The first in a series of conversations exploring all things craft and crazy/cool with the new mad geniuses of musical theater.
By Michael Ruby (Writer)
Ice-T, the rapper and star of both Law and Order: SVU and Ice Loves Coco, made a brilliant documentary, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap - available on NetFlix and freaking' fantastic. In it, Ice interviews fellow MC's and dives deep into the craft of how they write and revolutionize the rap game. And I thought, hey, that looks like fun! More than that, I think it will be enlightening for writers and fans of musical theater to discover the method to the madness of some of today's most exciting "emerging" musical theater writers (More on why "emerging" is in quotes to come).
My first conversation (to be posted in two parts) is with the awesome Joe Iconis, the author of The Black Suits (book co-written with Robert Maddock; Barrington Stage Company), Bloodsong of Love: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Spaghetti Western (Ars Nova/NAMT), ReWrite (Urban Stages, Goodspeed Opera House Festival of New Artists), Theaterworks USA’s The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks and We The People (The Lucille Lortel Theater, National Tour). Joe's upcoming projects include The Hunter S. Thompson Musical (with bookwriter Gregory S. Moss) for the La Jolla Playhouse/Broadway Across America, and a musical adaptation of Ned Vizzinni's Be More Chill (with bookwriter Joe Tracz) for Two Rivers Theater.
I've been blessed and fortunate enough that Joe has collaborated with me and my writing partner Rob Rokicki on several occasions, and even more fortunate to have befriended this wonderful and wonderfully talented dude. But amid the hustle and bustle of working, we've rarely had the chance to sit and really talk one-on-one at length. So, I was thrilled when Joe jumped at the chance to be my first victim on Crazytown.
Joe, when you're writing your best stuff, how does it happen? Is there a particular way that you write?
Sometimes, when I'm writing something, I do know it's good and I'm conscious of it. And there's not any rhyme or reason behind how it happens. I'm just connecting with the material. It's not about a mood either. Happy stuff can come from bad times, and vice versa. Usually, when I'm proud of something it's good "form-wise." It's a clean lyric. Syllables line up. It's something you can frame and point to and say, "That's good."
Can you give me an example?
Often times, for me, it's about whether I'm successful at doing what I set out to do - when I intend to write something and it ends up being what I intended it to be. At least then I know it's what I really wanted to write. Like "The War Song." I wrote it in a short period of time. It felt clean and like it was exactly what I wanted to say. I didn't know whether it was good or bad at first, but I knew I was successful at doing what I wanted to do.
But most times, I'm a bad judge of whether a song is any good until a week or two after it's written. Sometimes, songs I think are a mess turn into stuff I'm really proud of. In fact, it's usually the case when I finish a song that I'll play it and say, "I don't know what this is, does it even make sense?"
"Jeff" is a good example of that. It's a story song about a guy who's looking out his window at a naked Korean girl in a neighboring apartment. He gets drunk and goes to her apartment and jumps out the window. That was a song that I wrote the day of the concert it was first performed in. It had been in the back of my brain a while, I wrote it and thought it was a mess. But, I thought I'll just do it. After I heard it that night, I liked it. People started talking about it and really liked it. Now, I've grown to like it quite a lot. And when it was written, I didn't really know what the hell it was.
I think people can hear a song and can say, "This is a Joe Iconis song." Or "This feels like a Joe Iconis song." How would you define your voice? Do you think you have one, or strive for one?
There are a number of things that appear in my songs. I know I'm very focused on very little things - very specific problems, issues or moments that suddenly take on the weight of the world. I know I tend to write more about "normal people" with "normal problems" that turn into huge things. I guess I love songs and shows where there is a turn or a twist at a point, both lyrically and musically. Like in Psycho, which I love more than anyone should love anything, when Janet Leigh is killed. Or in a Tarantino movie...
Like when Butch shoots Vincent in Pulp Fiction.
Exactly. The way Quentin takes left turns and twists is totally inspiring. For me, when there's a musical coda you're not expecting - that's the same as a shocking plot development. I feel like I've ripped QT off a million times in my music writing and my lyric/book writing.
You and me both.
Well, there's something brilliant that he does, and Hitchcock too, with violent twists in mundane situations. I did it in my song, "Kevin." The hook is "There's nothing to do in Brooklyn anymore." He's walking bored through Brooklyn until he walks down Atlantic and suddenly just chokes a woman and throws her in an alley.
I also take inspiration from a lot of movies and TV. Where else do you look for inspiration? It seems like film is big for you, as well.
I look for inspiration from so many places besides musical theater. I'll never understand why writers of our generation look purely to other musical theater writers for inspiration. Because then you just get people all sounding like each other. So many people sound like Jason Robert Brown now because he sort of created a new sound with Songs For A New World, and everyone got all excited about it. But JRB sounds like JRB because he listened to Sondheim and Billy Joel and found his own unique style from their influence. He's not a version of someone else distilled down so many times over. So, yeah, I'm inspired by movies. The storytelling. The music. Robert Altman is the number one influence on the way I write theater, but I'm also a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese. And specifically, with Tarantino, what he does in so far as turning genres on their heads - being both faithful and playful with the rules of the genre he's approaching.
Seen Django yet?
Oh, yeah. Loved it.
Speaking of musical theater writers, what's different about today's "emerging" artists? If "emerging" is even the right word.
Yeah, it's a weird descriptor. I've always thought maybe it should be "erecting" artists in musical theater.
*A shared snicker at penile humor ensues*
Whatever you want to call us, what do we do differently? What's do you think has changed in our approach?
I think the disparity between commercial Broadway theater and what writers are actually writing is greater than ever. Certainly, in the '70s it was a different thing with writers who never wrote a Broadway show who could write some "weird little show about drugs," and it would play and close. The economics allowed for a broader theater. Then, that kind of stuff moved to Off Broadway. And now, people are writing edgy, exciting stuff with nowhere to do it. I also think a lot of the new musical theater has a sameness. I just find there's less and less challenging writing. Less and less "chancy" writing. And I think, as we talked about, it comes down to inspiration. People are looking to the same sources, and the ideas feel like they're getting smaller.
*Two older gentlemen sing doo-wop in two-part harmony at the end of the bar*
Does that happen a lot here?
Can't say it does.
That's pretty awesome. As a kid, I never knew if this place was real. I only knew it from The Muppets Take Manhattan.
The magic of Sardi's.
Anything else different about writing today?
There's also a weird thing happening with YouTube that's great, and also annoying. It's now the platform for getting stuff out there and for the musical theater fans to hear new stuff. And lots of writers focus so hard on getting material up on YouTube. And YouTube's been great, but it hasn't necessarily helped me get a show onto a stage - which is what I'm really most concerned about.
To be continued…
NEXT WEEK: Click or tap in as Joe and I ping-pong about survival jobs, collaboration, writing in nonsense syllables, lyrics we love and contemporaries we like to listen to.
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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