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Composers and Lyricists Playwrights, Directors, and Choreographers

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Twice a year, the American Theatre Wing sponsors panels of theatre artists to explore the process of creating theatre. Back Stage visited all four panels and will be bringing you accounts of each in the coming weeks.

Composers and Lyricists

"I don't know if you can teach collaboration," said composer John Kander, a member of one of the world's best known songwriting teams—Kander & Ebb (as in lyricist Fred Ebb). Together, they have brought forth the songs for "Cabaret," "Chicago," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," and many other Broadway, film ("Funny Lady"), and television ("Liza with a Z") classics.

"It's symbiotic," Kander has found. Ebb agreed, noting that both feel blessed in having worked together smoothly for so many years. Their first show together was "Flora and the Red Menace." It didn't last, but their creative partnership did, and, as with most creative partnerships, they found it difficult to explain tangibly.

The ways in which "Composers and Lyricists" work together was the topic of a recent American Theatre Wing seminar, part of the Wing's ongoing "Working in the Theatre" series of panels of distinguished participants. This particular panel, where Kander and Ebb made their comments, was held recently at the City University's Graduate Center in Manhattan.

The other participants were equally stellar—lyricist Susan Birkenhead ("Jelly's Last Jam," "What About Love?," "Triumph of Love"), composer-conductor-performer Marvin Hamlisch ("A Chorus Line," "They're Playing Our Song," The Goodbye Girl," the upcoming "Sweet Smell of Success," and many film soundtracks), and country music songwriter Don Schlitz ("The Gambler," hits for many top stars), who is currently involved in his first Broadway project, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." Playwright Peter Stone moderated; American Theatre Wing Chairman Isabelle Stevenson hosted.

All of the panelists agreed on the intangible nature of the composer-lyricist relationship. Each had a different answer to the question of whether lyrics or melody came first. Each recalled exceptions to his or her own answer, and had anecdotes galore as to good and bad experiences.

One concrete factor they were able to pinpoint was that, in the musical theatre, there is a third, ever-present collaborator—the book. Working with the book writer to figure out where a song is called for in order to convey the story in a way that is larger than the spoken word—a way audiences will remember—is the key task facing both composers and lyricists writing for a show.

"When a show is in tryouts," Kander noted, "one of the most likely changes is to drop or add a given song." Hamlisch agreed. "If you write 15 songs for a show, there's a good chance five or six make it in."

Hamlisch and Kander each recalled having learned an enormous amount from having worked as rehearsal musicians before achieving fame. They agreed that you get to see everyone's role and acquire a strong knowledge of what goes into show music.

None of the panelists were crazy about "through-composed shows." "They're like folk opera," said Kander, "a hybrid." It's not the Broadway that attracted them. Hamlisch recalled being thunderstruck by Broadway as a child, when he saw production numbers performed on TV's "The Ed Sullivan Show." Even after his financial success in film with such songs as "The Way They Were"—a film title he described as a natural as a lyric, crying out to have music set to it—he ran back to Broadway when Michael Bennett contacted him about "A Chorus Line."

Birkenhead's first breakthrough was a Broadway musical adaptation of Studs Terkel's "Working," where she collaborated with composer Mary Rodgers. "One problem now," she said, "is that producers will often put you into a collaboration." The lyricist may or may not know the person; the pair may not have that invisible chemistry called for. She has experienced both lucky match-ups and less lucky match-ups.

Schlitz's perspective was very different. He was 20 when he sold his song, "The Gambler," the country classic made known by Kenny Rogers. "I worked alone a lot," he says, though he has worked with partners, and has often written for given artists. Being part of a larger team for "Tom Sawyer," and working within the theatre world, has opened up a new world for him. "I've learned to listen to everyone's input and say, 'That's interesting. I'll think about it.' "

As always with show people, their comments revealed how large the role of serendipity looms. Kander and Ebb recalled, as an example of melody coming first, that the "vamp" of "New York, New York" led to an early version of the song for the Martin Scorsese film of that name. Robert DeNiro was the only one to say he didn't like it. But his objections led to a rewrite that became the song we know today.

It became clear that this sort of "input," as Schlitz put it, is the essence of something even these highly experienced artists found difficult to pinpoint in concrete form—the magic mix that leads to the birth of a musical score.

Playwrights, Directors, and Choreographers

When did that pivotal moment occur? When did you know that theatre was for you, your life's work? Moderator Theodore Chapin posed the question to six top-notch New York playwrights, directors, and choreographers. They were panelists at a recent seminar that launched the "Working in the Theatre" series (a twice-yearly program now in its 28th year).

