Exploring all things craft and crazy/cool with the new mad geniuses of musical theater.
By Michael Ruby (Writer)
I learned how to write musicals by writing withAdam Gwon. Nigh on almost a decade ago (gulp!), I had never written a musical before, but had the incredibly great fortune of teaming up with Adam to adapt Edith Wharton’s timeless, tragic romance Ethan Frome. The result was a few small, but beautiful incarnations of the show – but what I walked away with was so much more than a piece of theater. I gained a craft, and a friend.
A LOT has happened since then. Independently and with a host of other great collaborators, Adam has achieved wonderful and well-deserved success with his musicals Ordinary Days (cast album on Ghostlight Records), The Boy Detective Fails (with Joe Meno), Cloudlands (with Octavio Solis), Bernice Bobs Her Hair (with Julia Jordan), and String (with Sarah Hammond) – which have been produced at Roundabout Theatre Company, Signature Theatre, South Coast Repertory, and many other theaters around the globe, including in London’s West End.
Following a ridiculous length of time since we’d last seen each other, I was delighted when Adam joined me at the West Bank Café to catch up and talk shop over irresistible appetizers. Adam is as quick-witted and passionate as his art – which made for amazing banter and blog content…and tough typing. Here’s the first chapter of our conversation.
I’m going to be a part of The Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed. I’m going as a lyricist, and it’s the first time I’ve ever done just lyrics. The show’s a chamber piece about a fifteen year-old girl whose dad is in the Army reserves and gets called to Iraq. It’s got a bit of an Our Town vibe, with the girl and the town dealing with it all. It’s her coming of age story with an absent father.
You’ve been incredibly prolific of late. How many of your shows are still “active” projects for you?
Active, as in still being worked on. Inactive, as in like Ethan Frome, which has been on the shelf a couple years.
Both Cloudlands and The Boy Detective Fails have had world premier productions. The work now is trying to get a second production. Same sort of thing with Bernice. We workshopped it and are ready for some kind of production. So, I’m really at the start of new things writing-wise for the first time in a while, which is really exciting.
*The barkeep asks for our order*
What do you want?
We have to get the risotto balls!
Still your favorite?
They’re kinda my thing. It’s crazy, but might be true.
*The barkeep promises two red rye IPAs and risotto balls forthwith*
When you’re writing your best stuff, what’s your approach? How do you know when you’re on to something good?
I don’t know what the approach is, but I know there are those rare moments where what you put on the page reflects exactly what you wanted to say in your head – which normally doesn't happen. Usually, I have this idea in my head and I don’t know how to say it. Sometimes, it just comes out, and it’s compact, and it’s the thing I was trying to do. It’s a very rare feeling. It’s something that just emerges as you’re circling and sweating and really trying to wade through something thick in your mind. It’s not a “flash of insight” thing.
What’s an example of that rare moment for you?
Omigod, they're so rare. I feel like "I'll Be Here" was one. And, often I don't know right away. But if I'm super excited about an idea, and keep thinking and thinking and critiquing it in my head and it still holds up, then it might mean it’s something good. With “I’ll Be Here,” I unearthed the idea and kept tossing it around my brain, trying to tear it apart and bash it into something that wasn’t as exciting – and I couldn’t! It kept being this thing I was excited about.
(Lisa Brescia sings "I'll Be Here")
Sometimes it does take a while for an idea to convince me it’s good. I wish I could vomit [songs] out like some writers, because I do do a lot of vomiting in my head – and I feel like a crazy person because I’ve had this huge internal battle and nothing to show for it, not even a crappy song! But I do tend to let things marinate until I feel like they are ready to try and come into being.
Some people may say they know a “Gwon song” when they hear it. For me, when we were writing together, it was always unique intervals that I always felt were distinctly yours. But forget what other people think. More importantly, do you think you’ve defined your voice? What do you think is an “Adam Gwon song?”
