You would not be reading this blog were it not for a composer named Mark Sutton-Smith, who died a few days ago.
Two and a half years ago, we lunched at Tom’s Diner and he gently convinced me to share my thoughts on musical theatre. Publicly. I found the technical aspects of putting up a blog daunting. Mark didn’t. With very little input from me, he created the look of this page, that masthead with my picture, the right column links, the colors and font. He just wanted me to write, feeling I could make a valuable contribution to the community of musical theatre creators. I don’t know how valuable it’s been to you all, but Mark was instrumental in changing my life. Used to be, random thoughts about the making of musicals would flow in and out of my head. Now, I collect them, organize them, and put out an illustrated essay every five or six days.
Mark worked for the National Basketball Association, a fact that bemused me. I also collaborated with a guy who worked for Major League Baseball, proof that a “sport,” as Mitt Romney would call them, can also write for the theatre. I first heard Mark’s work and got to know him many years ago at the ASCAP Workshop. Stand By the River was a piece about abolitionists, with the predictable piety and earnestness. But I heard some surprising and fresh strength in the music, and knew he was one to watch.
Perseverance paid off in works like The Usual (produced in the Midwest) and Girl Detective, which is being done at a college. I don’t know whether he was healthy enough to know it was happening this month – such is the slow deterioration from cancer.
Shortly before his diagnosis, Mark lost his job with the NBA. Few could deal with such a double whammy, but Mark, amazingly, viewed it as an opportunity: to focus more fully on composing music, to become the full-time creative artist he’d always wanted to be. Of course, a cancer fight impinges significantly on one’s time, and his last songs for The Usual and a classical piano sonata were completed between rounds of chemo.
Seems it might be O.K. to share a little of an e-mail he wrote me:
All the spare time, though, has a been a boon to my creative life…I know now that I will never go back to the corporate life of technology. Somehow I have to make the creative life the center rather than a sideshow, and I believe that my life depends on it in a way…
My wife and I went to Michigan for the premiere of “The Usual” this past weekend, the biggest output of energy I had experienced since before I got sick, and my entire extended family flew there to support me. It was an amazing shot in the arm, and the theatre did a magnificent job.
So I enter a small fraternity, comparatively speaking: musical theater writers who have been professionally produced in an equity theater (with a real set and props and four week paid rehearsal time!). It feels great. I hope to do it again someday!!!
Right after I got the news of Mark’s death, I learned that New York Theatre Workshop is mounting a new revue of Burt Bacharach songs. Maybe I was transferring emotions, but this made me fly into a rage. How creative of them! The theatre that gave us Rent, Bright Lights Big City and Once is now repackaging a bunch of hit songs we all already know from childhood. Seems like a callous and low-risk attempt to make money by a theatre on the same East Village block as that citadel of the avant garde, La Mama. Why do audiences flock to hear tunes they already know? Where’s the adventure in that?
Wouldn’t it be more in keeping with New York Theatre Workshop’s history to present songs its audience hasn’t heard before? What about the work of a fine unsung songwriter like Mark Sutton-Smith? Does any audience need to be reminded, once again, of Bacharach’s greatness?
Mark Sutton-Smith was 57. The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.