"I was five years old," choreographer Jerry Mitchell ("The Full Monty") recalled, "and I watched my sister doing tap. I got up and grabbed the baton and showed her the routine. I said, 'Mom, I'm going to be in theatre and don't get in my way.' "

Other panelists responded with a range of answers to Chapin (who is President of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization), based on their diverse life experiences.

On hand from five Broadway shows, and one Off-Broadway production, were playwrights David Auburn ("Proof") and Charles Busch ("The Tale of the Allergist's Wife"), choreographer/director George Faison (last season's "For Colored Girls…"), choreographer David Marques (the upcoming "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"), and director John Rando ("The Dinner Party"), as well as Mitchell.

For Rando, that moment of truth came during an elementary school speech class, and for Marquez, "probably high school."

"I had never heard of a musical, but they were auditioning for 'Guys and Dolls.' I thought it sounded interesting and.... asked if they needed any boys. Little did I know then!"

Others found their calling later in life. For Charles Busch, at Northwestern University: "I wasn't cast at all and didn't know if there was any place for me in the theatre. So I wrote a wacky little play called 'Hester and Esther' and performed with my friend in drag."

Subsequently, the local papers ran a picture of the pair in drag, with the caption "Degeneracy Reigns at Northwestern." "I knew then that I was on the right track," said Busch.

For Faison it was a matter of leaving the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and finding his own path, his own sense of self. As for Auburn, he abandoned screenwriting (which he had pursued briefly), and ended up at Juilliard. There the creative freedom and "terrific actors" helped him find his voice. Auburn claimed that he had originally tried acting, but "I figured out quickly I was a better writer than actor."

Ranging the field, the panelists explored such topics as audiences, auditions, the collaborative process of theatre, the origins of their shows, their respect for actors, and the writer/director relationship.

All indicated that their shows had undergone lengthy journeys before reaching New York. Rando pointed out that "The Dinner Party" had had a "terrific run" in Los Angeles and Washington, which caused the interest of New York producers. "The Full Monty" also enjoyed West Coast success, before making the trek to New York.

When asked why the setting of "Monty" had been changed from Sheffield, England, to Buffalo, New York, Mitchell replied, "Working class is working class." But the greater challenge had been to change the story from film to theatre.

"Allergists' Wife," which grew out of a Busch sketch of a West Side housewife, began when director Lynne Meadow told Busch she wanted to produce his next play, and "I had nothing in my trunk."

Each indicated how important it was to connect with the actors, to give them respect.

"You have to know exactly what an actor goes through, what their process is, how they approach the script, and if you have to help them facilitate it," said Rando.

He went on to praise Henry Winkler's serious portrayal in "The Dinner Party," remarkable for an actor who had not been on the stage since 1973. He and Winkler could easily have gone for the laughs, since it was a Simon play, but did not.

Busch indicated that Linda Lavin brought a richness to her role that was remarkable, and Auburn lauded Mary-Louise Parker's work in "Proof." "I didn't know who could take on this complicated role for a young actor," Auburn said. "Mary-Louise came in and, just sitting there at the table, she was the part in a way that was stunning to me. She went for the part and was as crazy and as hard as the character needed to be."

Isabelle Stevenson, chairman of the American Theatre Wing and host of the series, asked, "What is the pecking order? Who oversees the others?"

Panelists agreed that, though every production is different, it's a collaborative process

"I learned to trust my collaborators, that they might have an idea that actually was more appropriate than mine," said Marquez (whose show, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," is still in the development stage).

Mitchell added that, in "The Full Monty," he learned from his cast. "I took the six guys and let them tell me how to choreograph."

In the question period that followed, a listener asked, "What is the most impressive thing an actor can do at auditions?"—to which a panelist quickly replied, "Be good!"

Mitchell went on to offer a laundry list of suggestions, but added, "We really want you to be good, to wow us."

Panelists also told listeners that they took audience reaction seriously, especially in comedy. "Jack O'Brien's dog Punky would come to rehearsals, and if she barked at the end of the show, I knew it was O.K.," said Mitchell.

At the same time, they added, one should not be totally influenced by audience reaction, but have one's own sense of the show. One should be guided by an inner clock, a feeling for its worth.

"When I agree to do a musical, there should be some truth about the piece that is very close to me," said Faison, summarizing the prevailing feeling. "There are all those turbulent times, and that will guide you through. The truth, in a sense, will set you free."

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The American Theatre Wing panels are taped for television broadcast, and can be seen in the New York area on Time Warner's Manhattan Cable Channel 75. Check your local listings for dates and times.

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The American Theatre Wing panels are taped for television broadcast, and can be seen in the New York area on Time Warner's Manhattan Cable Channel 75. Check your local listings for dates and times.

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