feeling that it’s corny. And you know, it just has to do with – you
know, pop music has a lot to do with fashion and it changes constantly. And that fashion seems to change faster and
faster every year. But you know, I just know from experience
that there’s this big Chinese wall between – and I grew up listening to all kinds of
musical theatre, opera and jazz, and you know, all kinds of different genres, and I still
do. But people like to categorize – Put limits (PH) on, yeah. Compartmentalize, and it’s very hard to
get through. Even if it’s a great song, you know, you’d
have to really have a lot of pushing going on to have crossover. I was going to say, I think the divergence
that Richard (SIC; HE MEANS RUPERT) mentioned in 1962, though, has to do with the difference
in ages between the people that listen to – if we’re calling “popular music”
that which is on the radio a lot, the audiences for those radio stations are much younger
than the audiences that are going to the theatre, from what I can see. And I think that – Well, I think it varies from show to show,
I mean, it’s – I think it’s possible, though – but I
think it’s – to go into it and say, “I’m going to write a radio hit,” that’s, like,
foolish. But I think the character has to have – whoever
you’re writing for – has to have a struggle or a triumph that someone listening to the
radio could associate with. Is there a breakout hit from COLOR PURPLE? Who know? But I certainly hope so! But I would never say, you know, “Yes.” But I hope so. I think so! (LAUGHTER) But I think that that’s
it. That sometimes, what the subject of musical
theatre is and the piece that you’re writing for doesn’t lend for that identification. And I know me, with my pop songs, I never
would really write for the day. I mean, my theory there was, “You want to
write something that then defines the next day, that then everyone’s gonna copy for
the next couple years.” So I always tried to be more on the outrageous
end of that anyway. (THOMAS LAUGHS) And I think it’s possible,
but I think the circumstances of the piece that you’re writing for really need to – Dictate, yeah. Dictate, yeah. I have a question about the personality that
comes through when there are three writers, obviously with very different personalities. Do you find that you have a collective personality
on this? Absolutely. Or can you say, you recognize your music,
you recognize your different – Absolutely. Oh, yeah. Yeah, any of us left to our own devices would
complete something – Totally, yeah. Create something completely other than what
we have. Really? But yet, there are things – like, I know
that in the end, there are certain places where he is king, that if I’m like not sure
about it and he says – like, I think – which is not how I went into this thinking – but
I think lyrically, he’s brilliant. I think he’s a brilliant strategist for
how things should develop. I think, you know, my thing is, you know,
if something goes (GESTURES WITH HER HAND, TURNING A CORNER) nyeownnnh! You know, like totally takes a left turn,
you know, melodically, or starts, like, you know, reaching places, I think that’s my
thing. And in lyrics, a certain thing. I think Brenda – Brenda is also the best
player among us – chordally is great. So we have different areas where – Right. You kind of know someone’s in there – Cutting the strings. You can identify the elements of a particular
person’s influence. But, like, I really think that if, like Allee
says, if the melody’s doing something unexpected and especially interesting, I’m sure Allee
was the reason behind that. (ALLEE LAUGHS) Because I like the cozy, expected
turns, and Allee goes, “No, ‘cause everyone knows that going to happen! So why not go somewhere else?” But what is great – and then we also have
a thing, like Stephen’s a drummer and very precise and very, like, you know, on grid. I am – and I think this is from my Earth,
Wind and Fire days (THOMAS LAUGHS) – you know, way, like groove, behind, like just
– you know, the pocket, wherever it is. And I’m constantly saying, “Yes, but Allee,
we have to write it down on paper! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) Someone has to be
able to do this again and again!” But between the two, between the absolute
mathematic precision and the, just, you know, how does it feel, there is this unbelievable
blend that would never happen. That’s so exciting! Yeah. I tell you, this is the show that I just can
not wait to see. I’m just so excited about it. Thank you. It sounds so innovative and powerful, and
I’m thrilled about it. Thank you. Talking to Marsha, I’m just getting such
wonderful feedback. Lucy, what you said though really intrigues
me, because you said you’re working with two lyricists on this? Yeah. And are you talking about two lyricists writing
the same – the lyric to one song? Working on the same song. Oh, okay. And it’s very strange. I mean, it’s not sure it’s the ideal – Have they collaborated together before? Never, never. And I started with one, with Michael Korie,
who’s a wonderful opera librettist, mainly. And because I have this huge project, which
is Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago,” we need to take it seriously. (RUPERT LAUGHS) I mean, this is not the – at
least, when we first started, it didn’t feel like this was gonna be a pop score. It felt it was going to be a more serious
operatic [score], although my style tends – I don’t know, I write in my own style. That’s why I asked about the personality. It always sounds sort of like me, but with
a very different – I don’t know, what? Structure, or feel. But anyway, so we started with Michael Korie,
who wrote wonderfully, but when I got to the things that I felt needed the hook, and the
hook is – for those who don’t know that term – it’s when a song lands, when you
feel you’re coming back, you’re coming home to it. And it also, you know, tells you something
about what the characters are experiencing. But it’s that – that sense of somebody
really knowing the craft of how to get to that hook. And Michael really just didn’t have any
idea about that. So I brought in Amy Powers, who is a pop lyricist,
and so completely different from Michael! And seeing the two of them together, working
on something, is hysterical, because they are very different, but they really complement
each other. So, no, I don’t know if it’s an ideal
thing to have two people on lyrics. It might be better to have two people composing,
because you do get the strong rhythmic thing and the funny thing and the, you know, you
get them all. Well, it worked well for Comden and Green,
so! Yes, it did! Marilyn and Alan Bergman are unique, that
rarity of a duo who write lyrics. Yeah! And they have now the same voice, you know. Yeah. And that’s why I asked, do you find that
you have the same voice in this writing. I’d like to ask the folks that have done
this before, because Allee and I are new to the genre, in terms of like what you’re
saying, Pasternak pop, repeatable choruses are what a lot of people consider to be a
very strong element of a hook. And do any of you do that? Is the chorus the same lyric? Because usually, a character needs to have
