Continuing the conversation with a composer cool enough to make ice cubes shiver.
By Michael Ruby (Writer)
Last week, I kicked off my run writing for Crazytown with the first in a series of conversations with musical theater writers who embody an awesomeness I aspire to. Here is Part Deux of my lightly beer-and-whiskey-laden encounter with dear friend and great dude Joe Iconis. (If you missed Volume 1, you can read it here.)
I write musicals, but I work in advertising to feed my family. Do you have a "survival job," or can you live on writing alone?
I have a "complicated relationship with money." I've been lucky that I haven't had a "survival job" since I graduated. I sort of had unusual circumstances, winning some very generous awards out of school that I lived off of. And I've been floating by on writing stuff of various sizes for the last couple years. But, it's scary. I'm lucky to have a family that's very supportive that's been able to get me through the tough times. I've had a few moments where I've been on the verge of needing to get a "real person" job. It's a day-to-day thing. I feel like I've worked very hard and been very lucky where I've been saved from getting a job in addition to writing. That said, I don't know how people who are too comfortable can do it.
How do you pick your projects?
They all kind of start in different ways. I've had a couple shows where ideas were brought it me. I think anything I've done, I've truly believed I could write it. I've definitely had ideas that have been nixed our things approached that I knew I weren't right.
I don't have a strong preference. I think it all depends on the project. I've done a few original shows, and I adapted a show for Theaterworks USA…and I'm adapting a novel right now. For all of them, I've believed in the idea and related to them.
Is your approach different to writing either?
For adaptations, it depends on how successful I believe the original work was. If I'm adapting a great novel with a great structure, I don't want to fuck with it. That's one thing. But I don't know why you'd want to musicalize something that's great in the first place. If it's something that can be heightened by musicalizing it, then at some point it's actually like writing an original show. When I wrote The Plant That Ate The Dirty Socks, it was amazing to have a map. Just to have something that shows this story has been told successfully before makes it less daunting. But it also poses its own set of problems, because you feel somewhat beholden.I really like writing adaptations and, at least in my experience, I feel as much ownership and as much a connection to those shows as my original stories.
I feel the same way. Speaking of ownership, musical theater is a collaborative art. What's your take on collaboration?
It's different every time, because I write music and lyrics, and have also written book for a bunch of stuff I've done. But, I'm always eager to collaborate with everyone. I'm very open about everything. Maybe it's because I initially write so much by myself, I want the work to be influenced by all the other people involved in the production. I'm interested that everyone in the room is on the same page and is an artist I want to work with and I respect. I collaborate with directors and actors in the same way I collaborate with book writers. But, I'm bad about actually generating the initial material with someone else in the room.
I know you you mean. At work, when a client asks for something on the spot, we say that writing isn't a performance art.
I hate feeling put on the spot. I'm fine with pressure. Like if I'm in a room with somebody and I have to write a scene or a song, I can do it, and fast. But I need my own space initially.
I'm the same way. I hate bringing fresh material into a room. At least when I send pages over email, I don't have to see the actors potentially judging the work, I can just see them interpret it.
Whenever I see an actor judging my work, I assault them, physically.
Ditto. My results vary. Of course, writing with and for particular actors can be great. Do you have any muses?
In general, I'm a huge fan of good actors. I'm very inspired by specific actors and specific people. I love writing with actors in mind. As far as specific people, Jason ("SweetTooth" Williams) is certainly someone who embodies the type of person I love to write for. Through him, I sort of found my voice in many ways. I was developing my voice as I started working with Jason and a couple other people. I feel like I came into my own writing with them and being friends with them. It definitely changed the way I write. I trust actors a great deal to participate in the process. In fact, that's really what Bloodsong of Love was really all about - it's half the spaghetti western and half about the actors. At one time, there was a whole frame story about the actors in Bloodsong.
What happened to the frame story?
It shouldn't have been there. A few months before it opened, Ars Nova (who produced the show) said they didn't like it. At first, I was furious, but then quickly realized they were right. But the show was always meant to tell a story about artists creating. To tell a story about a family of artists in a way that wasn't "gross." To trick people into seeing a show about how hard it is to be an artist by making them think they're going to a spaghetti western. That's what the song "Last On Land" is all about.
