Composer and Lyricist (Working In The Theatre #291)

(APPLAUSE) Welcome, once again, from the 27th
season of the American Theatre Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminars. These are coming to you from the
new Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Today’s discussion includes insights of
the composers and lyricists, as they bring their talents to the New York theatre. We are so pleased to bring you this new seminar,
and hope you will enjoy and appreciate how these artists create the magic of the musical,
as you see it when you come to the theatre. I’m Isabell Stevenson, Chairman of the Board
of the American Theatre Wing. And I am so pleased to now introduce our moderator
for this seminar, Oscar, Emmy and five-time American Theatre Wing Tony Award winner, a
distinguished writer, Peter Stone. (APPLAUSE) I can hardly speak! You just handed me a very – I should have
a speech, to go with my fifth Tony, which I haven’t won yet! (LAUGHTER) Maybe that was it, I don’t know! I mean, if Isabelle can’t give it to you,
who can? (LAUGHTER) That’s right, she’s the boss. This is a very distinguished panel of composers
and lyricists, and I’m not supposed to give credits or anything, but most of them go so
quickly. Now, they’ve managed to do something that
has never happened in their professional life. They’ve split up Kander and Ebb! (LAUGHTER) But here they are. This is John Kander, the composer. This is Fred Ebb, over here. We’ll get to him in a minute, I’m supposed
to go in order. And then, of course, CABARET and CHICAGO,
which are still running. Did they ever go off? They’re still running. I certainly hope not. (LAUGHTER) I mean, between the original and now. And they’ve done everything. WOMAN OF THE YEAR and STEEL PIER, and God,
everything. THE ACT. We know Susan [Birkenhead], who is the wonderful
lyricist who did TRIUMPH OF LOVE and JELLY’S LAST JAM, and she has some really exciting
projects coming up, namely the adaptation of MOONSTRUCK and THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S. And she’s different, in one sense, and that
is that, like Marvin, and unlike Fred and John, she has worked with several composers,
from Jule Styne to Lucy Simon and now Charles Strouse, and so forth. So that part we’ll get into. Fred Ebb is the partner of John Kander. He’s the lyricist, he’s the composer. Same shows! (LAUGHTER) They have more Tonys between them
– it would keep Isabelle busy for [a long time]. And over here, Hamlisch. Everybody knows Marvin, because Marvin is
a multiple Oscar winner, multiple Tony winner, with a picture, as we know. We’re talking about the stage today. And that’s CHORUS LINE, and THEY’RE PLAYING
OUR SONG. And new ones coming up, including THE SWEET
SMELL OF SUCCESS. Now, the gentleman on my far left, I just
met today. And I’m going to spend a second longer on
him, because to those of you who are very familiar with the theatre, Don Schlitz is
someone we may not know yet in the theatre. I hope we will! I hope you’re planning so. We’ll find out that today. But this is the most influential and awarded
country songwriter of the past twenty years. He’s had twenty-four number ones on the
list, and a hundred in the top – I mean, you know! Just endless amounts of Grammys. And he has been recorded by everybody in that
field (DON DROPS HIS GLASSES), and I’m going to be very interested, and he also drops things. (LAUGHTER) Anyway, we are going to be interested
to hear about that, because it’s a departure. Music and lyrics. A seamless partnership, you know, we’ve
got here people who have worked together a long time, people who work with different
people, and finally, we have Don, who works with himself. (ASIDE TO DON) They’ll clean that up when
I do it. (LAUGHTER) But it’s an interesting match,
to put those two things together. I remember the famous story that everybody
up here knows, about Mrs. [Oscar] Hammerstein and Mrs. Jerome Kern, who were at some sort
of reception. And Mrs. Jerome Kern was introduced as the
wife, that her husband had written “Old Man River,” and Mrs. Hammerstein said, “No,
her husband wrote ‘Duh duh duh-duh.’ My husband, the lyricist, wrote ‘Old Man
River.’” (LAUGHTER) And that’s, in fact, the case. And what’s interested me about how they
worked together – I once worked with Richard Rodgers, and I asked him, “Why are the songs
you wrote with Larry Hart so different in sound and in spirit and in flavor from the
songs you wrote with Oscar Hammerstein?” And he said, “Well, it’s one interesting
case, because with Larry Hart, I wrote the melodies first and he set his lyrics to them. But with Oscar, he wrote the lyrics first,
and then I wrote the music to those.” And as a result of that, the sound came out
different, and the flavor and the tone. So I’m going to start here. I’m going to ask you all sort of the same
question, and that is, how do you work and how do you prefer to work? And have you tried it both ways? (LAUGHTER) That is to say, lyrics or music
first. They’ll clean it up later, Peter. I didn’t mean to make news today! That’s the second time. Yes, I understand that! I was just asking you a question. Well, Fred and I have worked in the same way,
from the beginning of our collaboration. I don’t really know how it came about, exactly,
but we have always worked primarily in the same room at the same time, improvising together. And very, very rarely has Fred ever handed
me a lyric to set, and very rarely have I come in and said, “Here’s a melodic idea
I’d like you to work with.” It just doesn’t happen. It’s symbiotic. Very. And it’s a way of working that’s worked
for us and gives us pleasure. I can’t necessarily recommend it to anybody
else, but it’s our way. Susan? Gosh. It depends on the composer with whom I’m
working. Some composers prefer to do music first. And there again, it depends on the moment. I think if it’s really a book-driven moment
or – you should pardon the expression – a comedy song, it’s lyric-driven, then it’s
generally better to start with the lyric. But when I worked with Jule Styne, in working
with Charles Strouse, I find it very easy sometimes to just let them go ahead and write
the music and then I set the lyric to the music. With other people – You don’t find it limiting, having, in a
sense, the tempo, the prosody set out for you by the music? Not really, because you know, if the composer
is a dramatist, which Jule certainly was and Charles certainly is, then somehow or other
it’s mostly right. And then we collaborate. You know, I’ll take the music, and by and
large, set a lyric to it and at least get going with it. And then we get into the room together and
iron it out. Henry Krieger (PH) prefers to have the lyric
first, and that’s a great luxury. But again, we get into the room together and
we pull back and forth and twist. And you create your own – DREAMGIRLS, among
other things. Yes. And is a fine composer. Freddy, you know, John, you and I have worked
on two shows and two scores have emerged, but I was never there during the process of
writing the song. We would work on a scene and then plan where
the song went, what it’s about. And then I’d come back and the song was
finished – well, at least a version of it was finished, which is how it develops. So I never saw it happen, so I was interested
to hear from John. Is it pretty much as he described it? Uh – (NODS) Good! All right, now! (LAUGHTER) Have you ever set to his music? I think “New York, New York,” the song,
Johnny got the vamp first, and the general outline of it first. At some point, we’ll talk about vamps, because
he’s one of the – Mostly, though, as we described it, sometimes
we’ve stolen from you, which is – I understand. That’s a thing we’ll talk about at some
point, about how much comes from the actual scenes and how it goes on. Marvin, I know that you have, at the moment,
sort of formed an alliance with Craig Carnelia, a marvelous lyricist. Right, right. Although you have worked with Ed Kleban, and
you’ve worked also with Carole [Bayer] Sager and others. Have you worked both ways, or is it one way? If I’m writing a song for the theatre, then
the process that I like is that myself and the lyricist are together, we’re looking
at the scene, and we come up with a notion of what the song is going to be. And hopefully, with it comes a title, a something
to hang your hat on. And at that point, I prefer to write music
first, only because I’ve found that when I try it the other way, it’s not very successful. I just don’t get into it. I find it amazing, when you talked about,
for instance, the way Oscar Hammerstein and Rodgers wrote. I mean, I know for a fact that Hammerstein
brought in the entire lyrics of OKLAHOMA! and said, “Here, do it.” And I know I could never do that. It’s just not within my ability to do that. Well, because the songs have been written
already. Well, that’s true, you know? (LAUGHTER) ARIZONA!, maybe I could have done
it. (LAUGHTER) However, where I would change that
method would be if you were not writing for a theatre. For instance, if you were writing – like,
‘cause you mentioned Carole Sager, and Carole Sager and I used to write a lot for The Charts. If you’re writing, quote, for “not the
theatre,” where you’re trying to be very much part of the book, very much trying to
tell the story and continue the story, that’s one thing. If you’re trying to write, quote, a “hook”
song, a song that’s got the hook, sometimes lyrics first is a very, very good idea. So, you know, I would say, listen, it has
to work for you as a writer. It has to be whatever way you prefer to write. For me, I like to write first, with some sort
of an idea of what the song is about and then start, you know. When you do the theme of a film, like “The
Way They [SIC] Were,” is that more a song for The Charts, or is that more in the – “The Way We Were” was a real hybrid, because
you know, it’s very interesting. What you always hear from the director and
the producer of a film is, “I want this piece of music to be absolutely correct. I want it to be right for the film, and I
want it to absolutely stay in context with the film.” What you’re hearing from the record company
(LAUGHS) and the studio is, “If this isn’t a hit, your name is mud!” You know what I mean? So you’re listening to both sides at the