moved somewhere. It usually doesn’t. It’s the same musical hook. Right. But the lyric usually will advance. Which is difficult, in terms of creating something
that’s going to be taken out into the world, because people are not used to that in the
world. That’s right. I really – you know, it’s funny, but I
mean, I’ve seen this written a number of times about THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, I
think I was so thrilled to be writing for theatre, which I’d always wanted to do,
that I actually really did never say to myself, “What’s the song I’m gonna write that’s
gonna be covered?” I mean, there’s a song, “Moonfall,”
that Renee Fleming and Streisand and Judy Collins have recorded, but that was more of
– that’s nice that those recordings are there. It’s not a pop hit record. Get it in auditions all the time! (LAUGHS) Yes! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) That’s a lovely
thing, for it to have that life. But I really was so in love with being in
this forest of 1895, not literally, but just in this realm, that I almost enjoyed not having
that concern. I think I would probably think about it a
little bit more now, when we’re working on musicals. But again, it’s also, you know, the issue
of – ‘cause it used to frustrate me when people would say, “Well, you’re a pop
song writer. Do you – ” Joe Papp said to me originally,
he said, “Who’s going to write the book of this thing?” And I said, “Well, I thought I would do
that.” And he said, “Well, how? Can you do that?” (THOMAS LAUGHS) And I said, “Well, I’m
a story song writer. Almost everything that I’ve written is a
story song.” I said, “I’ve had to write stories in
three minutes, with a fade ending, and they rhymed!” (LAUGHTER) So the idea of writing, saying the word “love,”
and not knowing that in two lines I’m going to have to say “push comes to shove” or
“wings of a snow white dove” – it’s my theory that the peace movement was very
assisted by the fact that dove and love rhymed! – or dangle a participle with “You are
the woman I am thinking of.” I suddenly said, “Wow, that’s great! I don’t have to say the same thing the second
chorus, because the character has learned something in the process of singing this.” Right. So I sort of enjoyed that. I don’t think every producer would want
everyone to think – I actually tried the experiment of writing a pop record for the
show, when the show went to London. We had Lulu, who’d had a hit with “To
Sir with Love” taking over the Cleo Laine role. And she was still a pop recording artist. And I thought, “There’s a song I want
to rewrite anyway. Let me write the pop version of it first,
and then age it. Write it as a pop tune and then see if I can
rewrite the lyrics so it fits the Victorian setting and rearrange it, so it sounds like
it’s in the show.” And I tried it, and I didn’t like it. Didn’t like it? Didn’t like, it, no. Struck the song. But was your agenda to make the lyric repeatable
in a chorus? Absolutely. Okay. Absolutely, yeah. I set out to do that, just to see if that
could be done. And you know what, it worked in the pop record,
but it ceased to work in the show. Yeah, it gets – Yeah. Boring! And then you’re watching, and you’re like
– you just can’t pound it in, pound it in, pound it in. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I learned that lesson the hard way,
too. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) But the shows you’re referring to were pop,
and you know, where they’re synonymous, you know, maybe there was a sort of buttonhook
type of situation, where “On the Street Where You Live,” somebody mentioned I think,
where you keep coming back to a phrase or something. So I just think that – Well, usually in the hook, you’ll come back
to one phrase that’s the same. You know, that – The title. The title of the song, and then you’ll take
it from a different [angle]. But a hook can be a groove, a drumbeat, a
phrase. I mean, you know, a hook is the thing that
hooks your ear. And there can be more than one hook in a song. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Yeah. Hopefully there are. Absolutely, yeah. But when you’re sitting in the audience,
seeing EVITA for the first time, and she goes, “I give my promise!” and the French horn
comes in, “Dah-dah-dit!” “Don’t keep your distance!” You sit there and you think, “Oh, that’s
a very nice thing that just happened! (GENERAL AGREEMENT) I do hope that will happen
again!” (LAUGHTER) I hope that happens again! Right! And then it does! And luckily, it happens seventeen more times! (LAUGHTER) Andrew Lloyd Webber’s no fool. (LAUGHTER) I was just thinking that “love” also rhymes
with Tish’ah B’Av, but there wasn’t any big Hasidic — (LAUGHTER) It’s a very good point, and I’m developing
a musical along those lines, yeah, yeah. (LAUGHTER) Stephen, I’m curious how you came to work
in the musical theatre and what made you think this was something you wanted to do? I came on with Allee’s train. Allee was friends with our producer, who was,
I think maybe looking for some other writers! (LAUGHS) Yeah. No, there were two – it went on almost two
years, where he called me first in 1999 and said, “I just got the rights to do THE COLOR
PURPLE as a musical.” And I do a lot of other things besides music,
but really wanted to get back to song writing, so I thought, “This is it! He’s gonna ask me to do THE COLOR PURPLE. It’s fantastic!” And instead – He said, “Get out your Rolodex! (LAUGHTER) Of pop song writers!” Yeah! Instead, he said to me, “I’m going to
give you names of two writers,” both of whom were wildly inappropriate for this. But you know, “Recommend one,” and I gave
him my honest feelings about both. And then for a year would hear, you know,
details about these, you know, how the project was coming, and it was killing me! ‘Cause I thought, “I’m like – this
is – should be mine!” You know? In his defense – Did you ever say? I didn’t, no. I didn’t say a word. Isn’t that funny? We’re all so reticent to say, “This is
– I’ll do this,” right? No. And in his defense, Scott Sanders, the producer,
he knew me more through an art phase and a technology phase than a musical phase. Right. And in fact, I met him, which I met – when
I met Stephen, ‘cause I art directed – his band had a hit and this, I think, was the
late – A long time ago! Yeah, late eighties. And I was art directing the video. So I met Stephen and I met Scott Sanders on
the same day. So I think he thought of me as more of an
art person. The hits I had during my run with him were
“whiter” than I usually wrote. Like, he knew me through, like, the theme
from “Friends,” and a lot of like Pet Shop Boys and Culture Club, when in fact my
roots were really like Earth, Wind and Fire, Pointer Sisters, stuff that would have made
me more appropriate for this. But anyway, then he called me up a year later,
and he said, “Okay, we need to discuss, you know, writing again.” I thought, “This is it!” And this time, he bounced the name of fifty
song writers off me! (THOMAS LAUGHS) And he got to the name “Brenda
