IIf I may mention one other very fascinating theatrical technological innovation… There is a wonderful website called www.stagechannel.com begun in Chicago by an actor named Marty Higginbotham. (Coincidentally, Marty was in my first musical, Charlie’s Oasis.) Stagechannel features live video clips from shows currently playing in the Chicago metropolitan area. While this is intended primarily for theatergoers choosing a show to see, it is also another great way for producers to preview a new work.
2. When did you become involved in theatre? What or who inspired you?
My first experience in theater was as a sophomore in high school. I was cast in the chorus of Carnival. I’d tried out for the play because I didn’t want to play sports. When the nun playing the piano in the pit broke her arm two weeks before opening, I was forcibly Ruby Keelered into taking over for her. Hesitant, because I had never played the piano in an ensemble before, I relented, secretly relieved that now I wouldn’t have to learn the tricky choreography. This pretty much marked the end of my brilliant career ON stage, cut short before it even began.
What inspired me to write musicals? Well, although I enjoyed musicals and was involved in several other high school musicals after Carnival, from my earliest days I always wanted to be a poet. I was a fairly atypical kid. If I had a choice between reading Stephen King’s The Shining or John Keats’ Endymion, I curled up with Keats. I never dreamed back then that I would ever write a note of music. In fact, when I got to college, I quit playing the piano altogether and began studying foreign languages, as well as British and American poetry, with a vengeance. I studied a little German and Italian and a lot of French, Greek and Latin, cultures whose poetry fascinated me. Eventually I went on to get my master’s degree in philology from the University of Michigan. I even taught Latin for one year at an all-girls prep school in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
And then it happened--my theatrical “Road to Damascus” moment. I was 23 and back in my hometown of Chicago. Hadn’t touched a piano for five years. A friend of mine invited me to catch a low-budget local production of a Cole Porter revue called The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter. To this day I remember that there were 37 songs in that revue. I was utterly mesmerized by the vast panorama of Porter’s genius—the irrepressible wit, the gorgeous melodies, the intentionally outrageous rhyming, the quick about-face from romantic, heart-on-his-sleeve composer to naughty-boy society satirist. When I left the Victory Gardens studio theater that night, I said to myself… “That’s what I want to do with my life.” I spent the next year or so devouring scores, studying music seriously and immersing myself in the musical theater world. Eventually I began work on my first attempt at a musical, a show called The Best Year, for which I wrote music and lyrics and my high-school English teacher, Bob Hires, supplied the book. Although that show never went anywhere, I had crossed my professional Rubicon. There was no returning to the ivory tower for me.
3. Describe the genesis of your musicals?
I’m so glad you said Genesis and not Exodus. Well, I’ve completed eight of them now--I don’t count The Best Year, which was never produced--and they all began in different ways. Hotel d’Amour, based on Georges Feydeau’s famous A Flea in Her Ear, sprang from my collaborating on several theatrical projects with noted Chicago director Gary Griffin. Sometime in late 1992 Gary said to me something like, “Gregg, I think A Flea in Her Ear would make a great musical. Do you know it?” Well, it just so happened I had seen a production of it the previous year. Gary’s idea seemed immediately brilliant. I replied, “Yeah, it sure would. And I know just the guy to write the book.” I had always wanted to write a show with a very funny Chicago playwright named Jack Helbig, who at that time was collaborating with last year’s Tony-winning composer-lyricist Mark (Urinetown) Hollmann. At that time, Jack, Mark and I were all members of Chicago’s well-known New Tuners workshop for musical theater writers. All of a sudden we had a writing team, a director, and great material to adapt. The show opened the following summer at Buffalo Theater Ensemble in Chicago.
With the exception of my large-scale musical version of The Three Musketeers, all of my other musicals are original ideas, not adaptations.
