More risotto balls and revelatory insights with the extraordinary writer of Ordinary Days.
By Michael Ruby (Writer)
When last we blogged, I was sharing highlights from my conversation and West Bank Café snacking session with the incredible Mr. Adam Gwon. (You can read Volume 1 here.) Here is the conclusion, featuring some optimistic observations about the state of musical theater and pure proof that anything is truly possible.
You’ve talked about how visiting The Met helped to inspire you when working on Ordinary Days. Where else do you find inspiration?
When I was writing Ordinary Days, I was in the midst of a Dramatists’ Guild Fellowship. One of the mentors they brought in said that, whenever she gets stuck, she goes to The Met for inspiration to get unstuck. She also wears a hoop skirt so that no one gets too close to her.
Do you wear a hoop skirt?
No, I do not wear a hoop skirt. But I do still go.
Where else do you turn for inspiration?
I read a lot and love reading books. Old books. New books. Red books. Blue books. Writing is also a good form of therapy, so a lot of ideas come from self-reflection.
*Adam belly laughs. His laughter says a lot but reveals nothing.*
Sometimes there’s a question in life I don’t have the answer to – and I wonder, can I answer it by writing a song about it?
Do you have specific people who are muses, or who that you love to write for?
I feel like I have a lot of muses. I have a lot of awesome friends who are also amazing talents who I can write for and know they’ll be amazing. Two of the many people who are friends and who are amazing are Kate Wetherhead and Alex Wyse. Both are incredibly funny, dynamic performers – and really inspiring people. Even when I’m not working with them, watching them do their thing makes me want to do what I’m doing better.
(Kate Wetherhead singing "Calm" from Ordinary Days)
I also had the incredible honor of Audra McDonald singing “I’ll Be Here” in her concert tour last year. Hearing her sing that song and meeting her…it was maybe the most exciting moment in my career, seeing her sing my song at Carnegie Hall.
Aside from Audra being Audra, why did it mean so much?
Because I’m prone to ridiculous self-reflection, I’ve tried sussing out why it meant so much to me. I think it's realizing the life that your work can take on, a life bigger than anything you ever imagined for it. It was incredibly freeing as a writer to realize the sky's the limit. You can write stuff and amazing things can happen. It makes me bring my A-Game every time I sit down to write now. Because someone like Audra could sing something I write. So, why not make it as amazing as I can make it?
Back when we were collaborating on Ethan Frome, you used to have other gigs on the side. Do you have a “survival job” these days, or are you free to write?
At the moment, I've been very lucky and I do not have a day job. Honestly, most of that comes from grants and awards more than royalties from shows. But I do teach! I teach lyric writing at Primary Stages, and also do stuff now and again in schools through a number of theaters. I really enjoy it.
How long have you been teaching?
I’ve been teaching at Primary Stages for three years now. When I first started, I was quite honestly terrified. I was walking into a room full of people, most of whom were older than me, and I was afraid I wouldn’t have anything to say about writing. Turns out, I have a lot to say! It’s not scary anymore and I love doing it. I’ve had some really talented students.
When you teach, what's your biggest lesson?
I really love form. It’s important to understand as a lyricist and be able to put form to work in your storytelling. I have this thing I teach called “Lyric Gestures.” It comes from a directing class I took in college. It’s based on Brecht, who would create abstract physical gestures with his actors, and if you looked at a storyboard of the stage pictures of his production, you could trace a character’s arc through those gestures. I thought that was totally amazing and realized it’s something I’ve strived to do in my lyrics – on a micro level within songs, and also on a macro level writing entire musicals.
What is a great musical theater lyric or melody that always sticks out in your head?
Like, basically the whole score of Sunday In The Park With George. But, particularly “Move On.” It haunts me. Not like in an “I’ve analyzed this and it’s so well crafted” kind of way; it keeps revisiting me as I mature as a human being and an artist. This lyric especially:
STOP WORRYING IF YOUR VISION IS NEW
LET OTHERS MAKE THAT DECISION
THEY USUALLY DO
YOU KEEP MOVING ON
But that whole song! The whole conceit of the present singing to the past about the future. There’s something there that just gets me in the gut.
What do you think is different about today’s musical theater writers? What do we do differently? What’s changed in our approach to the art?
I feel like there is this thing happening right now that is really celebrating live theater and live performance. In the midst of this crazy age we live in – where everything is electronic and Tweeted, Tivo’d and Tumblr’d – writers are capitalizing on bringing people into a room to spend time together. Right now, there are so many productions that are creating this environmental, immersive experience. That's why I think so many of our generation have come up in the world doing concerts even before having productions. Because there is something so exciting and unique about people being in the same room together, making music and putting on a show.
(Hunter Foster singing "Favorite Things" from Ordinary Days)
Who of our contemporaries are you a fan of? Who do you listen to these, besides [your favorite] Tori Amos?
Tori Amos will always trump all of y'all. Sorry, not sorry.
*Adam smiles with a sweetness and honesty no emoticon can mimic*
Quite honestly, I get inspired by everyone's stuff. And I feel like there are so many distinct voices. I love that. That inspires. That said, I am a huge Joe Iconis fan. I think he’s the bee’s knees. Yes, he's an amazing songwriter and puts on a good show. But the thing about Joe, that dude is so true to himself and true to his voice. Everything he writes is 100% Joe Iconis. And that is so inspiring to me.
I also think [Michael] Kooman and [Christopher] Dimond are pretty great.
Anything you want to promote before we wrap up?
I’m doing a concert at 54 Below this April. It’ll be my first full-on concert in New York since the Ordinary Days album release two years ago. Details are coming, but come see it in the Spring!
NEXT WEEK: Nestled in a faraway corner of a Midtown Starbucks, I sit down with the uber-talented Jonathan Reid Gealt and discuss emotional honesty, the impact of economic realities on what you write and unexpected YouTube celebrity.
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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