Russell” and I had co-created two animated series and was writing half of them – scoring
half of them with Stephen and half of them with Brenda. And I thought, like, if I don’t jump in,
I’ll never do it. And, you know, said to him, “What if I write
something with Brenda?” Because at this point he wanted everyone to
write a spec song, who was gonna compete to get this gig. And you know, “Stephen Bray, what if the
three of us go in?” And he says, “That’s fine, but no special
favors!” And it’s like, “No special favors?! You never even thought of me!” You know? (LAUGHTER) So the only advantage we had was
that I had actually picked who we were competing against. (LUCY LAUGHS) Set it up a little bit. (PH) But they really were the best – they were
like – there were some phenomenal pop writers in there. And he did not want a pop musical. He just wanted a fresh spin. So we spent two and a half months writing
this spec song. One song? Is that in the show? Yes, it really became kind of the cornerstone
of the whole show. It’s completely different now, though. It’s completely different, but the hook
remains! And what is it called? “Shug Avery Comin’ to Town.” Oh, yeah! I remember hearing about that. But they completely changed from them, because
I’m sure they called us because they wanted pop. But now, you know, ever since we started putting
things on their feet, you know, the agenda’s changed, because as David said, it’s pretty
boring if you’re saying the same thing two minutes in and two and a half minutes in. It doesn’t work. Yeah. And you can’t resort to any – you know,
pop music is sort of a recorded music. And you just can’t resort to, really, most
of the time, successfully, to any recording studio tricks, in terms of building a song,
you know? Definitely, yeah. It’s very interesting, because I’ve worked
– I’ve sort of helped out with – you know, after the fact, with certain shows,
that did manage to really get a produced album-like sound into the theatre. And I suspect there was a lot of looping,
just a lot of tracks going on, ‘cause it was just too well-controlled. But I was sort of thinking, “Boy, I wish
I could – (LAUGHS) I wish I could get a sound like that!” Because then you could use certain tricks
that you might use in the studio. But they don’t help you dramatically, right? No? Yeah? No, they don’t. But you know, sometimes you just – you know,
the bigger your palette is, your tool box is, the better it is. Right, right. But there’s all kinds of stuff. You were talking about “the pocket,” and
I was thinking about it. And I was thinking, there’s a drummer, he’s
the drummer in my band. I hired him for FULL MONTY, I hired him for
this show. And he’s a great drummer, he can do anything,
and I just love his pocket. And when he’s not there, the whole show’s
different for me! Mmm-hmm! Changes totally! That’s interesting. Very interesting, yeah. And it’s just one of the things that’s
a killer, is that with the theatre, it’s – everything’s always changing, the actors,
certain people in the pit. You know, you just don’t have that control. And for me, that was one of the hardest things
about starting with THE FULL MONTY, starting in the theatre, was going from a studio setting
where I could control everything, and if I didn’t like it, I could do it again, to
this place where you’re abdicating a lot of control to very talented people on a nightly
basis. And now I can deal with it. But – (LAUGHS; A WOMAN IN THE AUDIENCE LAUGHS,
TOO) That’s Chase Mishkin laughing, ‘cause she’s seen me dealing with it. (LUCY LAUGHS) But it’s a big difference. Another thing that’s different about pop
music and Broadway is that in the theatre, of course we have intermission. So I need to take a pause here, we’ll be
right back, and these are a few words about the American Theatre Wing. (APPLAUSE)
[BREAK] I want to
talk about different musical styles that are used in the theatre, and I’m wondering if
you think that there is a place for contemporary styles like rap or hip-hop or anything like
that in musical theatre. Stephen? Why are you looking at me? Well, because you’ve worked in – (LAUGHS) I’m kidding. (LAUGHTER) In many different – I looked at you because
you have worked with many different singers of that genre, so I’m curious if you think
you could ever write a show in those styles. I would like to. I think it’s no more unlikely than, you
know, the rock underpinnings of WICKED, for instance. I don’t see why there couldn’t be, you
know, a hip-hop oriented score, but I think you’d just wind up with the same issues
in terms of an actable lyric, for instance, and you know, the repeatable choruses. As long as audiences are willing – I think
audiences would be very willing, and excited by a very contemporary sounding score, and
I think you’d come into some of the issues David brought up in terms of how you’d recreate
some of the contemporary sounds night after night, because you know, we’re using samplers
to create those very artificial drum sounds and whatnot. And there’s probably ways around that. But I think the bigger issues are going to
be, as Rupert was saying, how do your actors – can you find a story that works in a setting? You know, if it’s not about hip-hop culture,
can it use that context, you know, and still work? And I think the other issue, and a really
big issue is, you don’t just want an evening of twenty hip-hop songs. So, and I think this is about really any style
that comes into writing for theatre, but especially something like that or a more contemporary
one, because then you just have a revue. And so, how do you take, you know, the heartbeat
of hip-hop and the funk of hip-hop, and how do you blend it with more theatrical music? And then I think you end up with the unbelievable
mutant form that would interest people and hook people into it. But just to put twenty hip-hop songs in, or
just to put twenty rock songs in, or whatever it is, it will only appeal, I think, to that
audience. It certainly won’t endear a theatrical audience. You have another very practical obstacle,
also. Because I think artistically, you could actually
have a show with twenty hip-hop songs, if they were – I mean, hip-hop is an incredibly
varied genre, you know? Or with twenty rock songs. I think you’re gonna have half – at least
half of the audience who can afford to pay a hundred dollars on Broadway doing this (PUTS
HIS FINGERS IN HIS EARS), because it’s a loud – you know, good rock and good funk
and good hip-hop is loud. It’s gotta be loud. It drives me crazy when there’s a song that
should be loud and it can’t be loud because of the sound system in the theatre or whatever. But you don’t – you know, there’s an
audience there. They’re paying a lot of money! If there was a way to get the price level
down, so that younger people or people – Aren’t a lot of concerts today, pop concerts
– A hundred dollars? Not a hundred dollars, but they’re expensive. They’re expensive, but you know, it’s
not the only way you can hear that music. Right. I mean, you can buy – again, it just has
to do a lot with the way Broadway is perceived, you know? The guys in my band now call me “Broadway’s