same time. You’ve got to be true to the film, always. But again, we were very lucky. I mean, here, “The Way We Were,” for instance,
is a good example. That title came with the film. Right. So, I mean, right off the bat, you’re starting
off with something very, very strong. Don, now when you sit down with yourself (LAUGHTER),
do you work at an instrument, particularly? Are you on a guitar? I write on guitar, and seated with a legal
pad in front of me, or a computer. And do both at the same time. But in reading Hammerstein’s essays, he
said he would always work with a working melody in his head. And I tend to start with the lyrics, but with
a working melody going the whole time. Now, for years and years, I’ve written with
other songwriters in Nashville, virtually always who were also composers and lyricists. And we would play off of each other both ways. But in writing for the theatre, I’ve been
working by myself. And I tend to start with the source, what’s
supposed to happen there, go for the conversational lyric idea, but work with a working melody. And upon completion of that draft, you go
back – I go back, by myself! – and write a new melody, at which point the words aren’t
good enough, so I have to call the lyricist in to go back and fix the words. Tell us, just because we’re less familiar
with your background, where are you from and where do you live? I’m originally from Durham, North Carolina,
but when I was twenty years old, I bravely dropped out of my third freshman semester
of Duke University (LAUGHTER) and took my eighty dollars and went to Nashville. And I’ve lived in Nashville since 1973. I was very fortunate to have, after a brief
four and a half year stay there, my first song that was recorded was a song called “The
Gambler,” that Kenny Rogers cut, and later had a lot of success with. [And I’ve worked with] Randy Travis, Mary
Chapin Carpenter, Alison Kraus (PH), the Judds, and a lot of people who are household names,
while I thank God I’ve not become one! (LAUGHS) And I came to a seminar in Nashville that
some great theatre people, Mike Ockrent, Michael David, Maury Yeston, Freddy Gershon (PH) came
down and did, to basically recruit people to write for the theatre. And Mike Ockrent gathered some of us up and
said, “Let’s go off and let me teach you about this.” Well, that was really my next question to
you. So I interrupted you, even before you spoke! (LAUGHTER) That’s right. That’s tough to do to a bookwriter! (LAUGHTER) Not when you’re with composers and lyricists,
it isn’t! But the fact is, so you are interested in
the theatre. We’ve not really had a great country – or
what do you consider yourself? Country, western or bluegrass? A country song writer. Yeah, we call it country song. My base is country songwriting, but I’ve
been studying theatre for ten years. I’m married to a wonderful actress, dramaturge,
and so I’m surrounded by theatre and have been for years and years, and have fallen
in with good folk. Well, again, I mean, there are stories. A lot of your songs are stories in themselves. Yes, they are. More so than, you know, most theatre songs
are part of a story. You have only that vehicle to tell the whole
story with. That is the story. Well, the chronology is different. You know, instead of working under a time
frame of three and a half minutes, in which case there are often births, deaths and everything
that goes on in between in that three and a half minutes, you’re stretched out to
two hours and fifteen minutes. Or an hour and forty-five minutes, after they
cut all the bad songs. (LAUGHTER) So you have to take every little
aspect. And you also get to expand on different characters,
instead of in the song saying, “This happened and this happened and this happened.” The dramatist is doing that. The book writer is making all that happen,
the source material. He’s taking that, or she’s taking that,
and making it happen. And it’s my job – or our jobs – to express
the moments and to take the moments, and at the same time, to move the story forward. Writing for country music has been a great
learning ground for me, because the point of a country song is to write conversationally,
that it could be something that someone will say to someone else. And so, the transition to the theatre was
fairly easy. All I had to do was stop writing about stuff
that happened to me in high school, and start writing from source material. (LAUGHS) Some of those songs almost could be expanded
into a full show. Like, I think of “The Ode to Billy Joe,”
which was a great song. Great song, “Ode to Billy Joe.” You see, that’s an entire play in that song. Absolutely. Quite wonderful, really, because it’s got
surprise. It has a first, second and third act. It has characters. It’s really quite a wonderful thing. Peter? Yes? Can I ask a quick question? What made Nashville the heart of country music,
such as Broadway is the heart of the theatre? It was – hmmm. I would believe that it was where the records
were originally made. A lot of it was happening in East Tennessee. If you take what country music has amalgamated
on its way to becoming what we think of as this huge business, it has taken over bluegrass,
it’s taken over folk music. Has not taken [over]. It’s amalgamated bluegrass, it’s amalgamated
folk music, it’s amalgamated blues. It’s also, along the way, taken on rock
and roll, heavy metal, you name it. Along the way, it becomes this huge mass of
material called country music, which Nashville was the central area for it. Was it central first or did Grand Ol’ Opry
– which was first? Grand Ol’ Opry had a lot to do with it. The Bradley family had a lot to do with it. The Carter family had a great deal to do with
it, where they were. And it’s where they first decided to build
those first studios. And it was like, the reason that I went to
Nashville, I had eighty dollars and I couldn’t afford to go to New York or Los Angeles. So that’s, I think, how it happened. Before we get into general conversation, which
I know they prefer we do here, let’s catch up on some of the back stories. How did you two get together? We were both signed to a publisher named Tommy
Vilando (PH), separately. And this is a really simple story! Tommy said, “I think you two guys should
meet each other. I think you’d like each other.” And so we did, and we did, and we wrote. He was a genius. But you’re from Kansas City? Definitely. And you’re from New York City? Uh-huh. (LAUGHTER) And that was how, Tommy just put you two together? He did. He had somehow or other sensed that our different
strengths and different weaknesses would probably coalesce into one good writer. What preparation had you as a musician? What had you gone through before that happened? And what sort of training and education? Well, I’ve been playing the piano since
I was about four. And I studied while I was going to high school. And then I went to Oberlin. This is the sort of stuff? Yeah! (LAUGHTER) I went to Oberlin and graduated from there
and then got a Masters at Columbia. But I was always writing. I’ve been writing since I was a little kid. And what brought theatre to the fore, rather
than say, writing songs, I mean, just individual songs, or writing classically or whatever? Partly, I guess, because I fell in love with
the theatre, from the time I was a little kid. And I fell in love with opera. Listening to those Saturday broadcasts somehow
or other implanted the idea that music telling a story was about the most exciting thing
that you could be involved with. And I’ve been stuck with it ever since. Well, fortunately! And Susan, you’re from where? New York. Born and bred. And you became a lyricist how? In a very strange way. I wanted to be an actress and singer. From the moment I set foot on a stage, I just
said, “So this is who I am,” and loved the theatre more than anything. But the audition process was too frightening,
so I stopped. And I married the first time, when I was very,
very young, I was still in school. And so, I just retreated into being a mommy,
a wife and a mother. And had four children and wrote, always wrote
just for fun. What did you write? Well, I would write little things for children
to do. I mean, I was a school teacher for two minutes,
(LAUGHS) and I taught a class of “educable retarded children,” as they were called
at that time. And I wrote a version of SNOW WHITE for them,
book, music and lyrics. And didn’t think much of it. And my ex-husband was running a summer theatre
in Hyannis. And somebody came up to me and said, “You’re
a musician. Can you write a score for RUMPELSTILTSKIN
by Tuesday?” (LAUGHTER) And I thought, “Why not?” So I went to the beach with the kids and I
did. A hard rhyme! (LAUGHTER) That must have been the first challenge,
actually. Well, I’ll cut this really short. Just somebody was on a plane and sitting next
to a producer who asked for a tape of this, and all of a sudden I got a letter in the
mail, and so, there it was. And so, here you are! Here I am. On a panel. Did you rhyme RUMPELSTILTSKIN? I never did. Never did? Never did! (LAUGHS) Never wrote RUMPELSTILTSKIN? She never rhymed it. She wrote it. I did write it, I never rhymed it. Oh, never rhymed it, well. No, it came at the end of the phrase. I love [this story]. You know, there are certain words that are
never, ever rhymable. And someone said to somebody who was not in
the business, “There are certain words.” He said, “Like what?” And he said, “Well, orange.” He said, “That’s one of those words.” And the other guy said, “That’s no problem! You know, I can rhyme ‘orange.’ Orange, porange, lorange, forange!” (LAUGHTER) But what said to you, you’re
a lyricist? When and at what point in your life? I don’t know. I mean, you couldn’t study it in school,
or I would have. I love theatre. I used to go and see everything. And I knew every song from every show. And it’s what I wanted, except I knew I
didn’t have any composing skill. So I went out with a girl, her name was Patsy
Vamous (PH), and I said, “I’d like to be a lyric writer, but I don’t know a composer.” She said, “I do! I’m dating one. His name is Phil Swinger (PH) and I can arrange
for you to meet him.” And so – this is the Reader’s Digest version
– I went over and I met Phil, and he played me a song, with a cigarette hanging out of
