Another big anniversary of another of my shows. So, naturally, I’ve an inclination to share some memories of the experience. But I’ve also a strong disinclination: the author of the book and lyrics has gone on to considerable fame. As I predicted he would. But if I’m being honest with you, I’ll end up speaking rather negatively of someone the theatre world admires. And so, a name shall be changed to protect the guilty.
It started with a post card. I’d run into my old friend Kim on my block. We discovered we lived in neighboring buildings. Kim now knew my address but not my phone number, so she sent me a card that read: “I’ve a good friend looking for a composer.”
And now, to draw a conceited and invidious comparison: Young Stephen Sondheim thought of himself as a composer first and lyricist second. He really wanted to do both, and felt he was hiding his main talent under a bushel by accepting the assignment as lyricist only on West Side Story and Gypsy. But he went against this feeling because it might be instructive to work with a fascinating music-writing genius, Leonard Bernstein (on West Side Story). At 22, I thought of myself as a lyricist first and a composer second, really didn’t want to work on anything in which I wasn’t responsible for the sung words. But when I met Kim’s friend, I immediately recognized that here was someone with an intellect so fascinating, a talent so promising, I’d surely learn something being just the composer.
Blaise (not his real name) and I worked together for the better part of a year and a half, the time period right after I graduated college. The first show was an historical drama that required one song, biting off a small piece to begin a collaboration. The idea of the play was to portray a handful of political assassinations that took place at the end of the 19th century. Each occurred in a different country, and Blaise had the bright idea to tell each tale in a different theatrical style. For the French one, he wanted something akin to an Offenbach operetta. I was given a lyric to set, and, less than a year out of college, could say I had a song in an off-Broadway play.
Musical theatre buffs know that, many years later, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman created something similar for off-Broadway, Assassins, which portrays many of the wackos who took shots at American presidents. (The two projects have Leon Czolgosz in common.) Blaise’s play, I feel, is far superior to the musical, which has a little bit too much fun with how crazy many of the American assassins were. (The scene with the two women who shot at Gerald Ford is juvenile in the extreme.) Blaise’s play illuminated the politics behind each shooting, and it’s rather moving when Emma Goldman is jailed and persecuted for inspiring the killing of McKinley.
Blaise, then in grad school, aspired to direct. He called on me again for his staging of Herakles by Euripides. He wanted a certain section to sound like a baroque opera, and I was asked to set a dialogue as if I was writing for castrati. Ouch. No, the assignment wasn’t that tough: I just automatically utter “ouch” whenever I think of castrati. One of my singers was Stephen Spinella, who later played all the grown-up men in Spring Awakening.
For Blaise’s thesis, he wanted to direct an original musical, and that would require a lot of commitment. I trusted his mind, his dialogue, his wild and wonderful sense of what’s theatrical, his way of dramatizing political ideas. Could I trust him to write decent lyrics? This was the potential flashpoint between two headstrong lads in their twenties, and Blaise had many other issues to worry about. It was his thesis in directing, not writing; he had to work with student designers and actors – not a large school, not a lot of choices there. And he’d never written a musical before.
The setting was medieval France, and I researched the modal music one would have heard then and there. I wanted to give the score a tinge of verisimilitude and avoid diatonic harmony where I could. Blaise’s script fascinated me: a troupe of roving players participates in a peasant demonstration against high taxes. The mayor has them murdered, and they haunt him, as ghosts, by putting on a musical about the events leading to their deaths. I had a huge amount of emotional investment in doing this project, working with Blaise, creating something truly extraordinary and seeing it done downtown. But the lyrics I was handed to set were like none I’d ever seen. They lacked titles, meter, structure. They were reminiscent of some modern poetry: yes, there were rhymes, but nothing came at regular intervals, each line a different length from the others. I found them extremely hard to compose to.
A good collaborator articulates his needs, sends his partner back to the drawing board to make changes. Of course, there will be give-and-take, ample discussion of what those changes will be, and each side’s needs. Compromise is de rigueur. How did Blaise react to my requiring a modicum of structure?
“You think everything I do is a piece of shit!”
“Blaise, that’s not how I feel at all. I love the script, and all of the ideas in the lyrics. But they’ve got to repeat a rhythmic hook now and then. Like lyrics in all good musicals. You know my experience is in writing musical comedies.”
“Musical comedy is an inherently conservative art form, meant to lull the audience into bourgeois complacency.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. We’d previously spoken of our shared love for many Broadway musicals. Now my request for a title or two was seen as proof that I was way too far to the right, politically, to possibly share the vision for what the show should be. (I don’t talk about politics here, but trust me this was a ridiculous assertion.) What to do? Hold my ground, or knuckle under? I made the choice to fight.
Blaise fought back:
“Look, the lighting designer’s not arguing with me. The costumer designer’s on board. Only you, Noel: Only you are giving me trouble.”
“You know I’ve no experience collaborating with a lyricist. I’m just trying to communicate…”
“Let’s face it: We’re not collaborating here. You’re working for me. Now, if you don’t like it, resign from this now, while I have time to get a different composer. Take the weekend to think it over.”
I know most of you reading this would have walked. Had I no spine? I don’t use this blog for self-analysis, but the fact is, I was at one of the weakest points of my life. More than a year out of college, and I still had no job. My live-in girlfriend of two years had just departed for a graduate program in Japan. I’d met the cast and they seemed like family to me. I had a crush on one of them, and she later went on to star on Broadway as one of the “girls” in the original cast of Jersey Boys. Blaise may have treated me miserably, but I never stopped thinking he was a genius. I seriously weighed both sides all weekend long and opted to stay on.
Blaise barred me from rehearsals because he didn’t feel he could direct with someone who disagreed with him sitting somewhere in the room. I had to trust musical director F. Wade Russo and he was wonderful; many years later we got to work with each other again, right before he left New York. Eventually, I got Blaise to bend on those lyrics: Whatever he rewrote became clearer, more powerful, and – my real need – settable. I was allowed to see the final dress, and wasn’t sure what to expect.
I was captivated. The actors were fully engaged – our leading man later won a Tony – and a political/historical ghost story, filled with humor and high drama, was stirring and spooky. At our curtain call, I kissed Blaise on the cheek.
He made it very clear that our work together was finished. That if he ever staged our show again, he’d start from scratch with a new composer. And, many years ago, there was an announcement in the paper that the show would come to Los Angeles’ Music Center. But it never did. Blaise then collaborated with a friend of mine on a musical that came to Broadway and is considered by many, to be one of the best twenty-first century musicals. You know the one: the lyrics have very little form.