David Yazbek.” (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) They don’t say
it as, like, a compliment, you know! (LAUGHTER) They say it to get my goat, you
know. WICKED was pretty loud, though, don’t you
think? WICKED was loud. What’s the loudest show out there? PHANTOM’s louder. Oh, I’m not saying – I mean, really, what
I’m saying is there’s just – there’s also this thing about you’ve got an audience,
you’ve got an audience who comes to see shows for a particular reason, and there very
well may be a way – this is a conversation that happens all the time – a way of bringing
different people into the audience, people who are afraid of Broadway. I’m not sure what it is! But there might be a way. I remember as a kid going to see the Philharmonic,
looking around me, and seeing a lot of people who were asleep and well-dressed (LAUGHTER)
and thinking, “This is great music here, and you’re just asleep and well-dressed,
and you’re there for reasons other than for the music!” And you know, I’m not saying the Broadway
audience isn’t there for the show and the music, but you know how – it just – things
get ossified. And if someone can figure out a way, and I
think dropping ticket prices somehow has something to do with it, to open things up to a new
audience, that would be great. So, if you’re out there – It’s certainly worth pursuing, but a different
conversation than we probably can have time to talk about today. I guess we should talk a little bit about,
though, the differences between the music business and the theatre business, and are
they different? And is it – I mean, for example, Rupert,
when you were having a Number One hit song with “Escape,” I mean, it’s still a
popular song! It’s in SHREK, it’s in AMERICAN SPLENDOR,
it’s in BEWITCHED, it’s in lots of movies now. It’s still playing, twenty-five years later. Is the music business different now? Well, the music – I was fortunate, when
I got into the record business, I got to see the last remnants of the era when one person
could run a record company. And the artists were signed by, say, Florence
Greenberg on Scepter Records, who just, she’d say, “I like him, and I like her, and that’s
who.” And she’d say, “We’re gonna promote
this.” That went away, as record companies became
corporate entities, and as they each swallowed the other up, until we now have – we’ll
soon have, you know, like two record labels, with little – lots of subdivisions, but
it’s all – almost everything that I’ve ever recorded – they put out a five CD set
of everything I ever recorded recently, with Universal Music, and they can do that now,
because they own all the different record labels that I recorded for! So the record business itself changed during
the time that I was there. And then, very important to us in theatre,
I think, is that – and for myself as a story song writer – a change took place with the
advent of the music video. Because up until then, song writing still
could be the last surviving remnant of the golden age of radio, where you would listen
to a story over the radio and you would supply the images, and the images that you came up
with were different from what the person sitting next to you was coming up with. And so, you were the cinematographer for songs. And then, music videos came. There’s nothing good or bad, it’s just
this is what happened. And every song that was a single came with
a video attached. So if I hear “Material Girl,” I’m going
to envision Madonna doing the take-off of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” If I hear “Sledgehammer,” I’m going
to see that Peter Gabriel video in my mind. That took a lot of that storytelling ability,
one, away from the listener. And it also took some of the burden of telling
a story within a song away from some song writers, because they started finding that
they were writing underscore for a great movie. Terrific underscore, nothing wrong with it,
these are great songs, but the burden of the song was no longer to tell a story. If you were telling a story, and the director
decided he was going to tell a different story, you’d have two stories competing with each
other. So it almost became a problem when there was
a story, unless you were prepared to film the specific story of that song. So the music business has changed, the record
business has changed, both in terms of the fact that it’s a very, very corporate thing. It’s not doing very well, by the way. And also, artistically, sort of. I think some of the demands of it changed. Whereas in theatre, you still can have, as
I saw in the record business, people who sit there, basically a producer, who says, “I’m
doing a show. I’m gonna make this show happen,” and
fights for a show for five years, eight years. Who fights for a recording artist for eight
years? You get two singles, maybe, if you’re lucky. So in a way, it’s almost still, you know
– we’re getting that in theatre now, too, because it’s so expensive to put on a show. So big corporations are coming in, and theatres
that I always knew as, you know, having a name now are called “The United Airlines
Broadway Theatre.” American Airlines, yes. No, no! I was trying to avoid saying the real one. Oh, I’m sorry! (LAUGHTER) I was saying one that’s in receivership. (LAUGHTER) Chapter Eleven now means several
different things for the short term. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) So I do think we
have in theatre still, though, individuals who try to shape a project, and not just the
people who create it, but the people who produce it as well. In that way, it reminds me of the old record
business, not the new. You mentioned about five or even ten years
to make a show happen. (TO ALLEE) And you talked about COLOR PURPLE,
you first heard about it in 1999? Nine. And you have been working on SCOUNDRELS for
– I’ve been lucky. Nah, took two years. Oh, really? That’s unusual. Well, it’s related to what Rupert was saying
about the dome of protection you have when there’s an individual or some kind of entity
that’s really protecting the process of the show. And in my case, I was lucky, ‘cause in the
first show I did, Jack O’Brien, who is also the Artistic Director of the Old Globe Theater
in San Diego, which is a great theatre to do anything at – he just, you know, sort
of spread his arms, and there was no hierarchy. I want to use (LAUGHS) the word I always use,
but I can’t! There was no hierarchy of meddlesome people
who don’t know what they’re doing above him. And I’ve experienced it in the record business,
but especially I’ve experienced it on television, as a writer, as a T.V. writer. There’s always three or four people whose
job it is to try to figure out what they can say in a meeting that’ll remind the other
people in the meeting that they exist, and it’s always negative, ‘cause it’s easy
to say something negative, as certain critics, you know, have found … (LAUGHTER FROM THE
PANEL) Critics! (PUTS HIS HANDS AROUND AN IMAGINARY NECK)
I hate ‘em! (LAUGHTER) But my point is, in the theatre, what I loved
about it, just loved about it, was the idea that you could play. I mean, you could do what you needed to do. And you know, if something didn’t work,
