Exploring all things craft and crazy/cool with the new mad geniuses of musical theater.
By Michael Ruby (Writer)
At long last, I’ve met The Creator…of this blog. He is the one singular sensation who’s represented some of the best in new musical theater everywhere from New York to LA to Chicago to “The Donald’s” altered-reality reality television hit, The Apprentice. He’s Ryan Scott Oliver (AKA: RSO, FYI).
Among his impressive credits, RSO is a 2011 Lucille Lortel Award Nominee, a 2009 Jonathan Larson Grant recipient and wrote the music and lyrics for 35mm: A Musical Exhibition, Mrs. Sharp (2008 Richard Rodgers Award Winner, at Playwrights Horizons starring Jane Krakowski, dir. by Michael Greif), Darling (featured on the “Bound for Broadway” episode of NBC’s The Apprentice), the song cycle Out of My Head, Quit India (commissioned by UCLA), the music for Angus Oblong’s The Debbies, a commission for Disney Theatricals, The Frog Prince Continued (commissioned by Chicago’s Emerald City Theatre)and Jasper in Deadland (commissioned by the Pasadena Musical Theatre Program). Learn more about his amazing work and accolades here.
I met Ryan after we each had long days “at the office.” Ryan came from rehearsal for a reading of his Jasper In Deadland at The York Theatre; less interestingly, I came from…the office. I joined him at one of his favorite Upper East Side haunts, The District. We exchanged greetings and quickly decided we needed drinks, whiskey for him and my favorite Lagunitas IPA for me.
We shared (abridged) life stories, talked about our awesome dogs and our even-more-awesome partners/wives and enjoyed other such getting-to-know-you chitchat over burgers and drinks. On a few occasions, Ryan caught me off-guard – like when he asked me if I thought I was a good father, or when he made me embarrassingly blush by observing that, though I’m in my thirties, I still have the “glow of a 17-year-old.” I knew our conversation was going to be most excellent, thoughtful and intriguing – it did not disappoint!
When you’re writing your best stuff, what’s your technique? Is there a particular approach to how it comes about?
I think a good writer writes to the need of the piece. When I'm writing a piece and I do a song list or song chart to get the structure – everything from time signatures to feel, character, range – I also have a sense of this other element which I don't think other people talk about very much which is what I think every musical needs: “hit songs.” I think there are always two or three songs that just always stand out when you leave the theater. And then there are there other songs that are more intricate and interesting. These other songs, I call them “plot songs,” I don't feel the need to make them as catchy. They are there to support a moment that maybe isn't most attractive to the audience.
Does your approach differ for “hit songs” versus “plot songs?” Or doesn’t it?
When I start a “hit” of a show, it's got to be a really important song for an important moment – the “Defying Gravity” or “A Little Priest.” And I work on that song until I feel it is as good as that moment needed it be. Another song, a plot song, will usually come much faster because I only need to honor the character. [I’m not asking] will this be a hummable tune? I don't need to worry about that. But that doesn’t make the song any less important overall. The mix [of song types] is what makes things stand out. [In Into The Woods], you need a “Your Fault,” which is so dissonant and wordy, to find the release that is “Last Midnight.” You need “Epiphany” [in Sweeney Todd] before “A Little Priest.” A score can’t be all audition songs or “YouTube songs.”
You mention YouTube, which has come up in a couple of my conversations for the blog. It’s a big deal for a lot of writers, and very different for this generation. What else is different about how today’s musical theater writers approach the art.
So...I think the Jason Robert Brown generation – aka 1990-2003 – were writing like Steven Sondheim, and it probably started before the ‘90s. But when JRB wrote The Last Five Years, it cemented a new sound of musical theater. And, I think that's why so many people sound like Jason, but watered down. Jason does what he does very well, and he is constantly growing and changing. But so many writers are writing to sound like Jason did when he was writing ten years ago. They're locked in that time, and I don't know that they're interested in changing. I think those who can break free are excited by different things and are exploring new musical concepts – and they’re also returning to the past to create something innovative.
Who of our contemporaries do you think is an innovator?
Without getting specific, I think that every good writer knows how to create a fusion of the contemporary, the traditional, and this added third element which is themselves – which represents, and I hate this word, what's “edgy” and on the brink. Once is a great example of a show. In Once, we are hearing the style in Mumford and Sons or The Lumineers in a contemporary way. The love story and the simplicity of the love story and the values are so traditional. But then the execution by the designers, actors and directors is utterly of themselves. And I think that's what makes a show like that so inspiring and successful.
How do you balance “topicality” with “timelessness?” Do you? Do you care?
You'll never hear me write topically. Or there better be a lot of money involved.
*Laughter and a big sip of whiskey.*
I don't love writing standalone songs. I'm [interested in] investing myself in a showpiece, and if I'm going to invest my time in it I hope it has a long life. If you ask me about setting a musical in1987 even 1997, I'm fair game, but not setting it today.
(Alex Brightman sings "Lost Boy" from Darling)
I struggle with this, too. But I’m always hesitant to sacrifice a great line or a great joke because it has a contemporary reference that, over time, will become a historical reference. So, for example, you’d never write about an iPad?
But that’s a specific piece of technology. To me an iPad is topical. On the other hand, social media is timeless. The loneliness of New York City in Company is timeless, despite the fact that so much of Company is dated. I'm not very attracted to topicality, therefore I don't think I'd be very good at it.
How do you pick your projects?
I like great stories. I like to be taken places musically that I've never been before, whether that's time, location or character. I'm not interested in, say, a rock-pop show in the present. And, I do love some darkness! But I also love a happy ending. I think Tarantino’s work is a great example. It's not about action or violence; it's about this heroism through misery. And that's really exciting to me. Did you see Django [Unchained] yet?
Ah, yet another fellow Tarantino fan! Yeah, I loved Django. What’s your favorite?
Inglorious Basterds. Yours?
Still Pulp Fiction. It really was the whole reason I decided I wanted to become a writer and not, believe it or not, a sports broadcaster. Though I can play Basterds on repeat, and Kill Bill.
I loved Kill Bill, but part two isn’t what part one is. I thought Django was too long. But I think that Basterds is perfect.
Do you prefer writing original stories or adaptations? Is your approach different to writing either?
Adaptations. I don't mean a movie or a book necessarily. But I like to have the bullet points of the story. The beginnings middle and end exist already. Everything I have written ever, the beginning middle and end have always been predetermined. It’s hard enough to write a good musical, let alone a good story.
What is your voice? How do you define an “RSO song?”
I think my voice is “intricately structured.”I don’t mean complex. But I'm not attracted to typical “AABA” [song structure], though I do write that. I love a great beat, whether it’s a “four on the floor” or a jazz waltz, or a love song that has rhythm. I like a lot of dissonance and chaos, a lot of things going on. I'm capable of [creating] a lot of layers in my music. I also love going to a deep, dark place with some kind of a sneer or a wink. A lot of my songs, even my love songs, feel like the come from darkness into happy endings. I’m really comfortable in the dark.
I have a lot of anxiety as a human being. I realized about ten years ago that anxiety brings me a lot of comfort.
Your song, “The Plane (Is Going Down),” is that really you?
Oh, one-hundred percent. I fly a lot.
Do you still get that nervous?
I’m better now. I’ve learned to drink more.
(Ryan Scot Oliver sings "The Plane")
To be continued…
NEXT WEEK: Click or tap in as Ryan and I discuss the business and branding of writing/writers, RSO’s unique collaboration on his show 35MM and what he thinks/doesn’t think about what other people think of his work.
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
EMAIL HIM | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | OTHER POSTS BY THIS AUTHOR