his mouth. And I thought, “This is great!” (LAUGHTER) And he said, “Nobody has ever
been able to set this particular melody.” And I thought, “Oh, God, please help me
set it” (LAUGHTER) And he had written with Dick Adler (PH). Who wrote PAJAMA GAME and DAMN YANKEES, right. Yeah. And a woman named Joan Javitts (PH), who was
very clever and wrote “Santa Baby,” a song I love. And I sat behind that guy, and he played it
over and over and over. And I wrote my head off. And I said, “Oh, God, please let him like
it.” And I put it up in front of him, and he (DEMONSTRATES
PLAYING THE PIANO) “Boom, boom!” and he played it, and he said, “You’re good.” And that was [it]? Yeah. What was the name of the song, Fred? “I Never Loved Him Anyhow.” (LAUGHTER) Good title. I love Freddy’s song titles! And the last line was, “Well, anyhow, not
much.” (LAUGHTER) And I thought it was okay. I mean, I didn’t know. The fact that he approved of me and he was
a professional, oh! How old were you? Oh, maybe 23, 24? I was already well on my way to being nobody. (LAUGHTER) And I didn’t know what I wanted
or how I would do it, I just knew I loved it. And I just figure somebody walked in the room
that night and said, “Do it!” And I did it, and he approved of me, and I
met him every day of my life, from ten to six at night, and we wrote pop songs. And the first year, we made eighty dollars. And I was working as a credit authorizer for
Ludwig Bauman (PH) (LAUGHTER) and I bronzed baby shoes. (LAUGHTER) And I did everything in the world. And I was writing, and I was happy, and that’s
how it started. And then he left me, and he got a paying job
somewhere. (LAUGHTER) And then, eventually, I met John. Tommy? Tommy put you together with John. Umm-hmm. And that changed my whole life. But it’s interesting that more lyricists
say that they don’t know how to compose than composers do, who say they can write
lyrics! (GESTURING TO JOHN) Well, he can, actually. Yes, I’m sure. Well – No, he’s really good. Freddy’s got rhythm! He really does. Yes, he does. Marvin, you started out, I know, as a musician. You were probably about nine months old. It was interesting. I was at the Juilliard School of Music, starting
out at the age of six and a half, and going to school at P.S. 9, but doing exactly what
you said before, which was going to shows and just loving them. But I remember, in those days, what was wonderful
was, you had standing room for a dollar and a quarter. Sixty-five cents, I remember, yeah. Seventy-five cents. I mean, it was the kind of thing you could
do, and you could do, you know, beautifully. I mean, you know, MY FAIR LADY could open,
and three days later, you could be standing and seeing it, boom!, you know? And I remember particularly in the fifth grade,
I had done something pretty well in the fifth grade, and they gave me the LP of MY FAIR
LADY. You know, that was my prize. So I fell in love with this stuff. And I also, just parenthetically, just saying
about today, the difference is that when I was going to school, something would open
up on Broadway, right? You’d read the New York Times or whatever
– or, in those days, the seven papers, you’d find out what was happening. But on Sunday night, you had Ed Sullivan Show,
who would immediately bring on Ezio Pinza, who would now sing “Some Enchanted Evening.” And you, sitting at home, you know, you didn’t
need an ad like they need now, you know, television ad. You just saw them on that show, right? And you went, “Wow! I gotta see this show! I gotta!” You know? So I fell in love with that whole thing. What happened to me was that I always felt,
at the age of sixteen, I could have done it. I really felt that way. But no one was saying, “Here’s a million
dollars, kid, write a show!” So I had to do kind of a different route to
get to where I always wanted to get to, which was Broadway, which was I literally, you know,
went from one thing to another and finally landed a movie, because I was at the party
of a certain producer and one thing led to another. So I was out there in Hollywood, you know,
having a wonderful career basically, but in my heart saying, “This is not exactly what
I’d like to be doing.” So it was very exciting to then finally be
able to do a Broadway show. My father used to say about New York City,
because he was from Vienna, he used to say that New York is a disease, and once you caught
the disease, you were hooked. I think it’s very true about Broadway, and
that’s why it’s so thrilling to have someone like this fellow over here, who’s from Nashville,
comes from that country world, and is now hooked. Because you know, it’s something that you
have to really love to do it, because to write a show, everyone thinks is the easiest thing
in the world. And to put it on, you think, “Oh, that’s
a piece of cake,” and then when you have a hit, “Wow!” For all of those moments, there are those
other moments where the show never happens, the show is a bomb, all those other things
that you live with, that you don’t put in your bio, ‘cause your bio only tells you
the good stuff. I mean, I love it! The easiest way to get out of a funk is read
your bio. ‘Cause if you read your bio, you only read
the good stuff, you know? (LAUGHTER) It’s wonderful! Well, you’ve brought up something that I
think we’re going to be talking about. But you left something out, and you left it
out, and I think it’s important for both of you. You were both rehearsal pianists. Yes, right. Yep, precisely. Still am, I think! (LAUGHTER) I know. But I mean, you were a rehearsal pianist. But that was not a joke. In my head, I am still a rehearsal pianist. Yeah. And when rehearsals start, it’s very hard
to get the keyboard off my fingers. But you were a rehearsal pianist on some wonderful
shows. And so were you! I mean, you were with Jule. What were some of the shows you were there
for? Well, a fly on the wall, really. Well, I rehearsed and did the dance music
for GYPSY and for IRMA LA DOUCE. And those were probably the best learning
experiences I could possibly have had. Right, yeah. Because there you are, you’re hearing and
seeing everything. That’s it. Well, you know, the show that I did particularly
was FUNNY GIRL. And what I remember about FUNNY GIRL was it
was basically not a hit out of town. We were in a lot of trouble. And watching people – you know, that’s
the thing that you learn. It’s watching how you solve it, and if it
can be solved, also, you know what I mean? I mean, to be honest with you, he’s being
very modest, because his work is legendary, when it comes to the dance music that he wrote. I mean, it’s just absolutely thrilling. I mean, you listen to GYPSY, it’s – and
to be that good, to make it sound like the composer wrote it, that’s the beauty of
it. That’s the killer, you know? Thank you. But one of the things that you said is absolutely
right, and particularly from our point of view as a rehearsal pianist, because you’re
not there at the meetings when all these momentous decisions are made. So you have a disaster on Thursday night and
on Friday at rehearsal, a whole other trunk full of work comes your way, and you have
no idea how they arrived those decisions. How it happened, uh-huh. But it’s interesting, because you worked
with Jule Styne. You worked with Jule Styne, and I worked with
Jule Styne, and so did Marvin. There are certain people I know who are really
influential, and Broadway is one of those things, especially musical theatre, people
say, right from Chicago or from Minneapolis or from Seattle and say, “Oh, I’m doing
musical theatre.” It’s very hard to do musical theatre without
coming to New York. It’s one of the few things that you learn
by observing and doing, and there are certain people who are really – I mean, Frank Loesser
was, you know, told everything about the business. He knew how to do it. And I get a feeling that the new people coming
along aren’t well grounded in the old musical theatre. Well, it’s much, much harder. We really were spoiled, because there were
lots and lots of productions. If a show closed, you could get a job going
to something else. For new composers today, it’s murder! Well, ask Don. Theatre came into your life there, I mean,
while you were in Nashville. Sure. I mean, it came into your head from listening,
from hearing? Did you come to New York? Well, I still live in Nashville. But when Mike Ockrent introduced me to Ken
Ludwig, who is the wonderful playwright who had written the book for CRAZY FOR YOU, had
written LEND ME A TENOR, MOON OVER BUFFALO. And he said, “Well, go see my friend Ken
in Washington.” I called Ken. He’d never, I think, heard a country song
in his life. He’s a lawyer, by trade. I refer to him as a “former law student,”
because he doesn’t like to be called a lawyer! (LAUGHTER) He said, “We’ll never find
anything to write about, but come up and we’ll talk.” So I go up, have a dinner, he assures me we’ll
never find anything to write about. Next morning, twenty minutes into meetings,
sitting and talking, we’re talking about Mark Twain. And having studied what has worked and hasn’t
worked, he says, “Well, you know, there’s TOM SAWYER,” and I said, “It’s never
been a hit.” He’s comes like this far (PUTS HIS HAND
FOUR FEET OFF THE GROUND) out of his seat and says, “That’s it!” And so I’ve had like a four and a half year
intense, one-on-one personal class from Ken Ludwig on how to write for the theatre. And he sent me directly to MY FAIR LADY, directly
to Rodgers and Hammerstein, directly (LAUGHS) to the people who are also here today, who
must be just shaking in their boots to be sitting here with such a big country song
writer. (LAUGHTER) And had me study and study and
study. And my wife, as well, who’s an actress and
musical theatre was her first love. And Polly pushed me and showed me what to
study. It’s a great learning experience, but yeah,
you gotta be present to win. One of the things, just to interject something,
I’ve been listening over last weekend to a collection of CDs of sort of the history
of Broadway. And in 1917, Jerome Kern opened four musicals
on Broadway. (MURMURS FROM THE PANEL) And in 1918, he opened
two more. And what’s weird about that is that that
wasn’t even unusual! And what has developed in the theatre to this