you kind of all knew it, and you could throw it away. You could go with your instincts, and I had
never experienced that before, as a writer or when I had a major label deal. So it’s great. Now, it’s true, there’s (LAUGHS) so much
money involved now … ! Yeah, it’s going – that’s changing,
too. It is changing. When I – Joe Papp – I was in Joe Papp’s
office. He had encouraged me to write a musical. And he took the phone off the hook, and for
three hours I stood in his office and I performed THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD from start to finish. He voted on the endings, and all like that! (DAVID LAUGHS) And I thought, “After all
this work I’ve put into this— ” It was about three years of work, ‘cause I’d
done it all alone. I thought, “I’m going to – I feel like
I have the right to demand a reading.” And I finished. And he said, “Okay, well, every summer we
do Shakespeare in the Park, so this year you’ll be Shakespeare, and if it goes well, we’ll
go to Broadway.” And I said, “No, I demand a reading!” (LAUGHTER) But one person could do that, and
just hit a button, and it all – and suddenly things are being built and costumes are being
made. Well, you’re talking both about non-profit
theatres, where there are one or two people in charge, as opposed to the commercial theatre,
where there tend to be committees of people involved. But it did go – Well, but in both my – I’m sorry, go. I was going to say, in both my shows, there
was in one case a corporate entity that the regional theatre was protecting us from. And in the other case, it was sort of an old-fashioned
production, where you had a couple lead producers, but a lot of other producers. And because of that, you know, mass of people,
they could all bother each other, you know? (LAUGHTER) Leave them alone! Yeah, they couldn’t just put the hammer
down, you know, on us. (LAUGHS) Our producer, I feel like I should say, Scott
Sanders, who’s the main producer, there are a bunch of producers – Quincy Jones is also involved? Quincy, absolutely. He really has protected this. I mean, he had a vision about how he wanted
it to be. I think he had the, you know, great balls
to bring in who he got to do it, because there ‘s many of us that haven’t had experience
before, mixed in with some people that have had – And to do it in the first place, because – Yeah, and to do it in the first place. And he’s just been really protective, all
the way through, of seeing that it developed the way that everyone felt it should be developed. Was it any extra burden on you, because it
had been a book and had been a movie? There’s always a burden when you have something
that’s that – not only successful, but revered, I think. So, you know, you do not want to be the one
that takes THE COLOR PURPLE down. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) You know? Especially being the white one! (LAUGHTER) But on the other hand, you have
such unbelievably fantastic source material to work with. We had full access to Alice Walker. You know, we tend to follow the book a little
more closely than the movie. And there were certain things, like in writing
for the character of Mister, you don’t really know about Mister from either the book or
the movie, ‘cause everything’s from Celie’s perspective. So we were having a lot of trouble writing,
you know, what is now seven “Mister” songs ago, but you know, the first “Mister”
song. (STEPHEN LAUGHS) And you know, we would email
Alice at, like, you know, four in the morning, you know, “What is Mr. Dream about?” (THOMAS LAUGHS) And we would get, you know,
reams back. You know, we’ve got like the THE COLOR PURPLE
5, 6, 7 and 8, you know, from her. So, you know, I feel like that in our case,
it was incredible to have that source material. But still, you’re essentially making up
your own story and your own sequence of events. And I do want to say one thing, because you
were talking about having the two lyricists. And I feel like with us, there were the three
of us, Marsha, who, you know, I – Marsha Norman is as spontaneous as it comes. Like, I always, you know, say to her, “Okay,
like, what is your take on this?” And she just, like, spits out and spits out
and spits out. So between Marsha Norman, Alice Walker, Steven
Spielberg, the three of us, it was a lyricist heyday, you know, in terms of just brilliant
source material. Yeah, you get so much material. I find with DR. ZHIVAGO, it’s – we don’t have that source. I mean, in Pasternak, God, what I would give
to be able to talk to him! Yeah, yeah. So we sort of pour through all of the biographical
material and the criticism that’s been written about it. And then ultimately, you have to just go on
your own instincts. Absolutely. But also, you know, you’re doing THE COLOR
PURPLE, which is, you know, a great icon of literature, and I’m doing DR. ZHIVAGO. Marsha and I did THE SECRET GARDEN, which
also had that. Yeah, yeah! So you have to be very responsible to the
underlying material and get the essence of it before you even begin to say, “Yes, I
can do this.” And that does take a while. Yeah. And you’ve been at this for six year. I’ve been at ZHIVAGO for ten. Wow! I mean, it just takes a long time before you
settle into not only what you can do artistically with it, but the business of it, you know,
where you say, “Okay, we can raise the money for this, and there’s a director.” And I think the director is all-important. And you know, if there’s somebody that is
a good leader that can take all of the pieces and, you know, I don’t think we would be
able to do DR. ZHIVAGO – we call it ZHIVAGO – without
Des McAnuff, who has just totally taken this in, as Jack O’Brien does at the Old Globe. They’re only about twenty minutes apart! It’s interesting that the country has two
– It’s a fertile part of the world. It’s a great part of the world! I’m very curious about the pop and Pasternak,
though. Pop? Well, you know what? Because I have the background of being a pop
writer and knowing pop music, it isn’t that I write a pop song. But I put that knowledge that I have, of Russian
music and of pop, and I make the song be singable and readable, you know. And I don’t think that you can write in
the theatre without saying, “I’ve got an audience that has to connect to this music. It’s our responsibility.” It’s just the silliest word in the world,
“pop music.” Yeah! It stands for “popular”! Right. “What? Oh, no, I don’t want to do that! (LAUGHTER) Oh, oh!” You know, when people say – I love when
some of my more high-flown artistic friends say, “You know what? I’m gonna sell out! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) I’m gonna sell
out! I’m gonna write commercial!” I say, “Oh, it’s so hard to sell out!” The best sign you can put outside a Broadway
theatre is “Sold Out”! (LAUGHTER) No one says, “They betrayed everything! They’re sold out!” Oh, no! Pop music means that it’s something that
a lot of different people, who don’t belong to the same club, can all appreciate, connect
to, that it speaks to them. And when I’ve written a pop song, and I’ve