Tell me about "Last On Land." It's a gorgeous song and a beautiful moment in the show, but it's obviously so different from anything else in the show.
To me, that song was always intended to be the purist articulation of the idea of the show. It always wants to feel different, and a third of the audience will be troubled by it because it's so different. It's about a family, it's about sticking together. It's about these people supporting each other in the face of adversity.
You write in nonsense syllables in the bridge of that song. This is something you do a lot that, aside from my buddy Rob Rokicki, a lot of contemporary writers don't do. Why and when do you do this?
The least intelligent answer is that I just like nonsense syllables sung. As far as why they appear in songs, for me it's viable and fair game. Once you have a word set to music, you're already breaking reality. In the same way, if you're going to carry a vowel over multiple notes, you're already stretching the word. So, why not just leave the words behind? In the case of "Last On Land," the syllables just felt right for the backup singers. AndI love the idea of backup singers overtaking the song. To me, it feels like it's the backups that are really calling attention to themselves. It's not even a place for lead singer in this moment. The backups are just as important.
What's a great musical theater lyric or melody that always sticks out in your mind?
Wow. That's actually a hard one. Do you have one?
*Hard thinking ensues. We're saved momentarily by the arrival of the lovely Lauren Marcus.*
Lauren, what's a lyric that always sticks out in your mind?
*All three of us, seriously hard thinking*
This is harder than I thought it would be. Joe, you got it?
Yeah, I think I do. From “What's the Use of Wond'rin?” from Carousel.
COMMON SENSE MAY TELL YOU
THAT THE ENDING WILL BE SAD
How does the rest of it go?
*Lauren sings through the entire song at Warp Factor 5*
COMMON SENSE MAY TELL YOU
THAT THE ENDING WILL BE SAD
AND NOW'S THE TIME TO BREAK AND RUN AWAY
BUT WHAT'S THE USE OF WOND'RING
IF THE ENDING WILL BE SAD?
HE'S YOUR FELLER AND YOU LOVE HIM
THERE'S NOTHING MORE TO SAY
It's particularly exciting for me because of where it takes place in that show. It kind of masquerades as a "stand by your man" song, but it's such a defeated song in a way that you rarely see in musical theater. When this woman is just so beaten down, when her heart is the least articulate, she sings. And I love a lyric like that that, which is simple and easy to understand and is simultaneously is so authentic while foreshadowing the rest of the show. It's like they're saying, "we know you know this is all going to end badly."
When you write lyrics, how do you balance being topical with being timely? Do you care?
I say, fuck it, I'm going to write what the song calls for. Being timely versus timeless for me is more about the intention of the song. There are lots of people who try to be timely with lyrics about iPads or Kardashians, and it somehow already feels old. Hearing someone today singing about an iPad feels like someone trying to be current, as opposed to five years from now, when it might feel more natural. So, it's something I'm definitely conscious of, but I don't think you should shy away from being topical if the intention is right.
Speaking about what's topical now, who of our contemporaries are you a fan of?
Well, Rob Rokicki and Mike Ruby.
Thanks, man. That's awesome.
(Your) Strange Tails is pretty much my favorite thing out there right now. It's got humor and heart in a way you don't really see in shows these days.
Thank you, really means a lot. Who else?
Michael R. Jackson is the best. He is the absolutely greatest musical theater writer today.
Gaby Alter. He is fantastic. But, whatever you do, don't call him "Gabby."
Oh, Sam Salmond, too!
Anything you want to promote before we wrap up?
Yeah, sure. The Things to Ruin album, available from Sh-K-Boom Records. Get it on their awesome new website.
NEXT WEEK: Volume 1 of my conversation catching up with the amazing Adam Gwon - writer of the Off-Broadway and now regional juggernaut Ordinary Days, and once upon a time my collaborator in adapting a timeless romance about a man and his true love who take a suicidal sledding trip on a snowy Massachusetts afternoon.
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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