That is a good question that I've tried not to think about a lot. I'm sure there are these “trademarky” things that make a Gwon song. But I think if I ever sat down and found what that was, I'd feel trapped by it. And, I think part of my creative M.O. is that, with every project, I want to take myself in a totally new direction. It’s not an accident that the thing I wrote after Ethan Frome was a contemporary musical. So, I don’t want to be tied down by what people expect of my work. But, I will say, I’ve had the experience of being in situations where I feel like I'm trying to write something that's outside of my…
*Adam gestures to indicate his element…his universe…his cone of amazing*
And, in those moments, what I typically do is find a way into the material from “my voice,” and I don’t know how to define that. It’s usually something funny that feels like a joke I would make [in real life]. That helps me attack the material in a way that feels like my own, that I’m not trying to be fake. I know, I’m posing a contradiction.
It makes total sense.
I just know what’s “not me,” and it’s fake and I don’t like it.
(Adam Gwon provides a Real Live Audio Commentary on Ordinary Days)
How do you pick your projects?
*Shared laughter. Consumption of risotto balls.*
But I do feel like I put a lot of thought into the projects that I want to work on – mostly because musicals take so fucking long for anything to happen with them. You'll spend five years [on a musical] at least, if you're lucky. So it needs to be a story and a project that you’re super excited about, that you’re so passionate about it that you feel it can fuel you for five years. So, really it's not a prescribed notion of the kind of material that excites me. In fact, sometimes the material that excites me the most is the material that surprises me the most. It’s something that sets synapses firing, leading to another idea and another idea. And hopefully that’s a feeling I can sustain throughout the whole process.
Do you feel like there are expectations when you write now?
I think the hardest expectations are the ones I set for myself, which are likely much higher and more unrealistic than anyone else’s. At the end of this past summer, I came off a few years of moving and working non-stop on Ordinary Days, straight into Boy Detective and Cloudlands – and I didn’t really get to figure out what I wanted to do next. Then, when it was done and I was back in New York, I did have this sort of self-imposed freak out. And it was really hard, not only to live up to what I had just done and felt I accomplished, but to try and live up to this weird idea of what I should be doing next – which felt like it had to be more exciting and more accomplished. But I had no idea what that was or what I wanted it to be.
Thankfully, you’ve survived.
It was hard to not have something for a while. Now, I'm more excited about new things and realizing the importance of really wanting to feel excited about something before committing to it, rather than just having something to work on and being able to tell people I'm working on something.
Original story and adaptation: you’ve done both several times. Which do you prefer? Is your approach different to writing either?
I don't know if I have a preference. They both have different things that are exciting, but I definitely approach them in different ways.
I feel like adaptations are easier to talk about. The process is two-fold. First, find the story that excites you, whatever it may be. Just as long as it’s something that, at its core, speaks to you and moves you. The second key thing is figuring out how am I going to translate it into a musical – whether it’s a movie, novel or short story. I think that especially for movies and plays, which are already in a theatrical script based format, it feels important to me to reinvent the story in some way and not just throw a movie on stage with some songs in it.
I get really excited thinking about ways of telling an existing story in a new way. I think that's sort of the point of adapting something like that. And I think novels and short stories are the opposite, because it’s more the process of focusing and paring down, where a movie or play is expanding and thinking outside the box that exists.
("Little Mysteries" from Adam's adaptation The Boy Detective Fails)
I can talk about originals! I love original stories! They are really incredibly fucking difficult. For me, creating one comes from loving a playwright and their voice and wanting to be a part of what they have to say. I think originals are really, really hard.
Yes. They are ridiculously hard. For me, especially figuring out how to end them.
But creating characters that are completely your own and completely new – and figuring out what to do with them – is really exciting.
To be continued…
NEXT WEEK: Click or tap in as Adam and I banter about passion, inspiration, humanity, the most exciting moment of Adam’s career and the singer/songwriter he is sorry (yet not sorry) to say will always be better than any of us.
Michael Ruby is a librettist, creative director, pop culture geek, proud dad and Diet Dr. Pepper addict. His musicals and songs have been performed across the U.S. and in the UK. www.rubywriter.com
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