gotten a gold record, I think about, “Well, let’s see. This is a million people in Japan and Australia
and the U.S., and somehow there’s something in this.” That’s the most glorious thing in the world,
that you could find something. And it isn’t always that you bring it to
the lowest common denominator. It’s that you find a way to say something
very directly or to say something that people haven’t said before, and someone hears it
and says, “Oh, yes! Finally there’s a song that says that thing
that I’ve been thinking!” So, you know, a good Broadway score – I’m
saying “Broadway,” specifically with that commercial notion in mind – would be great
if all the music had the traits of “popular music.” I would say not the lowest common denominator,
but the highest common denominator. Yeah. And that’s what we try to do. Obviously, you’re not going to do any work,
we’re not going to take on a project that will take anywhere between two and ten years
to do if we don’t feel we are – it’s a place that we can put our best work into,
our heart and our soul and our – you know, it’s a great commitment to write a musical,
whether it’s – And the other thing is, you know, there is
fantastic pop music, and there’s crappy pop music. Right. And you know, I’ve always had the highest
regard for pop music, and when people say there’s this conflict between art and commerce,
I have never seen that! The challenge is to get something that is
as kind of down-the-middle enough so that people can feel they’re a part of it, which
is the commercial part of it, and different enough and out-there enough so that it pulls
them in in a way they’ve never been pulled in before. And if you can combine the art and the commerce
in one form, you have a very large hit record. You know, and a very popular show. So, I mean, to me the challenge is mush those
two together, not, “Oh, you need to be here, or you need to be there.” We’ve talked a lot today about writing directly
for the theatre, original scores. But I’d be remiss if we didn’t talk a
little bit about this phenomenon of jukebox musicals, either taking existing songs and
fashioning a plot around them or just making something that’s more like a revue. And I’m curious if anyone here has any feelings
about that and its relationship to – I have a lot of songs in one that’s coming
out next year, which is – there’s an Earth, Wind and Fire musical called HOT FEED (PH). And I have, I think, I have “September,”
“Boogie Wonderland,” “In the Stone,” and something else in that, but then also
helped them write the new songs for it. It’s a one hundred percent different experience
than THE COLOR PURPLE, where we’re actually writing the musical and the music in it, whereas
this is very much, you know, “Here are these twelve greatest hits. We’re gonna string them together. You know, what’s missing? Let’s write songs now that push the story
along a little bit.” Um – I – (LONG PAUSE) Uh – (LAUGHTER) Yes? Big pause! Well, I actually had a fantastic time working
on this, so, you know. But it is very different, and it’s not as
story-driven as, you know, THE COLOR PURPLE is. So I’m not sure if it’s fate. I mean, I know I would sit there and have
an absolutely fantastic time watching this, and the choreography is fantastic. But I tend to look at the separate elements
there, and say, “Does this add up as an entertaining evening?” whereas my standards for what we’re doing
(GESTURES TO THE PANEL) and what I know of the other work being, you know, discussed
is a very different standard. Sure. My biggest problem with them, I guess – my
difficulty is two odd things. One is, we’ve got a terrible dilemma, which
is there are only so many Broadway houses! I mean, it isn’t like the same thing as
the Internet or record albums – or CDs, rather, I’m dating myself – where, you
know, if you have fifteen different kinds of artist, we’ll put out fifteen different
CDs! We only have so many spaces that we can go
in. And it seems sad to fill those spaces with
evenings of music that everybody already knows and can hear, when there are concert halls
where that can be done, too. And so, that kind of saddens me, because I
want to hear new scores. I want to see musicals with books. And I think you can pull off a jukebox musical. It’s been done, sort of, by a couple of
people. I think it tends to gravitate towards being
phony. You know what my other problem is? My other problem is that there are clever
people who can contrive a book to a pre-existing score of mainly hit songs. But it’s kind of like when you go to wrestling
nowadays, if you go to – not that any of us do! (LAUGHTER) But it used to be that you knew
that wrestlers were fake, but you figured a lot of the people in the audience didn’t,
so it was kind of still fun, ‘cause they weren’t in on it, and you could sort of
enjoy their enthusiasm. If you know all these songs, and we tell a
story, and people keep bursting into this song, and you know it, then you sort of know
it’s not real. But isn’t that sort of what we talked about
before, about how great it was in the old days, when people would go into the theatre
humming songs? No, it’s different! But it’s different! It’s a very different thing. It’s different, and it’s very interesting. Because when I think of what a pop song is,
and I’ve never written one. I mean, I wish to God I had! Because I have the greatest – I mean, it’s
more than respect, it’s just like love for a pop song, it’s a jewel. It’s like a small jewel, but it’s also
gigantic, but it’s a three-minute jewel. It’s a very American thing, too. It’s a jewel. It gets inside you. And there a sound to it, you know, ‘cause
it’s off a record, and it just becomes a part of your life. And it becomes a part of your life in a very,
very strong way, in a way that maybe a long novel, a long form piece of art can’t, in
a way that maybe a great painting can, that it’s this nugget. And now, that’s why I love a great pop song. When they asked me to do FULL MONTY, and someone
said, “Well, would you consider using some of the songs from the movie?”, you know,
I just smiled, and I said, “I will do that when bats fly out of my ass!” (LAUGHTER) Because there were some great songs
in that movie, and you know, A, this is my two and a half hours. I would like to be given a chance to write
a few songs myself! And B, I’m not going up against a song everybody
in my generation has heard five hundred, a thousand times! (LAUGHS) There’s no way! It’s not fair! ‘Cause everyone’s gonna say, “Oh, well,
you know, that song – that song! – that proves that those songs are great for a reason! And that guy Yazbek, this new guy, he just
can’t write songs like that.” You know? (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) It’s like, you
just, there’s no way you’re gonna win! Right. Yeah. I turned down a project for the exact same
reason. Someone wanted me to write book and score
for a movie, and they said, “Go to town with it! But we do want to use that one tune in the
movie that everyone – ” And I thought, “Then I can’t win!” Right. Because everyone’s gonna say, “Yeah, it’s