In 1995 I started writing a musical with two very funny writers named Todd Mueller and Hank Boland. If I were Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s attorney, I would probably sue Todd and Hank for identity theft. Todd and I met at Roosevelt University where I was an occasional accompanist in the music-theater department and Todd was a graduate student studying acting and directing. One of the directors at that time was Seth Reines, artistic director of Little Theater in the Square in Sullivan, Illinois. One day, sometime in late 1994 Todd said to Seth something like, “Seth, I have this idea that there should be some sort of male response to the show Nunsense, with monks instead of nuns.” To which Seth replied, “I know just the guy to write the music and lyrics.” Todd invited his friend and writing partner, Hank, along for the ride and this led to Monky Business and three other shows, including Soup du Jour and our latest, a wild west shoot-em-up called The Singin’ Cowboy. What I especially enjoy about writing with Todd and Hank is our mutual love of inventing original story ideas, creating proprietary plots and characters.
The idea for my French cabaret musical, La Vie Ennui, which premiered last year in Chicago, was simply the title. About the same time I saw the Cole Porter revue, I discovered and fell hopelessly in love with the chansons of Edith Piaf. Flash forward to two years ago, when for some strange reason, in lieu of La Vie en Rose, the play on words La Vie Ennui was bouncing around inside my head. I concocted the story of two bored, down-at-the-high-heels chanteuses named Dominique and Fatiguée, rivals of Piaf at a dingy Parisian 1950 nightclub. Musically, I wanted to experiment with the musical genre of the chanson, which is very different from the American musical theater type of song both in its musical structure and in the nature of the lyric. Unlike most of my other musicals, La Vie Ennui has no romantic plot line—it’s more of a female “buddy picture” kind of show.
4. What's more difficult, collaborating with a writer or writing the book yourself?
You should never write a musical with yourself. When you on’t feel like talking about the end of Act I, how do you tell yourself that you’re just too busy to meet with you today? How do you convince yourself you’re just plain wrong?
Honestly, writing a show is never easy, no matter who your collaborator is. With the exception of La Vie Ennui, which was a unique project, I have always preferred to work with a book writer or, in the case of Todd and Hank, with two book writers. The peculiar difficulties involved in creating a musical play are best solved by a team. And the show ultimately takes on the DNA of its creators. The shows I’ve written with Todd and Hank have a much different tone than the one I wrote with Jack, though both are comedies. La Vie was a special case because I decided to model the characters loosely on two actresses with whom I had worked extensively, so I felt I was the best candidate to write about them. Even so, my director, Suzanne Avery-Thompson, provided invaluable feedback along the way and helped shaped the piece from its inception through its Michigan workshop production and Chicago premiere.
5. Describe your collaborative process with the author.
The first step is to fall madly in love with the idea for the show. If the authors aren’t all equally smitten, nothing good will come of it. If we half-love the idea--that is, realize that we’ve got something which needs some adjustment—we meet and talk about it, gradually sketching out the itinerary of the show. I can’t write an eighth note without knowing exactly where the story’s going to end. You may stumble onto a quaint, unexpected sidestreet along the way, but that’ll only happen if you’re travelling down the right highway. Once we’ve got our show Mapquested, we take turns driving. Once I come up with a song idea for a certain point on the map, I start writing it. When I feel I have something worth listening to, I share it with my collaborators. Their initial reaction tells me instantly whether the song winds up in the opening night playbill or in my little black garbage can. Right now the garbage can is still holding a slight lead, but I think I can turn it around with a little luck.
6. What is your process for composing? What comes first, the music or the lyrics?
Usually, the grande caramel macchiato comes first. Then the Dinkel’s almond bearclaw or, if it’s a particularly tough song I’m trying to write, the more expensive cheese flakey. Food is the procrastinator’s best friend. After these and other delaying tactics, the work starts. Truthfully, most of my songs have sprung from a fragment of a lyric. In Hotel d’Amour, we decided we needed a ballad at the end of the show in which Raymonde explains why she loves her straight-arrow husband Victor. So I pondered, What is it that Victor does? Well, no matter how I looked at it, I couldn’t escape one simple fact: he’s a pretty boring guy who sells insurance. But he does really love his wife. So I just gave in to that idea, and the song “He Sells Insurance,” probably one of the more unlikely ballad titles, was born. Usually, the lyric comes into my head with a little thread of a melody attached to it. Then I go to my piano and try to follow that thread to the rest of the spool. I pretty much believe that the song is writing me and not the other way around. So I try just to submit to the song’s will as much as possible and go passively wherever it leads me.