point is that now, for all of us, from the time of starting to write a musical till the
time it’s produced is years. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Well, I think that’s true. I think that the great four or five, including
Gershwin and Cole Porter and Rodgers, I think they saw themselves basically, at that time,
[as] songwriters. Irving Berlin. They were songwriters, you know? And the books were so simple, really, very
simple, they were just glue to put the songs together. And it wasn’t until Oscar [Hammerstein]
really invented the modern book, which he did, that that changed. It also made it harder to get a show on, because
there was a play now and there were characters and that meant – you know, I have no doubt
that those shows then went out of town or didn’t go out of town, there was no trouble,
the songs were great. They may have cut one that the audience didn’t
like and put another one in. But we’re going to get to out-of-town in
a minute. Well, just writing in the country genre or
the popular genre, I would normally write a hundred and twenty, a hundred and forty
songs a year. Which translates, if you group them all together,
into quite a few shows. It was not a real extraordinary effort, workwise,
for me. It just meant getting up and going in and
working for four or five hours, every day, which is fine. And I got weekends off, so that was a plus. But once you get to the book, you know, it’s
always the book writer that slows you down! (LAUGHTER) Because they insist on, you know,
it having something to do with the story, you know. (LAUGHTER) I was interested in all of the obituaries
for Steve Allen, that the man wrote five thousand songs, you know? (LAUGHS) Which I have no doubt that he did,
and some of them we know, and are quite good. But it would have been eleven songs if he’d
written for the theatre. (LAUGHTER) Yes? When you write a book for a play, what directions
do you give to your composer or lyricist? Well, one thing, you don’t direct them,
and that’s the first thing. There are several ways, and I’ll keep this
very short, because it’s not music and lyrics, although they’re wed in such a way now. It’s a collaboration, and the collaboration
is very much like a marriage. You really do bond, and during that time,
you live together and you go through all of the things that you would go [through] in
making a relationship work. And one of those things is to share, you argue. But there are three ways to do a book with
a show. And one is to write the book and to turn it
over, just like it is, for the song and lyrics, whatever, turn it over to them, which is not
a very good way. I’ve done it. And the other is to have a full score and
sit down and try to put a book to it, which I’ve also done. It worked out all right in one case, but it’s
hard. But the way that John and Fred and I have
worked, and the way I’ve worked – sort of, the first time I did it was with them
on WOMAN OF THE YEAR. And subsequently, I’ve insisted on every
show I’ve done, that you work simultaneously. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And you sit down and you
plot it out. I know that today people don’t like outlining
and having that, because it’s hard and they’d rather get to the fun part. Outline it scene by scene. And then, every scene, what’s it about? What’s the song? What’s the song about? And where does it go? And then you go off by yourselves and do your
work, and then you come back together. Right. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) That way, you can tell what kind of song you
need to write where, too. You have the arc of the show, and you know
that you don’t want to put four ballads back to back. And you need to know where the tension is. And unless you were working closely with the
book writer, the composer and lyricist doesn’t know where to go. Yeah, it just solves the other problem that
we mentioned, which is that book writers are very sensitive to writing a scene and then
having it taken to make a song. Including the thought and the whole idea,
because usually the song is the meat part of the scene. I mean, it’s the emotional moment. Frank Loesser, I went to him my first show,
I said, “How do you know where a song goes?” And he said, “When they can’t speak any
more, they have to use interjections, oh! Ah! Eee!” That’s why so many good theatre songs begin
with, you know, “Oh, what a beautiful morning!” Ee-i-ee-i-oh! (LAUGHTER) It’s because you move to the poetry. But that’s usually the best part. So if the book writer doesn’t have to write
that in the first place, he doesn’t mind losing it. So you say, “Where’s the moment? That’s the moment. All right, take care of it and I won’t do
it.” That’s not to say it doesn’t come up in
other places, but that’s the best way of handling it. But why do you choose John, instead of Marvin,
to write your music? Well, you don’t make that choice that way. It’s like John and Fred ended up together. It’s a matter of chance. What brought all of us, including you, Isabelle,
here today for this symposium? I’m thinking about a show about that, that
fork taken that brought us, the seven of us together to this symposium. It’s fascinating! That’s why I wanted to know where you all
started. I will say, I think, and see if you agree
with this, there has been a change in theatre, a major change. Possibly starting with the British invasion. I don’t know how long it’s going to stay
or whatever. But we had, for a while, these through-composed
shows, which to me, drove me crazy, because I really didn’t want people to start singing
about, you know, “I want some water. How is your daughter? How is the thing?” You know? It’s just like it went on and on. (LAUGHTER) Now it’s interesting, when you see a revival,
and you see what the old type show was, we’re kind of out of that, too. We’ve kind of grown past that, about the
little book with the wonderful great songs, one after the other. And yet, where the pendulum swung got a little
bit too crazy, because when you talk about the book, I used to love going to shows. I mean, what I call the great shows, you know,
like the MY FAIR LADYs, the FIDDLER ON THE ROOFs, the WEST SIDE STORYs, where not only
did you have these great melodies and lyrics, but there would be a scene or there’d be
a sentence or there’d be a moment, forgetting the music and lyrics that you remembered,
that you went, “When that person said blah-blah-blah,” you know, you just went “Whuuuh!” And I think it’s very important, for instance,
what I’m writing now, I like the idea that yes, if I needed to take something from the
book, if I said, “This is going to be a great song, I’ve got to take it,” you’ve
got to have a book writer who says, “It’s okay. I can live with that.” On the other hand, I’m one of the few writers
who goes, “I love this so much, I don’t want to touch this. This is better spoken than it will ever be
sung.” I have always felt that some of these through-composed
shows are through-composed because the books are not very good, and I have noticed in the
theatre that people don’t cough during songs. People tend to cough during scenes. So if you keeping singing the whole time (LAUGHTER),
the chances are, you eradicate, you know, [the coughing]. But really, I mean this sincerely! And I got upset, personally, because I would
go to these shows and I’d say, “This is not the real thing. This is a hybrid. But this is not what really Broadway should
be about. It should be the combination that should be
thrilling.” I absolutely agree with you. Yeah. And the through-composed show, for the most
part, also drives me crazy, for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is, being an opera
lover, it seems like such fake opera to me. Exactly. And sometimes I think a show is through-composed
because the creators think it’s, quote, “artistic.” Right. And the fact is, it’s just writing. It’s just typewriting. I agree. Although, I have to say that with the miking
of singers and the orchestra, that’s why you don’t hear the coughing during songs. (LAUGHTER) It’s there! No, no, I’m just kidding. I wanted to say one thing about Peter as a
collaborator. And that is, when we work together, usually
at Fred’s kitchen table, and we’re working on a scene, he will get us up to the point
where music is called for, and be so generative in the discussion that by the time he leaves,
Freddy and I are pretty clear about what we are to do. One other person who is a wonderful collaborator
in a different way is Terrence McNally. He’ll write five pages, knowing full well
that we’re going to take those five pages and musicalize it. But that’s his way of generating us. Well, I think it’s important to do that,
but I think there are things that a book writer has to learn as well, if you’re going to
do this. One is that you’ve got one hour to tell
two hours of story. Because the score, no matter what, is not
supposed to tell the story. I mean, you’ll find book songs that will
do it, but mostly, it’s emotional and it involves relationships and so forth. So you have to be very economic. The other is – and this is something Loesser
made very clear – and that is the lead-in to a song. Songs used to have, in many cases, during
the old days, their own lead-in, called the verse, which changed the level of the speech
from prose to poetry. The good verses brought you up to a poetic
way of speaking. But you don’t have verses much any more,
and so, the book does that, and it always should have done it. And that is, it has to bridge the gap. Because when they start singing, they’re
very poetic, and when they’ve been talking just before, they’re quite prosaic. And you have to present something in the middle
that lifts you from the one element to the other. Right. Sometimes, it’s a combination. I think the most successful comedy song that
I can remember, that Johnny and I wrote, is “The Grass is Always Greener,” from WOMAN
OF THE YEAR. Were it not for the four or five minute scene
that precedes it, and the solid, solid laughs (TO PETER) you got for this character, who
was this unforgettable (LAUGHS) – Drudge. – sort of gnome-like lady, Marilyn Cooper,
this song couldn’t have worked. Nor could we have scored as heavily as we
did, without that libretto, without your words. And I think that we have to be the continuation