still the best song in the show,” you know? Yep. And still win. Like, just “I hear it, it rings a bell.” Of course it rings a bell! And they’ll say it because they know it,
it’s in their blood. That’s right. Yeah. It’s like “Lara’s Theme.” I didn’t use that! Yeah, exactly! We get asked constantly, “Is ‘Sister’
in there?” You know. Yeah. Right. No! (LAUGHTER) It’s a different medium. It’s a different entity. The difference in what you cited is that if
you know “On the Street Where You Live” before you go to see the show, you know that
it’s from a musical! And then you go to see the musical, and you
say, “Oh, now I know why he was so happy!” Right. Mmm-hmm. Now I know why Tony and Maria are so in love! Whereas it’s the inverse of that – You don’t think that would happen? Oh, the best you’ll say is, “Oh, that
was a clever way to get to that song!” Mmm-hmm. Right. And it is not what a musical’s about. You know, and it reminds me of when I made
the mistake of seeing a comedian that I had just idolized for years, when he was at his
absolute peak, Steve Martin. And I went and saw him at, like, Madison Square
Garden. And he came out (LAUGHS) and he would just
say, “Excuse me?” and everyone would just go crazy, and you couldn’t hear anything
he was saying. And he was just waiting for, like, “Excuse
me?” (LAUGHTER) or you know, like the five catch
phrases. And I feel like when I sit there – and it’s
true not only of jukebox musicals, but sometimes the musicals that are very very directly taken
from another source, usually a movie – that’s another conversation! – when people are
just sitting there going, (RUBS HIS HANDS WITH GLEE) “Here it comes! Here comes that part!” And then it comes, and you’re thinking,
you just paid a hundred bucks so that you could sort of see this again? (LAUGHTER) But there is something to that, which – people
want something familiar and to feel like they’re going to know in advance they’re going to
like it for a hundred dollars. Yes! It’s a damn shame, though. I mean, it’s fine, you know, I’m – if
there are producers out there smart enough to really make money off of jukebox musicals,
okay. It’s a shame, you know. But it’s really a shame that audiences and
– I feel like a complete ass saying this – but it’s a shame that audiences can’t
be a little better educated. And when I say that, I don’t mean not listen
to pop music and rock music, but just come – in the way that certain audiences do in
certain parts of Europe – come expecting more than just that, just familiarity or just
pure, “All right, okay. Well, this was – I didn’t fall asleep,
so this was worth a hundred dollars.” (LUCY LAUGHS) You know, come expecting something
that might change you! And then, that will keep us honest, and there
will be a back and forth, and the whole thing will come up, if we do that. You wanted to say? Oh, I just wanted to know what the story in
MONTY was behind “Hot Stuff.” I thought (DAVID LAUGHS) – you know, it
could have been new insight into what that song’s about. You know, I didn’t use the song! (LAUGHS) No, I know. And we’ve all missed out on something! (LAUGHTER) But when you think about projects that you
want to work on, do you think about, “Is this going to be commercial? Is this going to be something that, you know,
will attract producers?” Well, I mean, how do you – what draws you
to the material? I mean, obviously COLOR PURPLE was something
that was, as you said – I get very nervous if I start, if my first
thought is, “This could really be successful!” I like to think that when we’re working
on and think this – I like to think, “Gee, people could really enjoy this!” But if I start to think, “Hey, that makes-”
If it starts to make a lot of sense, and I feel like suddenly I’m viewing it from an
accounting point of view – I’m saying, “Oh, yes, because that demographic, and
as long as we throw in this person then,” it’s just a scary way to create something
that’s going to take [a long time]. And you said it so aptly, which is, you know,
another thing about being a pop song writer as opposed to what we’re doing is, whenever
I started to write a pop song, I was theoretically maybe only three minutes away from being done! (ALLEE LAUGHS) I mean, I wrote “Escape,”
the Pina Colada song, in an hour and a half. A lot of people think I should have taken
two hours! (LAUGHTER) But – You would have ruined it then! (LAUGHTER) But seriously, the song that unfortunately
is my best known single song took me an evening to write the lyric. And when we get involved in these projects,
we’re saying goodbye to years of our lives! (TO DAVID) Even you, with your – you know,
you’ve been one of the most accelerated successes that there is! But I mean, DROOD took me three years. And other shows are – I mean, MARTY, I’ve
been working on since ’98. SAY GOODNIGHT GRACIE, about George Burns,
not a musical, but that was four years of having – it took me one year just to be
able to write – I thought I felt like George Burns, to speak for him dramatically. Do you think it, like, keeps more pop song
writers from writing for the theatre, ‘cause it takes so long to get it on? Well, I think they – I think, you know,
the grass is always greener! Every – I’ve written two novels for Random
House, I’ve written T.V. series. Every time I got into the field, I thought,
“Oh, now, I’m in a good one!” And then you learn what there is to do in
it. I think there are people – I think writing
a musical is like when people say to you at a cocktail party, “I got a great idea for
a movie!” And you know, everyone at a cocktail [party],
everyone that you’ve ever met has a great idea for a movie. “Oh, why don’t they do that?” Or they’ll see something where there’s
a fire in a, I don’t know, just – they’ll say, “Oh, I had that idea years ago!” But it’s not just that. You don’t just sit down and have the idea. So I think some pop song writers think, “I’ve
got to get into that field!” like you did. And you say, “Yeah, okay, but be prepared
to work endless frustrating hours and possibly to create something that took years to create
and it just never gets heard! Or doesn’t get heard for the longest time.” I think it’s daunting. It is daunting. But I tell you, I think, to answer your question
about when you’re creating something, decide to do a project, is it a commercial thing
or is there something else? I think we have to think of both. I think, if you’re going to commit yourself
to something that can take anywhere between two and ten and twelve – MY FAIR LADY took
twelve years to get on! – it has to be something that you feel there will be, it will continue
to live after I’ve finished. I mean, the real frustrating thing is – and
I’ve written many of them, and I’m sure we all have – of things that are wonderful
and don’t have a life now, because they’re on the shelf, they didn’t get done. So I think that we think of both things. I think we have to love doing it, because
we’re putting so much time into it, but we have to feel that there is a commercial
viability. And the title is often very important, you
know? (LAUGHS) THE COLOR PURPLE, you’re calling
it that. You’re not calling it SHUG, you’re not