7. What has been your proudest moment as a playwright /composer?
May I have two proudest moments, please? The first was when my first musical, Charlie’s Oasis, with book by downstate Illinois writer Jane Boyd, opened on March 19, 1990, at the Theater Building in my hometown, Chicago. That’s my mother’s birthday, so she suddenly had another reason to celebrate that day. The other proudest moment was when I had the unbelievable privilege of conducting a 35-piece orchestra in the first two performances of the Russian premiere of my musical The Three Musketeers in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in 1993.
8. How long did you work in Russia? What was that like?
I had the incredible opportunity to work in musical theaters in three cities in Russia every year from 1990 to 1995. Two of my own shows, Charlie’s Oasis and The Three Musketeers, were produced there, the latter twice. In addition, I conducted productions of Kiss Me, Kate and Some Like It Hot there. All of these productions were done in Russian and all had orchestras of no fewer than 25 musicians.
My Russian sojourns began completely unexpectedly when Boris Rotberg, the director of the music theater in Omsk (population 1.5 million), became enamored of Charlie’s Oasis and decided to bring it to his theater in frigid Siberia in December of 1990. The show, which featured a cast of 12 and a pit of five in Chicago, was expanded to a cast of about 60, including the ballet and chorus, and an orchestra of 35! The success of the project led Rotberg to commission another show for his 1992 season, and thus was born the Three Musketeers project, a book which enjoys enormous popularity in Russia. The Three Musketeers opened in Omsk in 1992 and a year later was produced at the Academic Theater of Musical Comedy in Yekaterinburg (population 3 million), where it ran for four years in repertory.
The Russian theatrical system has tremendous financial support from the government, even today after the fall of the Soviet regime, and it is commonplace for a theater to have as many as 200 to 400 full-time employees!
Two humorous moments: we had to teach the chief conductor in Omsk what a “vamp” was--the repeated measure (or measures) of music under spoken dialogue is not a feature of operetta, which made up most of the theater’s repertoir. Overcoming his repeated “Nyet,” we finally convinced our conductor, Grigori, at a meeting in his office that it was all right for the orchestra not to play a specific number of measures each time, and that the world wouldn’t come to an end. During the next orchestra rehearsal, we overheard him showing off his new knowledge to the orchestra, telling them that in America this was known as a “vamp.”
The other funny memory was when I was teaching the actors at the music theater in Khabarovsk the “Tom, Dick or Harry” number from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate. It suddenly dawned on me in mid-rehearsal that these Russian performers could have no idea that one of the three names in the title had…well, a secondary meaning. After I tactfully enlightened them, you can imagine which English word became their favorite for the rest of the rehearsal period.
I could write a small book on the maddeningly paradoxical Russian theatrical system, which is at once lavish and poor, bureaucratic and chaotic, original and tradition-bound--but hey, I’d rather write a show tune.
8. What are you currently working on?
I think the playwright’s middle name has to be Multitasking. I am working on four projects these days, although only two are on the front burners. I am preparing a July presentation of my large-scale adaptation of The Three Musketeers, with bookwriter Paul Slade Smith, for a Chicago theater that is strongly considering it for its 2004 season. The show was twice produced in Russia, where it ran for two and four years, respectively, in repertory. I’m also working on a new show which is a cross between a musical and an operetta, the title of which I superstitiously won’t reveal just yet. In addition, Jack Helbig and I are working on an adaptation of two Offenbach one acts which will be packaged as one and produced under the title My Night at Jacques’ this October to November at Light Opera Works, now in its 24th season in Chicago. Jack is writing the book and I am writing English lyrics. This will mark the U.S. premiere of these very charming forgotten gems. I hope that the current wave of Franco-noia will have subsided by then.