of the speech. I don’t think it goes to poetry at all. Well, I agree. But I think that you are into both rhythm
and poetry, and it somehow can’t jar with that. I mean, that’s really all I’m saying. I mean, it couldn’t be more prosaic. That song, comedy numbers, it’s true. Although that went through an amazing genesis,
because we started auditioning women for that part. It was a different scene, and nobody was any
good, including the woman we hired [Marilyn Cooper], who won the Tony for it. Everybody was terrible. And I said, “I’m running out of [ideas]. You know, nobody’s doing this right.” And the director said to me, “Look, when
they’re all bad, it’s not their fault. They’re professionals. The scene’s no good.” And I went back and redid the scene, and immediately,
they were playing it, you know? That’s it. One of the things that happens when you get
a chance to go out of town, which is harder and harder, or get a chance to work in front
of an audience a long time before the critics come in, you find that song in the second
act never really works. And so, for a long time you attack the song. You rewrite it, and it still never works. Until it dawns on somebody that the reason
that song in the second act doesn’t work is because something didn’t happen in the
first act (FRED LAUGHS) to prepare us for it. And the perfect example, of course, though,
is in that one scene, as Fred said. Well, it brings us around to the eleven o’clock
number, which is how you build to it. And that’s your big song, “Rose’s Turn,”
or whatever it is, that’s the big number you come to. You call it “eleven o’clock,” it’s
really a “ten thirty” now. (LAUGHTER) Because theatre curtains used to
go up at eight thirty. But that number, you’ve all written them
and you know what that is, that last song as opposed to the first. But you’re quite right, if it doesn’t
work, the tendency of producer is to say, “Throw the song [out], get rid of the song.” But if you look at the clock, and the eleven
o’clock number comes and it’s eleven thirty, that may be why it doesn’t work. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) You know, it’s
too late. Cut your show! Then see if it doesn’t work. Then if it doesn’t work, look at what comes
before it. Maybe it’s redundant. Maybe the scene has just done it, or maybe
another song you have earlier did it. Or as John says, maybe something in Act One
should have prepared you for it. But before you throw out [a song], these people
are professionals. And when they write a song like that, you’ve
got to look at everything else before you dare remove that song for something else,
because you know, usually it’s not the song’s fault. It may be in the wrong place. Umm-hmmm. Should be around eight forty-five. (LAUGHTER) The eight forty-five song. I have found, in working on TOM SAWYER, with
the great collaborators that I’m working with, with Ken and with Scott Ellis and with
Paul Gemignani, that the person who’s probably cut more songs that anybody else is me. I love what Cole Porter said, “The song’s
not working, I’ll write you another one.” You know, “No problem.” As opposed to sitting around and trying to
rewrite the same song twenty times, if you have to do that, write another song! Because it’s not accomplishing what it’s
doing. You mentioned Gemignani, and that’s interesting,
because this is the musical director – the conductor, but the musical director – and
he certainly has been there through it all. Oh-ho! I mean, of all the people you’re working
with, and we’ve all worked with Scott Ellis and are going to again. Paul Gemignani. He’s seen it all. Gemignani has seen everything. Yeah. Talk about that. Talk about the people you work with. That is to say, the musical conductor, the
arranger, the orchestrator, you know, and that sort of thing. Well, Gemignani, one thing, when Mike Ockrent
and Susan Stroman first brought me into a rehearsal of CHRISTMAS CAROL, this fellow
was over playing drums and he walks over to me and whispers in my ear, “You just write
the songs, we’ll do the rest.” And has been with me on TOM SAWYER all the
way through, and what an angel. And for me, guys, I’m probably the only
person here who doesn’t read music. I write a number system that we use in Nashville. But to have someone like Paul Gemignani take
and expand on just the songs that I wrote, and the book writer teach me how to go through
the arc of the show, it’s amazing. You know what I agree with about writing another
one? I wrote, with John, a song called “Class”
for CHICAGO. And I hated it. It scared the life out of me. And I didn’t even want to see it. And when we did a backers’ sort of runthrough,
I wouldn’t play it, I wouldn’t sing it, I didn’t want to perform it. Johnny said, “It’s funny, leave it in.” “No, I don’t want to.” Well, we opened with it. And now, it’s the opening night and – where
were we, Boston? Philadelphia. Philadelphia. And now, up comes Chita Rivera and Mary McCarty
and “Class” is gonna start. I leave! (LAUGHTER) And I start leaving, going to the
men’s room, ‘cause it was downstairs. And I hurry down the stairs (POUNDS HIS FEET;
PETER LAUGHS), and I don’t want to hear it. And then you hear a little bit here. “Mmmm!” Maybe that’s a laugh, I thought. So now I come up the stairs. (LAUGHTER) “Mmmmm!” Now I heard a big one! “Uhhh!” And now I’m up! (LAUGHTER) And I’m in there, and the number
was terrific. And I thought, a day before, a week before,
a month before, I would have taken that out. I would have said, “I’ll write you another
one,” ‘cause I would have. But you need other people’s faith to keep
it there. (PH) Well, especially, I would say, you know, arguably
you write the best comedy lyrics of anybody in the business. And it is remarkable, the jokes. To get jokes in a song is really hard, harder
than anything. And he comes up with great jokes. And until you hear an audience react to it,
you don’t know. It’s like the book. You write a joke, you don’t know that it’s
funny – you think it’s funny, or you don’t [write it] – until an audience reacts and
then you know. And that’s what happened in that case. Yeah, but you know, you just made me think
about something. Usually, when I say, “Okay, let’s cut
it, we’ll write another one,” for some reason, nobody tends to disagree with me. (LAUGHTER) So I guess I get the collaborative
approval! I’ll tell you one thing about Nashville,
I once did a movie down in Nashville. I had to go down to Nashville for a movie,
to record. I’ll never forget it. I walk in with all this music and everything
like that, with a band there and everything like that. I’d give out the music and they all go (DEMONSTRATES
CONFUSION, WAVING HIS HANDS; LAUGHTER) “We don’t read!” I’d go, “Okay! Let’s try it another way!” Schoonk! (MIMES RIPPING THE MUSIC; LAUGHTER) And they got it right, didn’t they? Oh, no, they always get it right. So you set up the thing in the piano. (POINTS) I just want to say one thing that I’d just
like to add to what you said, because particularly comedy songs, obviously, you need an audience. I think the things that’s gotten for me
– the thing that I don’t know if it’s good, bad or indifferent – was you talked
about Jerome Kern going out, doing four shows. This was before we had things like trying
them out now, workshops. You know, we have now these workshops, which
on the one hand are supposedly wonderful, because they give the creator – which I
think is good – a chance to try out their show, to look at it for a much less amount
of money, right? To give it a try. But it’s really not just that any more. That’s what it was supposed to be when it
started out. Now, it’s really a chance for the producer
to tell you if he likes your work in progress, and that’s a whole different bag. And you know, I mean, there is nobody out
there who’s going to get four shows a year or three shows or two, because given that
process, that’s another thing that slows up the whole thing. I mean, you know, it really does. And then, of course, now, with a finite amount
of theatres and a lot of shows and a lot of revivals coming in, and a lot of producers
going to London and saying, “Well, those are the hits, so why should we worry about
anything in America? Bring those over.” I find it a much tougher time just to create
what you want to create, you know? And it’s, in a way, shameful, because for
me, Broadway is supposed to be about taking a chance. It’s not supposed to be about always bringing
in something that you know was a hit somewhere, so therefore we can’t lose. To me, it was the roll of the dice. I don’t think they knew that WEST SIDE STORY
was going to be WEST SIDE STORY. They didn’t know MY FAIR LADY – there
was no workshop on MY FAIR LADY. It just was what it was. Well, the creative producer – there used
to be a lot of them – Yes. Right. – is practically nonexistent. Exactly. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And as a matter of fact, your show started
off with one of the last of the great ones, even though he’s got a lot of troubles. But Garth Drabinsky was a man of enormous
vision and dedication to the theatre. Right. Mmm-hmm. You didn’t want to necessarily invest in
his shows. (LAUGHTER) But that kind of active, creative
producer is something you don’t really have [any more]. Now, see, I have a problem with that. I couldn’t work with Garth, because Garth
was so hands-on and made so many dicta, that I found it very confining. Plus the fact that Garth believed exactly
in focus groups, which is what they do to motion pictures today. Yeah, right. Which is not a good thing. And bring in an audience and wire them up
and see what they’re reacting to. This is the audience telling you what to write. No, that’s not good at all! And I didn’t like that, and I found his
shows degenerated. We did not have that experience [on KISS OF
THE SPIDERWOMAN]. We didn’t have that. You didn’t have that. But they certainly did on RAGTIME, and they
certainly did on some of the others. And you start taking the spontaneity out of
the show. But out-of-town – see, the good thing about
Garth was, he was already out-of-town. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) He was in Canada. Going out-of-town is a process. Right. And it’s not about going out-of-town – although
it is. Getting out of New York is really important. But to go someplace, because musicals, I think,
are re-written more than they’re written, almost. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Until you put all of those
elements together, you’ve never seen them together. Music, lyrics, sets, costumes, lighting, orchestra,
all of that together. It surprises you, you’ve never seen it before. It’s always surprising, always surprising. Yeah. You know, just on that real quick, is the
fact that I think this is more true of musicals – you would know better, because you’ve
probably seen more of these. But when you go to see these workshops and
you see a play, and then the play comes in, it’s very much like what you saw. But why is it that these workshops – you
hear this all the time, that you loved it in workshop. You saw this musical, you loved it! It was near you, it was this, it was intimate,
it was that, the two pianos were great! Then all of a sudden it goes somewhere, all
of a sudden, you know, they get the twenty-three-piece orchestra – And the scenery and the costumes. And the scenery and the costumes, you add
all of those things. And instead of them being a terrific plus,
they all of a sudden turn out to be a minus, sometimes. Well, that’s happened to me in a way, right. But that used to happen all the time. But you hear it more about musicals than anything. But the old gypsy runthroughs that we all
used to go were the same thing. Yes, exactly. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) “What happened to you in Boston?” I think it’s because it’s like radio. You imagine it. Yes, you imagine it. When you go to a workshop, you are seeing
the sets and the costumes and the lighting and the orchestrations in your head. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) It’s very different. And you like it! Because (LAUGHS) they’re doing your own
choices, you know? And then you come in and it’s somebody else’s
and you say, “Gee, that’s not the way I’d done it.” For me, for being new in the world of theatre,
I’ve found that the readings we’ve done, the workshops, have been immeasurably helpful. Without your wealth of experience, it is the
first time that I’ve seen the process work. And so, for someone who can foresee what’s
going to happen, I can understand not (PH) the need of it, you know? I’m also amazed that in Nashville, people
talk about Garth [Brooks]. In New York, people talk about Garth [Drabinsky]. It’s a different Garth, yeah! (LAUGHTER) We knew there was more than one! We’re coming up on our break. I think what you’re saying is true. But we’ve forgotten to say the one thing
about why these workshops was invented was to raise money. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) The producers use them
to raise their money. (TO MARVIN) Well, you were at the first one! We’re coming up on our break now. We’re going to take a short break. And pretty soon, the whole point is to have
these people fighting and throwing food (LAUGHTER) and hitting each other with rolled-up programs. Perfect. So that’s what you’ve got to look forward
to. So thank you. (APPLAUSE)
MALE VOICE This is CUNY-TV, the City University of New
York. (APPLAUSE) Welcome back to the American Theatre
Wing’s seminar on “Working in the Theatre.” Before returning to our panelists, I would
like to emphasize to you that these seminars and the Tony Awards for excellence in the
theatre, are only a part of the activities of the American Theatre Wing. We may be best known for these activities,
but the Wing is so much more. As a not-for-profit charity that serves both
theatre and the community with its year-round programs, the Wing works to develop new audiences
for the theatre and bring theatre to those who would otherwise not be exposed to its
magic. Our meaningful programs for students include
“Introduction to Broadway,” which in its eight year history has enabled more than 80,000
New York City high school students to attend a Broadway show, many for the first time. The Wing also introduces young people to theatre
and to other worlds, by bringing professionals into schools for workshops, as a part of our
“Theatre in School” program. Additionally, the Wing’s hospital program,
dating back to World War Two, when we created the legendary Stage Door Canteens, continues
to entertain patients in hospitals, nursing homes, AIDS centers and child care facilities
in the New York area. With volunteer talent from Broadway, Off-Broadway
and the cabaret world, the Wing continues to bring live entertainment to those who are
not able to attend theatre. And our grants and scholarship program provides
a central support where it is so needed. We take pride in the work we do, and remain
so very grateful to our members and everyone who makes the work of the American Theatre
Wing possible. Our work strengthens the ties between theatre
and the community, and we are indeed proud to be a part of this great effort. And so now, I would like to continue our program,
with Peter Stone moderating, lyricists and composers. Peter, would you go on? Thank you. We were going to come back and everybody sit
in a different seat, and you wouldn’t know who was who. (LAUGHTER) But we decided that this way, it
would save the introductions all over again. We were talking about, let’s for a second,
it occurs to me suddenly, talk about for a second, the first show and how you reacted
to it and how you dealt with that. In your case, was it FLORA, THE RED MENACE? Well, the first one that Fred and I wrote
together was FLORA, THE RED MENACE. And it was directed by George Abbott, produced
by Hal Prince. And we were sort of given the show, which
was a huge, thrilling thing to happen to us. And the show was not a success. At the same time, working with Mr. Abbott,
I think we would both agree, was probably worth four years of drama school. He was just brilliant! And you met Liza. And we met Liza. With a Z. “Liza with a Z,” yes. A lot of things began then. And I think, in spite of the fact that the
show was not successful, Freddy and I probably learned more from that experience than anything
that’s happened to us since. And you’ve had many with Hal Prince, at
least three more that I can think of, maybe more. Hal was producing that, and he was just starting
to direct. And he was a big protégé of Mr. Abbott as
well. Right. And your first was? Well, my first was WORKING. Right. That’s the show WORKING. The show WORKING, based on a Studs Terkel
novel. And I got a phone call from Mary Rodgers,
whom I did not know, who had read my lyrics. Dick Rodger’s daughter, and an author and
composer herself of, you know – ONCE UPON A MATTRESS. ONCE UPON A MATTRESS and so forth. So somebody [important]. She had read my lyrics somewhere. And she called and I was feeding my kids. And she said, “This is Mary Rodgers, and
I’ve been asked to be one of the writers of a new show for Broadway. And I read your lyrics and I was wondering
– “ And I said, “Yes!” (LAUGHTER) She said, “Don’t you want to
know what it is?” I said, “No, it’s okay!” (LAUGHTER)
It was a very strange experience, because there were five writers. And it was full of Sturm und Drang. And Mary and I wrote many, many songs for
it. We wrote songs for a family. There was a sort of story line that held it
together at first. The story line disappeared, and there were
many sorts of internal storms, and all of the writers were kept in separate corners. But I was so thrilled to be there in the first
place that I just loved every minute of it, even the terrible moments. That show continues to be done quite a bit. Yes. It’s one of those things that you see popping
up in stock and amateur and all over the place. I know it’s done a lot. Had you done a show before John? Yeah. (LAUGHS) It was a flop. A big flop! I did an Off-Broadway – I don’t know,
what was it? It was like an opera. Not really, it was terrible. And it was a long time ago. We just met somebody in the hall – I mean,
he’s forty-five if he’s an hour – and he says when he was a boy, he saw FLORA, THE
RED MENACE. (LAUGHTER) I know, that’s upsetting. Not good, no. (LAUGHTER) John, you had a show before. FAMILY? What was that? It was called A FAMILY AFFAIR. Yes. With Bill Goldman. With Jim and Bill Goldman. One of the things I wanted to remember about
FLORA, THE RED MENACE, and it’s something that I think would never be able to happen
in today’s theatrical economy, is that a week or two before FLORA opened, Hal Prince,
who was the producer, came to us and said, “Whatever happens with FLORA, the day after
it opens, we’ll meet at my house and we’ll talk about the next show.” And that next show was CABARET. (MURMURS FROM THE AUDIENCE) I AM A CAMERA. Well, it wasn’t called CABARET at that time,
but it turned out to be CABARET. Right. I AM A CAMERA is the play on which it was
based. The [Christopher] Isherwood [play]. I can not tell you the unique good fortune
of that. And when I say “unique,” I just can’t
imagine it happening in today’s theatre. You’re right. A producer would be waiting a long time to
see if these guys are bankable. And Hal took a real chance on us. Was CHORUS LINE the first show? CHORUS LINE was the first show. And it came about because I had worked with
Michael Bennett, actually as a rehearsal pianist, and you know, doing dance music and stuff
like that. And so, there I am, out in California, doing
what I do. And what happened was very interesting, because
now I had an agent in California and I was actually winning awards and stuff. And you can imagine, I get this phone call
from Michael, who basically just says to me on the phone, “I have an idea for a musical
and I want you to come to New York and discuss this with me.” He didn’t tell me what it was or anything
like that, just, you know, “Come.” So theatre is my life, so I immediately call
my agent and say, “By the way, now that we’ve won all these awards and stuff, I’m
leaving. (LAUGHS) You know, this is goodbye.” (LAUGHTER) My agent couldn’t believe it,
because now I was actually getting good offers for movies, and I was saying, “No, no! This is it, I’m going to New York.” So I came to New York City, and didn’t even
have an apartment, actually went back to my parents’ house to live for a couple of weeks
while I was working this out with Michael. And I’ll never forget, he brought me into
his home, his apartment, which at that time was near City Center – I don’t know if
you’ve ever visited him – but it was – Yes, all black! And all black! All black walls, except where he lit up [his
awards], particularly the Tonys. (LAUGHTER) So the Tony Awards were lit up. Isabelle, this is perfect for you, it would
have been a perfect ad for you. Just, that’s all you could see. Wonderful! You’ve made my day! It would make your day! God forbid if you wanted something to eat
there, you wouldn’t know where to go because you’d be going over Tonys, you know? (LAUGHTER) And he said to me, very quietly,
because Michael could be very mysterious, so he said to me, “Got this idea. I’ve been talking to chorus people, this
and that, and I want to do a show about them.” And now you were waiting for like the middle
and the end. You say, “And then what?” “That’s it.” That’s it, you know, that’s it! So I leave him at his 55th Street [apartment]
on the West Side, and I’m going up to my parents’ house, which is on the West Side,
and I’m walking, I’m thinking, “What meeting have I just [had]? (LAUGHTER) What have I just done? I have just given up (LAUGHS) L.A., and for
what?” And I’ll never forget, my Jewish mother
– now, this is for sure my Jewish mother, because I remember. (LAUGHTER) I walk in and my Jewish mother says, “So,
Marvin?” Because she knew how much I revered Michael. I just thought he was one of the greatest
directors and choreographers and we’d worked together and I really loved him. She said, “So tell me, what did Michael
say?” I said, “Well, he just said these dancers
and they’re going to talk about them and we’re going to do a thing about them.” (PETER LAUGHS) There was a moment’s pause
and she says, “Do you want tomato with the tunafish sandwich or without the tomato?” (LAUGHTER) Buh-dum-bum! And you mentioned before, it was the first
show, really, that did workshops. Because to find that show – you see, I think
what sometimes happens, the only thing that I would say – I mean, I haven’t been asked
for any advice, but I would say the only thing that I feel strongly about in these collaborations
are two things. Number one, I think collaborations should
feel good. You should like the person you’re writing
with. I mean, I’ve always read about how certain
people never got [along]. You know, Gilbert and Sullivan. Life’s too short, in my opinion. I think it’s important, and I do think it
shows in the work. I’ve worked with people that I really didn’t
love as much, and then I’ve met and worked with people that I really had a good time
with. I think that’s important. And the second thing that I think was very
important, and this took me a while on CHORUS LINE, if you asked me on Day One when I walked
in on CHORUS LINE, which was a show in the making. We didn’t have the fourteen songs when we
went in. We had three songs, and we started. But if you asked me where I was on it, I wasn’t
anywhere as far ahead as Michael was, his vision. And eventually, what has to happen in a really
good collaboration is the three or four people that are working on it have to all decide
that it’s this road we’re going down and this is where we’re all going to end. Because what I think happens to a lot of shows
is the music and lyric people think it’s one thing. I could not agree more. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) The choreographer thinks it’s something
else. Right. You know, that’s why the director today,
it’s the director’s medium. And that’s why, you know, if you’re lucky
and get a great director – or it’s not even a question of a “great director,”
a great director for that project, you know? Who sees it, and we’re all seeing it. The thing about CHORUS LINE was, slowly but
surely, Michael was able for me to see it as he saw it, if you know what I’m saying. I didn’t see it [at first]. I mean, I have to be honest with you. I started writing and going, “I don’t
know where this is, but on blind faith, I think Michael is a genius, I’m going.” Slowly but surely, as you started to, you
know, realize what this was, we all got into it. And there was a wonderful, kinetic energy
to that. But that, to me, is the most important thing. The collaborators have to decide that they’re
doing the same show, whether it’s a hit or it’s a bomb. I mean, you know, that’s just [it]. Yeah, absolutely. Loesser had a word for it, as he always did. He called it “level.” You all have to be working on the same level. And now, it’s hard to define the word, what
level [means]. But I’ve done shows where all of us were
on a different level, and the show can’t work that way. And yet, you do shows where you’re all writing
the same show. With 1776, you heard that first chorus of
“Sit down, John!” and somehow, everybody knew the level they were going to be working
on, (GENERAL AGREEMENT) because without that [it won’t work]. But I do agree, you have to like each other. Although John and Fred can’t stand each
other! Stand each other, I know! That’s why we separated them! (LAUGHTER) And they seem to get along all
right. I want to say something, I have always – and
Fred knows this, because I have, you know, great esteem, and we’ve worked on things
together. But I will tell you, I’ve always felt to
a degree that there’s something wonderful about having a partner for life. I think that is something I wish I had had,
you know what I mean? Because it is a marriage, it’s a collaboration. And when you have a good one, like they have
a great one, that makes it so much easier. Because sometimes you start working with someone,
a new lyricist that comes into your life, and you realize after a while, “This marriage
isn’t making it,” you know? Yeah. And it’s just not happening. So I think you’re both in a very enviable
position. Yeah, well, you’ve found, I think, a very
good combination. I think Craig [Carnelia] is wonderful. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) I’m very happy now, but I just want to tell
you, it takes a long time sometimes! It does. (TO DON) And you have the advantage of liking
yourself! (LAUGHTER) Sometimes I let myself down. (LAUGHTER) But I never go to bed mad. (LAUGHTER) There you go! I assume you want me to respond about my experience,
the first show, since I’m sure this will be taped and watched for years and years. (LAUGHTER) This is your first show. Well, let’s just say TOM SAWYER, which opened
in April of 2001 – There you go! Was a terrific experience for me! (LAUGHTER) It led to a wonderful career in
the theatre! Yeah. And I’ll never forget it. And it’s a hit in spite of Ben Brantley! (LAUGHTER) Isn’t that amazing? Anyway. It’s funny, schools now teach about musical
theatre and they have classes in lyric writing and playwriting and composing. But the most important thing, and then Marvin
brought it up, is that word collaboration. And I don’t know if you can teach it, but
there certainly is never enough stress on that in the academic world of musical theatre. And collaboration is everything, absolutely
everything. It can’t be taught, because it’s a matter
of personal chemistry. Yeah, exactly. And you know, it just is one of those [things]. It’s kind of hit or miss until you find
the right marriage, because that’s really what it is. Now, you’ve worked with a number. Is there any in that? I have had the happiest collaborations. There was only one that was unhappy. Who? Yeah, we want to know! (LAUGHTER) Hey, this is cable, you’re allowed to say
anything. And undress! But all the rest of them were, and have been,
and have remained my best friends. Who was the bad one I’m not telling! (LAUGHS) Ah, we’ll have to go back and look it up. I’ve had both. I’ve had wonderful ones. John and Fred were a dream to work with, for
a book writer. But I’ve had bad ones, where we just couldn’t
get along, you know? How does that work? I mean, we’ve been very lucky, in not having
that. But tell about a bad collaboration. Oh! (LAUGHS) Well, one of my problems was – well, go
ahead, tell yours. Tell your story. You don’t have to name names. Tell it in, you know, like a blank key. It was one of those things. I mean, nowadays, it seems that one is put
into a collaboration by producers. And I wasn’t wild about this notion to begin
with, but I said, “All right, I’ll go along with it,” because I did like the other
elements in the collaboration. I liked the book writer and the director,
both of whom I met and had lunch with and I loved them. And I liked the project. And I was the first one to discover that this
person was really not a collaborator. A man or a woman? (LAUGHTER) (LAUGHS) You’re just going to go after me! I know who it is, and I’ll tell you later. How many syllables? Rhymes with, sounds like? Is it bigger than a breadbox? How many syllables? You know what it rhymes with. It rhymes with RUMPELSTILTSKIN. Well, what was the experience like? Well, the first time I was sort of trying
to gentle him into it, because – VARIOUS VOICES
Him! Him! Oh! (LAUGHTER) She’s so clever that that’s her way of
throwing us off. That’s how clever this woman is. I only ever worked with one woman, and I got
along with her. That’s Lucy [Simon]. Yeah, she was fine. And Mary Rodgers. And Mary, right. And I love Mary. (ISABELLE LAUGHS) But it was your guy. But the first time he was asked to do something
by everybody in the room, the first time we all agreed that this moment was going to be
musicalized and how it was going to be musicalized, he just said, “No.” And then everybody explained to him why, and
then we started to work again. And his way of dealing with not getting his
own way was to – it’s hard to describe, he would just sort of go limp and not do anything. You know, when the producer said to me, “I
don’t understand it, you get along with everybody and why are you not getting along
with him?” Carole Bayer Sager! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) Exactly! I said, “Well,” I tried to explain it. And then, of course, the director ran into
the same thing, and the other people did, and it became [difficult]. And they murdered him. And that was it. (LAUGHTER) No, they brought in some help. Well, the point is actually, what I’ve learned
so far about collaboration that Ken Ludwig was teaching me for so long is that everyone
will have input. And even if you can see right from the moment
you first hear it that it’s not what you want to do, not your work, you say, “That’s
very interesting. I’ll think about it.” Yes! And that, actually, as flip as it may sound,
that does give you time to say, “Wait a minute,” you know? And to give you at least that much a thought,
if you can avoid using absolute terms, “No, that won’t work. That’s wrong.” Or whatever. “No good.” (LAUGHTER) Or naming names! Yeah. Even that, you can deal with, but when everybody
says, “But we’re all trying to do this and you’re kind of going over here. Can you make the adjustment and we’ll come
this far?” Yeah, sure. And he just said, “No, that’s the way
it is!” You know, sometimes I have to say, and I don’t
know about the two of you, but sometimes for me, we’re writing a score, let’s say. And I write a song and I think it’s wonderful. And then as you go past that moment, and as
you learn more about these characters and as you’re working more, you go back. Right. And all of a sudden you say, “You know what? You know that song that was great in July? (LAUGHTER) Well, now, in October, I want to
change that.” Or sometimes, I have to find myself where,
if particularly the lyricist or the book writer or the director says to me, “I want you
to do this, I want it to be this way.” Now, let’s say I don’t see it, I just
don’t see it. I may still write it, because it may get us
to someplace else where we all want to go. That’s right. That happens more times than you want to think
about. I mean, I always find that if you’re writing
fifteen songs for a show, the chances are, even if you’re writing at a terrific clip,
five or six are going to find themselves out and another five or six are going to go [in],
you know? Of course. Because you can’t, at least I don’t think
that I know these people and this show and what I’m doing as we start, in the beginning. And also, I like to write, I must say, you
know, from the beginning to the end of the show. I don’t like to, all of a sudden, go to
the eleven o’clock moment. I like to know where I start, you know? And as these people are progressing in my
head, they’re also progressing on the paper. I mean, they’re coming alive to me. And sometimes – many times, usually – there’ll
be stuff and I’ll just go, “Well, just leave that. You know, let’s just hold the page there. Let’s keep going, but I’m coming back
to that, ‘cause I’m going to find something new.” I mean, that happens. Or the only other case I ever had that was
wild for me, was when Michael Bennett, on CHORUS LINE, when I had a song that I really
loved, and he said, “I can’t stage this.” And I said to him, “Well, if you can’t
stage it!” (LAUGHS) You know, like you said before, it
must be the scene or something. Then I had to change the number, because I
said, “Michael, if you can’t stage this, who can?” You know what I mean? Yeah. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And that sometimes happens. So there’s a lot of, you know, futzing (PH). Well, you know, when we were doing THE NIGHT
THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S, we did a reading of the first script. And it was eminently successful, and we all
went back and looked at each other and said, “You know what? The character of the girl does not work.” And we had to reinvent the character of the
girl, the book writer, which meant we had to change the story, which meant that Charles
Strouse and I had to go back and rewrite almost ninety percent of the score! Oh, was he the one? (LAUGHTER) I’m not telling! (LAUGHS) It was me! No, it wasn’t. There’s another aspect of this collaboration,
which is closer to the marriage that I keep talking about, and that is, the reaction that
the collaborator has when the other collaborator brings in material. Oh, right, sure. And let’s say he brings in a song, you sit
there, you’re underwhelmed by it. (MARVIN LAUGHS) You know? But it’s like your wife brought home a new
hat, you know, and you hate it. You don’t say, “Take that thing off and
throw it away!”, at the peril of your life. So it’s the same way. You say, “Well, you know, I think you can
do better. You know, I like it, yes, it’s good.” Peter’s much better than he’s describing,
because if he’s not reacting well to a piece of material, it won’t be about, “That
is really a crappy song!” It’s much more about “I think that the
moment needs some other element to fulfill itself,” so that by the time you finish
talking to him you feel, anyhow, that you know what you ought to be doing. There’s a wonderful Kaufman/Hart piece called
YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU. No! Well, it is wonderful. No, ONCE IN A LIFETIME. ONCE IN A LIFETIME. Yeah. It takes place in Hollywood, and one of the
characters is a writer. And he has a lot of crossover, and at one
point, somebody says to him, “Why are you so successful?” And he says, “Because I do the rewrites
first!” (LAUGHTER) Oh, I like that! And I always remembered that, and it’s kind
of true. One of the things that Fred and I have in
our collaboration – and this has always been true, we’ve been very lucky – if
we are working on a musical moment, and we have a disagreement about what direction it
should go, if one of us has a real passion for a particular direction, the other one
will say, “Well, okay, let’s try it!” And we do. And sometimes it works out, and sometimes
it doesn’t. And we’re lucky, because we write fast,
but we throw away fast, too. But we will, each of us, go with the other’s
passion, if there’s a true passion for an idea. Like “Class.” That was his passion, not mine! And then there’s the producer, who has opinions,
and you have to deal with them. The most remarkable occasion I know, it happened
to be a film, but it was dealing with Frank Loesser again, and I keep quoting him, but
somehow. And he was doing HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN. And he came in and played a new song for Sam
Goldwyn, and Goldwyn says, “Well, that’s very nice, Mr. Loesser, but I think you can
do better.” And Frank went home and wrote a whole new
song and brought it in and he said, “Well, yes, that’s also nice, but I still think
you can do better.” (LAUGHTER) And so Frank went home and he wrote a new
song. He came in again, and Sam says, “Yeah, that
sounds good, but I still think – “ He said, “No, Mr. Goldwyn, that’s the best
I can do!” And he says, “That’s what I want.” (LAUGHTER) In other words, he didn’t know
anything, but if the composer says, “All right, I can do better!” You’ve got to get to a point where he says,
“That’s it! That’s as good as I can do!” You know, that’s like a list of useless
comments from producers, sometimes from directors, too, who will say, “I don’t think you’re
stretching yourself enough.” (GENERAL AGREEMENT; LAUGHTER) “I don’t
think you’re challenging yourself.” Yes, that calls for some violence. (LAUGHTER) My terrible collaboration, which
was only due to the fact that there was a status difference which was played upon, was
I was young and it was a very very famous, famous composer. Who? I won’t tell you his name, I won’t tell
you his name! I’ll give you his initials, all right? Richard Rodgers. (LAUGHTER) And he was also the producer of
this show. (GENERAL AGREEMENT)Whoo! And he was always wearing the wrong hat, on
purpose. You’d go to him and you’d say, you know,
“Dick, I think we ought to do this,” and he’d say, “Well, you know, talk to your
collaborator, I’m the producer.” Then you’d go in, talk about something about
the producer, he’d say, “Well, I’m just the composer,” you know? And you didn’t have even footing. Now, he was a perfectly nice man, I suppose,
but the fact was that the difference in our status was so different. He was a legend, you know? And I was, what we say on cable, if you could,
a pisher! (LAUGHTER) And there was no way, you know? It just wasn’t good, because he didn’t
make it comfortable for me. It was his job to make it comfortable for
me, and he couldn’t. So it was a bad collaboration. But all the others, and I’ve had a lot,
have all been really quite good. Although no one as good as these two (INDICATES
KANDER AND EBB). It’s really amazing to work with them. You never fight. You have arguments! You have lunch a lot. (LAUGHTER) And you have great breakfasts! (LAUGHTER) Anyway, that’s great. For my sake, could you just tell me how “New
York, New York” came about? A movie? It’s really my national anthem. Well, “New York, New York” came about
– I’ll do this really quickly. There was a movie called NEW YORK, NEW YORK,
and we were asked to write some songs for it. And it starred Liza Minelli and Robert DeNiro,
and we wrote a song called “New York, New York,” which we thought was perfectly fine. And we came in and we played it for Scorcese,
who was directing it, and Liza and DeNiro. And we got past Liza and Scorcese just fine. And before we left, we saw DeNiro over in
a corner, sitting on a couch with Scorcese and gesturing a lot! (DEMONSTRATES; LAUGHTER) And the long and short of it is that Scorcese
came back with great apology and said that DeNiro had not liked it, for a number of reasons. And we, of course, were really pissed off. (LAUGHTER) “What is some actor doing, telling
us how to write a song?!” So anyhow, basically, we said we’d take
another shot at it. And we went back and in very short order wrote
another song called “New York, New York,” which is the song which we know today. And if it had not been for DeNiro being a
real pain in the ass, we would have never written it. You think it’s a pain in the ass? Think what it is to Betty and Adolph! (LAUGHTER) We’ve come to the end. They wrote the first “New York, New York”. Oh, yeah, I get it. All right, all right. “A hell of a town!” We’ve come to the end of our hell of a broadcast. We really love your being here. These people are all legends and one soon
to be, on Broadway. And as always, Isabelle, thanks for the opportunity. Well, thank you. I’m going to interrupt by saying, in all
the years we’ve been doing these seminars, this is the most interesting and informative
one that we’ve done. It really is. I’m so grateful. (APPLAUSE)

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