calling it something else. You’re going by the, you know, the title
that everybody wants to go with. So I think it is a very important thing to
think both ways. I was also curious to ask you – you and
Allee and Brenda are some of the very few female composers working on Broadway right
now. Do you feel that there is some issue about,
you know, all boys’ club that happens on Broadway? There sure was! Yeah? When we did THE SECRET GARDEN, it was very
hard to get in there. I don’t think so much any more, although
at the time that we went – when we got to Broadway with THE SECRET GARDEN, I was the
fourth female composer that ever got to Broadway! And you know, that really is an all boys’
club. And the perception that men have a more – are
stronger, are, you know, gutsier – Where they do the music and the girls do the
lyrics? Right, the girls do the lyrics, right. (LAUGHS) But none of that with your team? No. He’s – two of the gals, so you know – no,
I don’t know. But I actually wasn’t really even aware
of that. I know in pop music, like, to have a female
producer was unheard of! Yeah. Oh, yeah. You know, when in fact, in order to get your
songs heard you’ve got to do a demo, which is, you know, cutting a record. So I mean, that was just always crazy. And I wasn’t really aware of theatre until
I started writing it, and I’m going through all these shows, and it’s like, “Where
are the girls?” You know, it’s certainly not that they’re
not talented enough. So there must be some of the all boys’ club. Well, you’re working with Marilyn Bergman
right now, and she’s certainly one of the longest-established lyricists in that category. But there aren’t really a lot of examples
of – No, no. It’s absurd, especially when you realize
how important the female audience is to Broadway and to theatre. On a Saturday night, the women have dragged
these men to the theatre. You know that on a Saturday evening, those
guys are sitting there, a lot of lasagna, and they’re there. You know you have to win them over, because
they aren’t there voluntarily. (LAUGHTER) Yeah, it’s still, you know – I
mean, we’re not even close. But it’s been amazing that present company
has been able to do what they’ve been able to do. And on your shows, I mean, I think people
look at FULL MONTY and DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, just sort of shows that guys can really sink
their teeth into. I mean, they’re both sort of “guy” shows
that – Well, FULL MONTY had a problem, marketing-wise. And the problem was, it is a guy show. It’s about guys! Right. I mean, every main character is a guy, except
for one. And yet, because they take their clothes off
at the end, a lot of guys were like, “I’m not gonna go see that!” So it was like a (LAUGHS) – I mean, it was
really – it was hard to market out of that. And then it never successfully was marketed
the right way, in this city. On the tour, figured it out. With this show, SCOUNDRELS, it’s – I mean,
I guess it’s – I don’t know, I mean – Well, actually, I don’t want to give too
much away, but the woman in the play is the – Yeah, she’s the one! She’s got the cojones, by the end. Gotcha. So, yeah, I mean, I think because some of
my songs, especially MONTY, are a little angry, you know? You don’t see that much, like, real sort
of anger, you know (LAUGHS), in musical theatre. Maybe you got, you know, a little of that. But you know, if it’s a good story and I
want to do it, I’ll do it if it’s an all-women story. I just remember the story that Cy Feuer told
me. He said, “I was eating lunch with Frank
Loesser, and he just said, ‘Cy, no more mug musicals.’ (LAUGHTER) And he said, ‘What?’ and he
goes, ‘No more mug musicals! No more musicals from mugs.’” You know? Like he got – that was his thing, for a
while. He did his GUYS AND DOLLS thing, and now – Yeah, no more mug musicals! We’ve just a few minutes left, but I want
to, I guess start with Stephen – now that you have the theatre bug, can you see yourself
on a new career in the musical theatre? Is this something that you want to do more
regularly? Well, you’ve given me the idea to now go
ahead with the hip-hop musical, so. (LAUGHTER) Oh, good! I think! Yeah, well, I think everybody – we’ve
all agreed that, coming from pop, it’s just such a liberating and, you know, limitless
field to be in, in terms of where you can go musically, tempos, shifting time signatures
– it’s just so much fun to play in this world. And the idea of – although I’m curious
what will happen when I try to write a four minute song again! But no, I would love to do it again. Well, the songs that you wrote for Madonna,
for example, like “Papa Don’t Preach,” were in fact like little – Well, that one is. I didn’t actually write that one. Oh, sorry! (LAUGHTER) I produced that one. I did produce it! I produced that one. But yeah, no, that one was very much a story. But it’ll be fun to see what that’s like
again. But this is – nothing could be like this. It’s great. And David, are we seeing the next movie adaptation
from you, or do you have something original coming up? There’s the latest in a series of directors
who’ve been trying to talk me into doing what amounts to a jukebox musical, except
that no one’s ever heard my stuff! (LAUGHTER) I mean, my albums are like dozen-selling
albums, you know? (LAUGHTER) If you could get – whoever sends
out the gold records, if they could send out just like one made of concrete, that’s what
I would get. (LAUGHTER) But every year or so, someone says,
“God, I love these songs! Let’s do some!” There it is! (LAUGHS, HOLDS UP A CD) Oh, there it is! Well, that’s a compilation of them. They say, “Let’s do something!” And I say, “Okay, what do you want to do?” And then I get discouraged. But that’s one thing. I’m discussing it with someone and I think
he’s pretty smart and he seems to be doing something good. And Jeffrey Lane and I are – who wrote the
book to SCOUNDRELS and who I had a great collaboration with – we have some ideas that we’re knocking
around. But there’s nothing kind of like that’s
gonna be here soon on Broadway. Imminently. And we already have another Allee Willis show
to look forward to, with HOT FEED (PH)?. I hope so. I mean, I have absolutely loved doing this. You know, the freedom of the writing. And then for me, who does a lot of other stuff
besides music, it just seems like the perfect musical to put everything into. You know, because it’s the visual. Because it’s technology-involved. Because it’s, you know, live people and
interactivity between the audience, it just seems like the perfect medium. Well, we have a lot to look forward, but unfortunately,
we have to stop here. I need to tell you that the American Theatre
Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminars are brought to you from the Graduate Center
of the City University of New York, in association with CUNY’s Department of Continuing Education
and Public Programs, as well as the long-time partnership at CUNY-TV. On behalf of the Wing and the New York Musical
Theatre Festival, I’d like to thank all of our panel, and thank all of you for watching. (APPLAUSE)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *